SOMETIMES, FAMILIARITY BREEDS contempt. In my case it was Hampstead. I lived close to this picturesque urban village in north London for the first thirty years of my life, visiting the place frequently and becoming very familiar with it. During the following twenty-five years, although I did not regard it with great contempt, I ‘went off’ the place. Now, in my sixties, I have renewed my liking and appreciation of Hampstead’s uniqueness. My wife and I enjoy making excursions to Hampstead, often having coffee at Louis Hungarian Patisserie on Heath Street, where we went for our first ‘date’ back in about 1970.
Yesterday, after having been confined to our locality for three months by fairly strict ‘lockdown’, we drove to Hampstead, and enjoyed cups of coffee, maybe not London’s very best but quite acceptable, at a tiny outdoor table next to Louis. I looked across Heath Street from where we were sitting and stared at the Hampstead branch of Tesco’s. This run-of-the-mill supermarket is housed in a building with light red tiling and brickwork with stone window settings. Above Tesco’s, there is an old sign in bas-relief that reads “EXPRESS DAIRY COMPANY LTD” and next to that, there is a plaque with the date “AD 1889”.
The year 1889 has had a special significance for me since I attended the Hall School, a prestigious preparatory school for boys near Swiss Cottage, between the years 1960 and 1965. The Hall School was founded in 1889 and celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964, while I was still studying there. I do not know why, but since that anniversary, the date 1889 has always had a special significance in my mind.
The founding of a preparatory school in 1889 is one insignificant reason to remember this year. More importantly it was the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. To celebrate the centenary of the storming of the Bastille in 1789, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle in 1889. A souvenir of that grand fair still stands today in its full splendour: the Eiffel Tower. This well-known landmark of Paris was inaugurated on the 31st of March 1889. I learnt that Eiffel’s Tower was completed in 1889 long after I had learnt about the date when my preparatory school was founded.
The French brothers Édouard and André Michelin were also involved in revolution, but not the political sort. In 1889, they ran a rubber factory and within a short time they had invented the air-filled pneumatic tyre. Since those early days, the Michelin company has been a major manufacturer of objects that revolve – rubber tyres.
To encourage and assist motorists, Michelin began publishing both excellent road maps and useful guidebooks. Some of the guidebooks contain recommended restaurants and hotels and others (the ‘Green Guides’) provide useful sight-seeing information for tourists. The awarding of stars for culinary excellence by Michelin has made or broken restaurants in France and elsewhere. To lose a Michelin star is a life-changing disaster for some chefs.
I have been collecting Michelin guidebooks since just after I left the Hall School. Some of my earliest specimens were published before WW1 when motoring was in its infancy. Immediately after WW1, Michelin published a series of about ten special guidebooks to areas that were affected badly during the war. I have a few of these. They contain much information including photographs of places taken before and after the War. Many of the post-war photographs show sights that resemble the ruins of central Hiroshima after the Atomic Bomb exploded. Heavy bombardment of buildings with ‘conventional’ weapons produced horrendous devastation.
When I began contemplating writing this piece, I knew about 1889 in connection with my old school, the centenary of the French Revolution, and the Eiffel Tower, but not about the foundation of Michelin. As for the former Express Dairy in Hampstead, the plaque with the date 1889 most likely refers to the year in which that branch of the Express Dairy Company was established. The buildings on that particular stretch of Heath Street, which was built-up in the Victorian era, were constructed in the 1880s.
For many centuries, Hampstead has been the haunt of academics, artists, actors, politicians, and writers. So, it comes as no surprise that the former Express Dairy that I was staring at from my table at Louis has at least one interesting historical connection. In February 1916, the Bolshevik revolutionary Maxim Litvinov (1856-1951) proposed to Ivy Low, whom he married. He proposed and she accepted inside the Express Dairy in Hampstead’s Heath Street (see: https://prod.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v06/n04/gabriele-annan/ivy-s-feelings). I doubt that I would have ever known that had it not been for the Hall School instilling in me a certain interest in the year 1889.