Where judges might have walked

A SHORT STEEP STAIRCASE leads upwards from Hampstead’s Branch Hill to a tree-lined avenue called Judges Walk. This overlooks a steep northwest facing declivity or valley that falls away sharply from Whitestone Pond. This was once the head of a tributary of the River Brent, whose mouth is at the River Thames at Brentford. Today, apart from much mud, there is little obvious evidence of the tributary. Judges Walk has not always had that name. It has also been known as Prospect Walk on account of the views that may be obtained from it, which must have been better in the past than now because the vegetation lining the path might have been less dense.

In days gone by, Judges Walk was a popular place for promenading. The historian of Hampstead, Thomas Barratt (1841-1914), writing in 1912 noted:

“Judges’ Walk is naturally much resorted to for the beauty of its view and its splendid grove of limes and elms.”

Until 1745, when Church Row became a street lined with better-class houses and the parish church was being rebuilt, it became a more fashionable place to promenade than Judges Walk.

How did Judges Walk get its name? William Howitt, author of “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869) wrote:

“This avenue derives its name from the tradition that during the great plague of London the judges removed from Westminster, and held their courts in this very airy spot.”

This derivation has been questioned both by GE Mitton in “Hampstead and Marylebone” (published in 1902), who commented that:

“… derivations of this sort are very easy to make up and entirely unreliable”,

 and by Barratt, who wrote:

“If, as tradition asserts, the judges held their courts here in the time of the Plague, that is good enough ground for the title; but as no actual proof of this has hitherto been brought forward it is at least open to doubt.”

However, he did not totally discount a connection of the path’s name with the judiciary. He suggested that:

“…since so many judges have lived in this charming locality and been accustomed to take their walks up and down its famous avenue, it is only natural and in the fitness of things that it should be called Judges’ Walk.”

A more recent historian of Hampstead, Christopher Wade (1920-2015), noted in his book “The Streets of Hampstead” (published 1984) that Judges Walk acquired its present name in the early 20th century, having previously had a variety of names including ‘Prospect walk’, ‘King’s Bench Avenue’, and ‘Upper Terrace Avenue’.  Like others before him, he was doubtful about the Great Plague theory. He seemed to favour an idea that the pathway was named after the nearby Branch Hill Lodge (at the bottom of the staircase mentioned above), which was once known as ‘Judges’ Bench House’. A house, long-since demolished, on the site of the present Branch Hill Lodge, the former home of the founder of the store chain John Lewis, was redesigned in 1745 by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769) for the Master of the Rolls Sir Thomas Clarke (1703-1764). It was later occupied by at least other two senior members of the English justice system, Sir Thomas Parker (1695-1784) and then Alexander Wedderburn the Earl of Rosslyn (1733-1805) before he moved into his estate next to the present Rosslyn Hill.

Apart from the view from Judges Walk, which has been painted by the famous John Constable (1776-1837), who lived in Hampstead’s Well Walk, there is a building covered with wood cladding that can be seen be looking away from the declivity.  Entered from Windmill Hill, this house, whose foundations were laid in the late 18th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379199), is currently named ‘Capo di Monte’, having previously been known as ‘Upper Terrace Cottage’ and ‘Siddons Cottage’. The actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) stayed there between 1804 and 1805. Barratt noted that the house:

“…was occupied by Woodburn the printseller ; also, in succession, by Copley Fielding the artist, and Edward Magrath, the first secretary of the Athenaeum Club.”

Years later it was home to the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) and even later of the broadcaster Marghanita Laski (1915-1988).  No doubt some of these residents of Capo di Monte strolled along Judges Walk to take the air and enjoy the view.

This vista, which we found to be somewhat obscured by the trees and bushes lining Judges Walk, even during winter when foliage is sparse, was described in a novel, “Interplay” (published 1908), written by the suffragette Beatrice Harraden (1864-1936), who was born in Hampstead:

“She sat in Judges’ Walk, and surveyed from there the stretches of wood and copse with their varying shades of green, relieved by delicate tones of red and enhanced in beauty by the sombreness of many trees which, even as ball-room belles, preferred to make a later and more consequential entrance into the scenes of splendour.”

The eastern end of Judges Walk is close to the reservoir on the top of which perches the small Hampstead observatory. Just east of this, and running along the west side of Heath Street, there is a small garden called Whitestone Garden.  I am do not know when this leafy spot, which contains a few benches and did not exist when I was a child in the 1960s, was created, but it is a welcome addition to Hampstead Heath.

In my retirement, I visit Hampstead frequently, and there is never a visit during which I fail to find something new (to me) of interest.  Judges Walk, along which I had never ventured until this year, is one of those many ‘discoveries’ that increase my fascination with this former village that has become surrounded by the relentless spreading of London.