A hill of memories

PRIMROSE HILL IN NORTH LONDON is a delightful place to take exercise. From its summit at 210 feet above sea-level, it is possible to enjoy a superb panorama of London if the weather permits. At its summit, a low concrete construction is inscribed with the words the poet William Blake (1757-1827) told the lawyer, diarist, and a founder of University College London, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867):

“I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”

In one of his poems, Blake wrote:

“The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.”

On a recent visit to Primrose Hill in January 2021, when the temperature was at the freezing point of water and London was covered by low cloud, we had no sight of the sun, spiritual or otherwise. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable stroll that evoked many memories. One of these was when I studied at University College London. If I felt energetic, I used to walk the five or so miles to college from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Part of my route was up and over Primrose Hill.

The gardens on the south side of Elsworthy Road back on to the northern base of the hill. It was on this road that my parents, newly married in 1948, lived briefly in a flat that they rented from the economist Ronald Coase (1910-2013). My mother told me that amongst the furniture in the flat there was a record player with a gigantic horn as its speaker. 46 years later, my father and my stepmother bought a house on the road. He lived there until he died last year.

Elsworthy Terrace, a cul-de-sac, leads from Elsworthy Road to Primrose Hill. The botanist and first female botanist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Agnes (née Robertson) Arber (1879-1960), lived at number 9 between 1890 and 1909, when she married the paleobotanist Edward Alexander Newell Arber (1870–1918). The Terrace leads to one of the many footpaths that form a crisscrossing network all over the grassy hill that has well-spaced trees of varying shapes and sizes. Plenty of these were covered with frost. Many of the paths meet at the treeless summit of the hill where, if you are lucky with the weather, you can enjoy a good view.

Primrose Hill, first opened to the public in 1842, was part of land appropriated for hunting by King Henry VIII. The earliest mention of its name was in the 15th century. In October 1678, the body of the anti-Catholic magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (1621-1678) was found on Primrose Hill, marked with signs of strangulation and other bruises. The identity of his killer(s) remains a mystery. The hill was also the site of duels including one in about 1813 when the Italian patriot Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) faced Mr Graham, the editor of the “Literary Museum”. The dispute that led to this was about his ‘Three Graces’:

“The Three Graces were his maidservants; two of them turned out to be prostitutes, and one of them ran off with his former translator. This led to a duel, whether in Regent’s Park or Primrose Hill is not clear; fortunately no blood was shed.” (www.regentsparklit.org.uk/authors_e_i.htm#Foscolo)

The southern edge of the hill is bounded by the Regents Canal, designed by John Nash (1752-1835), first used in about1816. We walked eastwards along the towpath from the elegant bridge number 10 to the point where the canal makes a right angle and heads under the Water Meeting road bridge and towards Camden Lock. This stretch of the canal has the London Zoo on both of its banks. On the north side of the canal, we passed the aviary designed by Lord Snowdon in 1964. One of Snowdon’s collaborators was Frank Newby, who was a colleague of my uncle Sven Rindl, a structural engineer at the Felix Samuely company.  On the opposite bank we passed the Giraffe House and the wild hunting dog’s enclosure, where we spotted several of these beasts prowling about. Moored at the corner where the canal changes direction, you cannot miss seeing an old-fashioned boat that looks as if it has sailed from China. This houses the ‘Feng Shang Princess’ floating Chinese restaurant, which was already built by the 1980s.

The Victorian gothic St Marks Church is flanked on two sides by the canal and on another by a short street, St Marks Square. The church, which is not particularly attractive, was consecrated in 1853, damaged during WW2, and rebuilt by 1957.  The northern edge of the church’s ground is on the southern side of Regents Park Road.

Heading west away from the church, we reach number 52 Regents Park Road. It was here that four of my good friends including the author and art historian Michael Jacobs (1952-2014) lived as ‘house-sitters’ for its then owner Rudi ‘G’ during the 1970s. The road flanks the north-eastern edge of Primrose Hill before curving eastwards and becoming an upmarket shopping street.

Since 1979, a Greek restaurant called Lemonia has been flourishing in Regents Park Road. Originally, this was housed in premises on the east side of Regents Park Road. Then, it moved to larger premises across the road in 1992. For a while, its original premises, remained part of the restaurant but renamed ‘Limonaki’. This has disappeared. The lady, who has become my wife, lived for a few months during the spring of 1983 in an avant-garde dwelling in Eglon Mews, close to the shops in Regents Park Road. It was then that she ‘discovered’ Lemonia, which became one of our favourite restaurants for several years. We held a few birthday parties there. Much later, when my father came to Elsworthy Road, he and my Greek stepmother became keen users of this friendly eatery. Nearby, is the independent Primrose Hill Books shop, a handy source of reading matter for the many local inhabitants with intellectual leanings, real or imagined.

These long-established businesses are in the midst of a good range of shops, offering a wide variety of goods. as well as cafés and restaurants and a pub. I can heartily recommend taking some physical exercise on Primrose Hill before acquiring something to stretch your mind at the bookshop (sadly not open at the moment), and taking refreshment in a pleasant, faintly Bohemian but distinctly bourgeois environment.

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