This is part of the A1 that runs from London up to Leeds, York and eventually Scotland. The pub that stands at the intersection of the roads is the Gatehouse. It got its name from the toll house that used to stand here and the village of Highgate originated from the toll gate that was atop one of London’s highest hills.
Once descending Highgate Hill from the Gatehouse take a walk along some of the small lanes and alleyways to the left and stretched out below is London; an awesome view late at night. This is probably the view that Dick Whittington saw although in the Middle Ages London was a much smaller city.
Sir Richard Whittington actually existed; he is not a fictional pantomime character better known as the supporting lead to Puss in Boots.
It was on Highgate Hill that he heard the bells of London telling him to ‘turn again’ and go back to become Lord Mayor.
I’m not so sure that any London bell could travel that far but a monument to Dick Whittington was erected on Highgate Hill.
It was demolished by traffic once or twice and a smaller stone, carved in the shape of his cat now stands half way down on the right just past the turn off for the Whittington hospital, and quite sensibly placed inside a metal fence.
To the left is a turning that brings you onto Archway bridge from where you can look down on the relief road that offers a more sedate journey up the hill.
This bridge was always called ‘suicide bridge’ but ever since my mother told me this back when I was very young I never heard of anyone actually throwing themselves off. Now I understand that there has been 3 suicides in the last 6 weeks (written August 2002). According to the Islington Express there have been ‘around three suicide attempts a year made from the bridge, although there were 16 between January and October of last year (2001).’ So my mother was right after all.
Off on the left is Noel Road where Joe Orton lived with his lover Keith Halliwell. Orton was one of the best post war English playwrights. He only had a few plays produced but each one became a classic.
His humour may have been irreverent and amoral but he shook up the West End theatre scene. He was shot dead by his lover in a jealous rage.
A little further on is the Emirates Stadium, home of the Arsenal Football Club. It is the only club to have a London Underground station named after them.
The next landmark is Highbury Corner. On to the right is Barnsbury with its restored Georgian architecture. Tony Blair, former Prime Minister lived here before moving into Number 10. Despite the undoubted wealth that exudes here this area of London has always been extremely left of the political spectrum.
Carry on down towards Islington, Upper Street and you find yourself in the Angel and on the left where the road widens is Camden Passage.
Not so much a passage but a labyrinth of small lanes and passageways that form the basis of an antique centre. There are bargains to be had but the area is so famous now that sellers and buyers alike understand the true value of goods on offer.
The A1 continues into the City through an area that was once seedy, derelict and never on the tourist map. I think the word to describe it now is ‘gentrified’.
The City dealers and movers that would once have only passed through the area on the Underground have now moved in wholesale. As you reach the City you touch on Hoxton (do not pronounce the ‘H’), which is where many true cockneys such as my father were born.
The true mark of a cockney is to have been born within the sound of Bow Bells. Bow Bells are rung in Cheapside, not Bow which is in East London and quite a few miles from where Dick Whittington might have heard them.
This page and more in a similar vein comes from a collection in my eBook An echo from the Green Fields .