Singer’s Hampstead Roam

Regular readers will have noticed that this blog is drifting very far from its original course of visiting everything in Nairn’s London. This is partly because it feels hard to write about different areas of London without saying the same thing. This was a traditionally affluent area that in recent years has become solely occupied by oligarchs and sheikhs. This was a traditionally impoverished area that in recent years has become solely occupied by middle-class families with good jobs. This was a traditionally bohemian area that is now all Foxtons and £5 croissants.

Nevertheless, here is an attempt to drag myself back on course by taking a constitutional in the company of Mr. Nairn. Hampstead is a ludicrously expensive place. This is more a hangover from the sixties than accurate, up-to-date reportage, but ‘Hampstead’ is a byword for tweedy, middle-class liberal left intellectualism. People think of Hampstead Heath and its ponds as a cruising venue for Uncle Monty types. It’s rich but it’s improbably Labour; Glenda Jackson was the MP until very recently and they even held the seat in this year’s catastrophe. Their foes use the phrase “North London dinner parties” as a code-word for all sorts of perceived cloak and dagger plotting. This reputation may derive from North London having lots of Jews who, according to popular stereotype, maintain a ‘citizen of the world’ outlook (because they can never be sure when sneering neighbours are going to turn on them?). It may be more like Paris than the rest of England, in turn Paris is probably closer to London than the rest of France.

The itinerary starts where the ‘Gospel Oak & Highgate’ blog post left off; I take the tube to Archway, so near to and yet so far from Hampstead, and briefly contemplate the many lanes and loops of traffic around the end of Holloway Road. In terms of pedestrian unfriendliness, with the exception of Aldgate I can’t think of a worse place. My route takes me down the side streets of Archway Road -those nice ones that all seem to be named after minor Shakespearean characters- which are less of an eyesore, and have whimsical little touches like turrets and towers on the end of terraces. The houses get a little grander as I continue uphill, until the summit sees houses with swirly gables on the top floor, and a solicitors’ office that has improbably kitted itself out as a Greek taverna.

Nairn has sent me to Hornsey Lane, and what he calls ‘The Archway’ but what I have always known as Suicide Bridge. Having walked up Highgate Hill and Archway Road many a time, it has never occurred to me to make it up here. The original bridge was placed here by John Nash but has not survived, so “the main-road traveller does not get much fun”. Viewed from up close, it’s a nice piece of Victorian ironwork. They’ve done their best to put people off jumping as the balustrade comes to around shoulder height and is topped with spikes. Not that I would be tempted myself; when things have been bad I’ve reminded myself that we have our threescore and ten, and either side of these are billions of years in which you don’t exist. Death isn’t going to go anywhere, so no need to rush.

The view’s the thing, though. “An apparently ordinary suburban road crosses a small, apparently ordinary bridge. But instead of rail tracks there is a leafy chasm with heavy lorries roaring along at the bottom, plus a view over the whole of Central London… St Paul’s smack on the axis of Archway Road, and this is the most surprising and exhilarating distant view of it”. Sadly no longer so. Primrose Hill is far enough off-centre to still see Wren’s dome, but from here it has been lost amongst all the glass and steel. It is depressing to note that there are as many cranes for skyscrapers yet to come as there are skyscrapers. London looks like a piece of CGI from an action movie. Boris Johnson might puff his chest out at this sight, I feel like a citizen of a defeated country living under occupation.

In the foreground of the view, jungles of greenery still tower over Archway Road’s six asphalt lanes of heavy goods vehicles. It’s quite J.G. Ballard. From the top of the bridge nipping across to Highgate Hill is much quicker, and I spot something I’d somehow managed to never notice before. Who knew that To His Coy Mistress was written by the MP for Hull?

From here a cut through Highgate Village, already covered by the first blog piece. The constant traffic really does render the pretty streets impossible to photograph. From here, if I feel like continuing my walk I would usually follow Hampstead Lane to the Kenwood House end of the Heath, but Nairn directs me up North Road instead, which starts with Highgate School’s Harrovian pastiche and actually has some very nice houses from the C17th and C18th.

Soon we come to Highpoint, Lubetkin’s 1930s flats from the days when high-rise living was revolutionary, and not a byword for squalor. I have never been but I have heard of these before; they are revered by the same people who revere the Barbican. There are two blocks of flats, largely hidden from the road by trees. As I try to take them in I prefer one to the other, and it turns out to be the one that Nairn dismisses. Highpoint 2 “now seems just a trial run for the confused pattern-making that ended up in the Festival Hall”. I like the grey bricks and, on this clean and streamlined design, admire the audacity of using two Grecian caryatids to prop up the porch that juts out at an odd angle.

Highpoint 1 is white, a bit grubby and has some scaffolding around it which may disadvantage. For Nairn it “can still provide, a little diminished, the thrill of the thirties, where its contemporaries now provide nothing at all. This is what it was like to build fresh and new and fight the forces of reaction”- in the sixties it swarms with TV aerials “but the building can take it”. Online photos of the inside of the flats show what look like dream homes. We’re probably looking at the pure original that inspired a million debased imitators.

North Hill continues for some time with nice art deco flats, old houses and a remarkable concentration of pubs, which must say something about the demographics of the area. Even I don’t go to pubs as much nowadays, when the drinks are five times what they cost from an offie or supermarket, but I suspect that’s no barrier around here.

Eventually this road from Highgate is reunited with Archway Road at a service station and we turn left onto a dual carriageway lined with Halal pizza joints and dry cleaners, where “the pattern of North London finally disintegrates” and I am supposed to look for Mansfield Heights. There are mansion flats to my right, dilapidated art deco flats to my left, and as the only pedestrian for miles around I feel like Alan Partridge.

When I locate Mansfield Heights, apparently half a dozen modest semis posed at a slight angle, as if they were at the end of a curved cul-de-sac, I wonder why on earth Nairn has included them. They look like houses from the suburban edges of any town in the UK you could care to name. The housing is for police families and in Nairn’s opinion, the sloping patch of land they are built on “has been treated like a person, a living partner in the architectural process”. Tucked between two houses is a narrow pathway, and this is where it gets interesting. After a row of sheds the path opens into a self-contained little world altogether separate from what is outside. There is a three-storey block of flats, each set of flats joined to the next but cutting in on the left, and beside them a lawn sloping downhill, with steps. The summit and climax of the piece is a six-storey block of flats. The lawn is scattered with children’s toys and a communal laundry hanger. It’s a fascinating find but I don’t linger as it feels very uncomfortable being here, as if I had broken into a stranger’s home and was rifling through their laundry basket. It does make you wonder how the hell Nairn found all this stuff. How many blind alleys must he have wandered down?

Returning to the main road is as much of a shock as re-entering the real world through the Narnia wardrobe. On this dismal traffic highway the houses look so pompous after Mansfield Heights; the first house has ionic columns, and I laugh out loud. This road continues for a punishingly long time, and I am hapless when a German man asks me where the tube station is (“Which station?” “Well, the Jubilee line, of course”) until I spot the synagogue and realise I can sneak into Hampstead Garden Suburb via the back door. After my Harrow experience I half-expect to be pushed to the ground and feel a gun in my back for looking at the synagogue, but I pass unseen.

Hampstead Garden Suburb, brought to you by the makers of Letchworth Garden City, is a weird place. I feel like I have been shrunken and injected, a la Fantastic Voyage, into the bloodstream of Ed Miliband. The principle, I think, was that the housing should be low-density and the people have space. The result is sprawl, and it’s not for me; it could be one of those American towns whose layout the car industry was allowed to plan. I’ve been in city centres that were half the size of this. The district is one enormous ball bearing puzzle and it takes a huge chunk of my afternoon to cut through it. The Edwardian houses are all of a uniform height, but the template is tweaked so that each one’s design is unique, just like everyone else’s. Each is good when taken individually, but as a mass? To the state according to his abilities, from the state his own rose bush and hedgerow. Nairn is equally sceptical of “insufferably cosy details allied to a central blankness of imagination”.

As you get deeper into the area, the styles of housing get more varied and interesting. Whitewashed houses with walls and windows curving in towards the front door look like they belong on the Portuguese coast. Some at the centre look like eccentric send-ups of Beverley Hills homes. But it’s missing anything other than housing. No shops or libraries, no pubs or cafés, no marketplace, no life. There would be nothing here to do except drink, sleep and watch TV. It’s sinister. I can’t find my bearings at all, and only manage to locate the centre by eventually wandering off the edge, onto the long grasses of Hampstead Heath Extension, which feels like the Alan Partridge scene where he escapes from The Mentalist by running into a field; from there I can make out the strange and exotic spire of St Jude’s.

Back in via gingerbread houses with pointy roofs, I locate the heart of the suburb; my blood freezes when I realise it is actually called Central Square. This vast piazza has only five or six people sitting down or crossing it on a hot afternoon. As well as more lawns and rose bushes it contains a large school with a tiny clock tower, an Anglican church (pointy steeple), a Baptist church (round dome), a few tennis courts. All the buildings are in matching grey brick with orange brick trim on their corners. And that’s yer lot. They sure know how to party round here. Reading the Wikipedia entry later, I am amazed at the number of very famous actors, pop singers and TV stars who choose to live in what seems to me one great arid gulag with rose bushes.

The only thing going for this area is that Lutyens steeple on St Jude’s, mesmerising and magnetic in its weirdness. Nairn thinks so too, despite having no time for what is below. “Unbearably giggly- ‘Look at me, I’m mixing Gothic and Classical, look at me, look at me’. You want to give Sir Edwin’s precocious bottom a good clout”. The steeple is otherwordly in a magical way where everything around it is otherworldly in a sterile, suffocating way. It could be the headgear of some Burgundian princess. “But what about the frippery of the rest?”, asks Nairn. “Was it a necessary fetish, like high-heeled boots?”

Reflecting on the dental floss-thin line between utopia and dystopia, I follow the jinks and kinks of Hampstead Way in the hope that I can get out of this hell as quickly as possible. When I come out to the activity of Finchley Road (an M&S food hall! buses headed to Victoria!), I feel like I have been transported, with the blink of an eye, from Siberian swampland to West 42nd St. The suburb’s kiss-off is the matching pair of high street shop units either side of Hampstead Way’s end, for Nairn “a masterpiece… with all the conviction and solidity that the twee private houses lack… brilliant asymmetrical compositions, one of the finest pieces of design in the whole of London”. They’ve got bulk and dimension; the archway matches the window and I like the small flight of steps leading to a central porch. It reminds me of some Italian ducal palace/fortress.

It’s another long walk through Zone 2 blandness from here to Golders Green, and up again into the Heath. Around Golders Green, for a brief moment it is poorer and more diverse, and an old art deco cinema is now the ‘El-Shaddai International Christian Centre’ but it feels like I’m London again and it comes as a relief.

This pocket of urbanity doesn’t last long. North Heath Road is a steep climb to the digits of the gargantuan paw-print that is Hampstead Heath. There are lots of posh girls rushing out of day-care centres to greet their waiting chihuahuas, and to buy ice creams. There’s a blue plaque for Evelyn Waugh, the street signs take on the classic white-on-black ceramic look of the NW3 postcode, and the housing gets all “rustic cottage” again.

At Jack Straw’s Castle I make a 330-degree turn and head north again up Spaniard’s Way. It’s a bit joyless with the heavy traffic, but the road is a ridge above the ravine of the heath’s edges and I am certain I will get lost if I turn off the road.

Near the famous pub, Nairn instructs me to head down “a gravelly lane, hard to pick up, called Spaniard’s Lane”. This is marked as private property that is under constant surveillance by a security firm. In my experience, the only people you will meet down these streets on a weekday afternoon are the workmen digging underground cinemas and swimming pools, so I chance it. The lane begins with demurely classical homes, all with names like Casa Maria or The White House, then plunges down a steep hill. I can’t identify Hillbrow (“one of the best recent houses in London… Vanbrugh would have been proud of this”) but by far the most striking house I can see looks as if it was built some time after Nairn’s London was written.

Back onto the road and into the C16th Spaniards Inn for a well-earned cold pint. Nairn: “Hampstead pubs are usually not much fun: they are like a private society whose performance is not worth the entrance fee – the intellectual equivalent of the Soho strip-tease club. But the Spaniards gets a solid butt from its cockney visitors… more like a German beer-garden than anywhere else I know in London”. Because it’s nice out I eschew the low-ceilinged old timber rooms and sit in the garden, and maybe it’s the nice weather or the proximity of the weekend, but the atmosphere is very convivial- I am almost minded to break into ‘Tomorrow Belongs To Me’. And, to my great surprise, a lot of the contingent is cockney; this must be where you repair to after a hard day’s putting up scaffolding on a banker’s Georgian home. Beside me, a man with two alsatians is joined by a protegé, who scoffs that he ought to be drinking champagne in Mayfair. “If you were blindfolded, you could not tell the difference between this and champagne. Watch you don’t become a Flash Harry; that’s what we call a fucking idiot who has far too much money.” “I would say that is exactly what I want to become”.

The road directly beside the Spaniards narrows to a single-lane because of the obtrusive presence of an old tollbooth hut, which gets a mention in Nairn as a “splendid obstruction. It reduces a busy London cross-route to single-car width at a blind bend… far from being wished away in the name of progress, local opinion wants to keep it”. As in 1966, so today; one end or the other will be cultivating a long tailback of motorists, and when the ascendancy is in the balance there are many shouts of “You WANKHA!” from topless men in convertibles.

From here, Nairn gives you the option of continuing to Kenwood House or heading south and down Heath Street into Hampstead proper; I opt for the latter. Heath St is a narrow twisty road, and you do get the sense that before London burst out of the City this was an old hilltop town. Today, if you come here for enjoyment your quest is rendered a bit ridiculous by the sheer volume of cars. North London and Nairn are like cat and dog, and sixties Hampstead is clearly North London at its most manifest: “Hampstead is a bit of a joke, though many of its inhabitants are deadly serious about it”. As “the maze of alleyways and passages is still there, behind the heavy traffic on Heath St”, I investigate and find Heath Street looks better with a bird’s eye view. I also come across Daphne du Maurier’s house, in the papers a week before when it sold for £28 million. Behind high walls, a garden party is taking place and Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ is wafting out across Hampstead. I dare say you would be.

The one instance where these alleys “add up to something” is Holly Mount. When I find it, the narrow flight of stairs fleetingly puts me in mind of Montmartre; a good point of comparison because the last trace of bohemianism probably vanished from both shortly after WWII.

Get up there and Nairn’s recommended pub is still around. The steps “deposit you in a tiny hilltop square” where the view looks like it’s going to be far better than it actually is. You do get the BT Tower and the Shard having a face-off like two Queens on a chessboard, but it’s interrupted by the modern flats peeking up from the level below. Walk past the pub, and a colossal medical building “shatters the highly-strung, small-scale elegance”. I find myself having to tiptoe through wedding photos.

At the foot of the hill you reach a junction with the tube station and the start of the High Street. A side-street off to the right, Church Row, is our next quarry. I see a row of tasteful early Georgian houses, with a church’s oxidised blue spire at the end of them, and I’m wondering what the fuss is about. “Here is the complete freedom which results from submission to a common style. A rough gentleman’s agreement about height and size, and you can do what you want.” Nairn then admits that the side I’m looking at is “austere and formal”.

When I cross the road and contemplate the houses opposite, it’s a bit clearer. No. 5 is an obvious joker in the pack, jutting into the street with its bow-shaped white weatherboards where the others use brick. It looks like oddly like a lifeguard’s hut. One other house is so narrow that it just has one window. Nairn calls this side “much more ribald, like the sergeants’ mess”.

Passing through the churchyard I stop to contemplate the tomb of Constable and his son, whom Constable must have really hated to have sent him to this vipers’ nest.

Behind the church is Frognal, where Nairn recommends No. 39, for him the only house of Norman Shaw that is free from “cold-hearted manipulation… easy and unpretentious, growing naturally and informally”. I can see that it’s an interesting shape, with large windows looking out diagonally and a balcony around them, but the entirety of the building is under heavy scaffolding and I find myself much more taken with UCL’s prep school across the road.

From here I retrace my steps and trudge down the Parisian exclave of Hampstead High Street, where people sit on Flask Lane with their pastries from Paul and look delighted with themselves. It’s difficult to say why Hampstead is awful and full of cunts without sounding like you are in The Sleaford Mods, so I’ll let the photos do the talking.

Eventually you come to St Stephen on Rosslyn Hill. I see a large, polygonal complex building with intense red-and-blue brickwork, that seems like a large-scale version of St Paul’s on Westferry Road, and think “Ah yes, this looks like a classic Nairn building”. It turns out that I’m looking at the wrong church altogether. St Stephen, largely hidden behind courtyard trees, is across the road with its neat triple-arched portico and outsized rose window. Nairn calls it “a macabre Gothic dirge, moody and flashing with unexpected poetic juxtapositions”. It looks like four saints once stood on the facade. One is gone and the others are so weather-beaten that they look abstract.

On the way back I turn off at Downshire Hill, “the best bit of Georgian Hampstead”. It’s a good ‘park approach’ road that reminds me of the posh parts of Hackney near Victoria Park, and there are plaques for Lee Miller and the inventors of this and that. Halfway down we find the serene yellow stucco of St Paul’s, “which strides out of the wedge-shaped corner site as though it had arrived fresh that morning from Naples”. Because of where I lived in North London I think of Gospel Oak as the entry point for the Heath, but Nairn thinks this is the best entrance “because you lose the houses straight away… the romantic abrupt scenery is like the hilly parts of Shropshire”. The effect is somewhat frustrated by the fact that they are constructing a large building in this corner of the heath. You have to avert your eyes to the start of the ponds on your right.

Nairn suggests walking all the way to Kenwood and rhapsodises about the Heath, counselling that “it is useless to nibble at the edges”, but a nibble at the edge is all I can manage as I must have walked 15 miles by this point and anyone still reading will surely share my immense fatigue. The Heath isn’t going anywhere soon, so Lear and his Fool can wait.

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2 thoughts on “Singer’s Hampstead Roam

  1. Thanks very much for these Nairning entries. I lived in London during my 20s, 1991-4, as an American expat. I walked extensively as I discovered this splendid agglomeration of villages. Twenty years passed until I returned to London last year on business. I’ve now been there six times in 18 months and have enjoyed rediscovering the city via walks. I chanced upon Nairn’s London in a small bookshop during a visit in May. It was a revelation.

    Late last month I spent six days in London doing virtually nothing but Nairn-themed walks 12-14 hours a day. Among them was one in Highgate on a Friday afternoon. It turns out that you’re mistaken about the view from the Archway. If one walks to the east end of the bridge St. Paul’s is clearly visible. You apparently went only as far as the middle, from which one might be able to spot the cathedral only when the trees are without leaves.

    On the following sunny Sunday morning I climbed the dome of St. Paul’s to the Golden Gallery and enjoyed the spectacular 360-degree view of the city. I could make out the Archway and the Ally Pally with my binoculars and see the very spot on the Archway from which I’d spied St. Paul’s on Friday afternoon. That afternoon, on a Nairn walk to Muswell Hill, I was able to spot the Golden Gallery of St. Paul’s from the Ally Pally terrace. Lovely symmetry.

    Thanks again. Your essays and photos enhanced my experience of Narin’s landmarks.

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