A seemingly unimportant road in north-west London played a significant role in my younger days, and offers some intriguing surprises...
LIFE AND DEATH IN HOOP LANE
Hoop Lane runs in a north-easterly direction from Golders Green Road to Meadway. This by-way is of personal interest as it ran through the first few decades of my life, and the last few decades of my mother’s.
Hoop Lane is amongst Golders Green’s older thoroughfares. It joins Golders Green Road (formerly ‘North End Road’) with Finchley Road, and then continues towards the western edge of the Hampstead Garden Suburb. The latter did not exist prior to about 1905. Before that date, Hoop Lane continued from Finchley Road towards where it ends today, but as a ‘dead-end’ in open country. An 1870’s detailed Ordnance Survey map shows that Hoop Lane was lined by trees (as it is today) and ended at its eastern end at a T-junction. In one direction (north west) ran Temple Fortune Lane, and in the other (south east) ran Wild Hatch, which ended abruptly in farmland. These byways were devoid of buildings in the 1870s. However, an 1807 map shows that there was one building on Wild Hatch at that date. These appear on a 1900 map, labelled as ‘Wild Hatch Cottages’.
Finchley Road was laid out and built in the 1820s and 1830s as a turnpike road (toll-road), bypassing the difficult hilly road that ran from Camden Town through Hampstead village (to Finchley and further north). Before the new road was built, traffic had to climb the steep road to Hampstead, and then wind its way down the North End Road, which still exists. North End Road passed through Golders Green. In the first two decades of the19th century, Golders Green was a string of well-spaced properties, a small hamlet, close to common land (the ‘green’), which was located where Golders Green Station stands today. What is now named ‘Golders Green Road’ was then known as ‘North End Road’. This road continued from Hampstead towards the settlement called ‘Brent Street’.
In those early days, before the existence of Finchley Road, to reach Finchley from Hampstead it was necessary to proceed as follows. After passing the commonage of Golders Green, the traveller would have taken a right turn into Hoop Lane, and gone along it in a north-easterly direction to its end where it met Temple Fortune Lane. Next, the traveller would have had to go northwest along this lane until he or she reached a triangular open space, which is now the position of modern Temple Fortune. This place’s name derives from the fact that it stands on land once owned by the Knights Templars. This spot was the southern end of Ducksetters Lane, which wound its way north-eastwards to Finchley. From this description of the route, it is evident that Hoop Lane was an important thoroughfare between London and the North prior to the building of Finchley Road. It was a country lane with few, if any, buildings before the late 19th century.
South west of Finchley Road, Hoop Lane was devoid of buildings as late as 1897. Near where the road met North End Road (now ‘Golders Green Road’), there was a building set in the middle of a large plot called ‘The Oaks’. The Oaks were still marked on a detailed 1912 map. This large stately home disappeared in 1920. By 1912, there were plant nursery buildings on Hoop Lane and, also, one building, now the Central Hotel, where Hoop Lane met Finchley Road on its west side. This must be the one of oldest surviving buildings on Hoop Lane.
There was another early building (now Glentrees estate agent) opposite it on the other side of Finchley Road close to where the Roman Catholic Church of Edward The Confessor stands today. This church’s construction began in March 1914, and it was completed by October 1915, despite wartime difficulties such as a zeppelin raid on Golders Green in September 1915.
My earliest memories of Hoop Lane date back to when I was three or four years old, and therefore are rather vague. At that age, I attended a kindergarten in Hoop Lane. This was in the hall attached to Golders Green’s Unitarian Church, which was designed in the ‘Byzantine revival’ style by the architect Reginald Farrow (opened in 1925). It contains interesting artworks including a mural by Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979), which I have not yet seen.
The kindergarten was under the direction of Miss Schreuer, who lived a few doors away in Hoop Lane. My only lasting memory from my time there was when my father appeared at the school with a white beard and a red outfit, dressed as Father Christmas. A few years later, my sister and my cousins attended Miss Schreuer’s. One day while my sister was attending, I was allowed to return to the school to act as an older helper. One of my fellow pupils was the late Micaela Comberti (1952-2003), who was later to become an accomplished violinist. Her German mother and Italian father were friends of my parents.
I am not sure what became of Miss Schreuer, but I heard rumours that the end of her life was unhappy. Today, the hall, where her school flourished, is now a Montessori kindergarten. When I lived in the area (I left finally when I was aged thirty), I often walked past the school and the Unitarian Church. The latter had a panel facing the road, upon which posters with pious messages were posted. One that I will always remember said:
“If you think you have seen the light, think again”.
Coincidentally, I now live very close to a Unitarian Church in Kensington, even closer than my parents’ home was to Miss Schreuer’s school, and it also offers pre-school facilities to local children.
At the north-western corner of the point where Hoop Lane meets Finchley Road, there stands the Central Hotel (illustrated above). This building is the one that was marked on the 1912 map, one of the oldest buildings in Hoop Lane. Undistinguished in appearance, it has been a hotel for over forty years. I have never met anyone who has stayed there.
Directly across the Finchley Road on the north-eastern corner of its intersection with Hoop Lane, there stands a corner shop. For at least forty years, it has been the premises of Glentree International, an estate agent. Before that, this corner shop was a dairy shop run by Express Dairies. Next to it, accessible from Hoop Lane, the company had a depot for re-charging and stocking its electric milk floats. These floats moved almost silently, apart from the clinking of the glass milk, cream, and yoghurt bottles, which they delivered from house to house every morning. Deliveries, such as these and those made by a mobile vegetable seller in a lorry and a Frenchman with strings of onions draped over his bicycle, made life a little easier for those living in the nearby Hampstead Garden Suburb, which has never had any shops.
Most of the rest of Hoop Lane to the east of Finchley Road is effectively a ‘necropolis’. On the northern side of the road, there is a huge Jewish cemetery. On the southern side, there is the sprawling Golders Green Crematorium. For almost thirty years, I used to walk between these two final destinations for the dead on my way to and from schools and university, in daylight and at night. The possible presence of ghosts and other supernatural phenomena associated with the after-life never bothered me in the slightest. These final resting places were part and parcel of my childhood.
Beyond the cemetery and the crematorium, Hoop Lane ends. Vehicles have to drive around a tiny triangular area containing gardens, and then can continue along Meadway into Hampstead Garden Suburb. Pedestrians can access the small gardens by means of a short staircase, and then walk through them under a wooden pergola to reach Meadway. This little garden is now called ‘Meadway Gate Open Space’. I am certain that it had no name when I lived in the area (i.e. until about 1990). Wild Hatch that is shown on early maps still exists. The northern part of it is accessible to vehicles, but the last hundred or so yards of it is a narrow, rustic footpath that leads to Hampstead Way and across from that, the Hampstead Heath Extension. Opposite Wild Hatch, and beyond the Meadway Gate Open Space, is the beginning of Temple Fortune Lane, that also appears on early maps.
Wild Hatch skirts the eastern boundary of the crematorium. Temple Fortune Lane, which has houses on its eastern side, skirts the eastern boundary of the Jewish cemetery. This picturesque cul-de-sac narrows at its eastern end to become a footpath, which threads it way between the garden gates of houses on one side (north) and the edge of the crematorium gardens on the other.
The path emerges on Hampstead Way. Crossing this, one enters the Hampstead Heath Extension. To the north of a gravel path, there is a clump of wild vegetation. Within this, there are mounds that were used during WW2 to position anti-aircraft guns. In my childhood, these mounds were accessible. Now, they are fenced-off and hidden by the plants growing around them.
The Jewish Cemetery in Hoop Lane appears to be divided into two sections. One, the western half, contains upright gravestones, and the other, the eastern, mainly horizontal gravestones. The vertical headstones are characteristic of the Ashkenazi tradition, and the horizontal of the Sephardic tradition. It is probably by chance that the Sephardis, who are mainly Jews from the south and east, rest in the eastern part of the cemetery.
A book, “A History in our Time - Rabbis and Teachers Buried at Hoop Lane Cemetery” (published by the Leo Baeck College in 2006), provides an interesting history of the cemetery. The cemetery opened for ‘business’ in about 1896. The juxtaposition of the graves of two types of Jew in the same cemetery is unusual. The Jewish Yearbook for the year 5658 (Jewish calendar; 1897 AD) noted of the cemetery:
“… a new cemetery at Golders’-green was also made ready for its melancholy purpose this last year. This cemetery has the curious distinction of being used by both the Orthodox Sephardim and the Reform Congregation of the West London Synagogue of British Jews.”
The reason for this juxtaposition was that the two separate Jewish communities had bought neighbouring plots of land. Many years after the purchases, some of the land was sold for house building on Temple Fortune Lane (this happened in 1973, and includes the estate on Sheridan Walk), and another part to build a synagogue, the North Western Reform Synagogue (built in 1936; entered from Alyth Gardens). I remember the housing construction around Sheridan Walk because it was opposite the home of one of my first ever school friends.
The cemetery, which I have seen by peering through its boundary fence but never visited, contains graves of many notable people including that of Dr Leo Baeck (1873-1956), who was born in Germany and became a leader in both Liberal and Progressive Judaism. During WW2, he represented all German Jews and narrowly avoided being murdered at Theresienstadt. More recently, another well-known Ashkenazi Jew, Rabbi Hugo Gryn (1930 – 1996), a cleric and a broadcaster, was buried here. Amongst those who are buried in the Sephardi section, one is of particular interest to me. This is the barrister and historian Philip Guedalla (1889-1944), who published many books on historical subjects. He was related to my late mother’s family, albeit quite distantly.
The Golders Green Crematorium faces the two Jewish cemeteries across Hoop Lane. This was opened in 1902 by Sir Henry Thompson, president of the Cremation Society of England. Before its existence, Londoners wanting to cremate had to use the Woking Crematorium that opened in 1885. The buildings of the crematorium are all close to the brick boundary wall that runs along Hoop Lane. Behind them spread attractive and extensive memorial gardens. According to www.historicengland.org.uk website, the main buildings were designed in the ‘Romanesque Lombardic style’. That may well be the case, but they present a fairly forbidding appearance. Many of the original buildings were designed by teams that included Alfred Yeates (1867-1944) and Ernest George (1839-1922), who formed a business partnership in 1892. George’s speciality was garden architecture. The gardens and some of the buildings at the crematorium are fine examples of his work. Although the various buildings exhibit a certain architectural homogeneity, they were built over several decades as, gradually, money became available to pay for their construction.
It is well worth asking to visit the inside of the Ernest George Columbarium. This building, which is usually locked, contains urns of ashes and memorials placed in beautiful stone settings and shelves. Amongst those ‘stored’ in this columbarium are Sigmund Freud and his wife, as well as Anna Pavlova, the ballet dancer. Many other famous people have been cremated at this crematorium (a good list is available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golders_Green_Crematorium). These include, to name a few, Ivor Novello, Bram Stoker, Peter Sellers, Ronnie Scott, Ernő Goldfinger, Kingsley Amis, Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, and Ernest Bevin.
Not all of the ashes of the cremated are stored or scattered at the Crematorium. Many are taken away to be disposed of elsewhere, as were, for example, the ashes of Soviet politician and a proponent of the idea of Lenin’s tomb in Moscow Leonid Krasin (1870-1926), which were buried in the Kremlin Wall Necropolis. According to S Kotkin in his “Stalin. Paradoxes of Power” (published 2014), it was Krasin, who had: “… proposed inclusion of a terrace from which the masses could be addressed…”. This was added to the design of Lenin’s Mausoleum.
Sadly, the crematorium is a place that I have had to visit too often. Friends of my parents and colleagues of my father have been cremated here. These included Professor William Baxter, who was responsible for encouraging my father to come from South Africa to study in the UK in 1938. My father’s colleague at the London School of Economics, the philosopher Professor John Watkins, was another person whose funeral I attended in one of the larger of the crematoriums multi-denominational chapels. We attended the final farewell of Dr ‘Sushi’ Patel, who studied medicine in Bombay with my mother-in-law. She was a Hindu. I remember that the whole congregation filed past her open coffin before she was cremated.
Closer to home, my heart was filled with great sadness when I attended the memorial services for two of my uncles. At one of these services, the ceremonies were conducted by a Humanist celebrant. At the other, the Jewish Kaddish was recited, this being the final wish of an uncle who in life showed little outward interest in his Jewish background. Later, when his belongings were being sorted, we discovered to our surprise that his interest in Judaism and its practices was greater than anyone had realised.
The saddest funeral that I attended at Golders Green’s Crematorium was my mother’s. She died young after suffering painfully for months in hospital. Very few of us sat in one of the smaller chapels. There was no ceremony, nothing was said. When my mother’s coffin was carried past me along the aisle, I was overwhelmed with emotion as I realised that this was the very last time that I would ever be physically close to her. As soon as I was able, and that was moments after her coffin slid out of sight, I fled from the small gathering, and walked briskly down Hoop Lane towards Finchley Road. Later that day late in December 1980, I bought a boxed set of LPs containing recordings of Bach’s Cello Sonatas. To this day, I have felt unable and unwilling to open them, let alone to play them.
My mother was one of many thousands to have been cremated in Golders Green. She was a sculptress. Other artists cremated here included Boris Anrep, Walter Crane, and Percy Wyndham Lewis. Our family lived in Hampstead Garden Suburb, a stone’s throw from St Judes Church, whose architect was Edwin Lutyens, famous for his work in New Delhi. Many of my parents’ friends were psychoanalysts. The greatest of them all, Sigmund Freud, was rendered to ashes in this crematorium. The list of celebrities in all fields who ended up at this place is enormous. I knew nothing of this during the many journeys that I made by foot along Hoop Lane during my younger years. In those days, my mind was on the future rather than the past.
When I was being shown around the Columbarium by one of the Crematorium’s officials, I told him that my mother and uncles had been cremated there. To which he smiled, shook my hand, and then said:
“Well, in that case, I suppose that you will end up here one day.”