Saturday, December 13th 2014
The cold made us sluggish but the sunshine beckoned us out. We fancied a hot breakfast and so took a number 19 bus along Upper Street to a cafe we know.
The Workers Cafe (the name has no apostrophe and it would be pedantic of me to put one in) is a good, basic cafe with a range of set breakfasts and other meals1.
The above picture shows a part of Upper Street, looking north from the Workers Cafe. The white building on the right in shadow is Islington Town Hall. Upper Street is a main thoroughfare leading to Highbury Corner and is the start of the Great North Road. It is an old road but the earliest buildings along it today date from the 18th century. Because of the direction of the photo and the low winter sun, it proved difficult to avoid including my shadow in the picture!
Here we are looking south towards St Mary’s Church whose 18th-century spire is visible. The artistic mistiness comes from the fact that I am aiming a little too close to the sun and stray light is entering the lens, despite the lens hood. (This in fact produced some spurious colour which I managed to edit out.) I like the photo, though, because it expresses the scene as it appeared to me when I took it.
Another bus took us by a circuitous route to the top of Hampstead Heath. This rough park of 800 acres finally became public in the late 1800s. Until the 13th century it was infested with wolves but the only canids you will encounter today are domesticated dogs being taken for walks by their owners. In the time of Henry VIII, washerwomen pursued their activities here laundering the garments of the gentry. The Heath became fashionable in the late 17th century with the discovery of springs reputed to have medicinal properties.
The Heath sweeps down Parliament Hill Fields, popular with kite flyers of all ages, but from the top, splendid views are to be had across London and beyond, though today the prospect was somewhat hazy.
Parliament Hill Fields forms an open area, as the name suggests, but the top part has trees and shrubs with paths wandering between them to be enjoyed by strollers, joggers and dog walkers.
Unsurprisingly, the Heath has proved attractive to writers as a setting for their stories and is mentioned in several of Dickens’s novels, for example.
The footing is likely to be wet and muddy in winter and so we tarried only briefly before returning to the more solid ground of the streets.
At the top of Heath Street, one of the highest points in London, Whitestone Pond is set in a triangle of roads. This was once a natural dew pond but in 1890, if not earlier, it was enlarged and arranged as a source of water for military horses. Its was then known as the Horse Pond and its modern name comes from a milestone which can still be found nearby half-hidden in the hedge.
Although there are plenty of sites telling us that military horses once slaked their thirst here, where these horses came from or where the troops to whom they belonged were billeted is not stated. The only reference I have so far found to cavalry being stationed hereabouts comes courtesy of British History Online which quotes A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9, Hampstead, Paddington (Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1989) as follows:
A little known corps of light cavalry was formed at Hampstead under a captain who was commissioned in 1796, but apparently it trained with troops from other parishes rather than locally.
Of course, “military horses” need not belong to cavalry regiments but, who it was they did actually belong to, I have as yet to discover.
Despite the sunshine, conditions were cold enough for ice to have formed, presumably overnight, on the surface of the pond and to still remain for us to photograph. There are ponds on Hampstead Heath which were created for bathing and, in winter, for ice skating. Whitestone Pond, because of its easy access was also in times past a favoured venue for ice skaters.
We walked down Heath Street to the centre of Hampstead. Hampstead is a very hilly place and most of its streets, lanes and alleys slope, sometimes quite steeply.
Hampstead is one of the posher districts of London, as you quickly realize as you explore the streets. It is an opulent quarter and Hampstead Village, the main shopping and residential part, has the feel of a county town. (The word ‘Village’ is here used, as it sometimes is, to give the impression of a community far more upmarket and sophisticated than a mere rural hamlet.) The name Hampstead, incidentally, is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon landowner who first carved out his homestead from the forest which covered the area.
Leading off Heath Street is Elm Row, one of Hampstead’s quiet and quietly respectable streets that run down to East Heath Road and the lower end of the Heath. We noticed on the corner this Victorian posting box, still in place and still in use despite an ugly crack running through the royal cipher. The fashion boutiques of Hampstead may contain the latest styles but its Hampstead’s fabric changes only slowly.
Just before Heath Street meets Hampstead High Street (where stands the tube station that was once called Heath Street but was later renamed Hampstead), it passes in front of a tall and stylish pub with a striking red and white façade called the Horse and Groom. This pub is famous and belonged to the brewing family, Young’s. This Grade II listed building dates from near the end of the Victorian era (it was completed in 1900) and was the creation of architect Keith D. Young, himself a member of the brewing family but known particularly for the hospitals he designed. Sadly, the Horse and Groom is no longer a pub. After a period as a restaurant it now accommodates an estate agent’s.
Within sight of the pub, lower down at the crossroads, is the clock tower. This handsome building bears a plaque informing us that it was built in 1873. Until 1915, it housed the fire station but after that was converted into a shop and apartments. Happily, it remains as a much loved Hampstead landmark.
Behind the tube station and leading off the High Street is Flask Walk. There was a time when you could have done your shopping in Flask Walk and I used to buy tea from a tea and coffee retailer’s shop here. The pub, called the Flask, like the Horse and Groom a Young’s pub, is one of the original inhabitants. At the other end, the secondhand bookshop of Keith Fawkes still survives but all the proper shops disappeared long ago, being replaced by boutiques.
Pleasant as it is to wander around Hampstead, the sinking sun and consequent lowering of the ambient temperature persuaded us that it was time to be making tracks for home. We took a number 46 single-deck bus down the hill to St Pancras Station. Walking through the station, we encountered this large Christmas tree. The labels bear the names of foreign destinations and this give a clue as to the donor of the tree: all the names are of stops on routes travelled by Eurostar. The tree serves a double purpose, celebrating both Christmas and the 20th anniversary of Eurostar.
We stopped to pay our respects to John Betjeman who was largely responsible for saving the magnificent St Pancras Station from the vandals and greedy developers who would have destroyed it. The sculpture is larger than lifesize and I took this photo by holding the camera at full arm-stretch above my head. The work admirably captures the poet’s somewhat scruffy dress sense.
I took a nostalgic peep through the glass screens at the Eurostar platforms. They were eerily quiet but would no doubt soon come alive in time for the next departure. All being well, we will be joining one of their journeys in the not too distant future.
The front part of St Pancras Station houses an hotel and apartments. The courtyard, though the public can enter it, is for access to these more private areas and therefore forms an oasis of calm between the building and the constant flow of traffic along the Euston Road.
From the vantage point of the terrace, I took my last photo of the day, a panorama looking towards King’s Cross Station, now divested of the ugly frontage and provided with a courtyard of its own. The last rays of evening sunlight were catching the end of the building.
1A certain Web directory (I am not saying which as I don’t want to provide publicity for them) has listed my blog, without permission or appeal, under “Restaurant Reviews”. I do not “review” restaurants though I may express my opinion of those I encounter.