Gospel Oak & Highgate

We can carry on for years and years doing exactly the same thing- and one day, for no apparent reason, something snaps. I will be leaving North London later this month after 10 years here, the past six in the same place. This is in large part down to a rental market that has gone quite mad, and the growing suspicion that I might be on borrowed time, but I voluntarily chose to leave when I could have stayed put for a few more years. You can spend an eternity perfectly happy with your lot, then one day wake up and realise that it’s time for a change. Suffice to say that during my remaining days in this area I’ll try to get out for a couple of tours in the company of Nairn, and -if today is anything to go by- realising that there’s some good stuff I’ve been taking for granted.

A short hop on the Overground to Gospel Oak takes us from identikit North London to the salubrious borders of the Heath. On one side of Mansfield Rd, Victorian housing with crisp, newly-painted white trim and the cutesy retro effect of street signs being painted onto the wall. On the other side, strange modernist council housing which runs into A Clockwork Orange stuff.

Turning onto Southampton Rd brings us to the surprisingly cathedral-sized St Dominic’s Priory, whose brick exterior is clean and fairly minimal. For Nairn it “says little except that the building is very big and honest”, I find it very pleasing.

There’s a school to one side and housing round a private garden on the other; I couldn’t tell if it has been sold off or is still home to Dominican friars.

The church happens to be open, and it is a revelation. The photos make it look more austere and chilly than it felt in the flesh, perhaps because the organist was playing. I loved it and had it been the main cathedral of a city in Flanders or the Veneto I would have considered it a highlight.

It’s crazy that I daydream my days away wondering if it’s worth £200 and two days’ travelling to see Chartres or Aix-la-Chapelle, when the whole time this was a few minutes away, is free to enter and receives practically no visitors (two people came in during my visit).

There’s something satisfying about a Gothic arch, perhaps because it’s pointing in the direction of heaven. An RC church in England will obviously be Victorian but this one could conceivably pass for the older style it refers to, by virtue of keeping it simple with the classic ‘ship’s hulk’ wooden nave, plenty of brick left bare, and eight uniform chapels on each side. Above them an iron walkway, “just like the gallery of a reading room”.

Nairn calls it “magnificent: a real working-class cathedral, free from all the petty quibbles that beset C19th architects. Purpose came before style here… the most impressive evidence of its personality is the way that the C19th fittings are part of it”. How it is definably working-class I’m not sure, but it lacks ostentation. Its language is medieval, not baroque. For Nairn, a “transfigured meeting place”- and it feels like a church built by worldly Flemish merchants, rather than a lavish counter-reformation tool for Papal totalitarianism.

You pass interesting, not-the-usual statues as you promenade past the cycle of chapels.

The stained glass is excellent, even the floor tiles and wallpaper delight. Marble steps to the altar, behind which “the prickly reredos augments the aspe instead of spoiling it”.

I’ve been slowly getting through Kenneth Clark’s Civilization in recent weeks. Last episode was Roman baroque, and he wrestled with the way in which the counter-reformation is the antithesis of English liberty and we are taught to recoil from it (nowhere more than in Ulster, of course); but that the best of Catholicism is so popular, and so evidently meets a human need for form, ritual and mystery, that it can’t be altogether bad.

Round the corner after St Dominics, we turn back into the estate around Lismore Circus; housing blocks going for an queer wood cabin effect, and a cousin to Hide Tower.

Our quarry is another church, St Martins, whose bell tower is regrettably under scaffolding for now. Its exterior Nairn merely describes as “mildly odd”. To me it’s one of those Mensa block puzzles someone has taken apart and can’t fit back together, as I walk its perimeter I can’t quite get my head around the shape or the different levels.

Across the road, the church hall is plain brick but has a jolly, arts-and-crafts medieval facade glued to its front. What was convincing in St Dominics looks like something for a Robin Hood theme park here. In both, the effect is somewhat spoilt by the depressing need for barred window grilles.

The foyer to St Martins is open but the main church is locked up, so I must make do with pushing my camera against the strips of glass in the door.

It looks very fine; “luminous and happy, not in the least strained”. Old stone with wood and just a little pink marble. The main body of the nave is square-shaped rather than long and narrow, I imagine the effect is inclusive as opposed to didactic. Nonetheless, the gilded luxury and unapologetic, Cesare Borgia power grabs of Catholicism are deeply seductive when contrasted to the mealy hand-wringing of the Church of England’s recent additions.

What Nairn seems to like best about the church is the “crazy timber roof capering all over the crossing and coming down onto four free-standing clustered piers like elephant paws… a benevolent circus performer that has got out of hand but won’t savage the trainer”. The bits I could see were certainly complex pieces of craftsmanship.

On the way back to the station is some Nairn-approved social housing built in 1954, currently calling itself Barrington Court. It’s one high rise with three short rows of bungalows beneath.

The high-rise hasn’t been left to fester and go cancerous like some of the ones I saw in Poplar; people seem to take pride in it and keep it a nice place. Nairn notes that the architects are best known for Pimlico’s Churchill Gardens, which I’m sorry I didn’t see the other week, but “for all its virtues that is not a real place, whereas this much smaller group is”.

The rows of two-storey housing sit under the high-rise “as if huddling for protection”. They’re nothing extraordinary, but generous enough to give residents both a front garden and a back garden shielded by a high wall, the virtues of deepest suburbia brought to inner North London.

On the other side of the station is the entrance to Hampstead Heath; the flats perk up immediately and there are extraordinary anachronisms like a toymaker’s workshop (with a note on the door reading “Ring the bell, I may be working”).

Lissenden Gardens runs off from here. Someone who lives here (and whose trademark costume is indeed hanging up on one of the balconies) once told me they lived “on an estate, but it’s quite a nice one.” They dissemble, these are marvellous mansions with private tennis courts in the middle that would fit in round Sloane Square.

Nairn has sent me up here for the only available view of a fifties block belonging to Parliament Hill School. “Real personality… the basic force of the design will never be dissipated.” I haven’t the foggiest what he’s talking about.

Walk around the outside of the school, and extensions to the adjoining William Ellis seem more like it.

Highgate Road leads to another Heath entrance. Balding rich men play tennis on one side of the road; on the other, wrinkly rich men smoke fat cigars on café terraces.

We turn down Swains Lane, with its florists and tea rooms very slowly being displaced by chain restaurants and small branches of the supermarket giants. After the parade of shops come rows of spaced-out houses on aggressively signposted private roads. Most of it is cute, Lutyensish stuff, but when they’re warning the peasants to keep well away from their beautiful mock tudor homes the only conceivable response is laughter.

Hiding behind trees and backs to the road is a cluster of odd monastic-looking buildings. I’ve walked down this street many times and never has it occurred to me to investigate further, so those Private Property signs clearly do a good job. The houses are Holly Village, and in sending me here Nairn more than atones for that school building.

They don’t build ’em like this anymore. The contrast between the idyllic garden cottages and the pointy, witchy Turn of the Screw turrets is uncanny; more so is the contrast between this hermetic little world and the London sitting outside. Stepping through the archway feels like the moment when a G.K. Chesterton novel departs from normality. It’s a remarkable, insular little world; a folly, but a bloody good one.

Nairn’s delight is evident: “An endearing group of hedgehogs built with childlike bravado… the cottages in their preposterous angularity must be like having outsize toy animals around the playground.” He approvingly notes children enjoying the traffic-free space of the shared lawn. In 2014, such innocence is in scant supply. I find myself thinking that I’m not allowed in here, but as the only living creature I pass is a haughty grey cat it goes unchallenged. The owners are probably in Capri or Barbados or working 6am to midnight in the City, and surely it’s better if I get some enjoyment from the place than if it goes unseen by a soul. Nairn suggests that “a whole suburb could be built up of units like this”, I shan’t hold my breath.

As Swains Rd swerves uphill, we come upon the entrance to Highgate Cemetery, whose own decorative flourishes take me back to Sintra. I’ve never gone in, because of the charges (they say it costs £1000 a day to keep going) and because we always had Abney Park Cemetery for free. These days the Eastern half is £4, and the Western half is £16 to join a guided tour which is fully booked today. I suppose I can stretch to £4.

My first impressions are that it is scrupulously stage-managed. They’ve gone for the wild, overgrown look in parts but this is very different from a cemetery actually allowed to go wild and overgrown, such as Abney or Nunhead. The ivy is trimmed meticulously but allowed to trail over graves, giving just a suggestion of wilderness- like the “messy look” hair gel football stars and boy bands use to groom themselves. The headstones are allowed to tilt by up to 15°, to give a fleeting recollection of the Thriller video, but no more than this and certainly none toppled or sunken.

Cemeteries and funerals are not really for the dead, they’re for those of us left behind. When you’re submerged in grief and on the brink of falling apart, a straightforward task to be got through is something to hold onto and makes you feel like you’re marking this devastating event. We’re back at St Dominics, it’s the human need for ritual.

Walking around this place, I was struck by the compartmentalisation of it all. There seemed to be a Polish quarter, a Chinese quarter, an Italian quarter. The most prominent celebrities are placed on the wide boulevards down the middle, others are off in the periphery; like an overly literal rendering of Dante. Even in death, the poor sods don’t escape being judged by wealth and status. Does your gravestone keep up with the Joneses?

The more you take in, the smaller each individual loss seems. Fix your eye on one grave and you will think of that person’s death and all the lives that were affected by their death. Stroll around, casting your eye over more graves than can be counted, and death feels humdrum, insignificant, the dead become a mass. You become immune to it. I suspect that this is how the massacres that are forever in the news happen -and conversely, how people manage not to lose their minds during great plagues- the mind switches off and stops seeing people as individuals.

Pere Lachaise has its Oscar Wilde, and Highgate has its too. I’m not a disciple, people who think their big idea will make the world a better place invariably seem to leave it in a much worse state than it already was. Dead reds of every stripe gather at their master’s feet. An African bloke I work with is saving up for a grave in the Garden of Gethsemane. He reckons that when Jesus returns, he’ll be among the first people to see Him. Me, I quite fancy Millwall for the playoffs this season.

People are still buried here all the time, and prominent people at that; theatre folk, literary folk, politicians. Amongst the ten-a-penny crosses and Victorian angels some interesting designs get aired; expressions of grief according to taste, abstract or sentimental.

The artsier graves can be a bit like looking at book jackets of the past 70 years. You find yourself wondering about the non-famous lives which may well be far more interesting than the celebrities’.

There’s a fair bit of humour too; witness Malcolm McLaren’s Bugs Bunny-plus-death mask ostentation, although I’ll forgive him anything for the line “everything I know about situationism, I learnt at Stoke Newington Library” (I’m pleased to see one of my favourite actors, Ralph Richardson, has opted for a modest & discreet marker).

Nairn finds it “the creepiest place in London; no Dickensian stretch of the river can match this exercise in stucco horror.” Like me he seems to prefer the middle sections, where the vegetation is taking over, to the posh boulevards; “…choked in winter by dead fronds with an unnerving resemblance to Spanish moss. The landscape looks less and less like London, more and more like Louisiana” (certainly the Louisiana of True Detective).

I wonder if it was allowed to run a bit wilder in the 1960s, and I’m guessing they had access to both halves of the cemetery as some of the features he notes are nowhere to be seen (“with a shock like a bloodcurdling scream, the Egyptian entrance shows up. Beyond it, the catacombs, a sunken rotunda gently delinquescent, falling away”). If the Western half is better, I can see why they want to keep it exclusive as some visitors to my half were literally ticking off the famous graves on their map.

Continuing uphill past the cemetery, we pass some odd houses by show-off architects as we get close to Highgate village.

I come to the village fairly often and find it a refreshing change of scene. I could never afford to live here but it is the most genteel area within a short walk of my flat.

Nairn calls the village “potentially a wonderful place… and in a cheerful London way, too, with Georgian politesse and Victorian rudeness side by side”, without pointing to any specific examples.

The area has fabulous old buildings galore, but it knows it and can feel slightly smug. Even their Wetherspoons has a theatre upstairs.

As I stroll around looking for good perspectives to photograph, I find it hard to enjoy the village because the streets are thick with saloons and sports cars zooming to and fro, making a tremendous din. Nairn too notes that the village’s attractions are “ruined by traffic”.

Even the centrepiece Pond Square is being used more as a car park than as a place for people to spend time in; it is as if Marinetti got his wish of filling in the Grand Canal and making a car park of Piazza San Marco. The ponds are long gone and Nairn wearily condemns the “municipal improvements at their worst… asphalt and crazy walling. The place could be transformed without altering anything but the surface of the floor.”

Peer through some of the Victorian gates on South Grove and you’ll find more show-off modernist houses, carefully hidden away from the Georgiana on the main thoroughfare.

The Angel Inn on the high street has a plaque boasting that it was Graham Chapman’s local. You can see that decades ago, it probably had what Stoke Newington still had a bit of when I first moved to London, and which the boutiques selling designer clothes for babies have almost entirely snuffed out; a sort of independent radical spirit, today reduced to the odd Palestinian flag in the window. People who charge £8.50 for a cheese and tomato bagel and try to sexualise a plate of chips are surely a fifth horseman of the apocalypse.

With all the C18th buildings, you can sense that this hilltop existed as a retreat and a station post outside London before the railways. The Whittington legend has given its name to a hospital and several pubs; to our traffic-addled minds, the idea that anyone could hear the Bow Bells from up here is as fanciful as being able to see the Eiffel Tower from Glasgow. Only when London has had a heavy snowfall do we catch a glimpse of how quiet the city could be without its million cars, buses, etc.

Exiting Highgate down that steep hill one passes the Catholic St Joseph’s, a vast enough complex to look more like a ducal palace transported from Urbino than a church. At the bottom of the hill, Archway station sits under a glowering black monolith, marking the beginning of Holloway Road and your having been cast back down amongst the poor people.


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