The damming work on Hampstead Heath (it's supposed to be a flood prevention scheme, but when this is one of the highest points in the city, what exactly is the flood peril?) is making quite a mess of the 'model boat' pond and surrounding area. But some curious relics are being uncovered after decades under water.
What is that you see in this picture? Yes, it really is a car - coming up for air after many waterlogged years in NW3.
True car afficionados may be able to make out the model (a Cortina, possibly?) - all I can say is that the scrap value could well be very modest And how did this car get to the bottom of a Heath pond? Someone, somewhere, must know more.
This mud-coloured sedan is even more of a talking point on the Heath than the heron, the parakeets, the ever-declining standard of cappuccino at the cafe. And the big question - will it be hauled out and junked, or once more consigned to a watery resting place when the flood prevention work is done?
DANNY TOMMY JOE GIBBONS INTERNATIONAL BRIGADERS 1936-1938
PAT DOOLEY SPEAKER AT PARLIAMENT HILL EDITOR 1901-1958
THEIR FAMILY PROUDLY REMEMBERS APRIL 1980
That's the inscription on a bench on Hampstead Heath - just a five-minute stroll from Kite Hill, bordering a copse of pine trees, and looking out east to Highgate. My friend Martin Plaut came across this rather out-of-the-way bench while doing his morning sit-ups. It's in some disrepair. He's trying to contact the family to see if they would be on board for a bit of fund-raising to spruce up this rather touching memorial.
The International Brigaders were those left-wingers who went to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. More than 2,000 headed out from Britain - 500 or so never returned. I had the privilege to meet and interview a few of them towards the end of their lives. The International Brigade Memorial Trust keeps their memory and spirit alive - though this modest memorial seems to have escaped the otherwise comprehensive list on their website.
Danny Gibbons, a Scotsman who moved to Camden, was a communist and for a while the political commissar of the British contingent of the Brigades - there's a brief biographical note about him here. He was wounded at Jarama in February 1937 and was sent home to recuperate. He insisted on going back to Spain, was arrested by Franco's troops, and was eventually released in a prisoner exchange involving German and Italian officers. His younger brother Tommy died in Spain, in the battle for Brunete in July 1937.
Joe (his real name was Patrick) volunteered with the American battalion in Spain - there's some details on this site. And there was a fourth brother, John Gibbons, who was apparently refused permission to join the International Brigades - according to some accounts, the CPGB leader Harry Pollitt, said with three brothers risking their lives, it would be wrong to have a fourth Gibson fighting in Spain. He was, all the same, a very loyal member of the Communist Party and spent many years in Moscow.
Kathleen Gibbons was Danny's second wife, and her maiden name was Dooley. That may be the link with Pat Dooley - about whom I have been able to find out little. (Can anyone help?) A biography of the bohemian inter-war poet Anna Wickham mentions Pat (his real name was Lawrence) Dooley as an activist who made rousing left-wing speech at the top of Parliament Hill in the 1930s and '40s. Strange to think of this as a pitch for outdoor speakers!
I have a feeling that this blog will be returning to the story of the Gibbons brothers ...
The hamlet of the Vale of Health ... probably the most isolated community in inner London, though it's cheek-by-jowl with the city's best known park, Hampstead Heath. It was originally known as Hatchett's Bottom, and seems to have been marshy and distinctly unhealthy, so the name was either ironic or a deliberate rebranding. It's now a collection of fifty or so houses along a small web of streets and alleyways, with a fairground workers' caravan park attached.
You reach the Vale of Health along what is basically a cul-de-sac from East Heath Road. It's surrounded by the Heath on all sides. There's a few hundred yards between the Vale and the nearest other houses. Legend has it that the romantic poets spent time here. Blue plaques reveal that D.H. Lawrence, Rabindranath Tagore and the historian Barbara Hammond once lived in the Vale of Health.
Thee's not much here though apart from some charming and well-appointed houses - no pub, cafe, place of worship ... nothing which serves as a focus for the community.
... and the source of the Fleet
The Vale of Health is sometimes cited as the source of the most renowned of London's lost rivers, the Fleet. Whitestone Pond stands at a higher altitude, near Jack Straw's Castle at the brow of the Heath. But that's the source not of the Fleet but of the Westbourne, which flows much more to the west. There were two main tributaries of the Fleet, rising either side of Parliament Hill - and their damming created both the Highgate and Hampstead ponds. So it reasonable to imagine that one of the sources of the Fleet lies close to here.
The river now flows underground - in culverts, pipes, and beyond the bounds of the Heath in Bazalgette's sewers, until it spills into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. But every ditch stream and rivulet round here - even the distinctly puny one featured in this photo which I came across this afternoon - once fed and nourished the river Fleet.
So where exactly did the Fleet once run? The most authoritative answer is given in a fold-out map at the back of Nicholas Barton's The Lost Rivers of London, first published in 1962. I came across a copy this weekend priced at a fiver at the excellent Walden Books in Harmood Street - here's a samizdat copy of part of that map:
You can still follow the Fleet in London's street names - Fleet Road in Gospel Oak, Anglers Lane in Kentish Town, Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell, Fleet Street near Blackfriars. And it all starts near the Vale of Health.
An action shot taken on Hampstead Heath this afternoon - at least it's open to men and women, which isn't so evident at the cricket match just a couple of minutes' stroll away.
Athlone Gardens, in the north-east corner of Hampstead Heath, this afternoon - stunningly beautiful, and really hidden away. There was hardly anyone there. I'd never come across this wonderfully well kept glade before - it seems to have become part of the Heath quite recently. A big thank you to the friends who introduced me to this most enchanting corner of the Heath - a beautiful place to lie down, gossip, rest and wonder.
Two successive spellbindingly beautiful sunny, wintery Sundays. Last weekend, I climbed the 'great hill' from Willesden to Archway (see the previous blog entry). This Sunday, I stayed closer to home - I guess the last bike ride of the year, through and around the Heath. The autumn colours are now fading, but there are enough ochres and mustards around catching the dazzling low sun to excite even the most faded eye.
Towards the end of Zadie Smith's new novel NW, the central character, Natalie/Keisha, walks out of her home near Queen's Park - walks out on her husband, her old life - and makes her way across north London. It's a memorable walk. And today - with the bright winter sun making every aspect of the city sparkle and shine - I retraced Keisha's steps. It took me three hours. Well worthwhile!
You can follow in outline Keisha's walk by the chapter titles: 'Willesden Lane to Kilburn High Road', 'Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green', 'Hampstead to Archway', 'Hampstead Heath', 'Corner of Hornsey Lane', 'Hornsey Lane'.
Whatever truth you look for from a novelist, it's not cartographic precision. But Zadie Smith maps out her character's route pretty precisely.
The walk emphasises how much the lives of the main characters in NW intersect with the author's own. It walk starts at Keisha's house on the Willesden Lane side of Queen's Park. Within minutes she has passed her friend Leah's house - and the Caldwell estate which plays such a big part in the novel.
This is exactly where Zadie Smith was brought up. She went to Malorees primary school just a stone's throw away. Her mother, it's said, still lives here. So too does Zadie Smith, not now in a council flat but a three-storey Victorian house. It makes you wonder how much of Keisha's story is Zadie Smith's exploration of 'the other path', the way her own life might have worked out.
Where Winchester Avenue meets Willesden Lane, cheek-by-jowl with more gentrified Brondesbury, stands the Fiveways estate. Not quite the model for Caldwell, but with much in common - including the stout boundary wall. Caldwell has five blocks linked by walkways and bridges. 'The smell of weed was everywhere'. On a Sunday morning, Fiveways was quiet, almost sylvan, and entirely odour free.
Keisha at one point ends up in Albert Road - quite a way to the south. She can't get through - there's a police cordon - and has to retrace her steps. The geography doesn't quite add up. But trying to make sense of it, I make the detour. Past the entrance to Paddington cemetery on Willesden Lane - where, as the novel glancingly mentions, Arthur Orton, the Tichborne claimant is buried. Past the basketball court. Along stylish Lonsdale Road - reminding me of Hackney's Broadway Market - and into Salusbury Road with its book shop and library ...
When I reach Albert Road, the other side of the tracks from up-market Queen's Park, I feel that perhaps this is also Caldwell - the estate is an amalgam. The sun is strong, the sky so blue, every vista has an enchantment. But there's also something a little spooky about the estates off Albert Road. For one thing, at midday on a beautiful Sunday, there's no one around. Hardly a soul. And then there's the hardness to the architecture. It's a little forbidding.
If Natalie/Keisha had managed to thread her way through the length of Albert Road and beyond - at least if she was doing it today - just before reaching Kilburn High Road, she would have come across a remarkable sight. Beirut come to north London. A wreck, a ruin, an estate block which looks as if it has been ravaged by a tsunami. Part demolished and - it seems - abandoned. A really unsettling and arresting image.
By the time she hits Kilburn High Road and heads north (as she sets out on her walk, her intention is clear: 'Without looking where she was going, she began climbing the hill that begins in Willesden and ends in Highgate') she has teamed up with Nathan Bogle. He's flying on something or other, and rolling joints. And as they pass Kilburn tube, it also becomes apparent that he's poncing girls.
They head up Shoot Up Hill. The area changes. 'The world of council flats lay far behind them, at the bottom of the hill. Victorian houses began to appear ...'. This is an area Zadie Smith knows with easy familiarity - close by is her old secondary school, Hampstead (though it's not Hampstead - Hampstead cemetery lies here, yes, but this is NW6 not NW3).
Not too far up the hill, however, it crests. If you want to continue going up, you have to turn along Mill Lane, Hillfield Road, Fortune Green Road, and then still more sharply ascending, to Platt's Lane and an outlying section of Hampstead Heath.
This seems to be the route Keisha and Nathan follow - pausing, briefly, on the margins of the Heath for squalid, feral sex.
They stop in the doorway of Jack Straw's Castle, the highest point of the walk - and indeed just about the highest point in London - then head down towards Archway.
The walk ends at suicide bridge on Hornsey Lane, which runs sixty feet above the busy dual carriageway that's Archway Road. She has headed here for a purpose but 'had forgotten that the bridge was not purely functional. She tried her best but could not completely ignore its beauty.' She steps on the ledge, and peers out at London as best the railings allow. She doesn't attempt to jump, but instead abandons Nathan and hurries off after a night bus. The journey is over.
The bright solstice sun enlivened Hampstead Heath this weekend, as autumn starts to grip.
The blackberry bushes are spent - the leaves are beginning to fall - the sun bathers by the men's pond look both forlorn and foolhardy.
This path leads from the model boating pond - where I've seen grebes recently - towards Kenwood. The best blackberrying is just up here and on the right.
But it was the light, the shadows, and the play of the branches that caught my attention on Saturday.
I was surprised how few strollers were out and about - the Heath was a long way from empty, and indeed the cafe at Kenwood was jiving, but it wasn't the sort of crush I would have expected to mark this Indian summer. It may be a while before we see the Heath bathed in bright sunlight again.
I have discovered a fondness for caramel ice cream, satisfied this weekend at the ice cream kiosk at Kenwood. The ice cream season too is almost gone - the rhythms of the seasons give some shape to life, even urban life in a technology-led era, still it's sad to see the summer depart.
£4 for a small punnet. The price of blackberries in a Highgate fruit shop. It puts a market price on a modest sized blackberry of 10 pence. I feel a touch of the Victor Meldrews coming on!
It has been a miserable summer for blackberriers. A bumper crop needs sun and rain in harmony, not one and then the other. So the blackberrying picking season has been late, and deeply unsatisfactory.
Still, on Sunday, I was able to pick enough on the Heath - without my teenage kids, who seem to have lost their appetite for blackberrying tho not for crumbles - to sustain us through the autumn. Today's blackberry and apple crumble (I don't have a big repertoire, you understand) was a classic of its kind, and as you can see was devoured keenly by all the stay-at-home family members as well as by the sole picker among us.
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