Artists, poets, authors and other famous people have long been attracted to live in Highgate, one of north London’s hilltop villages. The City and other parts of central London are easily reachable, yet – thanks to the fact that it borders onto Hampstead Heath and other open spaces – actually means that it feels quite rural in parts.For as long as I’ve lived in London, I’ve enjoyed pleasant evenings visiting Highgate’s numerous, excellent pubs. In a city where bars are often part of chains and look identical to one another, here there are some great independent offerings. For example the Flask, which is just a short walk from the centre of the village, has existed since the 17th century (although was re-built some hundred years later) and tempting ales are served in cosy panelled rooms. And it’s said the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin hid out here.
The Flask was also where a drinking initiation ceremony called ‘Swearing on the Horns’ originated. It entailed the pub landlord producing a pair of stag’s horns fixed to a pole in front of a visitor. Once the traveller recited an oath they were granted the freedom of Highgate. The tradition then spread to other pubs in the village (it is, for example, explained on a plaque outside the Wrestlers).
Some complain that there are too many estate agents and the fact that the chain coffee shops have opened up (Costa and Nero are both here), but I don’t think the place has completely lost its charm. Independent outlets, such as delis, cake shops and bookstores still trade in 17th and 18th century buildings on the busy High Street. And some chains are in fact leaving – pub group Wetherspoons ran the Gatehouse (where fringe theatre is performed upstairs) for a number of years, but the venue has recently moved into private hands.
Highgate has never been more popular with celebrities. TV chef Jamie Oliver recently bought a house (currently covered by scaffolding) on The Grove – a well-preserved 17th century terrace who past residents include the 19th century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His new neighbours are the likes of Kate Moss and Jude Law.
And at the end of this tree-lined avenue is Witanhurst, built in 1913 for the soap magnate Sir Arthur Crosfield and is now regarded the second biggest house in London after Buckingham Palace. It was sold in 2008, but for seven years, during which extensive building work taking place (it continues today), the new owner remained a mystery as the property was registered to an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands. But then, following an extensive investigation by British writer Ed Caesar for the New Yorker in 2015, it is now known that the purchaser was Andrei Guriev, a Russian billionaire who made his fortune out of phosphate mining and fertilisers.
Guriev is extending the 25-bedroom property, which also was built with a ballroom and four tennis courts, to provide extensive underground accommodation for staff and car parking spaces, as well as a swimming pool and cinema. While some repair work was clearly needed as it had not been lived in since the 1970s, Highgate locals worry about the plans. Michael Hammerson, a local councillor told a British newspaper in 2011: “We don’t want limos with smoked windows and men in dark glasses with bulging breast pockets, and the place surrounded by CCTV. That’s not Highgate.”
But if you are coming to visit Highgate by Tube, don’t expect to jump out at Highgate station and expect to be in the centre of the village. When they built the railway in the 19th century, it was deemed too much of a challenge, given the height, to bring the line into the oldest part of Highgate, so the platforms were built a good 10 minutes walk from what locals call the ‘village’. Other the years the area has been extensively developed and every inch of lands between these two parts of Highgate has been built on.
The High Gate
Some historians believe the name Highgate relates to a 13th century gate to Hornsey Park which occupied a lofty position. While the structure may have disappeared a long time ago, the reference was cemented in the name for the neighbourhood. The land adjoined the Bishop of London’s hunting estate and he operated a toll-house (commemorated by the aforementioned Gatehouse pub, which dates from the 1670s) where one of the roads out of London passed through his land.
While travellers (particularly drovers taking cattle to Smithfield Market) have passed through this area, it wasn’t really developed till Tudor times. Aristocrats who wanted to escape the polluted City streets established mansions here with names such as Ardunel, Cromwell, Fitzroy and Lauderale, but sadly none of these properties are still standing. The aforementioned The Grove – which became Highgate’s most elegant street – was built on the site of 16th century Dorchester House.
Highgate School has a long history in the area in that it dates back to the 1570s when it was established to serve 40 poor boys, but by the 19th century was regarded as one of the country’s top public schools. Many of the attractive red-brick buildings that can still be seen today – including the recently-restored school chapel – date from when the Rev. John Bradley Dyne was head master (1838-1874). It is today a co-educational independent school that is highly regarded and caters for only the wealthiest of pupils.But development did not initially occur at any particular speed in Highgate and even in 1793 there were still only 200 houses recorded. In the 19th century – thanks to improved transport connections (the railway arrived in 1867) – the pace of building new homes picked up, creating the suburban streets of villas you see today.
The social hub of Highgate formed between the High Street and Pond Square. Perhaps most notable was the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution which was set up in 1839 “for the promotion of useful and scientific knowledge” and remarkably still operates a busy programme of activities and has a library that members can use. Next door is the Highgate Society, which campaigns to ensure that the unique character of the area is preserved. And also here is St Michael’s Church, which contains the tomb of the already mentioned Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
It’s not possible to describe a trip to Highgate without at least mentioning Highgate Cemetery. For some visitors, this is the only reason they come to the area. Opened in 1839 as one of seven new cemeteries (the ‘Magnificent Seven’), those buried in amongst the 50,000 graves here include the author George Eliot, scientist Michael Faraday, bookseller William Foyle and, of course, Karl Marx. The architecture is fantastic – at times you feel like you’ve been transported to ancient Egypt or Greece – but some of the tombs are quite hard to find in amongst the wilds of the site, so it’s well worth joining one of the regular tours run by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery Society.
Although it might not really feel like it in parts, Highgate continued to be developed in the 20th century. Highpoint, which was commissioned by Sigmund Gestetner as housing for workers of his office equipment firm and designed by Georgian-born Berthold Lubetkin, is regarded as an important modernist statement. Recently re-painted white, Swiss architect Le Corbusier described in Architectural Review in 1936 the development as “an achievement of the first rank, and a milestone that will be useful to everybody”. The 56 flats built over seven-storeys were carefully designed so that living rooms benefitted from sunlight during the day.
When Gestetner saw the completed building, he chose not to house his workers in it and sold the flats instead. And he commissioned Lubetkin to build Highpoint 2 next door to stop anyone else developing the land and the architect himself lived in the penthouse till 1955. The gardens here include a swimming pool and two tennis courts. Historian Dan Cruickshank chose Highpoint as one of eight buildings in his 2002 book, The Story of Britain’s Best Buildings, demonstrating how special it is.
Fast-forward to the present and I think Highgate still has plenty to offer today’s visitors – whether or not you recognise the names of bygone stars listed on the numerous Blue Plaques that are dotted around the wider village. After an airy walk on the Heath, there is little better than collapsing in one of the many coffee shops or pubs and enjoying a well-earned rest.