The town of Hitchin and the novelist Georgette Heyer

KEEN READERS OF NOVELS by Georgette Heyer (1902-1974) will have come across the name ‘Hitchin’ in several of her stories. For example, in “The Foundling”, Belinda sighs, and then says:

“She went to a place called Hitchin, but I don’t know where it is, and I only recall it because it sounds like kitchen, and I think that is very droll, don’t you, sir?”

She receives the reply:

“But Hitchin lies only a few miles from here! I daresay no more than six or seven, perhaps not as much! If you think you would like to visit this friend, I will take you there tomorrow! Do you know her direction?”

Later in the story, there are frequent mentions of Hitchin and a ‘Sun Inn’ in the town. There used to be an inn with that name on Sun Street, where currently, there is a Sun Hotel. In another novel, “The Reluctant Widow”, Hitchin is the name of the landlord of an inn, ‘The Bull’ in Wisborough Green, a village in West Sussex.

Old world in central Hitchin

It is only in recent years that I have begun to read the wonderfully crafted historical novels by Heyer, but I was aware of Hitchin even as a young child. In those now far-off days, when I lived near Golders Green in north London, I was a collector of bus and train maps and an enthusiastic observer of buses. One of the buses that passed through Golders Green and along Finchley Road was the Green Line route number 716 that travelled all the way from Chertsey in southwest London to … you have probably guessed … Hitchin, far north of London in Hertfordshire. It was only today (11th of May 2021) that I finally got to visit Hitchin. I had read that it has a picturesque historic town centre and what we found surpassed all expectations.

A 7th century document states that Hitchin was the centre of the Hicce people, ‘hicce’ being Old English for ‘the people of the horse’. By 1086, when the Domesday Book was compiled, Hitchin was described as a ‘Royal Manor’. The town’s name is also associated with the River Hiz (pronounced ‘hitch’ by some), a short stretch of which flows in front of the eastern end of the centrally located St Mary’s Church, which is mostly 15th century with an 11th century tower. Later, the town thrived because of  the wool trade; vellum and parchment making; tanning; rope-making; malting; and its coaching inns, such as that mentioned in Heyer’s novel. Hitchin was a staging post for coaches travelling between London and what road signs in the south of England call ‘The North’. The town is not far from the current A1 trunk road.  Many of the inns have long since closed, but their picturesque buildings, most of which look mediaeval, or at least pre-Georgian, still stand and can often be identified by the large archways leading from the street into yards behind them. Grain trading was another important activity in the town. Its former Corn Exchange still stands in the Market Square, but its use is no longer what it was built for.  

Despite the 20th century improvements in transport links to London, making Hitchin into a convenient place for commuters, the historic town centre contains a remarkably high number of old buildings lining its mediaeval street lay-out. These old throughfares surround the lovely, large Market Square, which like many towns and cities in mainland Europe, was filled with tables and chairs for people to enjoy refreshments from the many eateries that surround it. A covered arcade leads off the square and provides a weather-proof place for refreshments. Nearby, there is a modern market area with stalls with conical roofs. We were fortunate to have arrived on a day, Tuesday, when this market is working.

Our first impression of Hitchin was extremely favourable, but because we had planned to do so much more sightseeing that day, we did not spend nearly enough time there. We hope to revisit this place again soon. I can strongly recommend the Hitchin to anyone who wants to get a flavour of ‘Ye Olde England’ without having to travel too far from London.

Finding Boy George and Bliss in north London

DURING THE COVID19 PANDEMIC, when travelling far afield has been discouraged for public health reasons, I have been exploring one of my old haunts, Hampstead, and have been becoming increasingly more interested in its attractions and historical associations. I invite you to join me on one of my rambles through a part of this intriguing area of north London.

Detail of house where Sir Arthur Bliss lived

East Heath Road runs eastwards, then southwards, relentlessly downhill from Hampstead’s Whitestone Pond towards South End Green, close to the Royal Free Hospital. The road marks the eastern edge of the spread of Hampstead into Hampstead Heath. Except for three well separated blocks of flats, there are no buildings on the eastern side of the Road. A winding lane leads off the road to the small settlement of the Vale of Health, an enclave which is surrounded by the Heath.

The block of flats facing Whitestone Pond at the top end of East Heath Road (‘EHR’) is called Bell Moor. Built in 1929, this edifice stands on the site of the home where the historian Thomas J Barratt (1841-1914) lived from 1877 to 1914. He was Chairman of the Pears soap manufacturing company and a pioneer in brand marketing as well as a historian of Hampstead. His “Annals of Hampstead”, published in 1912, is a detailed, monumental, beautifully illustrated, three volume account of Hampstead’s history. In addition to a plaque commemorating Barratt on Bell Moor there are two others. One of them records that the great conductor Sir Thomas Beecham (1879-1961) lived there from 1937-1941 and the other is placed to record that the surface of the soil at Bell Moor is 435 feet above sea level or 16.5 feet higher than the top of the cross on the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Moving downhill, all the older houses are on the west side of East Heath Road. The writer Katherine Mansfield (1888-1923) and her husband, the critic John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), lived at the end of a short Victorian terrace, at number 17 EHR (formerly ‘Portland Villas’). Next door to this, there is a picturesque ivy-clad building, Heath Cottages, with one wall covered in wood cladding and a small balcony above one of its centrally placed pair of front doors. Barratt included a drawing of this building in his book but makes no comment about it.

A large house, The Logs, with an extravagant brick tower, eye-catching but not attractive, is reached further down EHR. This was built in 1868, designed by JS Nightingale for the drainage and water supply engineer and Justice of the Peace for Middlesex Edward Gotto (1822-1897; http://www.icevirtuallibrary.com/doi/pdf/10.1680/imotp.1897.19422). It has also been home to the comedian Marty Feldman and later the popular musician Boy George. The Logs neighbour is Foley House, which I have described elsewhere (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/01/15/a-house-a-spa-and-grays-anatomy/).

Proceeding down EHR, we pass several large brick-built terraced houses until we arrive at the corner of a lane called Heathside. A large house on the corner of this and EHR bears a plaque that notes that the composer Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) lived here in East Heath Lodge from 1929 to 1939. It was in this house that the painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939) painted the composer’s portrait in 1932 (https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw07115/Sir-Arthur-Bliss). During his residence on EHR, his musical compositions began to be come less avant-garde and he became a musical successor to the composer Edward Elgar. I wonder whether living in a house with views over Hampstead Heath might have influenced his change in composing style.

East Heath Lodge appears to have been divided into two residences. Bliss occupied the half of the building next to the Heath. It was built in about 1785 by the local builder Henry White and modified in about 1820 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1342097). A large bell hangs under a metal canopy outside the western half of the building, which bears the name ‘South Lodge’. West of East Heath Lodge along Heathside, there are some large cottages built in about 1814. South of Bliss’s former home, EHR is flanked to the east by a large public car park and to the west by a triangular green space whose apex is at the point where Willow Road meets the southern extension of EHR, South End Road. Just before it does that, EHR meets the eastern end of Downshire Hill soon before it crosses Willow Road.  

Number 2 Willow Road, a modern looking two-storey building can be seen across the grass from EHR. Modern it looks although it was designed and built by the architect of Trellick Tower Ernö Goldfinger (1902-1987) in 1939. In 1942, Goldfinger, who had Marxist sympathies, hosted an exhibition of leading artists in his new home in order to raise funds for “Aid to Russia” (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/who-was-ern-goldfinger).  Now owned and maintained by the National Trust, it is well worth visiting this superbly designed living space. Incidentally, Goldfinger’s house was constructed on the site of some 18th century cottages that were demolished to make place for it.

South of Willow Road, EHR becomes South End Road. The houses lining this road’s western side, but set well back from it, are in complete contrast to Goldfinger’s residence just north of them. Each of the houses is separated from the pavement by long strips of beautifully cared for gardens. Most of the dwellings have names: Hartley House (no. 103), where the architect Oswald Milne (1881-1968) once lived; Heath Cottage (no. 101); Guernsey Cottage (no. 93), home of the 19th century translator of “Heinrich Heine’s Book of Songs”, JE Wallis; Bronte Cottage (no. 89), home of the artist Mary Hill (1870-1949); St Johns Cottage (no. 87); Rose Cottage; Leighton House (no. 73), and Russell House (no. 71), an early 19th century house with a late 19th century enclosed veranda by Charles Francis Annesley Voysey (1857-1941), one of his earliest projects. Beyond these, there is Keats Grove, across which a line of shops commences. The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, who lived in Hampstead, described this row of buildings as:
“… a pleasant irregular sequence of early c19 houses.”

And that is a good description of them.

South End Road, the continuation of EHR, becomes Fleet Road and heads south east towards Chalk Farm. We end our ramble at Pond Square, where once there was a cinema, its site now occupied by Marks and Spencer’s superb food store. Just north of it is Hampstead Heath Overground Station, which is close to a pub with fake half-timbering called the Garden Gate. In 1855, a pub on this site was called ‘The Perseverance’. It was renamed ‘The Railway Tavern’ by 1871 and got its present name more recently. Closed at present because of the covid19 pandemic, the best place to refresh yourself, after walking down from Whitestone Pond and enjoying the varied architecture along the way, is the Matchbox Café next to the small, cobbled bus yard in Pond Square. Its friendly owner Mirko prepares good hot drinks and sells a variety of tempting snacks. And before you leave the area, pick up some great fruit and vegetables from the  well[stocked stall next to the station ticket office.

Maxim and Ivy: to Russia with love

MEIR HENOCH WALLACH-FINKELSTEIN (1876-1951) is better known as Maxim Maximovich Litvinov. A Bolshevik revolutionary, he became an important Soviet diplomat. In 1930, Stalin appointed him People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Earlier on, shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Maxim was sent to London as the Soviet government’s plenipotentiary representative in Great Britain. While in London, he met and married the writer Ivy (née Low; 1889-1977). I have recently discovered that their lives partially overlapped with mine, not temporally but geographically.

BLOG IVY 5

Ivy was living in London’s Hampstead when she and Maxim were courting. They had met in about 1918 at the home of Dr David Eder (1865-1936), a Zionist socialist and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Britain. David, whom Ivy regarded as a father figure, and his family lived in Golders Green (actually, in Hampstead Garden Suburb at 103 Hampstead Way, not far from our family home).  According to Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (in his book “The Exile: Ivy Litvinov”):

“Over tea in the Express Dairy in Heath Street where they often met, Ivy helped Maxim to improve his English – throughout her life she adored improving people’s English – and she did more: she guided him in reading English literature.”

Today, the building that used to house the Express Dairy in Heath Street is a branch of the Tesco supermarket empire. However, the building still bears the name ‘Express Dairy’ and the date 1889, the year that Ivy was born.

Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (1918-1997) was the son of one of Ivy’s closest friends, the writer and journalist Catherine Carswell (1879-1946). Ivy met Catherine, a close friend of the writer DH Lawrence who lived in Hampstead, after she had written a favourable review of Ivy’s novel “Growing Pains”, which was published in 1913. Catherine lived in Hampstead at Holly Mount. To be close to her friend, Ivy moved to Hampstead. John, who was born at Hollybush House in Holly Hill, met Ivy several times and has written a good account of her life. It reads well and is extremely informative not only about Ivy but also about her husband.

Ivy and Maxim moved to Russia with their two young children in about 1920 and lived there, with small occasional breaks, until the late 1950s. One of these breaks was when Maxim was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA between 1941 and 1943. Her stay in the USSR was also punctuated by short holidays abroad. Living in the USSR, Ivy continued her writing as well as teaching English. Long before he died, Maxim fell out of favour with Stalin and lived in fear of arrest and probable execution. However, he died of natural causes in 1951, just in time to miss Stalin’s last great, but unfulfilled, plan, the anti-Semitic ‘Doctors’ Plot’. On his deathbed, he said to Ivy:

“Englishwoman, go home”.

It was not until 1960 that Ivy did return to England.  But, in 1961, she returned to the USSR, where she remained a pensioned widow until July 1972, when she returned to the UK. She settled in Hove, where she lived the rest of her life. Until her dying day, Ivy wrote, published, and was actively involved with the literary world.

Long before her last visit to England, Ivy had made brief visits. In July 1930, Maxim was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Soon after his promotion Ivy accompanied him to Geneva. That same winter, the Litvinovs paid a visit to London. John Carswell, then twelve years old, recalled:

“She took me to a Christmas show of which even the name now escapes me; but what is still vivid is the tall, dominating, fur-coated figure sweeping me across the wintry promenade outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, to a torrent of commentary.”

Reading about Carswell’s memory of Ivy taking him to a Christmas show at the Hippodrome reminded me of seeing pantomimes at this same theatre when I was about John’s age or maybe a year or two less. until the mid-1960s, the Hippodrome (built as a 3000-seat music hall in 1913) was a very active repertory theatre, where many plays that would eventually end up in the West End were premiered. In addition to plays, operas and Christmas pantomimes were staged there. In the 1960s, it became a BBC television studio, and lately it has become a venue for Islamic meetings. Like Carswell, I cannot remember what shows I saw there as a child, but I do remember being impressed by the size and fittings (seats arranged in galleries, boxes, and the vast stage) of the Hippodrome. It was as least as impressive as the grandest of West End theatres.

I enjoyed reading Carswell’s biography not only because it provided some insight into what life was like in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule but also because it introduced me to the life of an intriguing woman writer whose love for Maxim led her to spend a large part of her life in the USSR. Another thing that appealed to me is that Carswell provided me with new aspects of the history of Hampstead, a part of London which I know well and where I grew up. It is with some reluctance that I will return this enjoyable biography to our local public library.