Northern Heights – Highbury to Hornsey

Highbury Fields – one of my favourite places in London, yeah I know, I have a lot of favourite places in London. It was here that Londoners sought refuge during the Great Fire of 1666 and watched the city below burn down. It still feels like a place of retreat from the madness of Highbury Corner and Holloway Road.

Passing the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower I stop to admire Aubert Court, a fine modernist block of flats designed by E C P Monson, who also built Islington Town Hall and numerous other public buildings and social housing across London from around 1895 – 1940. The flats occupy land that was once home to Highbury College of Dissenters, opened in 1825. Alexander Aubert, who gives his name to Aubert Court and Aubert Road was a wealthy stockbroker who owned a mansion and grounds in Highbury and most notably built an enormous observatory on one wing of Highbury House.

Highbury Clocktower

It is odd now to be able to wander around the perimeter of the old Arsenal pitch at Highbury – now Highbury Stadium Square, diminished by conversion to flats built into the stands, hard to recall being in here with 40,000 chanting fans.

I move on through Gillespie Road Nature Reserve and across Finsbury Park, feeling fatigued and wondering where to head next. The high ground of the Northern Heights draws me on towards Hornsey and to the corner shop made famous by the great ZomCom Shaun of the Dead. When I came here for one of the chapters in my book This Other London, I studied the scene in the film where Shaun wakes up on the day of the Zombie outbreak and, heavily hungover, walks across to the shop for a can of Diet Coke and a Cornetto. I then attempted to recreate single tracking shot with my point and shoot camera.

I stopped shooting my weekly YouTube video at this point and wander onto Crouch End Broadway where I pick up a History of Highbury pamphlet I first bought 20 years ago and lost, a book on Prehistoric England, and a copy of the Tales of King Arthur that I used to read in my Primary School Library.


Passageways to the People’s Palace

Harringay Ladder

I find myself at Harringay Green Lanes on a wet Wednesday morning. In such a situation the best option is to slide along the Harringay Ladder down Harringay Passage. With my finger I trace the outline of the date stamped onto the base of the metal bollards – it reads 1884. The slabs are slippery. There is something about the brick confines of the passage that frees the mind. Although I keep returning to thoughts of second breakfast and memories of living up here in 1991-2.

Every 100 yards or so the passage is interrupted by one of the streets that forms the struts of the ladder – Duckett Road, Mattison, Pemberton, Seymour, Fairfax, Falkland, Hampden – a mixed bag of references to local land-owners, military and naval figures, dignitaries of the Hornsey district. It has even been suggested that the names were chosen by the local Masonic lodge


Loud shriek of seagulls whirling round the gasometers on Mary Neuner Road.


Wildfowl line up along the New River by the Hornsey Water Treatment Works. A peculiar Brave New World housing development in the shadow of the Northern Heights. New River Village is built on former Thames Water land and boasts that it’s “a prime example of a brownfield site which called for an innovative and creative design solution to release its full potential and deliver a quality environment with tangible community benefits.” I wander along its deserted central … well I’ll flatter it with the word ‘boulevard’. It’s eerily quiet considering there are 622 residential units, just a solitary Eastern European window cleaner who doesn’t know much about it other than that it’s a ‘new village’.


Stand at the foot of the hill and Alexandra Palace looms above – Temple of the Radio Age. Something about it makes me think of George Orwell, perhaps it’s those images of him sitting at a BBC microphone. It’s also his descriptions in Coming Up For Air of the birth of a new world in the 1920s and 30s – the modern age of artificial food, plastic, and totalitarianism. This merges and is augmented by the sequences from Adam Kossoff’s film, The Anarchist Rabbi, showing how it was used as an internment camp during the First World War. A place built for pleasure, ‘The People’s Palace’, became a place of detention and imprisonment – there is something unnerving about that.


The BBC radio towers have narratives to reveal and I want to hear what they have to say but I’m 60-odd years too late. Something in the weatherworn brickwork, the arches supported by columns facing the city speaks of an internment camp and you can imagine it used for the same purpose under a British Fascist dictatorship that Orwell feared. This would have been Big Brother’s palace. The knowledge that apparently this is a lively dogging spot lightens the vibe a touch.


You can see where the renovation brutally ends near the rear of the building. A lady stops to talk and tells me that there is still some damage from the great fire of 1980. She was here when there was another fire, at the wedding show in the 1990s and all the bridalwear models were so panicked they ran out into the January cold near naked in just their pants. Imagining a crowd of topless models charging across the highest point in Haringey is a suitable counterbalance to the gloomy resonances of grizzly German detainees.


Today is the Knitting and Needlework show. Kossoff used shots of the Palm Court when telling the story of Rudolf Rocker’s imprisonment here. The gentle clamour of the elderly ladies here for the a celebration of home crafts buts up against misery that the men must’ve felt locked up away from their families.


I continue on to Muswell Hill and mooch around the shops, shelter from the rain in the beautiful 1931 library then schlepp down Cranley Gardens forever famous for the gruesome crimes of Denis Nilsen. Regretting not queuing for an overpriced coffee and Danish at Ally Pally for second breakfast, I stop at the Royal Palace Cafe on Park Road for what many people would call an early lunch of sausage baguette and cappuccino. The rain finally stops.