Highgate is a fine example of a former village that has been absorbed during the growth of London. Many of its original features have survived the advance of time.
Today, a double-decker bus serves route 210 that carries passengers between Golders Green and Highgate. Between 1965 and 1970, when I was a pupil at Highgate School, the same route, which I travelled six days a week in term-time, was served by a single-decker bus. Here is a description of a couple of walks that I made recently to revisit places with which I was familiar in my school-days and others.
Spaniards Road runs in a straight line along an embankment that separates two sections of Hampstead Heath. The road is elevated ridge because in the past (early 19th century) sand was quarried from the ground on either side of it.
The western stretch of Spaniards Road is followed by the brick wall that surrounds the grounds of Heath House. Currently invisible under extensive scaffolding, this 18th century building (1762) was bought in 1790 by the Quaker banker and anti-slavery activist Samuel Hoare (born 1751), who lived there until his death in 1825.
Spaniards Road runs between the two wooded portions of the Heath that it divides. About two thirds of the way along it, a lane winds downhill through the trees to the south to reach the Elms Estate. There have been buildings on this site since the 17th century. Between 1957 and 1981, The Elms, which was then owned by the Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, became the home of St Columba’s Hospital for the terminally ill. Since 1987, it has been in the hands of private developers.
Spaniards End is a small road that branches of Spaniards Road just before it reaches Spaniards Inn. It leads past a building that used to be called ‘The Firs’. This was built in 1734 by a Mr Turner, and later modified. In the 1950s, this house was divided into 3 separate dwellings: The White House, The Chantry, and Casa Maria. The latter was formed from the former billiards room of The Firs.
Evergreen Hill, next to the Spaniards Inn was from 1889 the ‘weekend’ home of the social reformers Canon Samuel Barnett (1844-1913) and his wife Dame Henrietta (1851-1936). It was through their efforts that the Hampstead Garden Suburb came into existence. Evergreen Hill, which is next door to Erskine House (which was built in the 18th century and was home to the lawyer Thomas Erskine:1750-1823), was once the home of the Arctic explorer Rear Admiral Sir William Parry (1790-1855).
These buildings are the immediate neighbours of a pub that was built in the 17th century, The Spaniards Inn. It was so-named because it is supposed that the building was either once occupied by a family connected with the Spanish embassy or that it had been converted into a place of entertainment by a Spaniard. In my younger days, I used to have a drink there with my friends.
The pub marks the eastern end of Spaniards Road and the beginning of Hampstead Lane. Where the 2 roads meet, the roadway’s width is barely wide enough to admit a double-decker bus. This is due to the presence of the former ‘Spaniards Gate Toll House’, which was built in the 18th century to collect tolls from those passing through the western entrance to the Estates of the Bishops of London, which they owned for almost 1400 years . There was once another toll-gate for the Bishops’ land at Highgate, from which that locality derives its name. Near The Spaniards, there is a 20th century house where the actor Sir Ralph Richardson (1902-1983) lived between 1944 and 1968.
Hampstead Lane skirts the northern boundary of the Kenwood estate, but it has not always done so. A well-informed volunteer attendant at Kenwood House explained that Hampstead Road used to run close to the main entrance of the house along what is now its driveway. A map drawn in 1745 shows this clearly. In the 18th century, the 2nd Earl of Mansfield (1727-1796) employed the landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752-1818) to improve the landscape of Kenwood House. This included shifting the route of Hampstead Lane to the north of the house and out of sight of it.
There is a rectangular field where Bishops Avenue meets Hampstead Lane. This is ‘Far Field’, owned and used by Highgate School. On a September afternoon in 1965, I took part in a football match on this field designed to assess the soccer abilities of new entrants to the school. The following day, two senior students, wearing prefects' uniform, announced solemnly to me that I was not skilled as a football player, and would have to select another sport. I cannot say that this news devastated me.
I entered the grounds of Kenwood House at its public entrance closest to The Spaniards Inn, and followed a path flanked by rhododendron bushes (for which Kenwood is well-known). This leads to the front of Kenwood House following the original path taken by Hampstead Lane prior to its repositioning by Repton. The path passes a stone sculpture, ‘Flamme’, carved in 1983 by Eugène Dodeigne (1923-2015), then opens into an open space dominated by the north-facing front façade of Kenwood House with its neo-classical portico.
The first house to stand on the site of the present one was built in brick by John Bill (1576-1630), printer to King James I. He bought the Kenwood Estate (which was known as ‘Caen Wood’) in 1616. After several changes in ownership, the Estate was bought in about 1747 by a former Prime Minister and King George III’s close associate John Stuart, third Earl of Bute (1713-1792).
In 1754, Bute sold the property to the lawyer and law-reformer William Murray (1705-1793), who became the First Earl of Mansfield, and was Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Bench from 1756 to 1788. In 1778, he was a supporter of the recently passed, and mostly unpopular, Roman Catholic Relief Bill, which allowed Roman Catholics some limited rights that had been denied them previously . So unpopular was this legislation that violent protests, the ‘Gordon Riots’, broke out in June 1780.
After Mansfield’s house in Bloomsbury Square was sacked and burnt, the mob set out to destroy his country house at Kenwood. When the angry protestors reached the Spaniards Inn, its then publican, Giles Thomas, learning of their objective, acted:
“… with a coolness and promptitude which did him great credit, persuaded the rioters to refresh themselves thoroughly before commencing the work of devastation; he threw his house open, and even the cellars for their entertainment, but secretly dispatched a messenger to the barracks for a detachment of the Horse Guards, which, … opportunely presented a bold front to the rebels …” (see: “Old and New London”,, by E Walford, publ. 1878).
Alcohol was also supplied to the mob from the cellars of Kenwood House by one of its retainers, who induced them to return to the pub. The exhausted, intoxicated rebels were dissuaded by the military from continuing their quest.
During the First Earl’s stay in the House, he employed the architect Robert Adam (1728-1792) to make improvements (see below). Kenwood House remained the seat of the Mansfield family until the beginning of the 1920s when it was owned by the Sixth Earl of Mansfield. Then, the wealthy soap-maker Sir Arthur Crosfield (1865-1938) helped to save the Estate from being developed into a housing estate. The brewer Edward Cecil Guinness (1847-1927), the First Earl of Iveagh, first leased Kenwood, and then purchased it. Acollector of fine art, he housed his collection of paintings at Kenwood. He bequeathed this and his house to the public, making Kenwood House the home of one of London’s great art collections.
The grounds surrounding Kenwood House are magnificent. Notable amongst its features, the garden has a lake with a a ‘trompe-l’oeil’ bridge. This can be seen from the terrace running along the House’s graceful neo-classical south-facing rear façade. The lake is one of the sources of the River Fleet, whichflows towards central London. During my youth, there used to be a hemispherical bandstand large enough to hold a symphony orchestra. This was located on the side of the lake furthest from the House. In Summer, concerts used to be held at Kenwood. The audience sat in the open on deck-chairs or on the ground acrossf the lake from the bandatand, listening to music that travelled across the lake.
Another thing that I recall from earlier visits to Kenwood has also gone. It was Doctor Johnson’s Summer House. When I looked for it recently , all that remained of it was an octagonal concrete base (hidden amongst bushes) with two benches on it. The rustic hut, in which the great Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) used to sit, was moved to Kenwood from Thrale Place (where Johnson lived from 1765) in Streatham. Sadly, it was burnt down after 1984.
The hidden concrete base is not far from another of Kenwood’s sculptures, the tall limestone, abstract ‘Monolith Empyrean’ (made in 1953), which is, in my opinion, one of the better sculptures by Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975).
The House is well-worth entering. I will describe some of the things about it that caught my attention. If I had to select my favourite aspect of the house, I would have to choose between the Adam library and the collection of paintings, the ‘Iveagh Bequest’.
The library is a masterpiece of interior design by the architect Robert Adam. John Summerson wrote in his “Georgian London”:
“When Lord Mansfield bought Kenwood House it was a plain brick box. He employed Adam to reface it in stucco and add two low wings: the orangery and the magnificent library.”
And, the library is magnificent, especially its intricately decorated barrel-vaulted stuccoed ceiling. Built between 1767 and 1770, it was designed to be both a library and a room in which to receive guests.
The collection in Kenwood contains masterpieces by artists isuch as: Frans Hals, Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Turner, and Vermeer. The collection also includes a number of topographical paintings of historic interest.
A painting by John Constable (1776-1837) shows a view of Hampstead Heath. Another from the studio of Richard Wilson (1713-1782) provides a view of London from a high point somewhere in Highgate. The spires of the City of London can be seen across the fields that separated 18th century Highgate from London. Another 18th (?) century oil depicts 3 cows standing in front of three buildings, which were part of the dairy farm established by Louisa, the second wife of the 2nd Earl of Mansfield.
An interesting painting by the Dutchman Claude de Jongh (1605-1663 )depicts old London Bridge in 1630 . It is one of three that he made on his various visits to London.
There is a fine collection of 9 paintings, ‘The Suffolk Collection’, on the firsrt floor . These superb portraits were painted by William Larkin (1580s-1619). The paintings and the Library are my favourites within Kenwood House, but there is plenty more to see.
An item, which interested me, was the ‘Gouty chair’ for invalids. Two handles at the ends of its armrests are connected by rods and cogwheels to some wheels on the floor below the chair. The occupant of this chair could rotate the handles, and thereby propel this early form of wheelchair around the room. This was created by the Belgian inventor John-Joseph Merlin (1735-1803).
Kenwood is not the only grand house on Hampstead Lane. There are others including Caen Wood Towers (at various times the home of wealthy men such as Francis Reckitt, Sir Francis Cory-Wright, and Sir Robert Waley Cohen) and Beechwood, which has been home to at least two rulers from the Middle East.
These places still exist, but have been converted into up-market residences. Bishopswood House at the corner of Bishopswood Road and Hampstead Lane has always intrigued me. When I was at Highgate School in the 1960s, this Victorian house was easily visible from the road. Then, it was possible to see lights with conical green shades suspended over the games table inside its enormous billiards room. Now, the much modified and enlarged house is well hidden by hedges. It does not appear on a map surveyed in 1863, but does on one surveyed in 1894.
Bishopswood House is next to a large open space, Senior Field, one of Highgate School’s many sports grounds. A Victorian building on the edge of the field nearest to Hampstead Lane was once the school’s swimming pool. When I attended the school between 1965 and 1970, the school’s open-air swimming pool was below Dyne House (see below) on Southwood Lane. Entering this unheated pool was only bearable when rain was falling. In 1970, an indoor heated pool, financed by regular £10 additions to the pupils’ £100 termly tuition fees, opened on the eastern arm of Bishopswood Road.
Directly across the field from the former swimming pool, stands the school’s dining hall and kitchens. These are next to a small hut that contains the cricket score board. Further east, Hampstead Lane passes the rear of the cricket pavilion, where a crest showing a knight’s helmet and below it a heraldic animal’s head are separated by a sword with a twist in its blade. This is part of the crest of Highgate School. The pavilion is across the road from the entrance to Beechwood House (built about 1824; see above).
Walking along the eastern part of Bishopwsood Road from Hampstead Lane, one can see yet another of Highate School’s playing fields, the Junior Playing Fields. At the south end of this, there is a long low brick building, which, in ‘my day’, contained the changing rooms for day boys. Opposite this on Bishopswood Road, there are the magnificent (both outside and inside) recently built edifices housing Highgate’s Junior School.
North of these new buildings, there is a large red brick Victorian building bearing the school’s crest. This was formerly one of the school’s boarding houses, known as ‘School House’ (built 1880).
Now that the school no longer has boarders, this building has been beautifully modernised within and adapted for use as an arts centre, and is now called ‘The John Mills Centre’ in honour of one of the school’s recent governors. The Mallinson Sports Centre a little north of this is built around the swimming pool that was constructed when I was at the school. The centre is named in honour of Mr TG Mallinson, a charismatic man who lived until he was 99, and was one of the teachers who tried to teach me French. Near the sports centre, Eton fives courts are visible. This game, which is played usually in Public Schools (but not exclusively: I have seen public Eton Fives courts in North Kensington near to the Westway), is a bit like squash except that the ball is hit by gloved hands instead of racquets.
The top end of Hampstead Lane is dominated by the Victorian gothic Highgate School building and its neighbouring chapel with its clock-tower and tall centrally located slender steeple. The building, which in ‘my day’ was known as ‘Big School’ and was rarely used except when the whole school needed to be gathered together in one place. It has been restored recently, and its interior has become the school’s main library. Big School was built between 1865 and 1867 to the designs of FP Cockerill (1833-1878). The chapel and cloisters that flank this building were added later in the 19th century. North of these buildings, many other neighbouring edifices contain the classrooms and other rooms connected with the Senior School.
Highgate School was founded as a grammar school by Sir Roger de Cholmeley (c1485-1565) in 1565 near the end of his life. Sir Roger was a great benefactor of Highgate village. A lawyer, a member of Lincoln’s Inn, King Henry VII bestowed on him the Manor of Hampstead. Sir Roger lived through six reigns (Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I). One of these, that of Lady Jane, he helped bring about to his short-term detriment. According to James Thorne in his “Handbook to the Environs of London” (publ. 1876), Sir Roger, who had been Lord Chief Justice of The King’s Bench under Edward VI, was been dismissed and imprisoned in the Tower by Queen Mary because of his part in drawing up the King’s will so that his sisters (Mary and Elizabeth) were disinherited, and barred from acceding to the throne. This ‘tampering’ of the will allowed Lady Jane to be crowned, albeit only for nine days. After his release from the Tower, he devoted time to setting up his (and my) school in Highgate.
Highgate School never achieved a great reputation in its first few centuries. One of its most celebrated early academic successes was Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718), a noted poet, writer, dramatist, and Poet Laureate (appointed 1715). It was not until the early 19th century when Dr J Bradley Dyne became headmaster in 1838 (he held this post until 1874) that the school’s reputation improved significantly. Even in 1965, when I was ready for secondary school, Highgate did not command a high reputation as compared with, say, Westminster, where my parents hoped that I would apply and attend. I chose Highgate myself, having been introduced to it by a very good friend who was already a pupil there. It turned out to be a good choice.
In the mid-1960s, Highgate school was like a privately-run comprehensive school. Unlike, for example Westminster, it catered for boys of all academic abilities, and encouraged whatever they showed flare for, be it woodwork, tennis, music, or, even, academic excellence. I had a friend at Westminster, who was above average in intellectual ability, but because he was unlikely to enter Oxford or Cambridge with an exhibition or a scholarship, he always, I sensed, was made to feel inferior. This never happened in Highgate when I was there. A high scorer in mathematics was made to feel no more superior to someone, who could hardly add two numbers together yet was a brilliant cricket batsman. I am very grateful that I went to a school where this was the case. With the advent of girls and the passing of time, the school has enlarged greatly, and its academic excellence rivals the best of London’s schools. Despite that, I have got the impression when I have visited the school for reunions, that even though I and most of my fellow classmates would have had trouble passing the present entrance exams, the school has maintained a great atmosphere of all-embracing excellence, not only in academic spheres.
The west side of North Road that becomes North Hill, which leads north to join the Great North Road (A1000), is lined with interesting buildings. Prior to the construction of Archway Road (see below), this thoroughfare, which passes Highgate Senior School, was the only road from London to the north. Halfway Cottage, which looks like a mews building or stable, has a block and tackle system hanging from its first floor. It was built in the 1840s and might have been part of a larger estate at the time. A map drawn in 1863 shows that this cottage and its neighbours were next to a large building called ‘Grove Lodge’, where today there are houses with flats.
Eighteenth century Byron House with its early 19th century stucco façade, next door to Halfway, was home of the poet Sir John Betjeman from 1911 to 1915, when he attended Highgate School. One of his teachers there was the great TS Eliot (1886-1965), who was then teaching French and Latin. Next door to Byron House, stands another 18th century building Hampton Lodge. Its neighbour is the older (perhaps 17th century) Byron Cottage, where the poet AE Housman (1859-1936) wrote his poem “A Shropshire Lad”. The above-mentioned houses have other 18th century neighbours.
Further along North Road, we reach a masterpiece of 20th century architecture, the High Point apartment blocks that were constructed between 1933 and 1938 to the plans of the Russian-born Berthold Lubetkin (1901-1990) and his architectural practice ‘Tecton’, which he established when he arrived in London in 1931. He was influenced by the Soviet Constructivism style – he designed the Soviet Pavilion for a trade show in Bordeaux. Highpoint was praised by no less a fellow architect than Le Corbusier (1887-1965), with whom he had associated professionally. The classical caryatids supporting the veranda above one of the main entrances make an entertaining contrast to the otherwise modern appearance of this building.
A lane running along the south side of the grounds of High Point leads to an entrance of the Victorian Northfield Hall. A carved stone by its entrance reads “XIV Middlesex. Highgate. Volunteer Rifle Corps. AD MDCCCLIX”. The Volunteers adopted the hall as its headquarters in January 1879 (see: “Tracing the Rifle Volunteers: A Guide for Military and Family Historians”, by R Westlake, publ. 2010). It is now used for offices and flats. A little further along the lane, there is a synagogue, Highgate Shul.
Across North Hill opposite High Point, and almost next to ‘The Wrestlers’ Pub (first established in the 16th century, but now housed in a 20th century building), there is a three-storey building with a plain facade, number 92, where the writer Charles Dickens (1812-1870) stayed in 1832. His entire family lived there whilst they his father was suffering from some financial difficulty (see: http://www.hampsteadheath.net/charles-dickens.html and “Charles Dickens: A Life”, by Claire Tomalin, publ. 2012). The author considered buying a cottage in Highgate. Some of his family are buried in Highgate Cemetery (see below).
Castle Yard leads from North Hill to Southwood Lane, where, in my schooldays, Highgate School had its ‘sanatorium’ or health centre in one of the late Victorian houses (number 87, see: http://edithsstreets.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/moselle-river-highgate_23.html) along it. In those days, it was presided by the school doctor, Dr Rankine, who examined us once a year. Part of his examination involved peering inside the fronts of our underpants. The sanatorium contained a few beds to house sick boarders. During WW2 when this building was empty, it was used by Hill Homes (see: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/hillhomes.html), which was founded in 1939 by the wife of the Nobel Prize winning physiologist Professor Archibald V Hill (1886-1977), who taught at University College London, where I studied physiology after leaving Highgate School.
The former sanatorium stands close to a red brick building (number 67) that bears the date 1888 under the insignia of Queen Victoria. This was a postal sorting office, and is now used by ‘L- ISA, Immersive sound art’ studios. At the corner of Jacksons Lane and Southwood Lane a house stands in a triangular plot.
This is ‘Bank Point’, which was built in the Georgian era. From about 1809 to 1815, this was the home of Colonel Joseph P Jackson, after whom Jacksons Lane was named (see: “Highgate From Old Photographs”, by M Hammerson, publ. 2013; Hammerson attended Highgate School). Southwood Lane continues north, passing a road called ‘The Park’ (formerly, ‘Park House Road’). This ran around the grounds of the former ‘Park House Penitentiary’, which I noticed marked on a map surveyed in 1893. On a map surveyed in 1914, its name had changed to ‘House of Mercy’, and on the current map, the old building has been replaced with the Hillcrest Estate: three apartment blocks, each with the name of a WW2 British military commander. The Penitentiary, which has long been demolished, was founded in 1853 for the “reformation of penitent fallen women”: i.e. prostitutes (see: http://edithsstreets.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/moselle-river-highgate_23.html and http://spamosphere.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/highgates-lost-girls-by-rowan-lennon.html). In 1900, the Clewer Order of Sisters took it over as ‘The House of Mercy’. The old buildings were closed in 1940.
Returning south along Southwood Lane, we pass number 22 (‘Avalon’), an 18th century house where the ethnologist Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) lived as a child. This is close to a former chapel, which now houses the Highgate School Museum, something that did not exist when I was at the school. This early 19th century building was formerly ‘The Highgate Tabernacle’. It stands on the site of a former Presbyterian chapel that was founded here in 1622 (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1358876).
The chapel faces a row of alms-houses, which stand where in 1658 Sir John Wollaston (1590-1658), Mayor of London in 1643, founded an earlier group of six alms-houses, “in trust for the use of six poor alms people, men and women of honest life and conversation, inhabitants of Hornsey and Highgate” (see: Walford, 1878). In 1722, the original buildings, which were in a poor state, were pulled down and replaced by newer ones, paid for by Edward Pauncefort (died 1726, a Member of Parliament between 1698 and 1705, and sometime resident in Highgate). The two-storey central portion of this 18th century building was built as a school house for “charity girls”. The alms-houses abut the massive brick wall of a newer building with neo-classical features. This is the Science Block of Highgate School, built in 1928.
When I studied at Highgate, the Headmaster’s office was in the ground floor of the Science Block. Much of its uppermost floor was occupied by the school’s excellent library, which is now in the former ‘Big School’ (see above). The laboratories for physics and chemistry used to be lined with glass-fronted cabinets containing materials and apparatus. When I went around the school a few years ago, I noticed that these cupboards had been replaced by newer ones with doors that were not transparent. It was seeing and wondering about the nature of the things that I could see in the old cabinets that made me follow the science study route rather than the arts path. The biology laboratory, which was the territory of our Senior Biology Master, the inspiring Mr George Sellick, was archaic. It was filled with glass-topped cabinets that contained preserved insects pinned down onto cardboard bases. If you banged the glass top in the right way, one of these poorly preserved specimens would crumble into dust. When we reached the part of the syllabus which dealt with human reproduction, Sellick, a bachelor, told us that we could look that up for ourselves. His approach to recent discoveries like DNA was similar. When it came to essay-writing, dissection, and plant identification, there was no one to surpass Sellick in his guidance. Once, when I was walking down to lunch with some of the other biology students and Mr Sellick, he stopped to pick up a leaf from the pavement, and then asked us what it was. None of us knew. His response to that was that what was the point of knowing about DNA or photosynthesis if you could not even identify a common plant.
The Science Block is across Southwood Lane opposite an unsightly construction in brick, glass, and concrete. This is the new Dyne House, which was built in the late 1960s while I was a pupil at Highgate School. With a nice auditorium and music practice rooms, it was built to replace an older Dyne House, and opened in 1967. A subterranean pedestrian subway allows students and staff to cross under the busy Southwood Lane. The violinist Yehudi Menuhin (1916-1999) used to rehearse in Dyne House’s auditorium. Once, I opened the door for him in Dyne House. The old, now disused, weed-filled, open air swimming pool is down the hillside behind Dyne House next to some old classrooms and an old gymnasium. The school’s old printing press, which was run by pupils using old-fashioned hand set type, used to be housed on the slope halfway between Dyne House and the pool. It was here during lunch breaks that I helped set-up and print the School’s calendar each term.
Where Southwood Lane meets Highgate High Street, there is an old burial ground on a triangular plot next to the south wall of Highgate School’s Chapel. The northwest corner of this graveyard is opposite The Gatehouse pub. Before 1813, when the straight Archway Road was cut through the hillside east of Highgate village, traffic between central London and the Great North Road had to pass through Highgate village, and then through a toll located beside the Gatehouse pub. It was levied by the Bishops of London who owned the land across which the first part of the old Great North Road (the present North Road and North Hill) ran. Thorne (see above) wrote that long ago: “…the tollhouse was a brick building extending across the road from the Gatehouse tavern to the burial ground by the old chapel. The gateway through which the traffic passed had two floors over it…”. The arch was low and very narrow, making it necessary for wagons to be unloaded before they could pass through. In 1769, this structure was removed, and replaced by an ordinary turnpike gate.
The toll-gate has disappeared, as has also the ‘Highgate Oath’, by which visitors to Highgate were required to promise a range of ludicrous and contradictory things mainly relating to women and alcohol. For example, the oath demands that one should never kiss a maid when you could kiss the mistress instead, and never to drink a weak beer when a strong one was available unless the weaker one was preferred (see: “London and its Environs”, by Karl Baedeker, publ. 1885). In return, they became a ‘Freeman of Highgate’, which allowed the holder of this to have various valueless, ridiculous privileges including being able to kick a pig out of a ditch to take its place to have somewhere to rest. The oath had to be sworn under horns (i.e. antlers), which were kept in each of Highgate’s pubs. The oath is mentioned by many writers including Lord Byron in verse 70 in the first Canto of his “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” (published between 1812 and 1818):
“… And many to the steep of Highgate hie.
Ask ye, Boeotian shades! The reason why?
‘Tis to worship the solemn horn,
Grasp’d in the holy hand of Mystery,
In whose dread name both men and maids are sworn…”
There are still several pubs, where the oath could have been taken, in Highgate High Street, where we head next. Many of the buildings lining it are 18th or 19th century.
One shop retains an original wooden veranda projecting over the pavement. There used to be more of these when I was at school in Highgate. A coffee shop, a branch of the Nero chain, in deference to heritage, has erected a modern version of this outside its premises. A shop with a bow window, number 46, currently the premises of ‘The Highgate Vet’, was, during my school days and for many decades before that, a second-hand book shop run by Fisher and Sperr (see: http://www.london-rip.com/places/more-bookshops). When I visited the shop recently, the vet told me that Mr Fisher ran the shop until his death (in the shop) at a very advanced age. He lived there with his sister, who I never saw during my many visits to the bookshop in my teens. This shop is at the top of the slope that leads down to Archway. Before descending that slope, let us take a detour along South Grove.
South Grove skirts Pond Square, which contained a village pond until the 19th century when it was filled in (this had already been done by 1863, when the area was surveyed for a detailed map). Number 10 South Grove, Church House, is a grand brick-built 18th century house facing the square. Next to it is, first The Highgate Society, and then the imposing Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution, which was founded in 1839 in a building that had been previously used as a school. Further west, stands the imposing Great Hall, which was built in the late 17th century and has some later additions.
Next, we reach St Michaels Church, a Victorian gothic structure designed by Lewis Vulliamy (1791-1871). It was built in 1831-32 to replace a ‘chapel of ease’ that had been attached to Highgate School. This probably explains the presence of a weathered stone crest bearing the arms of Highgate School on one side of the arch containing the church’s main west door.
Just inside that door, at the base of the bell-tower there was a mark a few feet above the floor that was level with the top of the cross on the dome of St Pauls Cathedral). When I was at Highgate School, Protestant services used to be held in the school’s chapel every day except on Thursdays. The chapel was only large enough to hold a small number of boys, not the whole school, whereas St Michael’s could easily accommodate everyone (including their parents during the annual Carol Service). On Thursdays, almost the whole school celebrated morning prayers in St Michaels. Those who did not were Jewish boys (except me!), who attended ‘Jewish Circle’ in the school, and Roman Catholics, who trooped down Highgate Hill to St Josephs (see below). The school still attends St Michaels once a week.
The steep Highgate West Hill begins just beyond St Michaels. Witanhurst House stands at its summit. This large neo-Georgian mansion designed by George Hubbard (1859-1936) was built in 1913 for the soap magnate Arthur Crosfield (see above). With its sweeping gardens and wonderful views across Hampstead Heath, this building replaced an earlier one, ‘Parkfield’, which was first built in the 18th century (see: “The London Gardener”, 2015-2016, pp. 19-41). Witanhurst, now a private estate, is difficult to see from West Hill, but can be better viewed from a distance from Hampstead Heath.
Unless you have special business, you cannot enter numbers 32-33 West Hill, now the headquarters of a Russian trade mission, formerly the ‘Soviet Trade Delegation’. In 1979, its building’s windows required new glazing. A former military policeman Bill Graham was asked by MI6 to offer to provide double-glazing at a price (subsidised by MI6) which was so good that the Delegation accepted it. While Bill and his team were installing the double-glazing, they installed espionage ‘bugs’, photographed Soviet documents, and secretly photographed the building (see: “Break-in: Inside the Soviet Trade Delegation”, by Bill Graham, publ. 1987, and, for example, http://winnowinghistory.blogspot.co.uk/1991/04/use-of-part-time-spies-by-mi6.html). Incidentally, the main buildings of the Delegation, which are not visible from West Hill, were built in 1957 and in 1973.
At the top of West Hill, The Grove, which leads to Hampstead Lane, begins near the Flask pub (first established before 1663, and now housed in an 18th century building). Near the pub, and separating it from The Grove, there is a grassy open space which is currently filled with touching personal memorials to the singer, the late George Michael (1963-2016), who lived in a house on The Grove.
Swains Lane begins at Pond Square, and then descends almost vertiginously towards the north-east corner of Parliament Hill Fields, to which West Hill also leads. On it west side, the Lane skirts Waterlow Park (see below) until it reaches the northern part of the eastern section of Highgate Cemetery. This section of the cemetery contains the much-visited grave of Karl Marx. The western section of Highgate Cemetery, which lies mostly across Swains Lane opposite the park is punctuated by the occasional private residence. One of these, the Eidolon House, number 87, built in 2014 and designed by Dominic Mckenzie Architects, whose façade is covered by mirror glass, is a spectacular example of contemporary domestic architecture (for illustrations of its interior, see: http://www.dominicmckenzie.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/INHABIT-16-DOMINIC-MCKENZIE.pdf). It was built close to John Winter’s distinctive house at number 81, built in 1967 using oxidised ‘Cor-ten’ steel.
Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 as part of a series of seven new cemeteries around London. These included, for example, those at Brompton, Kensal Green, and Abney Park. The western section of the cemetery is the stuff of dreams and nightmares. When I was at Highgate School, this part of the cemetery was virtually unguarded and unsecured. Anyone could walk in at any time. It was, and still is, a vast collection of largely disintegrating Victorian funerary monuments and buildings including a spooky Victorian neo-Egyptian circular columbarium (this lies immediately below the terrace upon which St Michaels stands).
In the 1960s, the cemetery was not well-cared for. The funerary objects - graves, sculptures, vaults, and mausolea - were strangled by unrestrained vegetation, including particularly evil-looking weeds whose stems looked like long chains of tiny fingerbones joined end-to-end. Also, many of the graves and tomb chambers (in the columbarium) had been broken open. Dust-covered coffins could be seen inside them. Now, several decades since leaving school, the cemetery has become a popular tourist destination. Both sections have been made inaccessible to all those except corpses, bona-fide mourners, and tourists, who have purchased admission tickets. The spookier western section may only be visited with an official guide. The tours are well-worth paying for, and the guides provide interesting information. Apparently, during the 19th century it was considered very romantic (not ghoulish) for couples to spend time, lingering amongst the graves in the cemetery at twilight on summer evenings.
South of the cemetery, at the corner of Swains Lane and Chester Road, there is a wonderful example of Victorian gothic fantasy, Holly Village. This consists of a ‘colony’ of eight large cottages profusely decorated with intricate gothic details. They are arranged around a well-manicured lawn. Although they are private, you can easily slip inside the ornate gate-house to see them. They were built on the instructions of the wealthy philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts (1814-1906) in 1865 to the designs of Henry Darbishire (1825-1899). The latter was no stranger to philanthropic works, having been the Peabody Trust’s architect until 1885. Angela Burdett-Coutts was granddaughter of the banker Thomas Coutts. Her father was the reformist politician Sir Francis Coutts (1770-1844). The Baroness lived at the nearby Holly Lodge Estate, which was sold on her death. The current Oakeshott Avenue, which runs west off Swains Lane and is lined by 20th century half-timbered buildings, traverses part of the former estate.
The former ‘Highgate Newtown Clinic’ is close to Holly Village on Chester Road. It used to deal with children’s ailments, but now is used for other purposes. Further along the road, stands Highgate Branch Library in a grand brick building with neo-classical features and topped with balustrades. This was built in 1906, designed by William Nesbit, the Borough of St Pancras Engineer (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1271883). It was the first branch public library to be opened in the borough, and was built on land acquired from ‘Mr Burdett-Coutts’. A relative of mine who volunteers at the library told me that its future is under threat.
Returning up to Highgate village, we begin the descent of Highgate Hill towards Archway. High up on the wall of Highgate High Street, there is a plaque that says “Feary’s Row 1791”. In the 1840s, there was a library, ‘Broadbent Library’, where now there are shops. A vehicle entrance under number 22 leads to Broadbent Close, which used to be known as ‘Broadbent’s Yard’. Further south, the ornate doorway of number 42, a late 18th/early 19th century building, above whose front door is displayed the coat of arms of Sir William Ashurst (1647-1720), who lived in Highgate in the late 17th century. He was a Member of Parliament three times and, also, a governor of Highgate School from 1697 onwards (see: http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/member/ashurst-sir-william-1647-1720). The coat of arms was brought from the c 1700 Ashurst House, which was demolished to build St Michaels Church.
As Highgate High Street ends and Highgate Hill begins its descent, there are two fine very early 18th century (c.1700, according to Nikolaus Pevsner) houses, numbers 128 (Northgate House) and 130 (Ivy House). They may have been built as early as 1660 (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1358831), but have been modified since then. Their neighbour, Cholmeley Lodge, is much more recently built. Constructed in 1934 with two resplendently curving facades, it was designed by Guy Morgan and Partners. A map surveyed in 1893 shows that there was an older building standing in extensive grounds, also called ‘Cholmeley Lodge’, where the flats stand today.
The 1930s flats overlook their neighbour, the main (rather unattractive) Victorian buildings of Channing School for Girls (founded by the sisters, both Unitarians, Miss Matilda and Miss Emily Sharpe in 1885). Its Junior School is in a house across the road, which was once the home of Sir Sydney Waterlow (1822-1906), a former Mayor of London. In 1889, he gave the land, now ‘Waterlow Park’ (see below) to London County Council, which opened it as a public recreation area.
Not far below the school, there is a row of houses that date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The grandest of these with its roof topped by a small tower, Cromwell House, which, contrary to earlier beliefs, has little or nothing to do with Oliver Cromwell. It was built by a forgotten architect in 1637-38 for Sir Richard Sprignell (died about 1658). He was a trained military band captain and a governor of Highgate School (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/bk12/pp48-49). Pevsner wrote that between 1675 and 1749, the house was owned by the Da Costa family, the first Jewish family to own landed property since the expulsion of the Jews in the Middle Ages. They added a wing to the house between 1678 and 1679. In 1869, the house was used as a convalescent home for children from the Great Ormond Street Hospital. Now, it houses the High Commission of Ghana.
Across the road from Cromwell House, there is a small metal plate in the brick wall of Waterlow Park. This records that the cottage in which the poet and wit Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) lived used to be nearby. According to Edward Walford (writing in 1878):
“The house – or cottage, for it was scarcely more – was small, and, like Andrew Marvell himself, very unpretentious.”
Built of timber and plaster, it fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1867.
Marvell’s neighbour is Lauderdale House, an 18th century structure inside Waterlow Park. Built on the site of a 16th century half-timbered house, it contains elements of the original building. In the 1660s, it belonged briefly to the Duke of Lauderdale. Subsequently, it underwent many modifications and had many owners until it reached its present form in the 18th century. Today, it serves as a community arts centre and café. Stairs from its gardens lead down into the sweeping hillside grounds of Waterlow Park.
A conical spire with turquoise tiling adorns the corner of the 19th century Old Crown Inn at the meeting of Highgate Hill and Hornsey Lane. The present building stands where an earlier building housing the pub used to stand in the early part of the 19th century. This used to be a popular day-excursion destination for city-dwellers.
The pub is opposite the large St Joseph’s Roman Catholic church with its distinctive green dome, which is 130 feet higher than the cross at the top of St Pauls Cathedral. It was designed by Albert Vicars. Its interior has some Romanesque features. Known affectionately by Highgate School boys as ‘Holy Joe’s’, this is where the Catholic boys worshipped on Thursdays in the 1960s. The church was consecrated in 1889, a year after its foundation stone had been laid. Next to the church, there is St Joseph’s Retreat. This is built on the site earlier occupied by the Black Dog pub, which the Passionist Order of priests bought by subterfuge to use as a place of worship in the 1860s (see: http://www.stjosephshighgate.org.uk/stjosephshighgatechurchhistory.html).
Further down Highgate Hill, there is a former school, now a ‘City Academy’, that bears the date 1888. Almost opposite this, stand the unattractive buildings of Whittington Hospital, where in about 1966 my broken arm was repaired. The hospital stands close to a former ‘Smallpox and Vaccination Hospital’, ‘St Marys’, now part of the Whittington (see: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/stmaryshighgate.html).
Across the road from the Whittington, located on a triangular plot formed by the bifurcation of Highgate Hill and Archway Road, there stands a forbidding-looking series of Victorian institutional buildings surmounted by a massive bell-tower with a spire, which has four mansard windows. This was formerly the ‘Holborn Union Infirmary’, later named ‘Archway Hospital’. Opened in 1879 with accommodation for 625 bedded patients, it later merged with St Marys Hospital across the road and, also, with Highgate Hospital in nearby Dartmouth Park Road (see: http://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/archway.html). In 1995, it ceased being a hospital, and since 2015 the neglected buildings have been sold to Peabody and another housing developer.
Outside the Whittington, ‘The Whittington Stone’ stands on the pavement enclosed in a cast-iron cage. Early engravings of this show that it was once a simple mile-stone with a convexly curved top. Later, the sculpture of a cat was attached to its top, and then it was surrounded by its protective metal cage. The monument marks the spot where Dick Whittington (c 1354-1423), the future Lord Mayor of London and his cat, who had arrived from the country, heard the bells of Bow Church ringing out the famous prophesy of his brilliant future: “Turn again Whittington, thrice Lord Mayor of London!”.
The Stone is close to Archway Underground Station, which opened in 1907. Archway Road was built, and then opened in 1813 to allow traffic to and from the Great North Road to bypass the steep Highgate Hill. Originally it had been planned to take this new road through a tunnel underneath Highgate, but this idea was abandoned in favour of running the road through a deep cutting, as it does now. This project was proposed by the innovative engineer John Rennie (1761-1821), who designed the previous London Bridge, which now stands at Lake Havasu City in Arizona.
The Charlotte Despard pub at 17-19 Archway Road is named in memory of Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), who was an Irish nationalist, novelist, and anti-vivisectionist (see: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/makingbritain/content/charlotte-despard). Continuing north from the pub, the Archway Road and its pavement rise a little but not nearly as much as the near vertical walls of the cutting.
A cast-iron bridge spans the road at the point where it is deepest in the cutting. The bridge is about 60 feet above the roadway below. Constructed in 1897, it carries the minor road Hornsey Lane over the chasm in which Archway Road runs. An earlier stone, multi-arched bridge was designed by John Nash (1752-1835), who designed the Brighton Pavilion and the terraces around Regents Park. This was demolished in 1901, and replaced by the present bridge.
Just north of the Archway, there is a large brick structure bearing a circular plaque with a sculpture of an electrical transformer in bas-relief. This an electrical facility run by Seeboard Powerlink Ltd (see: https://www.thegazette.co.uk/notice/L-55018-495), which maintains high-voltage power supplies for the Underground railway.
North of the ugly electrical building is St Augustine’s Church with its unusually designed bell-tower whose roof resembles a telescoped pagoda. This was built between 1884 and 1887, and designed by J D Sedding (1838-1891), and later modified by others (see: http://www.saintaugustine.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/St.-Augustine-of-Canterbury.pdf). It adjoins a terrace of shops topped with about eighteen brick gothic arches built over upper-floor balconies, built in about 1880. Across Wembury Road, where the terrace ends, there is another place of worship, the Highgate Hill Murugan Temple.
This Hindu Temple is dedicated to the god, Shiva. The Murugan Temple opened its doors in late 1979, following the establishment of Hindu Association of Great Britain in 1966. For many years, the association was spear-headed by the late Mr S Sabapathipillai, who came to the UK from Sri Lanka to promote the worship of Shiva among Dravidian Indians (from, for example, India, Fiji, and Sri Lanka) living in the UK (see: https://www.highgatehillmurugan.org/History.html). With its South Indian temple architectural features, it contrasts with the Victorian gothic features of its ecclesiastical neighbour, St Augustine’s.
Close to the Temple, there is another church, a 20th century construction, the Highgate International Church. This began life in 1884 as a non-conformist ‘Brethren Assembly’. In 1891, it moved into a building in Archway Road known as ‘Cholmeley Hall’. In the 1980s, this building had become too dilapidated, and was demolished. In 1987, the present building was erected on the site of the old hall.
The Winchester Tavern stands between the Hindu temple and the International Church. Topped with gothic arches as is the terrace (see above), which it neighbours, this pub, which no longer serves customers, narrowly escaped being converted into flats in 2016. It opened for business in the 1890s. Until less than twenty years before the Winchester opened, most of the Archway Road ran through sparsely populated open country between its southern start and Highgate railway station, where there was already a small settlement (around the still extant Woodmans Tavern) in the 1870s. Just before ending this lengthy exploration of Highgate, there is one more sight worth mentioning.
The ‘Jackson Lane’ centre at the corner of Archway Road and Jackson Lane (which leads steeply up hill to Highgate village) is an arts centre with a good, small auditorium. It is housed in a former Methodist church, which was opened in 1905. The centre was opened in 1975, and is particularly well-known for activities involving circus skills.
The centre is a few yards downhill from Highgate Underground Station, which, incidentally, is not a great starting place for visitors wishing to see Highgate village as it is far beneath it. The present deep-level Highgate Underground Station opened after WW2. An earlier above-ground Highgate Station opened in the 1860s as part of the ‘Edgware, Highgate and London Railway’, and rebuilt in the 1880s. The over-ground railway was abandoned, then surpassed by the Underground.
Highgate is a fine example of a former village that has been absorbed during the growth of London. Like its neighbour Hampstead, many of its original features have survived both the advance of time and, also, of urban spread. This is in no little way due to the active participation of many of its inhabitants in the conservation of the area’s rich heritage.