Highgate

In which I visit a lot of graves…

I am sometimes contacted by a grateful ex-student, wanting to buy me lunch and tell me how great I am. I joke, of course but it’s quite sweet of them and do always like to hear how they’re getting on. Recently, Martin dropped me a line. He recently moved to Archway, an area of London, nestling between Highgate hill and Holloway, famous for three things: a large hospital, Dick Whittington and suicides. I suggested we meet one Sunday afternoon for walk around Highgate.

Sunday lunch in Highgate on a lovely spring morning seemed like a good idea to me. I would be able to travel down on a quiet, peaceful train, reading throughout my journey, have a walk around the lovely little village and have lunch in one of the nicest pubs in London. I was slightly dismayed, therefore, in reaching the station to find the platforms packed with an enormous number of people: families with children, chatting noisily and excitedly. Well, there goes my chance of a quiet journey. The main reason I sought work outside of the capital was that the trains had become too noisy for reading. I started work in London in the late nineties and was able to enjoy two uninterrupted reading hours every day. It was wonderful; I actually used to look forward to the journey. By the time I left my job in 2009, trains had become unpleasant, noisy places; mobile communication had advanced in twelve years and it had become extremely rare to pass a journey without having to listen an inane conversation. I overheard some extremely amusing things, of course, but nothing can replace spending a journey wrapped in a good story.

So I was a little disappointed to find the train, not just crowded, but heaving! I found myself a seat and tried to read, without much success. I gleaned from the conversations around me that the London Marathon was on that day and supportive relatives were travelling into town to cheer on foolish but well-meaning relatives. The London Marathon is an annual event, in which, people challenge themselves to run 26 miles around the streets of the capital, getting sponsorship for various charitable causes. It’s quite a high profile event, broadcast live on the BBC and raising millions of pounds for charity. Every year it attracts about 750,000 supporters to the heart of London, so how many extra trains had been laid on to cater to this demand? That’s right, dear reader, not one. On every stop on the journey, more and more people attempted to squeeze themselves into an already overloaded train. Still, the crowd was happy and good-natured and I spent a pleasant journey listening to the excited chatter of children and gazing out of the window at the scenery.

Turn again, Whittington, Lord Mayor of London

The crowds thinned out at King’s Cross, most of them heading South towards the Thames. I took the tube to Archway and walked up the hill. Highgate Hill is quite a steep climb, over 60m from Archway Station. You should get a magnificent view of London from here but, somehow, trees seem to conspire to block a view that constantly looks as if it is just about to reveal itself. There are some interesting landmarks along the way. A statue of Dick Whittington’s cat sits within a ring of protective iron railings. It was on Highgate Hill that Whittington, London’s first Lord Mayor, heard the bells calling him back to his destiny. The cat is depicted looking back over its shoulder towards the city. A little further up the hill, on the wall of Waterlow park, a plaque reads that a cottage belonging to the poet Andrew Marvell stood on the site. The remains of which, the plaque states, lie just beneath the pavement.

By now, you will be breathing hard and wondering why the heck you decided to climb the hill instead of going one further stop on the tube and getting the lift. It comes as some relief, therefore, when the road flattens out into a pleasant high street of boutiques, restaurants and artisan bakeries. Just around the corner is one of the foremost independent schools in the country. Highgate school has taught many of our great literary figures, among them Gerard Manley Hopkins and John Betjeman, who was taught here by TS. Eliot. Like most schools, it has expanded as new buildings have been added to accommodate its changing needs: there are Victorian school buildings, modern blocks and a gothic chapel, which dominates the hilltop, all in the same red brick and sandstone. If you cross the road you should find Byron Cottage. This little house was rented by the poet AE Housman and it was here that he wrote his masterpiece: A Shropshire Lad.

“I’d like a 4oz bottle of laudanum, please”
“I’m sorry sir, this is an estate agent’s”

There are some very pleasant houses around here and the area is very leafy and green. There wasn’t a lot of traffic, even for a Sunday, and air of quiet peace pervaded. I walked along back streets towards the Green and the house where Samuel Taylor Coleridge spent his last days. He had moved to Highgate to live under the supervision of his doctor, who insisted that Coleridge stop using Laudanum. On the hill you can find the shop which, a mere 200 years ago, was a pharmacist, Dunn’s of Townsend Yard, to which Sam would sometimes sneak to buy the forbidden treat. It is now an estate agent and I stopped here to look in the window and assure myself that I would never be able to afford to live around here.

Coleridge was not a very healthy person. He had been what was known as a ‘sickly’ child; a number childhood disorders had left him weak and prone to illness. He suffered from anxiety and periods of depression and had been treated for this with laudanum: really bad idea! By 1816, when he moved to Highgate, he had been addicted to opium for most of his life and had lost his wife and family during his attempts to manage his addiction. His doctor, James Gillman, took personal responsibility for his patient, and had some success at keeping the worst of his addiction under control. Coleridge moved into Gillman’s house, at 3 The Grove, at which address he was to die in 1834. The house stands in a delightfully peaceful little road just off of Highgate Green. It’s a lovely village setting, with old houses, church and pub clustered around a green. And it’s quiet. Hard to believe that this is now an inner suburb of London. It’s also worth noting that, as the plaque confirms, JB Priestley lived in the same house, possibly attracted by the building’s literary provenance.

On the opposite side of the road stands the church of St. Michael, in which Coleridge is interred. I love churches. I love the echoey silence, the musty smell and the cool, shady interiors. I particularly like the click of an ancient iron latch and the creak of a heavy oak door echoing through the building. It was now twelve o’clock on a Sunday, however, and the service was in full swing. I wasn’t sure they would appreciate a tourist bursting in and demanding to see their sacred memorials. This was far from dry and dusty; the door was glass, not oak, and didn’t creak when I pushed it. In fact, it swung open effortlessly and deposited me in the midst of the Sunday service. Rather than being scowled at, however, I was beckoned in by a very smiley woman. After muttering my apologies I stood at the back and watched. It was rather different from the church services I remember as a child, where I sat in rigid silence, listening to a sombre organ being played slightly off key.

St. Michael’s church, Highgate. Last resting place of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

There was a real sense of community here: hymns were accompanied by a guitar and children played in the aisles. The congregation was diverse and people were smiling. No one hushed the kids, even though the vicar was struggling to make his voice heard above the noise. Everyone was enjoying themselves. One little girl, about 4 or 5 years old, very politely asked me if I would mind moving as she had been planning to run around in circles and I was blocking her route. I complied with her request and even asked if I could join her for a circuit or two. It was all rather lovely: people singing, children playing and friends chatting together.

The service finished, the congregation stayed to continue their conversations. I ventured further into the aisle in order to find Coleridge’s grave. I found it easily enough. It is right in the middle of the church, marked with a grey slab. He was first laid to rest in the chapel of Highgate School. It wasn’t until the 1960’s, when the chapel crypt was in danger of flooding, that his remains were moved to their present location. On the North wall of the church is a more elaborate memorial to the poet, recording that he lived “the last nineteen years of his life in this hamlet” and listing some of his achievements. I paused to read it, and to marvel at the stained glass behind the altar (by Evie Hone) and left the church, which was still as vibrant and full of chatter as it had been when I entered it. I headed for the Flask, where I was to meet Martin.

The Flask is quite a famous pub. Apart from being Coleridge’s local, some great literary figures have had a drink here, among them Byron, Shelley and Keats. It is supposedly where Byron “swore on the horns” – a strange ceremony, in which one must foreswear bad bread and ale over a set of ram’s horns. Apparently, certain societies still carry out the ceremony to this day. I arrived at 12.30 and it was already full. I found the only remaining table, perched atop a little stool and did some writing while I waited for my companion. He is young and, therefore, always late. The pub was hugely convivial, with that warm, cosy feeling that can only be found in old pubs. There was the sound of pleasant chatter and music played at a reasonable volume. The beer was good and cool and, but for the prices, I could have been in any village in the country, rather than the heart of a sprawling city. Martin arrived and we spent a very pleasant lunchtime. I had roast beef and it was very good. The plate loaded with mounds of vegetables and Yorkshire puddings. We had several more beers and chatted into the afternoon, when we left to have a look around the nearby cemetery.

The Flask, Highgate
Grave of Douglas Adams, Highgate Cemetery

Highgate cemetery was opened to help manage the Victorian expansion of the capital, when the heaving churchyards of the city could no longer cope with the rapidly growing population. A number of cemeteries were built on the outskirts of London. As well as Highgate there’s one at Kensall Green, at Brompton and West Norwood, amongst others. There were even special train services to take deceased and mourners alike out to leafy suburbs and peaceful resting places. Highgate retains its peaceful, bucolic air and has become a place of recreation for history enthusiasts as a number of famous people have ended up here. By far the most famous is the political philosopher Karl Marx. His monument had a throng of people around it and is certainly an awe inspiring sight: a huge effigy of the great man surmounts a plinth on which is written “Workers of all lands unite; you have nothing to lose but your chains.” Nearby, the great Victorian novelist George Eliot is interred beneath a stone monolith. I also found Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia and Vanessa, the central figures of the Bloomsbury Group. I was particularly keen on seeing Douglas Adams. On his grave visitors leave cheap plastic biros as a mark of respect (he always wondered what happened to the many he lost). I had a biro in my pocket so left it for him, while uttering a quiet thanks for many hours of entertainment he had brought in my teenage years, and being one of the people who had first interested me in the written word.

We left the cemetery in search of tea, for which we walked towards West Hill through quiet streets lined with cherry trees and filled with large and expensive-looking houses. There was no traffic noise at all here, no noise of any sort in fact. It was eerily quiet. We walked down Highgate West Hill, past the house where John Betjeman had spent his childhood, and back to the bustle of London.

“At that hill’s foot did London then begin,
With yellow horse-drawn trams clopping past the planes.”
John Betjeman, Highgate

NB. Some of the buildings I have written about are private property. Please respect the owners’ privacy and admire them from a distance.

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