IT IS A SURPRISINGLY tiring climb to reach the summit of Primrose Hil, just north of London’s Regents Park. Yet, it is well worth making your way to the top, which is 210 feet above sea level and considerably high than much of the rest of London.
From its lofty peak, you get to see a wonderful panorama of central London and its environs. One thing struck me as I stood on the hill on New Years Day 2022. In one field of vision, without moving my eyes, I saw both St Pauls Cathedral and the Shard that stands next to London Bridge station. The former was consecrated in 1697 and the latter, the glass clad Shard was completed in 2013. Thus, in one view, I was able to see just over 300 years of history. And with all of the construction cranes that can be seen from aloft, it seems that history continues to be made, for better or for worse.
Primrose Hill is south of Hampstead village and southeast of Swiss Cottage. It is a delightful place to take exercise and has been home to several notable figures. From its summit at 210 feet above sea-level, it is possible to enjoy a superb panorama of London when weather permits. At its summit, a low concrete construction is inscribed with some words by the poet William Blake (1757-1827).
In the centre of the circular concrete platform at the summit of the hill, there is a round commemorative metal plaque surrounded with words in the Welsh language. It was placed to remember Iolo Morganwg (1747-1826), who was born in Wales as ‘Edward Williams’. He was a poet and antiquarian, who both wrote and collected poetry in the Welsh language. He had a great interest in preserving the literary and cultural heritage of his native land. His integrity as a scholar was somewhat undermined by the fact that he had forged several manuscripts that he claimed were of mediaeval origin. Nevertheless, he was involved in the early revival of Druidism. In 1792, he founded the ‘Gorsedd Beirdd Ynys Prydain’ (Gorsedd of Bards of the Island of Britain). The Gorsedd, which still meets today, is a society of poets, writers, musicians, artists, and other individuals, who have made notable contributions to the Welsh nation, language and culture. Every year, the Gorsedd assembles at a festival of Welsh culture, now known as the Eisteddfod. According to the website of the Royal Parks, Primrose Hill was the site of the first ever Gorsedd, which was held on midsummer’s day, 21 June, 1792, a long way from Wales.
FRIEDRICH ENGELS LIVED almost opposite London’s Primrose Hill at number 122 Regents Park Road. A colleague and friend of Karl Marx, he lived between 1870 and just before his death in 1895 in this large house located 360 yards west of the railway lines that run from Euston to places outside London. His residence had been chosen for him by Jenny (1814-1881), wife of Karl Marx. Every Sunday, Engels used to hold an ‘open house’; all visitors were welcome. Liberal amounts of food and drink would be available and there was music and singing. According to Tristram Hunt, a biographer of Engels, the visitors included, for example, leaders of European socialism such as Karl Kautsky, William Morris, Wilhelm Liebknecht, Keir Hardie, Eduard Bernstein, and Henry Hindman. Hindman, who was a mentor and supporter of the Indian freedom fighter Shyamji Krishnavarma, who was active in Highgate between 1905 and 1910, nicknamed Engels ‘The Grand Lama of Regents Park Road’. Amongst visitors from Russia:
“The founders of Russian Marxism, George Plekhanov and Paul Axelrod, considered the visit to his house in Regents Park Road a necessary pilgrimage whenever they were in London. Vera Zasulitch, who lived in London was another regular visitor as indeed was Stepniak, the terrorist author of “Underground Russia”” (note 1)
The congregation of so many socialists at his home attracted the attention of the police, who frequently kept number 122 under surveillance. Lenin, who first visited London in 1902, clearly would have not been able to visit Engels at Primrose Hill.
We visit Regents Park Road on some Saturdays and Sundays when parking is easy and free of charge, but, alas, we were born far too late to have been able to enjoy the stimulating atmosphere that must have reigned in the home of Engels on Sundays. Despite the absence of the great Engels, there is much to enjoy along the road where he lived, even during these restricting times of the covid19 ‘lockdown’. Apart from fresh air in plenty on Primrose Hill, there are interesting food shops and a few places that serve hot drinks to passers-by. One of these, which we favour, is Greenberry Café, which is located near to the railway lines. Almost next to this establishment, there is a building set back from the road. Its red brick façade is topped with a green tiled pediment with white lettering that reads:
Chalk Farm Garage
The Flight Petroleum Co Ltd
The ground floor of this building, which might once have included the workshops of the garage are closed in with modern glazing. Now used as the art gallery of the Freelands Foundation (https://freelandsfoundation.co.uk/about), this used to be a regular local petrol filling station. Flight Petroleum is a company that still exists. It is based in Mississippi (USA). Before becoming a gallery, the former filling station was a branch of the Bibendum company that supplied alcohol not as motor fuel but in the form of wines and spirits.
Almost next to the former garage, a few feet left (i.e, west) of it, there is a curious looking white building, that was not built as a dwelling or a shop. On 19th and early 20th century maps, this is marked as being a ‘chapel’. An extremely detailed (5 feet to the mile) map of 1895 reveals that this chapel was in the grounds of the ‘Boys’ Home Industrial School’. The school’s grounds occupied much of the corner of Regents Park Road and King Henrys Road that meets the former at an acute angle. Where the former garage stands now used to be the entrance to the courtyard around which the school’s buildings were arranged.
I looked at two useful websites, www.childrenshomes.org.uk/EustonBoysIS/ and http://whispersandvoices.blogspot.com/2009/07/boys-home-regents-park-road-london.html, to learn about the school and its history. The school was originally founded by the physician and social reformer George William Bell (1813-1889) as the ‘Home for Unconvicted Destitute Boys’ in 1858 in some houses on Euston Road, where the British library stands currently. Later that year it became a certified ‘Industrial School’, which admitted boys sent by the courts for their protection as well as those who came voluntarily. In 1865, the school had to move because its premises were to be demolished in order to build a railway goods shed.
The school moved to new premises on Regents Park Road, initially a row of three houses. The chapel, one of whose pediments bears the letter ‘T’, was added after the school received a donation from a generous donor and was later superseded by the establishment of the St Marys Church on the northeast corner of Primrose Hill. In 1868, a new school room was built on the northern side of the school’s yard. This was raised on arches, the spaces beneath them being used to store materials such as wood that was used in some of the practical classes taught in the establishment. By the 1890s, the school occupied the buildings that now form the corner of Regents Park and King Henrys Roads.
The boys learnt a variety of skills including carpentry, brushmaking, tailoring, shoemaking, and so on. They were also hired out to local residents, as Edward Walford described (writing in 1882):
“A large quantity of firewood is cut on the premises, and delivered to customers, and several boys are employed by private families in the neighbourhood in cleaning knives and shoes. The amount of industrial work done in the Home is highly satisfactory. The products of the labour of the boys and their teachers —clothes, shoes and boots, brushes of every kind, carpentry and firewood—are sold, and contribute to the general funds of the institution …”
I wonder whether any of these highly productive young boys did jobs for the household of Friedrich Engels, who lived close by. At the same time as they were beavering away, so was Engels. During his residence close to the school, he:
Engels died in 1895. The school closed in 1920. On a map surveyed in 1938, the school’s courtyard still existed, the garage was not yet built, and the chapel was still marked as such. Today, there is no memorial to the school where it used to stand, but Engels’ house is distinguished from its neighbours by a circular plaque. Both the school and Engels were involved in social reform and the welfare of the oppressed, but few today would associate this pleasant road near Primrose Hill with those historical activities.
IF THE RAILWAY authorities did not prevent people from wandering along the track as many people do in India (for example), taking a photograph of an amazing construction at the base of London’s Primrose Hill would be simple. But, wisely, they do not encourage people to risk their lives on tracks that carry high speed trains from London’s Euston station to places north of it. The remarkable edifice to which I am referring is the eastern entrance to the Primrose Hill Tunnels that originally carried lines of the London and Birmingham Railway (‘L&BR’) underground between Primrose Hill Road in the east and Finchley Road in the west. Short of trespassing on the tracks, the best place to see the entrance is through the railings on the north side of King Henrys Road a few feet east of Primrose Hill Road.
The Primrose Hill tunnels were the first railway tunnels dug in London and some of the first in the United Kingdom (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1329904). The tunnels had to be built strong enough to withstand the weight of houses that were to be built above them. The land beneath which the trains pass is part of the Eton Estate (owned by Eton College). When the railway was being laid in the early 19th century, the Estate raised objections initially, worrying that running a railway through a deep cutting would reduce the saleability of the land, the Chalcot Estate owned by Eton, through which it ran. However:
“The L&BR bought off any possible College obstruction by agreeing to put the line in a tunnel through the Chalcots Estate. From an engineering viewpoint this was unnecessary as the rails were never more than 50 ft below the ground surface, and side slopes of 1 on 2 were specified initially. A tunnel had the merit of using no land, the surface being preserved for building …” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).
Digging the tunnels was not without danger. Workmen got killed. When this happened, their bodies were taken at first to be laid out in a local hostelry, The Chalk Farm Tavern. This place in Regents Park Road was rebuilt in 1853-54 and its new building is now home to Lemonia, a popular Greek restaurant. So, next time you are enjoying a plate of tzatziki or a souvlaki, just remember that years ago there was a mortuary for railway navvies near your table.
Today, there are two tunnels commencing at Primrose Hill Road. The northern one, nearest Adelaide Road, was the first to be built, in 1837. The southern one, nearest King Henrys Road, was built about 40 years later. Part of Eton College Estate’s requirements of the L&BR was:
“… the mouth of the Tunnel at the eastern end shall be made good and finished with a substantial and ornamental facing of brickwork or masonry to the satisfaction of the Provost and College…” (http://www.crht1837.org/history/tunnel).
The portals at this end of the tunnel, which can just about be seen from King Henrys Road, are grand and impressive examples of neo-classical Italianate masonry. The northern portal, the first to be constructed, was designed by William H Budden, who was appointed as an office assistant to the L&BR in May 1834 (https://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/16826/1/Railway%20tunnels%20recovered%203.pdf). The newer southern portal is a replica of the earlier one.
The graffiti-covered iron railway bridge that is 530 yards east of the tunnel, quite close to the house on King Henrys Road once occupied by the Indian politician and lawyer Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956), is easy to see, but far less attractive than the tunnels’ magnificent portals. Now a pedestrian and cycle bridge, it carries the northern section of Regents Park Road across the tracks. The present bridge, made of iron, was constructed in 1846 to replace an earlier one built in brick in 1839 (http://primrosehillhistory.org/?p=388). Until 1992, passengers could board and disembark from trains at a station at the northern end of the bridge. Opened in 1859, this station was named ‘Hampstead Road’, then ‘Chalk Farm’, and finally ‘Primrose Hill’.
Whereas the Primrose Hill Tunnel portals can only be glimpsed with great difficulty, the largely brick-built Roundhouse, a few yards south of Chalk Farm Underground Station, is impossible to miss. Located close to the railway tracks a few yards east of the Regents Park Road footbridge, this circular building was built as a railway locomotive shed in 1846-47. It was designed by Robert Benson Dockray (1811-1871), who had been an Assistant Engineer during the construction of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1835 (https://www.locallocalhistory.co.uk/ctown/p001/pages39-42.htm). The building was made circular because in its centre there was a turntable for moving the locomotives that were stored on tracks radiating out from it.
In 1967, the then disused Roundhouse was converted into a huge theatre. From the 1970s onwards, I used to attend occasional performances there. Amongst these, I particularly recall a somewhat raunchy show put on by the Grande Magic Circus, a French company, and many years later, an incomprehensible performance of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummers Night Dream”, which was performed in a variety of Indian languages by a troupe of acrobatic gymnasts. In recent years, a sculpture by Antony Gormley has been placed on the roof of a modern annex of the Roundhouse.
Private functions are also held in the Roundhouse. On one occasion, we were invited to a bat-mitzvah held there. Drinks and canapés were served in the circular upper floor gallery that runs around the circular auditorium. I was extremely surprised when one of the other guests came up to me and after looking me up and down, said:
“You must be in the fashion business.”
For a moment I was flattered, then I wondered whether he had had one too many or was visually impaired.
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.