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Review: Authentic London Walks: Highgate

Escorted Tour - Walking

Highgate, London, United Kingdom

Where Dick Whittington turned and writers lived

  • By SilverTraveller JohnP

    221 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon Ribbon

  • January 2015
  • Wife

13 people found this review helpful

Only the ice on the puddles kept the football pitch playable: that was my first visit to Highgate for a school match over 60 years ago.

This one threatened to be as bad as winter struck after the wettest warmest December in three decades. We had to face the drive from Suffolk, but fortunately one of those ideal winter days dawned: clear sky and too dry for ice to form.

A couple of hours found us parked just outside Kenwood, hoping to visit later that day. Hampstead Lane took us past the former home of Mary Kingsley, then perhaps a mile off we found Highgate Green but no sign of the tube station. A helpful dog walker explained it was still further on. We followed him and then his instructions, locating the exit and one of the station entrances before having a snack lunch in the lively atmosphere of Jackson Street theatre cafe. Children’s dance classes were in progress and a mime performance was due later in the day. It would be good to spend more time there another day.

We found our entrance and some other walkers then our guide found us. Back to the busy road, across and into the peace of the village, like many to be found between the arteries of London traffic. The first target was one of many places where Charles Dickens had lived, in this case briefly but enough for a plaque on the wall. It was a road of mixed period buildings including the first council flats, no doubt private now and demanding four-figure rents each month.

A few minutes later we stood outside Highgate School, of chilly childhood memory, listening to tales of non-footballing old boys. Gerard Manley Hopkins was one, John Betjeman another, taught there by T.S. Eliot no less. The outcome was a totally different kind of conservatism, in verse and architectural enthusiam. Across the road A. E. Housman had lived; Highgate as Parnassus it appeared.

Was it down-market, as we passed through the Grove, home to filmstars and supermodels? Not for long: another row of eighteenth century houses behind what may have been a grass verge, now gravelled for cars even though parking bays lined the opposite side of the narrow road, and in one of them Coleridge had lived with the doctor who had hoped to cure his opium addiction, to be followed in the twentieth century by J. B. Priestley, whose “Time and the Conways” might have given audiences another sense of otherworldliness.

We crossed, with time for a glance at one of the older public houses, where Hogarth had once drunk and perhaps developed the ideas for his satirical “Gin Lane”: he did join a committee for weaning the poor off gin to the more wholesome beer of his day.

Around the corner the Highgate ponds had once been, almost as disastrous as gin for the poor who bathed in them or drank from them. Fortunately filled in and hard surfaced the area is now open for gentle exercise. Looking down on it we could imagine the gentlemen (probably no female members) of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute and next door the Highgate Society, certainly mixed gender, that had once had Yehudi Menuhin to lead it against London urbanisation.

Downhill – remembering that Eliot had called it one of “the gloomy hills of London” – we found Highgate Cemetery on both sides of the lane. The gloomy part had fallen into disrepair and perhaps disrepute before another Highgate society had been formed to – if the term isn’t inappropriate – regenerate it. There are still ghost walks, and Audrey Niffenegger, a Highgate resident, has been a guide. One of her novels was the result.

Across the lane is the more celebrated part, with Karl Marx illustrated at the entrance but not visible without the £4 entrance fee we hadn’t time to use. Lizzie Siddall, muse of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, lies there too, subject of the grisly story that Rosetti buried some love poems with her then decided they were worth publishing and had the grave opened to retrieve them.

Perhaps fresh air was the metaphorical need, as the Victorian Lord Mayor Waterlow proposed in reality for the local poor, opening the park now named after him. Any who had made their way up from the Smoke could have enjoyed the view back across it, as we did in the setting sun, but of course for them it would have been presided over by St Paul’s or Big Ben, not the Shard and the Millennium Wheel. No need to ask what Yehudi Menuhin would have thought, or for that matter Betjeman.

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Other Members' Thoughts - 2 Comment(s)

  • JustRetiring
    over 3 years ago
    Thanks for a beautifully written article, John. You've piqued my interest in digging deeper into this history-laden area of London. We skirted it when walking "hidden green London" from Wembley Stadium in the west to the new Olympic Stadium in the east a couple of years ago, but you've made me want to explore it more.
  • discerning-traveller
    over 3 years ago
    How interesting! Wish that I'd made the time when I lived in the area.Must make a visit!