North by Northwest

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Marking my newest tube map has shown a striking fact that I’ve tried to ignore for six years- I know nothing about north London. Aside from small pockets like Finsbury Park, Camden, Holloway and Angel Islington that have the good fortune to be close enough to the city centre or proximity to other places and people that I wanted to visit- north London remains a mystery to me. I know vague things about it- the large communities of Orthodox Jews, media types and celebrities- but the actual physical form of it, the history and feel of the place remained outside of my reach. The problem is, simply, there isn’t much happening up north. Much like my far west residence, much of it is simply residential, and that dreaded word- suburban. However, this is the year I promised myself that I would push past my complacency and explore this unknown frontier where rich men roamed.

I started my journey in Hampstead, the north’s spiritual home. Cris-crossing between the Under/Overground I emerged in a lush area flanked by park opening and London staple Daunt Books. Making a note to swing around and come back to Daunt, I started through the park, wary of of the greenery that would inevitably cause havoc on my hayfever. I was struck immediately by the wildness of Hampstead Heath. Much like its sister to the south, Richmond Park, Hampstead was less clean-cut than other parks, lending it  an artistic, romantic wildness. Beautiful Georgian homes peered from behind the trees as the crowds flocked towards the numerous ponds, watching the ducks and coots frolic in the water as footballs were gently passed around.

Walking up sharply inclined paths that cut through the trees, past cyclists and families led me to Parliament Hill. I stood in the high grass and gazed at the sunbathers in various states of deshabille as the park unfurled gently behind them, the cityscape visible in the distance. With the dense greenery behind me and the golden green grass that surrounded me, I could understand why this had been the setting for so many paintings and films. Moving past the topless sunbathers that ignored the brisk spring weather for that rare chance at sun, I walked down the sloping path, past the tennis courts and middle aged gay couples holding hands, to another part of the park with yet more ponds. Sitting down on the grass I watched the sunseekers sprawled out on picnic blankets, their Waitrose and Marks and Spencer’s food surrounding them like a Manet painting. A young spaniel ran from blanket from blanket, hunting for affection, completing the scene.

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After tiring of the cheery pleasantness I set off again, passing the men’s pond, which was surrounded by middle-aged men in small swimming trunks, their soft stomachs spilling over. A quick glance over the fence showed men on the pier, goggles on, gazing at the pond, empty save for a few swimming rings and honking water fowl. Eventually I left the park, though a quick glance at google map showed that I was nowhere near my starting point! I walked around the park, marvelling at how different the area was from my small suburb.  I stopped when I saw a bus stop whose destination was Highgate. Deciding to continue my adventure, I hopped on the bus, hoping to see the famous cemetery. As the bus travelled to Highgate, I felt as though I was leaving London altogether. Highgate is known as a village within the city for very good reason. The chic pubs and well tended buildings became sparser as the bus heaved itself up a sharply inclined country hill. The buildings reminded me strongly of the early colonial buildings in Williamsburg, plain and sturdy. We passed what looked like a village square before stopping at a large school. It looked unlike anything else I’d seen in London, the closest comparison I could think of was Dulwich Village in the southeast.

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Walking around the area I’d felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Amongst the normal high street shops was the delightful looking High Tea at Highgate, which I reminded myself to return to (I am forever searching for teashops). At Highgate Bookshop, further down the road, I had a look in, happy with the shop’s tininess and quaintness, and it’s solid collection of fiction. It was like a Richard Curtis film, I expected Hugh Grant to waltz in at any moment. After sating myself on books I walked back to the green, cutting through small streets and looking at the fancy houses and rich greenery as well-dressed parents and their children in well-tailored school uniforms walked past.

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After exploring a bit more, I left Highgate Village and walked towards Muswell Hill. I was only there for a moment, but I managed to get a picture of London in the spring.

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