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ridge running in north london

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I’ve been working way too hard this term. Since I had my daughter, I’ve made a point of taking weekends off from work. Somehow, this time around, it seems like I’ve been in the office almost every weekend at least for part of the time. Not nice. But this past week was “reading week,” the equivalent of “spring break” but not (for one thing, a lot of my students actually do seem to spend the period reading, which is rather amazing. It’s the exam culture over here, among other things, which merits another post altogether….) so I’ve been able to do normal stuff on weekends for at least a few days.

One of the big thrills about the prospect of moving over here was the amount of travelling we’d be able to do. I mean, we have a kid, but still – not having to do a long haul flight to go to all of these places is a big thrill. But in just over a year, we’ve been to…. Belgium. And the grand list of extra-London places we’ve visited in the UK still comes to Edinburgh and Cambridge, the latter visited (god!) twelve years ago.

We’ve been busy. London’s very very big, so you don’t easily get bored with it during your first year or so. So, despite the fact that we had freetime and no obligations during the last two weekends, we travelled a grand total of approximately six miles, there and back, there and back, in search of leisure activites. Today we went to Hampstead via Hampstead Heath.

To get to the Heath from where we live you can either take two buses, or one bus to Archway and then walk the rest of the way. We chose the latter, and when you do this you walk right past the southern side of Highgate Cemetery, where of course Marx is buried. I’ve done it countless times, but I’ve never gone in. I’m not even sure where the entrance is, but it’s definitely not on the Archway side. Not sure what it is about author/thinker sites that puts me somewhat randomly off them or onto them. I’ve walked up the side of a mountain to see Joyce’s grave in Zurich. I’ve skipped a day in Paris to go to Rouen to see the hospital where Flaubert grew up. When I was a kid, my wife and I drove to Lowell and saw Kerouac’s grave. But in college I lived right next door to Emily Dickinson’s house for three years but never visited it, not a single time. Hampstead, which I lived in for the first several months of my time here, has stuff that people flyover to see: Freud’s house, Keats’s house, etc. I’ve visited none and neither. I’m not some sort of bonfire of the fallacies type – I’m increasingly interested in artist’s lives, especially their material lives (money, where they lived, the actual writing process, where they wrote) and the relation to the works.

I’m closing my eyes right now and trying to decide if there was any literary site I could see anywhere in the world what would it be. I can’t think of a single place. I do like walking past lots of literary sites in a day without going in them, like today, so I guess I’d just choose that.

Ah, here’s one side of Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath. My first experience of North London, the place where I now live, came with a shocking surprise. Before my trip out for my job interview, I’d never really left – as most tourists don’t – central London. But the day before my interview (terrible jinx faced and beaten in doing this, and as a baseball player of yore, I am a deep believer in the jinx) I wanted to walk around to see some neighborhoods where we might actually live were we to move here, as I’d be flying out the morning after and so there’d be no time. Naively, I visited St. John’s Wood and Hampstead. Look, I’m sure lots of people coming to New York to live are thinking, dunno, the East Village and Brooklyn Heights or something before they see the pricetags hanging from the doorknobs. And in fact we did end up living in a subleased place in Hampstead to start, so it all worked out in the end. (Also, that night was the first time I met IT and Owen Hatherley in the flesh, at the New Piccadilly, soon sadly gone… So it was a big day for me…)

Anyway, what was the surprise? North London is fucking hilly. Rather mountainous, actually. That day I took the Jubilee Line from St. John’s Wood to Finchley Road, as it looks on the map like an easy stroll from the later to Hampstead, half-a-mile tops.

But in reality, it’s like half-a-mile over and half-a-mile straight up. Anyway, that was my first brush with a geographical formation that I deal with now every single day. My block is relatively flat, but the block to a south rises I’d say 15 stories from one cross street to the next. It’s just a continuation of the formation that makes Parliament Hill a hill. Here’s wikipedia on it:

To the north of the City a ridge capped by sands of the Bagshot formation forms high ground (in places around 130m) including Hampstead Heath and Highgate Hill. The ridge continues eastwards in the London clay to Crouch Hill and Queen’s Wood. To the south, fingers of the ridge run down towards Primrose Hill and Parliament Hill. This ridge is a surviving area of Tertiary rocks younger than the London Clay, surrounded by former routes of the Thames where much younger deposits overlie the clay. Smaller outliers of younger Tertiary high ground exist to the west of the main ridge including Harrow Hill where Bagshot sands survive and at Horsendon Hill and Hanger Lane, where the Claygate Beds of the top of the London Clay formation are capped by much younger gravels deposited by the Thames.

Yep, that’s my ridge. Anyway, Marx used to bring his family for picnics on Parliament Hill, which wasn’t far from his house (no longer in existence) located in the interstitial space between Kentish Town, Belsize Park, and South End Green – Gospel Oak.

We wanted to have lunch at an embarrassing place that I cannot name in Hampstead (no, not McDonalds, better than that, more um French. But fuck are the Croque Ms ever good, and the Hampstead one is the only branch  I’ve found that will serve you a Stella en pression, that is to say in proper portions) but were hungry upon arriving at the Heath so we stopped at the pleasantly obsolescent (they’re tearing it down, I overheard) cafe near the PH tennis courts. My daughter’s doll took an awkward looking nap on the table.

There was some sort of gigantic cross country meet (is that the right word here?) on at the Heath today. It was very odd to see, here, now, since I went to tons of these when I was in high school as my best friend was a big time long-distance runner. I remembered today that we used to egg each other on, not very helpfully, to get disastrously drunk the night before our biggest games / meets, my baseball games and his meets. And I remembered that both of us plunged toward mediocrity, probably blowing chances of scholarships and so on, as we moved from our early high school careers toward the end. Monstrous and sober sophomores turned into middle-of-the-pack seniors, but we filled bucket after bucket with puke in my basement. My hand-eye coordination got shakier and shakier; he tended more and more to get cramped in the middle of races. Demon drink! He still runs. I can’t find an email address to contact him at, but I find reports of the races he’s run for a major NYC running club.

Feel like I’ve said this before, but my favorite thing about the lower end of Parliament Hill fields, where the playgrounds are, is the fact that the Overground runs right next to it. You can almost feel like you’re in proper Europe, Europe proper, pushing your kid on a swing with a council-cafe bought latte in your other hand as a blue and gold Overground train shuffle by just beyond the fence. I missed the picture that got it all in – you’ll have to do with an image of a train idling at Gospel Oak station.

People famously fly kites from the top of Parliament Hill as it is very very windy there. We forgot the kite today, so we did not.

When you leave Hampstead Heath to the south, you enter a really lovely area called South End Green. If it weren’t for school complications that we were saying today we should have just gotten over, we’d probaly be living in a flat there instead of the house here. It’s fucking lovely, one of my favorite parts of London. Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy both lived there at one point, among many many others. Hard to explain just why, beyond that, it’s so attractive to me – it’s still expensive, it’s full of American expats (yuck!), it’s underserved when it comes to life-necessities, and the transit is poor. Instead of an explanation of why I love it so much, despite its flaws, you’ll have to do with the photo above. It’s a branch of Le Pain Quotidien, which is a poshish chain, Belgian not French, that moved into this corner after a fancy burger place closed just as we were moving out of the area. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is that this was the location of the bookshop where Orwell worked and about which he wrote “Bookshop Memories”:

But as soon as I went to work in the bookshop I stopped buying books. Seen in the mass, five or ten thousand at a time, books were boring and even slightly sickening. Nowadays I do buy one occasionally, but only if it is a book that I want to read and can’t borrow, and I never buy junk. The sweet smell of decaying paper appeals to me no longer. It is too closely associated in my mind with paranoiac customers and dead bluebottles.

Next we went to Hampstead village proper, had lunch; went to the Waterstones, where I bought Kafka’s Letter to my Father, which somehow I’ve never read but really should; checked prices on a venue for our daughter’s birthday party (wtf? a venue? what happened to some cheapass pinup pin-the-tail on the donkey scotchtaped to the wall and two cans of juicy juice set out on an unclothed table? ah, kids today) but I forgot to take pictures. This despite the fact that Hampstead is the only place where I myself have ever actually recognized a celebrity other than Peggy Noonan (another long story) – but not long ago I saw Russell Brand (for the benefit of Americans who won’t – and shouldn’t – know who he is) eating brunch at a cafe by aforementioned Waterstones. I have no doubt at all I’ve seen lots of them, but they’ve mostly remained, as it were, in the optical unconscious because I hate celebrities. But on the way home I got a shot of Royal Free Hospital, which is a brutalist masterpiece, and apparently the first hosptial designed (in Europe or the world I am not sure) with the aid of CAD. Ah, computers should berth us when we are sick, as only they really know how it feels.

Written by adswithoutproducts

February 22, 2009 at 12:49 am

Posted in london, photoessay

10 Responses

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  1. ‘This despite the fact that Hampstead is the only place where I myself have ever actually recognized a celebrity other than Peggy Noonan ‘

    THAT is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. Don’t tell the ‘long story’ if it’ll ruin it…


    February 22, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    • That was a syntactically odd sentence wasn’t it, as if I see Peggy Noonan everywhere, all the time, and getting the Hampstead finally allowed me to see other celebrities.

      Yeah the long story will ruin it. But I will say that if you’re interested in seeing minor middle-aged celebrities and you’re in Brooklyn, go for early dinner at Heights Cafe toward the promenade end of Montague Street. When my wife was last pregnant, we ate there almost every night for a month or two. And there was a steady stream of low-hanging stars like Paul Giamatti (with his little kid – this was back when he was up for an oscar for the wine movie), the guy from The Wire who plays the white guy who’s high in the police heirarchy, the second in command guy you know, and, for one glorious evening, Peggy Noonan. (Made me mutter mutter “Morning in America – I’d like to shit in yr drink and serve it to you tomorrow morning in America ya fascist bag” etc etc etc until my wife threatened to leave). Right at the next table she was.

      I’ll get to writing you in due course.


      February 22, 2009 at 11:06 pm

  2. Walter Gropius and László Moholy-Nagy both lived there at one point

    I hope your walk brought you here.


    February 22, 2009 at 10:10 pm

    • No, not this trip. But my daughter used to go to a childminder in the estate right behind it, so three days a week she and I would climb the little wooded footpath that runs from Lawn Road into the Apsern Grove estate in Belsize Park.


      February 22, 2009 at 11:07 pm

  3. “I will say that if you’re interested in seeing minor middle-aged celebrities ”

    This, too, is so fucking hilarious. Of course I remember you saw the illumined Helena Bonham Carter once you arrived Hampstead, land of Recognizable Celebrities.

    “When my wife was last pregnant”

    This, too. You really crack me up. I’m going to figure out usages of ‘when last pregnant’.

    Beautiful bunch of photos, though, and it’s interesting that I recognize Hampstead Heath very clearly, but it’s from someone else’s photos on a blog, I think, because I’ve never been there. I do love London, though, because it was the only place that always felt like home even though it wasn’t.


    February 23, 2009 at 12:51 am

  4. I did see HBC in Hampstead but only by turning around. My wife saw her way first. So I wasn’t lying above.

    She’s pregnant again, not HBC, but my wife, yes. And for the last time, at least by me – we agree on this. Dunno about HBC, not my business. And she’s at about the same stage as at Heights Cafe way back when, but there’s nowhere as good as that to eat here. And we’re seeing fewer celebs. We live on the same street as the drummer from fucking Oasis now, but can’t recognize him, as well as J ames Mc Evoy (Google lose, right there, I mean we’re neighbors, there’s a certain amount of decorum involved in that relationship, right…) whom we see out and about often enough with his girlfriend or wife or whatever.


    But yeah, figure out a perfectly camp way to drop that phrase, I mean camper than me.

    We keep saying the same things to each other, Patrick. The HBC, the heimlichkeit of London. We might bore each other via email, no? It could go on like this forevers.


    February 23, 2009 at 1:05 am

  5. I wasn’t trying to start a lot of email exchanges, it’s up to you if you want to tell me your name or not. That was the original idea for giving you my address.

    i actually think you’re naturally very funny, and enjoy your things, but it seems vaguely possible I didn’t say it right. I don’t know what to say, I was only showing appreciation there, but if we said the same thing twice, surely that must now be ‘interdit’, non? It’s up to you, I wasn’t trying to get too familar. Original humour doesn’t mean just campy, but I really can’t figure out what to tell you.


    February 23, 2009 at 2:28 am

  6. But I should say congratulations, of course, and do mean it. Naturally, ‘the last time she was pregnant’ can now be seen to mean the previous time, but not really till I knew she was pregnant again. So maybe you wrote that on the blog once and I didn’t see it. Apologies. I would have never made fun of anything about your wife or daughter. But when you hear ‘the last time she was pregnant’, and don’t know she’s pregnant a second time (now), you find it a strange-sounding phrase. I realized that that might have been possibly the wrong thing to say, but couldn’t figure out how it could be, so just went ahead–I really didn’t think she was pregnant again, because I thought I would have seen it here. But I may have missed a post. But you should have given me the benefit of the doubt, possibly, too? I’m not that beastly.


    February 23, 2009 at 2:35 am

  7. Yes, you were right. Okay, sorry, but I’m glad we found out quickly enough. I won’t post here anymore, and you needn’t write.


    February 23, 2009 at 4:35 am

  8. Whoa, Patrick! Don’t be weird! I wasn’t upset with you I was just asleep! It’s 5 hours later here!


    February 23, 2009 at 10:59 am

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