A day in Highgate

Now I’m not one to go to peices over a puppy or wax lyrical over my feelings and the inspiring patterns on a snowflake. But yesterday I spent an unexpectedly magical day in Highgate hunting down Samuel Taylor Coleridge. And I may, in this post, get a bit misty eyed and nostalgic. I’ll try to keep it under control but be prepared.

I started at Archway station and trekked up Highgate Hill. I had to double back and start again when I realised I’d missed the Whittington Stone.

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So I climbed the hill again and was pretty knackered by the time I finally got to the top. Having climbed so high, there was a fabulous view across London which I stopped and admired for a while (actually, I was just getting my breath back but I did look at the view once or twice).

Across the road from me was Lauderdale House, where Nell Gwynn first slept with Charles I, apparently.

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I saw Highgate Bookshop over the road too and obviously had go in. Obviously. In the spirit of my walk, I bought a book about Coleridge and one about the history of Highgate. It was £23.98. I had tons of pound coins on me and managed to count out £22! That’s why my bag was so heavy! I scraped together a few more coins and got to £1.50. I was 48p off. The coppers started coming out… I can do this! I can do this! The lovely lady in the shop was helping me. Eventually I said I’d have to pay by card because I was 20p short.

“No,” she said sternly. “No, I won’t let you. Not after all this.” (We’d been there for ten minutes doing this!) “Bring me the 20p when you get change,” she said kindly. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back past the shop on my walk but I figured it would give me a reason to come back soon. I already liked Highgate a lot.

Over the road and further up slightly was my first Coleridge stop – the chemists with the side door to the ‘back shop’ where he used to pick up his opium.

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The chemist is now a generic estate agent but this side door has been left mostly untouched.

I was opposite a public area called Pond Square and South Grove ran alongside it. Here I found the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution.

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I knew you had to be a member to go in but I also knew they had a whole room dedicated to Coleridge things, manuscripts, paintings etc, that I was dying to see. I went into the hall but was super nervous. I couldn’t see anyone apart from someone behind one door on a ladder. The reading room to my right looked beautiful, full of ornate chairs, an open fire and loads of books and magazines. I knew it was members only but really wanted to go in. It was locked though, as was the other entrance door.

I didn’t mind not being able to get in because I was a stone’s throw from Highgate Cemetery so off I pottered, down Swain’s Lane, looking for the cemetery. It’s on both sides of the road and is £7 to get into the east cemetery and £3 to get in the west cemetery. Great! I’ll go in, look around, get some pics, this place is pretty famous, Dickens and Karl Marx are buried here, among others. Great. I entered the little hut to pay.

And that’s when I remembered! I’d given ALL my money to the bookshop! Every last little penny. I knew I was hoping for too much when I asked if they took cards. Dammit. I was all the way here and couldn’t get in! I took a few pics through the gates and left, feeling a bit annoyed. I should’ve just paid for the books on card!

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Back out of Swain’s Lane and the sun was coming out and beaming down on me. Damn me for wearing these skinny jeans! The air has NO chance of getting in. I was heating up unpleasantly. But then I stumbled across another Coleridge stop.

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This is where Coleridge came for tea with a doctor called James Gillman to ask for help with his opium addiction. Doctor Gillman suggested he come and stay in his house and he would treat him. Coleridge agreed and never left Highgate again! He spent the last 19 years of his life in this village. He later moved with Doctor Gillman to another house close by, which we’ll get to. But this is where he had the cup of tea and where he first lived in Highgate. The black iron gate and the pillars by the front door are the same ones from Coleridge’s day. Most of the other stuff was rebuilt after a fire though.

Further along the same road, toward the end, I reached St Michael’s Church, where Coleridge is buried. He was moved here from another site about fifty years ago. But it was closed! I was having another Highgate Cemetery moment, I was all the way here and I couldn’t do it.

As I was standing there, bemoaning my misfortune, a lady in a car stopped and said that if I waited til 2pm, the church would be opened and I could have a tour. It was ten to 2. I decided to wait it out. I sat on a concrete stub and noticed that I’d been smelling lovely perfumed smells for the past few minutes. I looked around for a particular flower but couldn’t figure it out. Then I realised it was just the smell of summery-ness, high up on a hill, where the cars were few and the trees were many. I walked about a bit, enjoying the smells until the church was opened. In the lobby, I found this.

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It says that it is the same level as the cross on St Paul’s Cathedral. I hadn’t realised I was so high until that point.

I located Coleridge’s gravestone and intended to move on but it was a really beautiful little church so I stopped for a bit longer, wandering around.

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(I can’t get this the other way round so you’ll have to lean to your right to read it)

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I came out of the church, blinking as the sun was even brighter and the floral smells were lovely and it all of a sudden seemed quite magical, this village on a hill in London with all this fascinating history.

I crossed over the road to a little pub called The Flask, which was Coleridge’s local during his stay in the second house he lived in in Highgate.

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From here, I crossed another road into a street lined with chestnut trees and started searching for number 3, not an easy task when it seemed the numbers were hidden for top secret purposes. Eventually I located it and peered over the gates to find two plaques, one saying Coleridge had lived there and one saying J. B. Priestley had lived there! Amazing! I hadn’t expected that at all and was quite excited.

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As I photographed the plaques over the gate, a man in a white van stopped behind me and said “Do you know who lives there now?” I walked over to him and asked who. “Kate Moss,” he told me.

What?! Now I’m not a Kate Moss lover, nor do I get star struck, but I was still reeling from the J. B. Priestley thing so was double surprised by this fact.

Suspicious, I asked, “Are you lying?”

“No,” he said and lowered his voice a little. Taking out a camera with a massive great lens, he said, “I’m paparazzi.”

“Wow.”

“And George Michael lives over there,” he said, pointing two doors down.

“Wow.”

Now I decided at this point to believe him because it increased the coolness factor of my walk by fifty million percent. You, however, do not have to believe the man in the van. I did check afterward and apparently they both do live in Highgate, so it may be true!

Between two houses, I found a path and pottered down. The sun was out, the smells were lovely, the houses were beautiful and I got a bit poetical. I was also walking down the lane that was Coleridge’s favourite walk onto the heath and eveything just felt lovely and amazing for a while.

At the bottom, without warning, the trees and houses stopped and I found myself on the open fields of the heath. I turned right, heading to the top of Hampstead Heath, to a viewpoint, said to be the best in North London.

On my way I saw this sign…

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…and happened to have my swimming stuff with me, because I was planning to swim in the outdoor pool near home on my way back. It was too tempting. It had been hot and I longed to jump in the water. It was only £2 for a swim.

And that’s when I realised it! I’d given all my money to the bookshop lady! Dammit. I went to one of the lifeguards.

“Is there any way of paying by card? I don’t have cash on me and I’m dying to go for a swim!”

“It’s fine. Just pay next time you come.”

More kindness! Highgate was turning out to be a real winner.

I changed quickly and got in. It’s not a swimming pool as such. It’s just a section of lake/pond that ladies can swim in. Amazing. There were moorhens and ducks swimming too and the sun was shining on my face and there were lilies on the surface and I remember thinking that this was one of the best days I’d ever had since moving to London. I swam round a few times then got out an changed.

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(Proof!)

I just had one more stop to make, at the top of the hill. I found this lovely little gazebo…

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…with this amazing view over London (it doesn’t look so spectacular on a photo but it was, believe me).

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The eagle eyed among you might be able to spot the Gherkin and the Shard, which was officially opened last night.

And that was my magical day in Highgate. London-based people, go there if you haven’t already. Non-London-based people, write it into your itinerary for your next trip here. It’s already one of my favourite places ever and I’ll be going again next week (to pay off my debts to the bookshop and the bathing pond, if nothing else!)

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21 responses to this post.

  1. I wonder if you’ve read Coleridge’s poem Kubla Khan? I think you could easily re-write the opening lines to be: “In Highgate Town did LLM, A stately pleasure-day decree” (just about scans I think). Later on around line 25 you will find these words: “Five miles meandering with a mazy motion”. How about that “a mazy motion” and you probably walked more than five miles. It seems you definitely enjoyed what appears to have been your own personal “Xanadu”.

    Reply

  2. this is wonderful! if you read my book reviews post the other day, I talked about “Her Fearful Symmetry” which is partially based around Highgate! one of the characters (who is from America) asks something like: “Swain’s Lane? is that like, Lover’s Lane?” and the man driving the taxi says “No, Swain as in pig.” hah! made me laugh.

    one day when I get the chance to go to London, I will definitely try to wander this area!

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  3. Just the sort of sights and entertainments I envy Londoners!

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    • I’ve been here for years but recently made a point to get to know it better and am discovering all sorts of amazing places!

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      • Yes it is surprising how much we discover about our cities and their history if we just make the effort,I started about 10 years back with Mumbai/Bombay and I still make discoveries every time I start out.And London is a much older city……

  4. Thanks for the wonderful vicarious journey. I will save your itinerary and hope that someday I can follow it too.

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  5. […] I thought I’d go for another walk. My day in Highgate was so lovely, I thought I’d try another one. I decided to go to Newlands Corner, near […]

    Reply

  6. […] as if we’re thuggish teenagers on the street or something. It really threw me, given that on my Highgate walk, everyone was nice as pie and super generous. I was only a few roads away from Highgate… what […]

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  7. What a simply fabulous post… can’t wait for the next one… London/ England is so full of history and architecture and gardens and bookshops… though i’ve lived here 43 years, I still miss it all !

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  8. Loved this! My mum over at Don’t Worry I’m A Farmer’s Daughter sent me a link to this post because I’d been talking about wanting to go to Highgate Cemetery (partially because of Her Fearful Symmetry, which one of your other commenters mentioned), and now I want to go even more!

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    • Hey. Thanks for the comment (and apologies for being so slow at replying!). I love Highgate. It’s beautiful and smells delicious in summer as there are so many flowers and trees and it’s so high up and not many cars or pollution. I used a guidebook called London Walks and I think it was a Time Out publication. It has loads of interesting walks with different themes. This one was Coleridge stuff but there are loads of different themes, eg a suffragette one in central London. Let me know when you get to the cemetery and tell me what you thought 🙂

      Reply

  9. I love it when a day just comes together like that. However, you had me at BOOKSTORE! 🙂
    Now I can add this to reasons to hop on Ryan Air and visit friends in London…

    Reply

    • O, definitely! Get over here. The bookstores are fabulous. There’s one in Hampstead, not far from Highgate, which gets me every time. I enter it’s poky book-smelling loveliness and it’s like I enter a time warp. I’ve never spent less than an hour there and I’ve never left with less than 5 books!

      Reply

  10. Posted by Camden Woollven on March 29, 2014 at 16:42

    Kate does live there!

    Reply

  11. Posted by Tania on November 3, 2014 at 11:16

    I’ve lived in Highgate all my life , apart from Sheffield art school and New York. I know every place you mentioned like the back of my hand!
    You totally got the place! Well done .
    I loved your walk through my home village. Next time you come , walk down between the big houses in The Grove down to the Heath and the ponds , preferably with a dog or boyfriend or better still both. Pick a sunny day and take s picnic . Or go my night without a torch and watch the bats fly over the ponds and walk by moonlight.
    Anyway enjoy

    Reply

  12. Hi, I would love to visit his house, do you have the exact street address, is it 3 The Grove, Highgate? Thanks

    Reply

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