Monday, February 21, 2011

Grand Days Out - Highgate

Our family is famous amongst our acquaintance for taking 'lame', or perhaps tame, holidays.  I think there are a number of reasons for this, er ... failing.   One is a chronic lack of planning where we typically finally decide on a destination, book flights and accommodation as much as 24 hours before we are due to leave.  Another is a deep love of ordinariness, of residential neighbourhoods, quiet strolls holding hands, small tea shops and old fashioned hardware emporia.  We are not grand outdoors enthusiasts - no rugged foothills and primitive conditions, miles from a decent butcher or bookshop - but that is not to say we don't want to 'get away from it all'.  It is simply that what most of the Western world takes for granted is remote and rare for us.  I have been know to enter a commonplace supermarket in London and struggle to resist the urge to fall to my knees and sob at the exquisite variety of tins of soup, of spices from all over the world, of breakfast cereal selections, of - well choices.

We don't do whirlwind tours of the 'it is Tuesday so this must be Prague' variety.  Once we spent eight days in deep December, in Florence.  Apart from the lack of crowds and the time to drool over pastry shop windows, we could justify a whole morning at the Boboli Gardens, watching the ice melt off the grass and sharing our frosty breath with only a few ducks.  We stayed at a small family hotel where we encountered another family who were seeing Italy in six days, and were anxious to know what they had missed in Florence that was taking us so long.  What to say?  They had covered all the 'attractions'; it must have been a frantic pace of 15 minutes to David and then a whole two hours to whizz through the Uffizi. 

I do not mean to sneer.  The pace of our travel would be tedious and excruciating to many, I am sure.  I suspect we are great fantasists, always pretending for a day or two that we live where ever it is.  It does make for unexpected memories that I cling to on our return.

One of my favourites, which comes flashing back to me when I least expect, is the day we spent one November (not a fashionable time of year either) wandering around the streets of Highgate in north London.  I had a hankering to see the house I had stayed in on a visit 40 years ago and being an historic village, with many famous (deceased) residents, we found a guide book with a map and a suggested walk.  We'd come up on the tube and immediately took the wrong exit.  The area is very hilly and I am exceptionally lazy.  It was too cold to stop and study the incomplete map at every corner, so we fortified ourselves with hot chocolate at a cafe-art gallery-gift shop and decided we would simply wing it.

Mid morning, deserted streets.  There was a rubbish-collecting lorry somewhere grinding up a hill and a few whispering saloon cars.  Some of the hills are so steep they are equipped with half-way seats and chairlifts, or they should be.  We followed a cat for a block or so, but on one of the hair-pin intersections we took the wrong leg and missed the street we needed to follow to find my friends' old house.  As we wandered, we speculated on house prices and discussed which of the Edwardian delights would best suit our grandiose dreams.  We abandoned the map (too many roads with the same name, or no discernible name at all) clambered down a connecting set of steps, followed a graffiti-free walled lane, and somehow, ended back on the main road, only a block from where we had set off.  We could see the painted sign for the cafe we'd visited an hour previously, swinging in the breeze up the hill.

We missed Byron's Cottage (apparently only a name, no connection to the poet) and the former home of both Coleridge and Priestly (presumably at different times); we didn't find Betjeman's childhood home, Highgate High School where TS Eliot had taught, nor the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute.  I would have liked to have seen the family home of Evelyn Waugh but we were about 50 years too late. 

We decided to try to find the park, where, the guide book told us, there would be a nice house open for lunch.  We walked down the hill to Archway, under a vertiginous Victorian viaduct and then across to Highgate Hill Road.  We toiled back up the hill to Waterlow Park which was full of bare trees, nicely hoed black-soiled flower beds (borders in gardener-speak), sparrows and pigeons.  We watched a grey squirrel wrestling with a wizened apple and tried, unsuccessfully, to photograph it.  I always find photographs disappointing, not because of technical failings or composition errors, but because they are never quite the same as one's imaginatively enhanced memories.

We had lunch at Lauderdale House, which had the atmosphere of a neighbourhood club, with community notices, art classes, a hall full of prams and pushchairs, a comfortable feeling of negligence and lovely big windows overlooking the lawns. We ate fishcakes made with salmon and cod - the day's special - which were a cross between British traditional fare and Thai influence.  We shared a half-carafe of wine over lunch and followed with apple crumble.  It would be nice to think the apples came from remnant orchards on site, but I think they came from the local Sainsbury's or Waitrose instead.

After lunch we decided to try to resurrect at least the tail end of our walk and visit Highgate Cemetery and Karl Marx's grave.  We navigated past park benches and crusty leaves, across a bridge over a small pond with ducks looking for handouts, and amongst dogs chasing an exuberance of fresh air.  We admired the views half way across London and the expansive scurrying skies.   We found the gates to the Cemetery: £3 entry per person.  I have never heard of a charge for a graveyard.  We decided we would skip Karl's last resting place.  We could see a bobcat through the fence, at work repairing footpaths and dispelling the peace and any wandering spirits, which made the decision to be thrifty easy.

At the time, I felt we'd spent an enjoyable day and could not predict that the memories would stand out as particularly special.  It was not a day marked by tragedy, public events or emotional upheaval, nor one of great personal discovery.  We were not edified or enhanced in any tangible way, not by labels or glass cases or intellectual improvement; only the space, the air, the unplanned freedom of the day: the fish cakes, the squirrel and the bewildered lady who asked for directions, remain.

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