“…and THAT, by the way, is Jude Law’s house” remarked our guide wearily, fully expecting the sudden burst of madness that followed – long sighs, loud gasps and lots of click-click-click-flash-selfie-selfie-selfie ( you get the picture, right? )
We were almost an hour into a guided walk through Highgate Village, North London’s best kept secret, when he made this declaration for the benefit of a dozen people in our group of ‘walkers’ who were more likely to be impressed by Jude Law than Samuel Coleridge ( yes, me included! )
A charming man with greying sideburns, our guide Richard ( or Richard III, as he liked to call himself since there are no less than SIX ‘Richards’ presently employed with the London Walks Company! ) took us on a ramble through a neighbourhood not entirely unknown to me. I live barely a few stops from it, further north in Barnet, and I’ve passed Highgate several times on my way into town but I was warned that there were interesting stories lurking around the corner from me which I knew NOTHING about!
“1.45 PM in the ticket hall of Highgate Tube Station” said the brochure and around twenty of us braved a bitter, cold afternoon and showed up for, what turned out to be, an extraordinary walk through the history of London. Leading up a steep hill along Jackson’s Lane, Richard marched us to a spot, well hidden from the main thoroughfare, which provided a panoramic view of London stretching ahead, down below from where we were perched.
It was the prefect vantage point from where to begin a journey into 400 years of history!
It was a miserable day so we couldn’t see much of the iconic skyline ( the familiar silhouettes of St Paul’s Cathedral, The Tate, The Gherkin, The Shard…) but on a clear day, it was possible to see up to a distance of about 50 miles, all the way to the South Downs, we were reliably informed. Turns out, the main city of London along the Thames lies in a dip ( in the shallow curve of a spoon, as it were ) , as seen clearly from North London, specially Highgate which forms a part of the North Hills.
Hundreds of years ago, when people burned log fires to keep their houses warm, palls of thick smoke would rise up from every chimney in London. Being cold and damp all year ’round, the heavy clouds overhead pressed down on this blanket of chimney-smoke and gave rise to the infamous smog – a soot-infested cover of smoke+fog so vile that it made you sick and so thick that you couldn’t see your own hand in front of you.
This is when those who could afford to escape the City, came away to the northern fringes, to Highgate and Hampstead – hill-stations affording them clean, fresh air and magnificient views. The added romance of Hampstead Heath, 800 acres of green space boasting natural springs, ponds and wild, untamed, rugged beauty cradling some of the highest points in London ( much of it preserved to this day ) drew the artistic set to its bosom, away from the financial heart of the city down below.
The name ‘Highgate’ harks back to the time when the Bishop of London extracted a fee from those who wished to cross his land. The toll ‘gate’ nearby stands testimony.
The Highgate Society exists to this day to maintain the ‘character’ of the landscape. Most buildings in the area are Listed by English Heritage depending on how old they are ( from pre 1600 to Post World War II ) – in other words, you can’t carry out any major structural changes, no matter how rich or famous you are!
Next to it, the Highgate Scientific and Literary Institution ( pic above ) housed in that somewhat dull white building from 1839, is known to be the first public library in this country.
Pond Square in the heart of Highgate Village ( picture above ) no longer has a pond in the middle. Standing there now, it’s a little hard to imagine what a ‘celebrity hub’ it once was and continues to be. Every few metres there are houses with plaques on them, announcing their illustrious heritage – here lived Charles Dickens, Samuel Coleridge, JB Priestley, John Betjeman ….the ‘Village’ is heaving with names that shaped the world.
Richard III makes dramatic gestures every time he pauses before a “celebrity” home and feeds us nuggets of history and gossip. Margaret Rutherford ( Miss Marple ) Robert Donat ( Goodbye, Mr Chips ) Ray Davis ( the Kinks ), Yehudi Menuhin, Jonathan Price ( now best known as a Bond Baddie from Tomorrow Never Dies ) Terry Gilliam ( Monty Python ) Victoria Wood, Jude Law…. Highgate Village was quite the hunting ground for all the 80s popstars too – Sting, Annie Lennox, George Michael, Boy George have all been locals here.
And these are only the names kindly estate agents would openly divulge!
There is a plaque to Dickens on a house where he lived at the age of 20, still unblemished by fame. Rumour has it that Dickens only ever stayed there for two weeks. In fact, he’s believed to have put his bags down in that house while he actually LIVED in the pub next door! Curiously, the plaque doesn’t mention that.
There’s also a house which is considered the largest private residence in all of London, with the exception of the Royal residences ( Pic below, boarded up, to the right of the glorious sunset ) It once belonged to a Soap Magnate who made his fortune with the very humble SUNLIGHT soap ( we in India, know the brand too! ). His wife moved in High Society and often had the Queen and Princess Margaret over at her Highgate residence for pool parties and a round of tennis.
Today, that house is rumoured to be owned by a Russian oligarch, undergoing a serious face-life as we walked past it. We’re told he’s planning a basement, a sub-basement and a sub-sub-basement for his fleet of wheels, a swimming pool, private theatre and personal gym..!
Knowing very little about the history and architecture of England as I do, it’s fascinating to see Richard point to buildings and go “..Gothic, Gothic Revival….Edwardian, Georgian, Late Victorian, mock Tudor, Grim 1960s etc ) Even if he’s doing it merely to show off ( to me and the Japanese girls in the group, the only non-Europeans ) it’s impressive!
An Alms House ( picture above ) for the ‘desirable poor’ who went about their chores uncomplainingly. There’s not enough room to swing a cat yet families of up to 10 lived in each of those rooms and were considered blessed. The ‘undesirable poor’ were frogmarched to the ‘Workhouse’ as described by Dickens in Oliver.
There are grim reminders too ( above ) of the times when Londoners were slapped with a crippling ‘Window Tax’ – anyone with more than nine windows had to pay, as a result; many windows were boarded up ( bricked off ) for good.
Since then, sunshine in London has been at a premium!
A block of flats down the road from Pond Square, HIGHPOINT ( above ) is also a much-desired Highgate address, designed by Russian-born Berthold Lubetkin. It looks dated now and rather compact yet a flat in there is on the market for over a million pounds. Built in the 1930s, it was very modern for its time, with an Open Plan and a rooftop garden, it also has a heated-outdoor-swimming pool, tennis courts and jaw-dropping views ’round the back.
Fortunately for Londoners, a brilliant annual event, Open House, gives us the opportunity to poke our noses where they don’t belong. Each year, several private spaces ( houses, mansions, libraries and offices of historic importance and interest ) open their doors to the public in September. Richard seriously recommends a look at the skyline bathed in summer twilight, from one of the top floor windows of HIGHPOINT. “1.2 million for THAT would be a steal”, he muses.
Throughout this walk across present-day Highgate, we are made aware of how closely and lovingly it has guarded and preserved its glorious past, its inextricable links to history. A haven for millionaires today, strewn with “cottages” with extensive grounds and all the comforts money can buy but it’s all behind closed doors, shrouded in ‘period’ minimalism, veiled under sedate exteriors that haven’t changed for centuries!
Another interesting feature of the area is the Cemetery ( divided into East and West by a long, sinister road ). It’s a veritable Who’s Who, too vast to explore on our walk. I came back later for a quick stroll past a few famous names.
The sun went behind an angry blob of grey clouds and it suddenly turned suitably eerie to be walking past the dead. Karl Marx commanded an impressive presence ( below )
George Eliot lay carelessly among sculptors, thinkers, writers, bespoke shoemakers, firemen, painters, philosophers, lawyers, rock stars, designers and archaeologists, engineers, Naval Commanders, even the Chiropodist to Abraham Lincoln ( what??)
And then there was Douglas Adams – his fans and ‘hitchhikers’ have laid down their pens to salute his writing. Clever and moving!
The Dickens Family Plot was over on the other side of the road, in the West Cemetery, amidst a similar list of renowned names. Waterlow Park ( below ) bordering the Cemetery, set the scene beautifully for a spot of quiet soul-searching, yards away from the famous dead.
Towards the end of our walk, we came to another very English institution – the Pub! And Highgate has one which is hard to beat in terms of ‘feel’ and ‘character’ – The Flask ( so called because people in the old days would come up here and fill their flasks from the nearby springs, a source of clean, pure, healing, mineral water ) Haunted, revered, seeped in history since 1663, the Flask was the watering hole for the English Romantics – Keats, Byron, Shelley who often came here to meet a friend living across the road from the pub, Samuel Coleridge.
Coleridge who spent over 20 years in Highgate, up until his death, was often seen roaming the streets in search of dealers who would sell him opium. Dangerously addicted, he would even urge the boys of Highgate School ( ’round the corner from the Flask and his home ) to leave vials of opium for him in their school grounds, hidden among bushes, in return for sums of money and other inappropriate favours. High as a kite by day, he would sit by a burning candle, deep into the night and churn out literary masterpieces. There’s a shrine to Coleridge in the local St Michael’s Church, a few meters away.
As our guide charmingly put it ; “When you read ‘The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner’ you sometimes wonder – WHAT is this guy on ?? Well, the answer is – OPIUM !”
Coming back to The Flask, Dick Turpin, the highway robber, was also known to hide in the stables here, away from the authorities when they came looking. Painter William Hogarth was a customer, so was Karl Marx. The hauntings at this pub involve a Spanish barmaid who hanged herself in the wine cellar over unrequited love and a man in Cavalier uniform who is sometimes seen striding across the main bar, then disappearing into a pillar.
Locals believe that you have to consume at least THREE pints of stout before you can actually see either of them!
The much sought-after Highgate School ( below ) once the preserve of wealthy, aristocratic boys only, is now co-ed yet just as exclusive. It owns extensive riding grounds, rugby and cricket fields across vast swathes of Highgate, straddling two London Boroughs – Camden and Haringay. The borderline separating the two ( formerly separating two Parishes, not Boroughs ) is marked halfway down the middle of The Gatehouse Pub, across the school gates.
As we end our walk at the Flask and unwind over a pint, Richard sums up Highgate with the words, “well, if you wanted to make money – as a doctor, lawyer, trader, civil servant….you lived in the City. if you wanted a life of notoriety and debauchery or wanted to live ‘dangerously’ chasing literary pursuits of high artistic merit, as well as mingling with free thinkers, socialists, mistresses to royalty and highway con-men…you came away to Highgate!”
Pointing to the house right in front of us, where Coleridge and JB Priestley both once lived ( not together, I add! ) Richard casually muttered, “it’s now the home of Kate Moss”. And left us in stunned silence to refill his glass at the bar.
The sighs and gasps and “click, click, flash, flash, selfie, selfie” began all over again…
MY favourite story from the afternoon?
John Betjeman, when a student at Highgate Junior School, was taught by a ceratin T S Eliot ( known as the American Headmaster ) He once plucked the courage to scribble a few lines of poetry and took it up to Eliot, who dismissed it as “terrible” and urged him not to pursue poetry anymore.
Sir John Betjeman grew up to be one of the MOST LOVED Poet Laureates of the UK from 1972 until his death.
Moral Of The Story ; Sometimes, you’ve just gotta do what your heart says!