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.  

WHERE A JUDGE ONCE WALKED IN CHELSEA

WALKING HAS ALWAYS been my favourite and almost only form of exercise. I do not enjoy games, gyms, or swimming, or any other sport, but I love to stroll through towns, villages, and rustic landscapes, exercising my body and especially my eyes. I always carry a camera to record anything I consider of interest or picturesque or curious. With the current (January 2021) restrictions on moving far afield from home to take exercise, I must confine myself to wandering around within a short distance of home. Luckily, the borough, within which I live, and its neighbours are full of fascinating places to see, photograph, and investigate. One of these is Justice Walk, a short (77 yards) passageway leading from Chelsea’s Old Church Street to Lawrence Street.

But first, let me tell you about number 46 Old Church Street close to the beginning of Justice Walk. This building has a sculpture of a cow’s head attached to its façade as well as two pictures made with coloured tiling. One of them, with the words ‘An early mower’, depicts a man holding a scythe and taking a drink from a small barrel. The other shows a milkmaid carrying a wooden pail on her head. An alleyway on the north side of the building leads to a modern gateway. On the north wall of the house there is a name plate that reads ‘The Old Dairy Chelsea’ and near this there is another tiled painting showing a milkmaid watching cattle standing in a stream with ducks and ducklings. Behind the gates, there is a larger brick building with a pediment bearing a cow’s head as well as the date ‘1908’ and ‘estd. 1796’.

The house and the building behind it were part of Wrights Dairies, which is well described in a blog article by ‘Metrogirl’ (https://memoirsofametrogirl.com/2018/11/14/wrights-dairy-cow-heads-chelsea-history-kings-road-old-church-street/) :

“The dairy was one of the first in Chelsea and was erected on Cook’s Grounds (the site of Glebe’s Place today) in 1796. Around 50 cows and two goats grazed nearby, providing milk for the dairy … A frequent visitor to the dairy was Scottish philosopher and writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), who lived a few minutes walk away on Cheyne Row … The Old Dairy was forced to move slightly west due to rapid redevelopment in the late 1800s, with Cook’s Ground and the nearby kitchen gardens of the Chelsea Rectory being swallowed up by housing. Wright’s Dairy set up their headquarters and a shop at 38-48 Church Street (now Old Church Street). The fields behind the dairy were used for the grazing cows.”

The cow’s head on the former dairy looks out at pictures of pigs across the road. These adorn a pub with the name ‘The Chelsea Pig’. Originally called ‘The Black Lion’, the establishment is said to date back to the 17th century.

Justice Walk is extremely picturesque. It is dominated by a large brick building, whose appearance is suggestive of authority, topped with a triangular pediment. This was formerly a Wesleyan chapel, which was built in 1841. It was used as a chapel and a Sunday school between 1843 and 1903 (https://chelseasociety.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/1997-Annual-Report-1.pdf). Many estate agents have misrepresented this building as a former courthouse, glamourising with words such as these (www.russellsimpson.co.uk/stylist-the-court-house/):

“A historic courthouse and jail that once held highway robbers and thieves before they were transported to the British penal colonies in the 18th Century has been transformed into a luxury £14.5 million home.

The Court House, on the aptly-named Justice Walk in Chelsea, is one of London’s last surviving courthouses and gaols and has been dubbed “Britain’s most expensive prison cell” after undergoing a designer restoration and makeover. Built in the early 18th Century, the majestic house of justice tried hundreds of criminals with highway robbery, drunken behaviour and petty theft – of a kind similar to legendary highwayman Dick Turpin (who was executed in 1739 for horse theft).”

So much for Dick Turpin and other exciting misinformation. Opposite the former chapel, there is a house whose front door is surmounted by a scallop shell and other ornate decoration. The door bears the name ‘Judge’s House’. Given what I have learnt about the so-called courtroom, which was really a chapel, I wonder whether a judge ever lived in the house. My doubt is increased when I read (in “The London Encyclopaedia, edited by B Weinreb and C Hibbert) that Justice Walk is most probably named after John Gregory, a Justice of the Peace, who owned property in nearby Gregory Place and in Kensington Church Street.

Several houses at the corner of Justice Walk and Lawrence Street stand where there was a factory and showrooms for the renowned Chelsea china. The china establishment was demolished at the end of the 18th century (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp84-100). Although the china works are long gone, the Cross Keys pub still exists, though closed during the ‘lockdown’. Established in 1708, it is Chelsea’s oldest pub. Its customers have included JMW Turner, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler, painters; Dylan Thomas, poet; Bob Marley, musician; and Agatha Christie, novelist.

Seeing all that I have described took about fifteen minutes, but you could easily miss it all if you walked past in a hurry. Although I did not perform much exercise looking at this tiny part of London, seeing it provided plenty of food for thought. After exploring this area, my wife and I walked out of Lawrence Street and began a vigorous stroll along the Thames embankment which provided lovely vistas in the hazy winter sunshine.

If the judge allows

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was a little intimidated by his appearance the first time he walked into my surgery. Tall, well-built, he clutched a half eaten sandwich in one hand and a bundle of papers in the other. When he had finished masticating the piece of sandwich in his mouth, he told me that the police had banned him from entering the area. Waving his collection of papers, he explained that his solicitor needed to get permission from the police when he needed to see a dentist at the practice.

P wanted a new set of dentures. Inwardly quaking, I took the primary impressions of his toothless gums, and then asked him to return a week later for the next stage of his treatment. By the end of the appointment, I felt that he was going to be a pleasant patient and that I need not fear him.

On the penultimate appointment, I tried the wax mock-up of his dentures to check that all was proceeding well. I let P look in the mirror. He was very pleased and wanted to take them away. I explained that the waxed version had to go back to the technician to be made into the final, usable plastic product. I told him that they would be ready in a week.

Looking crestfallen, P said :”really ? That might be awkward?”

I asked why.

“I am seeing the judge next week. If he puts me behind bars, I won’t be able to collect the teeth.”

I asked him if he could let me know if he was unable to return.

“Sure, doc,” he said, “I can phone you from prison.”

I said to him: “I see now. That’s what people mean by a ‘Cell phone'”

P gave me a huge toothless grin.

P did return for his teeth a week later, but I was not at work. I’d had to cancel my clinic to attend our daughter’s birth.