Rambling in Hampstead: Romney to Robeson

AN OLD FIRE STATION with a tall clock tower was built in 1871 and used until 1923. It stands on a corner at the southern end of narrow Holly Hill, opposite Hampstead Underground Station. Let us begin the steep climb up Holly Hill, noting on our right the house (number 16) where the painter Derek Hill (1916-2000) lived between 1947 and his death.  A painter of portraits and landscapes, he was greatly regarded in Ireland.  Close to his home, number 18 Holly Hill is named ‘Sundial House’ and has a heavily painted black sundial attached to its façade.  It was once part of the house owned by Hill.

former Mount Vernon Hospital

A little further up the hill on the same side as Sundial House, there is a large house with white painted weatherboarding, which was the residence of a painter far better-known than Hill, George Romney (1734-1802). Romney bought the property in 1796 and had it redesigned by Samuel Bunce (1765-1802) for use as a studio and gallery in 1797/8. Although Romney had spent a great deal of money to create his Hampstead abode, to which he moved from having lived in Cavendish Square for at least 20 years, he was not entirely happy being so far away from the buzz of central London life.  He sold the house in 1799. In 1807, the house was enlarged and became ‘The Hampstead Assembly Rooms’. Later, in1929/30, the house was remodelled and enlarged by the architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), who created the picturesque village of Portmeirion in western Wales. So, much has happened on this plot of land, which used to be the site of the stables of Cloth Hill, a house that existed in the 17th century.

To the north of Romney’s house is Fenton House, built about 1693, once owned by the Riga merchant PI Fenton, who bought it in 1793, and now owned by the National Trust. It houses a fine collection of old keyboard instruments. In the late 1960s when I first visited it, visitors were free to touch the instruments and make sounds or music with their keyboards. Now, this is forbidden unless you are a musician who has been given special permission to play them. Fenton House is next door to Bolton House and Volta House. These two and another, Windmill House, comprise a terrace constructed 1720-1730 (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101379202-volta-house-bolton-house-windmill-hill-house-and-enfield-house-hampstead-town-ward#.YAG3W-j7RPY). The poet Joanna Baillie (1762-1851) lived in Bolton House between 1791 and 1851. Her guests at the house included John Constable, Walter Scott, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, and John Keats. The street on which these buildings and Fenton House stand, Windmill Hill, was named in 1709, probably because there had been a windmill nearby in the 17th century (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp15-33).

Across Holly Hill and high above Romney’s house, a steep footpath reaches Mount Vernon. Just where the small lane makes a right-angle turn, there is a plaque on a high brick wall commemorating the physiologist Sir Henry Dale (1875-1968), who lived nearby. Dale first identified acetylcholine in 1914 and proposed that it might be a neurotransmitter, a substance that allowed nerve cells to communicate with one another. In 1936, he and his collaborator Otto Loewi (1873-1961), whom he met at University College (London), were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on the role of acetylcholine in neurotransmission.

The wall to which Dale’s plaque is attached is part of that which surrounds the  Mount Vernon House, which is barely visible behind the wall. The house, originally named ‘Windmill House’, was built in about 1728. It has been home to Dale; the surgeon William Pierce (c1706 -1771); General Charles Vernon (died 1810), Lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1763 until 1810, who leased it between 1781 and 1800; and the British landscape painter Edmund John Niemann (1813-1876). Dale and his wife occupied the house from 1919 to 1942.

Immediately north of Dale’s former home, there is a massive Victorian building replete with turrets topped with conical roofs. Now a block of flats, this used to be Mount Vernon Hospital for Tuberculosis and Diseases of the Lungs (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/mountvernonhampstead.html). It was built on land owned by General Vernon.  I often wonder what people living in former hospitals like this one and the old Royal Free, also in Hampstead, the former Royal Dental Hospital (now a hotel in Leicester Square), and the former St George’s Hospital (now the luxurious Lanesborough Hotel), think when they consider that parts of their residences might once have been filled with consumptive patients, or the sickly poor, terrified dental patients, and the dying.

Built in 1880 and opened a year later, this hospital was built in faux 17th century French renaissance style. In 1914, the building and its later extensions was sold to the Medical Research Committee and Advisory Council  to house a National Institute for Medical Research. By 1915, it was a hospital again. After WW1, the building reverted to being used for medical research until 1950. According to a watchman at one of the entrances to the former hospital, the place was converted into flats about 25 years ago.

Moving northwards, Holly Hill becomes Frognal Rise, which drops downwards to the east end of Frognal before rising again. Two gate posts marking the beginning of a lane, Oakhill Way, that leads west from the ascending part of Frognal Rise are the entrance to Combe Edge. Along the lane, there is a house with that name, whose gateway bears the date 1878. One of its walls has a plaque commemorating Elisabeth Rundle Charles (1828-1896), who lived there from 1874 to 1896. A writer, Charles is best known for her novel about Martin Luther, “The Chronicles of the Schönberg-Cotta Family”, published in 1862, which can be read online (www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/36433), if you have nothing better to do. But we must move on to our next port of call: Branch Hill House.

The house, formerly called ‘Spedan Tower’, is an ugly brick pile, which looks institutional.  However, its gothic revival gatehouse, built 1868 and designed by SS Teulon (1812-1873) and overlooking a large area of allotments, is attractive. The former care home (built in 1901) was once the home of John Spedan Lewis (1885-1963), founder of the retailing group John Lewis Partnership.  Beneath it in what was once its gardens, there is a modern council estate called Spedan Close. Completed in 1978, it:

“…was, at the time it was built, the most expensive council housing in the country; every property with its own individual roof garden.” (www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=29094).

Returning to Frognal Lane, it becomes Branch Hill a few yards before it joins West Heath Road. Number 1 Branch Hill, a house named ‘The Chestnuts’, was home to the great singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976) from 1929 to 1930. This was after his appearance in “Show Boat” in London in 1928. It was in this show that his famous performance of the song “Ol’ Man River” was first heard. Paul and his wife bought the house in Hampstead, but soon after they divorced, he returned to the USA.

By now, you will have walked not much more than 600 yards, but passed plenty of places of historical interest, which I have mentioned, and others that wait for you to explore.

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.