|Start: Highgate Station
|Duration: 2 Hours
|Best of Times: Anytime.
|Worst of Times: Winter evenings.
At the station take the exit marked Highgate Village and turn right onto Archway. Go left over the traffic lights, bear right then immediately left onto Southwood Lane. When you arrive at the point where Jackson’s Lane joins from the left, cross over Southwood Lane, and keep walking ahead into the narrow pedestrian path called Park Walk.
Turn left onto North Road and stop outside the fourth cream-coloured building along.
The entire Dickens family lodged here in the August of 1832, during one of John Dickens’s attempts to avoid his more persistent creditors. ‘The address is “Mrs Goodman’s next door to the old Red Lion”’, Dickens wrote to his friend Henry Kolle. ‘If you can make it convenient to come down, write to me and fix your own day. I am sorry I cannot offer you a bed because we are so pressed for room that I myself hang out at the Red Lion, but should you be disposed to stay all night I have no doubt you can be provided with a bed at the same Establishment.’
The Old Red Lion, which was demolished in 1900, was just one of the 19 inns that served Highgate’s small village population in the 19th century. At each one the ancient ceremony of Swearing on the Horns was religiously observed. Initiates had to kiss a pair of stag antlers that were dangled in front of them, whilst swearing on oath to drink only strong ale, ‘never to kiss the maid when the mistress was willing’ and so on and so forth. Successful candidates were then granted the Freedom of Highgate, and granted the right to kiss the most beautiful girl in the room. Times change and this venerable old custom is now only performed at a few local hostelries, one of which is the Wrestlers Inn, passed a few doors back.
Continue along North Road, keep ahead over Castle Yard, and at the red brick buildings of Highgate School, go over the pedestrian crossing.
The school, was founded in 1565, but by 1816 had fallen into ‘complete decay’. Its fortunes were restored under the long Mastership of the Reverend John Dyne (1839–74), and a Royal Commission on secondary education in the 1860s applauded it as ‘a very useful institution’ doing ‘very good work for the upper middle classes’.
After crossing, bear left and continue along North Road, the chapel of Highgate School soars over its somewhat cluttered, disused graveyard to your left. On arrival at Hampstead Lane go over the zebra crossing to enter the Gatehouse.
This rambling, part-timbered pub, rebuilt in 1905, is named after the gateway where travellers once paid tolls to cross the Bishop of London’s lands. It was this ‘high gate’ that gave the village its name. The walls are adorned with prints and photographs of bygone Highgate as well as pages of history containing interesting snippets about past residents. Charles Dickens is said to have visited the previous pub on the site, and the first cartoon to appear in Punch magazine was sketched here.
Exit the Gatehouse and cross over Highgate West Hill via the pedestrian crossing. Pause to glance at the line of dwellings to the right.
Anyone of these could have been the little cottage to which David Copperfield brought his child-bride Dora to live. Pass through the bollards and walk down the slope into Pond Square. Although the water source from which its name is derived was filled in in 1864, the square still possesses a certain charm.
Keep to the left pavement and cross South Grove in front of the telephone box, where directly ahead of you is Church House, 10 South Grove.
This is believed to have been the ‘old brick house at Highgate on the very summit of the hill’, where the Steerforths lived, and to which David Copperfield was invited to stay. David described it as ‘… a genteel old-fashioned house, very quiet and orderly. From the windows of my room I saw all London lying in the distance like a great vapour, with here and there some lights twinkling through it.’
Having admired the handsome facade, go right along South Grove, passing the white-fronted exterior of No 11, home to the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute.
This was founded in 1839 ‘for the promotion of useful and scientific knowledge’. The building contains a reading room, lecture hall, library and an excellent local history archive.
Continue along South Grove and turn left into the courtyard of St Michael’s Church, which dates from 1832.
No sooner had building work commenced, than the Vicar of St Pancras attempted to put an unholy spanner in the works by claiming that the church would be in his parish and should not be built. However, his objections were ignored and Highgate acquired its own parish church. In David Copperfield, Dickens wrote, ‘The church with the slender spire, that stands on top of the hill now, was not there then to tell me the time. An old red-brick mansion, used as a school, was in its place; and a fine old house it must have been to go to school at, as I recollect... ’ In 1961 the remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) were exhumed from his original burial place, the chapel at Highgate School, and re-interred under the central aisle of St Michael’s.
Retrace your footsteps along South Grove and cross over to pass:-
The Flask, which bears the date 1663, although it most likely dates from the 18th century. William Hogarth (1697–1764) an artist whom Dickens admired, is said to have patronized The Flask, once sketching on the spot a fight between two other customers who set upon each other with their beer mugs.
Continue ahead. Cross over Highgate West Hill and go along the narrow road that runs between the railings.
The structure atop of the green mound to your right is the reservoir, constructed here by the New River Company in 1854 when Highgate obtained its first piped water supply.
Turn left into The Grove, lined with elegant, handsome houses, and pause outside No 3.
A plaque on the wall commemorates the residency of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge from 1823 until his death in 1834. Coleridge lived here with Dr James Gillman and his family, and had come to Highgate in the hope that the good doctor could cure him of his addiction to laudanum. A steady stream of eminent visitors, including Thomas Hood, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Stuart Mill, made the trek to listen to the brilliant conversation of the white-haired Coleridge. According to Thomas Carlyle, he lived ‘on the brow of Highgate Hill looking down on London and its smoke-tumult, like a sage escaped from the inanity of life’s battle’.
Continue along The Grove and turn right down Highgate West Hill.
The huge building beyond the gates at the junction is Witanhurst, London’s largest private residence after Buckingham Palace, and built in 1913 for soap millionaire Sir Arthur Crossfield (1865–1938).
Number 40, set back from the road a little way along, stands on the site of the Fox and Crown inn whose landlord, James Turner, earned the nation’s gratitude in 1837 for saving the life of Queen Victoria. Fourteen days after her accession, her carriage was descending the hill, when the horse suddenly bolted. Turner raced from his pub, grabbed the reins, and managed to bring the carriage to a halt. Victoria rested in his yard to recover from the shock, and later rewarded him with a Royal Coat of Arms.
Continue down Highgate West Hill and go right along Merton Lane, shaded by towering trees, and bordered on either side by large properties ensconced behind tall screens of leafy boughs.
Turn left along Millfield Lane. Despite the presence of some unsightly blocks of flats, the lane, bordered to the right by the eastern section of Hampstead Heath, also boasts several delightful older residences and some quaint cottages.
The white block of West Hill Court, on the opposite side as the road veers sharp left, stands on the site of Ivy Cottage, the home of the 19th-century comedian and actor Charles Matthews (1776–1835).
Charles Mathews was an idol of the early 19th-century theatre, ‘the beau of elegance’, as one contemporary described him. Appearing on stage, not in a role, but as himself, Matthews would enthral his audience with a description of a journey he had undertaken, interspersing the narrative with songs, recitations and character impersonations. Dickens claimed that he always went ‘to see Matthews when he played’, and as a young man, hoping to become an actor himself, intended to perform one of Matthews’s routines for his audition at Covent Garden (see page 152). A newspaper once stated that Dickens was very much like Matthews in his manner, walk and voice – although adding that Dickens possessed an ‘earnestness’ that was lacking in Matthews. Dickens was much inspired by the staccato monologue perfected by Matthews for Thomas Holcroft’s The Road to Ruin (1792). In fact, it was a style that Dickens immortalized with Alfred Jingle in Pickwick Papers, the first truly comic character he created.
Continue ahead. Turn left onto Highgate West Hill and a little way along go right through the iron gates into Makepeace Avenue.
The Holly Lodge Estate through which you are now walking, was once described as ‘London’s loveliest garden colony’. It stands on the site of the Highgate home of Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts whose philanthropic endeavours Dickens directed, saying of her charitable giving, ‘she saw with kind eyes’. The house, where Dickens would often visit her, and which was a renowned centre of intellectual society in the 19th century, was demolished in 1920.
Go first right into Hillway and prepare to draw breath at one of the most amazing views so far.
The London skyline stretches below you, a vista of tall towers peppered with such notable landmarks as St Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, and the BT Tower.
Turn second left into Bromwich Avenue and exit the estate via the gates to cross over Swain’s (formerly Swine’s) Lane, and pause by the eccentric huddle of Gothic cottages on the opposite side.
Holly Village, as this eclectic collection of nine cottages is known, was built in 1865 under the auspices of Angela Burdett-Coutts to provide homes for her retired servants.
With your back to the village, cross Chester Road and brace yourself for a breathless ascent of Swain’s Lane.
Through the ivy-clad railings on your right, dark melancholic footpaths twist their way through Highgate’s East Cemetery. Leaning tomb and memorial stones struggle to free themselves from a surging tide of creeping vegetation.
Sprawled across 17 hillside acres, and opened in 1839, Highgate Cemetery soon became the most fashionable Victorian necropolis in London. By the dawn of the 20th century over 100,000 people had been buried here in more than 52,000 graves. But, following World War II, there came a severe downturn in the cemetery’s fortunes, and the whole place fell into decay until rescued in the 1980s by the enthusiastic and dedicated Friends of Highgate Cemetery.
Pause from your assault on Swain’s Lane by the gates of the Eastern Cemetery, which are to your right.
Here you can purchase a booklet that guides you to the graves of such contemporaries of Dickens as George Eliot and Karl Marx.
To your left is the Western Cemetery, which can only be visited on tours conducted by the ‘Friends’. Not normally on the tour, but possible to visit by special request, are the graves of Dickens’s parents John and Elizabeth, his daughter, Dora Annie Dickens (1850–51) and his elder sister, Fanny (1810–48).
Take a deep breath and launch yourself once more up the relentless slope of Swain’s Lane.
Take the second gate on the right into Waterlow Park, turn immediately left and follow the pathway as it goes right past the tennis courts, and continues ahead to exit the park, where you bear left onto Highgate High Street.
Go over the pedestrian crossing, veer right down Highgate Hill and pause outside the second building on the left, which is:-
Ivy House, formerly the home of author and publisher Charles Knight (1791–1873). Knight praised Dickens publicly as ‘a writer whose original and brilliant genius is always under the direction of kindly feeling towards his fellow-creatures’. The two became close friends in the early 1850s, and Knight participated enthusiastically in Dickens’s amateur theatricals, as well as contributing 19 articles to Household Words. Much of the information in Dickens’s A Child’s History of England (1851–53) was derived from Charles Knight’s Pictorial History Of England.
Cross at the next traffic lights, bearing left over Dartmouth Park Hill, and continue down Highgate Hill.
Once you have crossed Magdala Avenue, pause to admire the scruffy looking stone cat that casts a wary backward glance at London below, and which marks the site where Dick Whittington reputedly heard the bells of Bow Church urging him to ‘turn again’. Bill Sikes passed this stone after the murder of Nancy in Oliver Twist; and Dick Swiveller, when taunted by the evil Quilp in The Old Curiosity Shop, threatened to run away ‘towards Highgate, I suppose. Perhaps the bells might strike up “Turn again, Swiveller”’.
Continue down the hill until, on the right, you arrive at Archway Underground Station and the conclusion of your stroll through Highgate village.