Thursday, 22 April 2010

Not so Ideal Home

As I perambulated Highgate village I came across the sad sight of what looks to have once been an elegant Regency town house boarded up and woefully neglected. Only a few minutes later I was standing outside a modern house in the process of being built. It was recently nominated for an award for being the most eco-friendly house in the United Kingdom. It can be bought for a mere six million pounds. No doubt whoever lives in it can feel smug that they have such a “green” house although I pity the neighbours who have to look at it from the outside. Its exterior has about as much innate charm as the average warehouse on an industrial estate. I cannot see people flocking to save it from demolition in a few decades when its technology will have become obsolete and there being seemingly having little else to recommend in its favour.

The houses in the area were once large family homes with spacious gardens. Now people buy a perfectly acceptable house, knock it down and build some mundane replacement on a scale completely out of kilter with the original; hardly the most eco friendly example to set. Moreover, most of these new developments involve destroying the original verdant front gardens and erecting tall fences to conceal the grounds; in doing so they are acting quite out of keeping with the original architectural vernacular of the locality as well as increasing the general sense of unease for pedestrians such as myself; these fortresses suggest the streets outside must be genuinely dangerous if home owners feel a need to barricade themselves indoors. Thus, not only do they serve to destroy the look of the area with such bland buildings, they also destroy its community spirit. How can public spirited individuals keep a discreet eye out for the welfare of their fellow neighbours when they cannot even see their neighbours’ house, concealed behind such high walls? Besides, an Englishman’s home may be his castle, but it is the inalienable right of all Englishmen and women to be able to peek through at the front garden and comment on the state of the lawn or envy the horticultural display.

On the same road as the faded Regency town house are two other houses of note; according to the blue plaques on the respective buildings Charles Dickens stayed in one of the houses in 1832 and the poet and scholar A.E. Housman wrote his famous collection of poems “A Shropshire Lad” whilst residing in the other. There are no high walls to prevent people taking a photograph of the one-time homes of such illustrious former occupants. Even without the literary connections, such houses never fail to lift my spirits when I walk past them unlike their dreary modern counterparts. Their very presence encourages me to take a stroll rather than drive a car or take a bus to my destination. Consequently, they would win my award for being the perfect mix of eco and neighbourhood friendly houses.

Home thoughts from a Broad

Now that my time in Highgate is fast coming to an end, I decided to go for a walk in Waterlow Park. It is notable for its links with the celebrated Restoration courtesan Nell Gywn, who is thought to have lived for a time in Lauderdale House, the mansion still standing in its grounds. Waterlow Park also borders Highgate Cemetery, one of whose most famous eternal residentsighgate cemetery is Karl Marx. Had I been born but a century earlier and followed the same career path I might well have bumped into Karl when I worked late in the Reading Room of the British Library. However, my stroll did not bring to mind the German philosopher but rather his contemporary, the Victorian poet Robert Browning and in particular the following poem by him:

Home Thoughts from Abroad

Oh, to be in England
Now that April's there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England-now!

And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops-at the bent spray's edge-
That's the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children's dower
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!