A Winter Tree on Parliament Hill
Parliament Hill Fields
Rumbling under blackened girders, Midland, bound for Cricklewood,
Puffed its sulphur to the sunset where that Land of Laundries stood.
Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram alternate go,
Shake the floor and smudge the ledger, Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co.,
Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below.
When the Bon Marché was shuttered, when the feet were hot and tired,
Outside Charrington’s we waited, by the “Stop Here If Required”,
Launched aboard the shopping basket, sat precipitately down,
Rocked past Zwanziger the baker’s, and the terrace blackish brown,
And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town.
Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,
Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble hanging plane;
Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty Early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French Window fire.
Oh the after-tram-ride quiet, when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond;
Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown
And my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down
Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town.
Sir John Betjeman
This famous poem by Sir John Betjeman describes a journey on a tram in 1912 or 1913 from the point of view of Betjeman as a young boy. The tram was possibly the number 7, and the route invites a gentle exploration from the old tram stop next to Kentish Town underground and overground railway station, to the terminus at the bottom of Highgate West Hill. Much that Betjeman saw on his journey a century ago is still visible.
Most people are probably unaware that the junction of Kentish Town Road and Fortess Avenue was the centre of the old village, and the Assembly House Inn had been rebuilt by Thorpe & Furniss in a bold new construction in 1898, replacing the ageing building visible in engravings from a hundred years before. In the 18th century Kentish Town was a rural retreat for Londoners, especially those afflicted with consumption (Thornton, 1780).
The poem is evocative of simpler times as seen through the eyes of a child ‘before the dark of reason comes’.
Much here would also have been relatively new at the time of Betjeman’s tram ride – the underground station was built only 5 or 6 years before in 1907 in Leslie Green’s distinctive style with ox-blood tiling. The east side of Kentish Town Road had been redeveloped in the late 19th century as a parade of new shops serving the now sprawling urban development.
Kentish Town Station served both the Midland Railway (which ran from St Pancras through Kentish Town and on past Cricklewood) and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Underground Railway which opened in 1907 (now known as the Northern Line). The ‘rumbling under blackened girders’ felt by Betjeman remains to this day and if you look over the wall behind the tram stop the trains can be clearly seen – it is easy to imagine a young Betjeman doing this after a day of shopping with his mother – the steam locomotives being an altogether more impressive sight than the homogeneous trains of today.
…and as it is today – the tram stop now only a skeleton bleached by the sunlight
“Shake the floor and smudge the ledger, Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co.,
Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below.”
The coal merchants Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co. did indeed have shops in London but, interestingly, not in Kentish Town. Their nearest branch was at Gospel Oak and Kentish Town was served by the altogether less poetic Hinckling and Co. so the “Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below” were visible but not in Charrington’s. The reference to trucks and lines possibly relates to the practice of displaying coal nuggets in the waggons of a miniature railway in the window of Hinckling’s. Above the large station at Kentish Town was a large painted advertisement on the end of the new terraced houses and I like to think that, perhaps, the advert in 1913 was for Charrington’s, prompting that classic line.
“Rocked past Zwanziger the baker’s, and the terrace blackish brown,
And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town.”
Zwanziger the baker’s stood at what is now 385 Kentish Town Road a short distance from the tram stop along the road to Highgate and you can imagine the smell of baking bread drifting across the street to tickle the nose (and hunger) of a young Betjeman as he clutched Archibald his teddy bear, precious to him beyond all measure.
Sadly only a year later Zwanziger’s bakery was attacked by a mob which broke the windows and caused extensive damage, driven by anti-German sentiment stirred up by the media. A salutary lesson in these days when so much xenophobia is once again filling the pages of the tabloids. Eventually Zwanziger was forced to change his family name to Cordingley for fear of further retribution and damage to his business. Now it is a fish and chip shop.
The Bon Marché was one of the biggest drapery shops in the area at the time, eventually closed and replaced with Woolworth’s and now replaced by Sainsbury’s. The ‘terrace blackish brown’ was mostly demolished in the late 1960s but some aspects can still be seen as you stroll along Kentish Town Road towards Highgate West Hill, particularly on the right before reaching the “curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town”.
The church was ‘curious’ possibly due to it having two spires, or perhaps because it was never properly consecrated. It was described by Pevsner as having been ‘deplorably remodelled’ in Neo-Norman style by J.H. Hakewill in 1843-5, who removed the Tuscan portico and cupola, replacing them with an extension to the East. Prior to this it had been an elegant Palladian chapel built by James Wyatt in 1782-4, replacing the mediaeval chapel that had occupied the site since 1449. After the remodelling by Hakewill, the Ecclesiologist at the time called it ‘the very meanest and most contemptible of churches’.
“Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,
Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble hanging plane;
Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,”
This refers to the tram terminus at the bottom of Parliament Hill and the tennis courts still visible beside the road at the bottom of Hampstead Heath. Betjeman loved to reach out to the “bobbles” hanging from the plane trees along this road. Clearly visible as he headed home would have been the speckled-spire of St Anne’s Brookfield, the elegant church built by George Plucknett in 1852-3. The church had special significance to Betjeman as it was the place where he was baptised.
At the end of his tram journey is Brookfield Mansions from which he would have walked up to number 31 Highgate West Hill, the house where he grew up. It is a stuccoed house from 1860, uphill from Millfield Lane but was for Betjeman an allegory of his early years. Neither at the bottom of the hill with the ‘common folk’ of Kentish Town, nor at the top with the wealthy. A place in society that he would occupy in his own mind for much of his life.
St. Anne’s Church Highgate Rise
“Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French Window fire”
Lacking the mighty elms of yesteryear Brookfield Mansions were built around 1902 and still look in good condition.
Betjeman spoke often of those days, before the madness of the Great War swept across Europe and everything changed forever:
“Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world,
When firelight shone on green linoleum.
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky:
Deep beyond deep like never-ending stars
And turned to Archibald my safe old bear
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidences,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down.
I used to wait for hours to see him move
Convinced that he could breathe. One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.“
Many thanks to the Camden History Society whose research greatly assisted with this post.