diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Random borough (28): Camden (part 3)

Somewhere pretty: The Pergola
One thing I love about these random jaunts around London is that there's always somewhere I haven't been before, often that I wasn't even aware of until the random borough's name appeared. A locations that's somehow always been off my radar, or that I've seen mentioned but never really engaged with. The Pergola at Inverforth House is one such place. It's a beautiful spot, as it turns out, yet so incredibly easy to have overlooked. And it's all thanks to soap flakes and detergent.

William Lever, the 1st Viscount Leverhulme, was responsible for starting the grocery business that eventually became Unilever. His industrial base was around Port Sunlight in Merseyside, but he also wanted his own house in London. In 1904 he bought up a large family residence on the northern flank of Hampstead Heath, naming it Hill House. And then he set about remodelling the back garden, courtesy of Thomas Mawson the celebrated landscape gardener. Several extensive terraces were laid (using surplus earth from the tunnelling of the Northern line extension to Golders Green, no less). A new ornamental Hill Garden was constructed a short distance from the house. But there was a pesky public footpath inbetween, whose closure Leverhulme couldn't force, so instead he extended a small pergola across it. And extended, and extended, until the mammoth twisted walkway was the dominant feature hereabouts. It still is.

I approached the Hill Garden from the Golders Hill Park Café, which looked a delightful eaterie (but was in the London borough of Barnet so I'm not allowed to tell you about it). Footpaths led up onto the gated heath, where a series of wooded ascents felt somehow more like mid-Wales than north London. Apart from a few preoccupied dog walkers somewhere in the distance, I had the slopes pretty much to myself. And at the top of the hill, with only minor fanfare, was the entrance to the formerly secret garden. This was lovely enough even in January, with twisting contoured paths and a green lawn leading down to an ornamental pool. The latter had a cement mixer and orange cones at one end, which I'm guessing weren't part of the original plans, but added a little midwinter colour. My apologies to the snogging couple on an upper bench whose amorous activities I disturbed.

Then came steps up to the western end of the pergola (that's a shady pillared passageway entwined with woody plants, for non-horticulturalists). This one's elevated, apart from a single hilltop gate where a path heads out onto the Heath, and it's unexpectedly long. A series of classical columns led off along a red-tiled pavement, topped off by a lattice of timber beams. The structure's now old enough that the wisteria looks properly gnarled, if currently leafless. It all made for a charming Romanesque setting - and this was just the first section. A right-angled turn lay ahead, across the footbridge, where there was the clearest view of the house's formal gardens. It's all luxury flats now of course, but with the top of the raised walkway and outer garden still somehow open to full public access. The pergola meandered on and on to a final spiral staircase, interrupted occasionally by a dome or trellis in the roof overhead. I can confirm that the entire structure's Cassiopeia-shaped (now that I've seen it on Google maps) and that, if straightened out, the pergola would be as long as Canary Wharf tower is tall. A shame that Lord Leverhulme died shortly after it was completed - complications from pneumonia prematurely curtailed his pleasure.

I need to come back in the summer to see the pergola and its West Heath surrounds in full green glory. I fear it'll be busier, because folk who live nearby surely know this delightful backwater exists. If its existence has been news to you, pick a random weekend later this year and promise yourself a visit. Prepare yourself by viewing another of Camden's excellent historical walk videos. And bring a camera.
by tube: North End   by bus: 210, 268

Somewhere historic: Keats House
A small house in Hampstead is responsible for one of Britain's most prolific outbursts of romantic poetry. John Keats moved in when Wentworth Place was almost new, in 1818, to lodge with his friend Charles Armitage Brown. They shared the semi-detached two-up two-down, relatively uneventfully, until the Brawne family moved in nextdoor the following year. John became increasingly smitten by eldest daughter Fanny, and she inspired a more amorous undertone to his output. Her and the nightingale which used to sing in the garden "...in some melodious plot of beechen green, and shadows numberless". Tuberculosis cut John's life short. He fell sick in 1820, setting up a bed in the downstairs parlour so that he could still view the house's garden. Doctors eventually suggested recuperation in warmer climes, so he sailed to Rome, thereby prematurely ending his burgeoning relationship with Fanny. Keats was only 25 when he died, in a villa on the Spanish Steps, but left behind a lyrical canon acclaimed to this day.

The two houses passed to actress Eliza Jane Chester in 1839, and she knocked down the intervening wall and added a conservatory alongside. It's this enlarged house that visitors get to see today, ninety years after it was first opened to the public. You can't miss it, it's in Keats Grove, appropriately right next to the local library. And it's owned not by Camden Council but the City of London, who own most of the adjacent Heath too. Five pounds paid to the nice ladies round the back will gain you entrance, and for as many subsequent visits as you fancy over the next year.

The gift shop and first rooms are in Fanny's house, and contain period furnishings as well as a glass case of Keatsobilia. Crossing the hallway then brings you to the poet's lodgings. One really nice touch is a portrait of Keats hung in the room where it was painted, with two replica chairs set out on the carpet in precisely the spot they appear in the painting. Very little of the original furniture survives - John was only here for 18 months, and few back then would have thought to conserve his landlord's fixtures and fittings. But you'll certainly absorb the atmosphere of the place, from the upper bedrooms to the cellar kitchen, brought to life by several laminated letters and poems left waiting for visitors to read. Take a look here for a virtual tour around the house, which hopefully will encourage you to see the place for real. And be aware that your annual ticket also allows you to attend a surprisingly varied selection of cultural events. Next Saturday they're reading Keats' epic "The Eve of St Agnes" (two days early), and the following weekend it's card games, dice and dominoes with tea and crumpets. Sounds charming. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
by tube: Hampstead   by bus: 46, 268

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