Monday, 26 April 2010

High jinks at Highgate

The Partridge and her kinsfolk would telephone me several times a day from Berlin in their efforts to secure a passage back to England. I trawled the internet looking for ferries which might take them as foot passengers. It proved a near impossible task. The best they could hope for was to make their way to a continental port and take their chances once they got there. This, however, was not a practical option as the party included a woman in her 70s and the only train journey they could reserve from Berlin would have involved her standing up for the whole two hour journey, with no guarantee of either a seat on the ferry or accommodation upon arrival. Another family friend, desperate to have them all back in time to celebrate her landmark birthday in England, took it upon herself to try and organise a rescue mission of her own. Her other flights of fancy having been politely but firmly turned down, she finally suggested they hire a pilot acquaintance of hers to fly them back home in his light aircraft for £800. Given that they did not know this pilot personally and that a general flight ban was in operation, albeit perhaps only for jet aircrafts, her offer was again politely declined. After many hours of queuing, they were eventually able to secure fully refundable Eurostar tickets, which would have guaranteed them a seat from Berlin through to St Pancras, London on Sunday 25th April. In the event, they were able to fly back to England sooner with their original carrier, two days after the flight ban had been lifted across the whole of the UK.

Released from my duties as a part-time travel agent, I decided to spend my last full day as a chatelaine strolling along to Highgate village. I took more photographs of the 17th century Cromwell House, which now serves as the Ghanaian Embassy. It is a pity I do not have any Ghanaian friends as I would have insisted they found a way to let me take a peek at the interior. The house is said to boast a fine 17th century oak staircase.

In terms of its exterior, the house is unusual in that it still retains a lofty 17th century carriage arch, tall enough to allow even high sided small vans to pass safely under today. Similar arches were often either demolished or filled in to provide additional accommodation in later eras. Fortunately the house is listed which means owners, even foreign embassies, have to respect the integrity of the building. The roof and cupola were restored in the 1860s. In the 19th century it was believed that Cromwell House was so named because Bridget, the Lord Protector’s daughter, went to live there upon her marriage to Henry Ireton. However, no evidence can be found that any member of either the Cromwell or Ireton family lived at the house itself, although it was known that the original builder was a neighbour of the Iretons. 

The Ireton connection is also commemorated in the name of the far smaller town house, to the immediate right of Cromwell House as you emerge down its front steps.

Across the road is Lauderdale House where John Ireton, Henry’s brother and one-time Lord Mayor of London, did indeed reside. With such strong links to the English Commonwealth, John was forced to vacate Lauderdale House following the restoration of King Charles II in 1660. Local legend has it that the latter’s cockney mistress, Nell Gwynne, lived at the house for a while.  One undoubted owner was John Maitland, the first Duke of Lauderdale and second husband of Elizabeth, Countess of Dysart. whose name is forever linked to Ham House in Richmond. In his diary for the 28th July 1666 Samuel Pepys records a visit he made to the Duke of Lauderdale’s Highgate home. Pepys was not impressed either by the calibre of the guest or their musical abilities. He writes:      

“ Thence with my Lord to his coach-house, and there put in his six horses into his coach, and he and I alone to Highgate. ….Being come thither we went to my Lord Lauderdale's house to speake with him, we find (him) and his lady and some Scotch people at supper. Pretty odd company; though my Lord Bruncker tells me, my Lord Lauderdale is a man of mighty good reason and judgement. But at supper there played one of their servants upon the viallin some Scotch tunes only; several, and the best of their country, as they seemed to esteem them, by their praising and admiring them: but, Lord! the strangest ayre that ever I heard in my life, and all of one cast. But strange to hear my Lord Lauderdale say himself that he had rather hear a cat mew, than the best musique in the world; and the better the musique, the more sicke it makes him; and that of all instruments, he hates the lute most, and next to that, the baggpipe.”

“A History of the County of Middlesex”, published in 1980, claims that Grand Duke Cosimo III of Tuscany paid a visit to Lauderdale House in 1669. Coincidentally, I am currently engaged in reading a paperback copy of Harold Acton’s 1932 biography of  Cosimo, entitled “The Last Medici.  I have yet to reach the part where the Florentine Duke decides to stay and have a cup of coffee and a slice of cake in Highgate. 

As it was a fine spring afternoon people had thronged to Waterlow Park, the pleasure gardens surrounding Lauderdale House. I read a magazine on a park bench as small children and dogs played near by. My attention was suddenly caught by a Doberman puppy and a much smaller poodle-like dog. The latter was making a thorough nuisance of himself. I say he, because the dog was trying to mount the Doberman puppy. I watched with fascination as the Doberman tried to escape the poodle’s unwanted advances. My feelings changed to trepidation as the Doberman sought sanctuary beneath my feet before leaping on to the bench and lying down beside me. Doberman Pinschers have a reputation for aggression and I feared that once the puppy’s natural instincts kicked in, it might literally make a meal of the insolent poodle and my limbs at the same time, should they become inadvertently entangled in the melee. Luckily once the puppy realised that its owner was now close by, it recovered its nerve and began to leap upon the poodle. Being a far bigger dog, it squashed the poodle to the ground as it did so. As the puppy was now well clear of my limbs and was still in a playful mood, I watched in amusement to see the tables so resolutely turned before the owner attached a leash to the puppy’s collar and led her away.

I took a number of the photographs of the exterior of Lauderdale House, which like Cromwell House across the road, was much restored in the 19th century. I particularly liked the pair of statues of the boy and girl dressed in period costumes on the terrace, as well as the marble bas relief depicting a scene from antiquity in the vestibule. I do not know whether either work was original to the house. Regrettably I did not have a chance to venture inside to view the latest exhibition being staged there, as the doors had closed promptly at 4pm.

As I made my way up Highgate Hill I stopped to read the plaque on the boundary wall surrounding Lauderdale House. It commemorated the site, several feet below, of the cottage of the English metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell. From this Victorian plaque I discovered that Andrew Marvell was not only friends with the even more lauded 17th century poet John Milton, he was also born in Yorkshire and had been MP for Hull for a number of years. I will now need to get a comely young man to read me Marvell’s poem To his coy mistress in an authentic Yorkshire dialect. Having read Lady Chatterley’s lover at an impressionable young age, I have always subsequently found the adult male Yorkshire accent rather alluring, whereas certain other regional dialects make me cringe. 

Being back on Highgate Hill, I could not fail to stop by High Tea of Highgate for a cappuccino and carrot cake. I am sure they saw a marked decline in their sales last year following my return to Wimbledon, after a similar week of caring for my friend’s brother. Last summer, I made a point of gracing the tea-shop with my presence on an almost daily basis.  I happily ate my way through most of the cakes on display. This time I had to limit myself to a slice of their delicious carrot cake, made without walnuts. All the cakes are equally appetising in my eyes, which makes selecting a single one so difficult. 1940s music played as I sat at my table and admired the chandelier made from tea paraphernalia, light fittings formed from metal jelly moulds and the trompe l’oeil of a clock painted onto the wall. I toyed with the idea of buying a slice of cake to take back with me but then decided that having already eaten separate ice-creams to and from Lauderdale House to celebrate the arrival of the glorious weather, I had better refrain.

And so, if not to bed, back to my final chatelaine duties at the house in Highgate.

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