Authors: Gillian Tindall
Rather more planning has gone into the ‘Secret Railway’ which, in the 1970s, was delapidated and threatened with closure (see pages 219–20). Its old-fashioned wooden station has gone, and passengers have to reach it through the tube station entrance, but it is now no secret, being part of the busy Thameslink line. The separate line through West Kentish Town Station has also been upgraded, and appears on tube maps. Meanwhile historic St Pancras, the site of its one-time manor house, Agar Town, numerous burial grounds and much else besides, has found a new and high profile role as the terminus of Eurostar.
Highgate Cemetery, which was previously shut for burials and prey to vandalism, has received, some might say, all too much attention in the last thirty years. Care has been lavished on many of its fine monuments, but at present a brisk trade in graves combines uneasily with the place’s modern role as a major tourist attraction, complete with entry fee and turnstiles.
As for John Betjeman’s ‘curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town’, that was built in 1790 to replace the chapel of ease and rebuilt in 1843, it now houses a Christ Apostolic Church. It is attended by a congregation almost entirely black, many of whom travel in from distant suburbs. The Church of England faithful have moved off to St Benet’s, on the one-time estate of Dame Eleanor Palmer; while St Luke’s in Oseney Crescent is Listed but currently mothballed, awaiting a resurrection. The Methodist congregation, who originally enjoyed the large church in Lady Margaret Road that they ceded in the 1970s to the Roman Catholics, occupied the ex-Catholic chapel in Fortess Road for about thirty years but gradually evaporated. That chapel has recently been demolished, though the ex-Presbytry next door still wears telltale crosses on its stonework.
The much-contested Talacre Open Site continues to flourish, as does the Kentish Town Farm. The Governesses Benevolent Institution in west Kentish Town that later became a series of schools is now, like the public houses, converted into flats, but on its wrought iron gates the initials GBI still entwine. Baroness Burdett-Coutts’ stable block that survived so long in St Albans Road has been replaced by an over-sized residential block. The ungainly sweet-shop in front of Village House is now a house-agents’ premises of equally ill-assorted design. The theme of land and property value evidently haunts this Postscript: it has been a significant part of the story of the last thirty-five years. The residential children’s nursery in Leighton Road, which was earlier a casual ward, relieving station and soup kitchen, and earlier still an old house where the Crane family lived and tossed colourful insults over the wall at Mr Pike and his family, has been rebuilt as a Housing Association estate of uninspired but harmless houses in traditional London stock brick.
In the house that was once the Pikes’ a typewriter has become in itself an object of nostalgic memory, but the person who was typing on it when
The Fields Beneath
first appeared is still using a keyboard today in the same upper room.
One day in the early 1970s I was roaming through a particularly disjointed and run-down area of Kentish Town, London NW5, and passed a row of houses which were then occupied by squatters engaged in a cold war with Camden Council. They were – and are – unremarkable houses; a mid-Victorian terrace of the type that has been demolished all over London in the past two decades, with none of the Georgian cottage appeal that might commend them to preservationist forces. In stock brick, three storeys, with a dank basement area below and a parapet wall on top, they faced a busy road; the most quintessentially ordinary houses, you would say, though of a uniquely English kind, built by speculative builders for Philistines, unloved now for decades, doomed soon, perhaps, to extinction.
Then I saw that over the lintel of one of them someone had carefully carved an inscription: the letters, cut through the sooty surface into the fresh yellow brick below, stood out clearly –
The Fields Lie Sleeping Underneath.
It is deeply satisfying to come unexpectedly face to face with your own private vision in this way. For years, walking round London, I had been aware of the actual land, lying concealed but not entirely changed or destroyed, beneath the surface of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century city. It has been said that ‘God made the country and man made the town’, but this is not true: the town is simply disguised countryside. Main roads, some older than history itself, still bend to avoid long-dried marshes, or veer off at an angle where the wall of a manor house once stood. Hills and valleys still remain; rivers, even though entombed in sewer pipes, still cause trouble in the foundations of neighbouring buildings and become a local focus for winter mists. Garden walls follow the line of hedgerows; the very street-patterns have been determined by the holdings of individual farmers and landlords, parcels of land some of which can be traced back to the Norman Conquest. The situation of specific buildings – pubs, churches, institutions – often dates from long distant decisions and actions on the part of men whose names have vanished from any record. The more you know about the past of one district, the easier it becomes to perceive the past of any district through the confusing veil of the present.
From this, it is only a short step of the imagination to envisage the one-time fields being themselves still there, with their grass and buttercups and even the footprints of cows, merely hidden beneath modern concrete and asphalt – as if you had simply to lift up a paving stone in order to reveal it. And while this is not literally true, what
true is that once you get outside the inner areas of old cities (whose ground has usually been so heavily disturbed by building and rebuilding through the centuries that the present houses rest on packed rubble) you do not have to go far down to find real earth, the kind cows walked on and crops sprang from, lying there fallow beneath the weight of stone.
In this sense the past can be said to be still
, not just existing in the minds of those who seek it, but actually, physically still present. The town is a palimpsest: the statement it makes in each era is engraved over the only partially-effaced traces of previous statements. Freud used the image of the ancient city as a metaphor for the Unconscious: he envisaged a city ‘in which nothing that has once come into existence will have passed away and all the earlier phases of development continue to exist alongside the latest ones.’ He was talking about the Unconscious of one individual, but perhaps the city is a more obvious metaphor for Jung’s Collective Unconscious of the race: we may know nothing about our nineteenth- or seventeenth- or fourteenth-century predecessors on the patch of territory we call ours, but their ideas and actions have shaped our habitat and hence our attitudes as well. In Blake’s poetic vision ‘everything exists’ for ever: experience is total and cumulative, nothing, not one hair, one particle of dust, can pass away. And in point of fact he was right. Matter is hard to destroy totally, even though it may be transformed by time and violence out of all recognition. In the pulverised rubble lying below modern buildings is the sediment of mediaeval and pre-mediaeval brick and stone. Modern techniques of soil analysis can tell one what crops and wild-flowers grew in fields now buried several feet beneath modern streets. Many of our London gardens owe their rich topsoil to manure from long forgotten horses and cattle or vegetable refuse from meals unimaginably remote in time. Moreover there are a great many buildings still standing whose bricks are the compressed product of other fields, usually not far distant, whose clay was dug out in the early nineteenth century and fired in local kilns. The process is not just cumulative but to some extent cyclic also –
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf …
Seeing the past is not a matter of waving a magic wand. (Though traditionally local historians have behaved as if it were, contrasting past and present as if the two were totally separate realities, beginning paragraphs ‘It is hard now to imagine …’) It is much more a matter of wielding a spade or pick, of tracing routes – and hence roots – on old maps, of reading the browned ink and even fainter pencil scrawl of preserved documents, whose own edges are often crumbling away into a powder, themselves joining the fur, flesh and faeces to which they testify.
People have suggested or hinted to me that surely the only places whose local history is worth going into in depth are ‘interesting’ areas – ‘historical’ ones, like Hampstead or Greenwich, or York or Bath. When I ask them if they don’t suppose that other places also have a history, they say ‘Oh yes, but you know what I mean.’ As a matter of fact I do know exactly what they mean; they mean that, unless an area actually has a number of ‘old’ buildings standing, which in London usually means eighteenth-century buildings
disguised behind modern shop-fronts but nicely white-painted and readily recognisable, they do not care to envisage its past. This is a perfectly acceptable point of view, but it is not one I share.
In the local history of towns and districts where so much is already patent and indeed on display, the dynamic tension between what you see and what you know to have existed once and still to exist in some fragmented or symbolic form, is largely missing. Moreover townscapes which have managed to retain such a homogeneous aspect over a large stretch of time are, by definition, areas which have not suffered the complex social upheavals and physical dislocations that make their history worth studying. Tales about Beau Brummel in Bath (‘where one can so easily still imagine him’) or Keats in Hampstead – where one can still imagine
– are fascinating to local inhabitants, but they do not actually lead one anywhere; one cannot draw any general social or historical conclusions from them. Places that have been socially and architecturally pickled are too atypical to be examples of anything but themselves. Paradoxically, these places in which local ‘concern for the past’ is often so marked among successive generations of moneyed and leisured inhabitants, actually tell one less about the past as a whole or about the processes of historical evolution than do more ordinary, battered places.
In addition, not only is the past history of an accredited ‘historical’ area obvious for all to see, but often what is still hidden has been so fully documented already by a series of scholars, plagiarists, band-waggoners and chatterboxes, that little discovery remains to be done and what there is can only consist of the unattractive task of setting others right regarding some cherished piece of local fable. Books on areas like Hampstead (to choose the example so near at hand to my own territory that their outlying fields touch) are legion. Some, both old and modern, are excellent. Many are virtually worthless, typical examples of the ‘Idle Stroll Around the Old Stones’ school of local antiquarianism, which endured for so long in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, but now at last is being displaced by something more stringent. In those nineteenth-century compendia about London and its surroundings, often copiously illustrated with cheap engravings which antiquarian dealers now chop out and mount, the same localities – and the same stories about them – occur over and over again, while vast tracts of London are barely touched upon. Typical is the attitude of Howitt, friend of Mrs Gaskell and author of
The Northern Heights of London
(1869), who did the usual rounds of Hampstead and Highgate with a glance in the direction of Kilburn Priory (site of), but dismissed Camden and Kentish Towns with the remark ‘these places do not lie within the limits of this work.’ One might give Mr Howitt the benefit of the doubt and assume he was speaking geographically, but it is hard to escape the conclusion that the ‘scope’ implied was social as well: at his period, the once-favoured villages of Camden and Kentish Town were steadily declining into urban working class districts and, as such, were apparently becoming invisible to gentlemen with antiquarian interests. In fact, Mr Howitt lived on Highgate West Hill, well within the fringes of what was, or had recently been, considered part of Kentish Town. Nor were his eyes fixed resolutely upwards: he writes with moving pity at one point of the plight of horses straining under repeated lashes to drag heavy loads up this steepest of hills, and of his own attempts to get something done to alleviate their distress. But evidently it didn’t occur to him that the streets through which these horses had just passed might be a worthwhile subject for investigation.
So Kentish Town, like most of the other districts which now form London’s ‘inner ring’, is for the historian comparatively untouched and therefore particularly tempting. It is, to use an archaeological metaphor, like a dig on a new site where earlier comers have not been burrowing about disturbing things and perverting evidence. In addition, there happens to be a wealth of archive material concerning the district, hardly any of which has been exploited: most of it was collected over the course of two lifetimes by members of the Heal family – owners of the big furniture shop in Tottenham Court Road – and is now in the archives of Camden Public Library. The other reason for the choice of Kentish Town is more fundamental: by a combination of circumstances, it exhibits many of the classic and most interesting features of the long-term metamorphosis of mediaeval village into twentieth-century renewal-area.
There have, for centuries, been pressures on Kentish Town, formative and conflicting ones; its present equivocal situation, geographically midway between city and suburb and partaking of some of the characteristics of both, reflects a struggle that has been going on certainly for two hundred years and perhaps for much longer – that between the needs of the district
a district in which people live, work and sleep, and the needs of the rest of London and the country to use it as a corridor. In the beginning, certainly before the Normans, perhaps even before the Romans came, there was a road, passing somewhere near St Pancras old church and continuing northwards. From it dates the existence and history of Kentish Town, as of very many other places, and from it stem most of its problems.
Kentish Town is not special – except of course to me, but I cannot expect any but other local inhabitants to share my particular attachment to it. I have taken it as a subject, not because it is special but because it is archetypal. The general outlines of its story are those, with modifications, of a million other ancient villages gradually absorbed into metropolises; not just round London but in many parts of England, and not just in England either. Paris, too, has its Kentish Towns. So has Moscow – though there they would be harder to disinter. If, therefore, I dwell on particular local events, personalities or structures, it is because I am using them to demonstrate a pattern, geographical, historical and social. I am using Kentish Town to give a local habitation and a name to the expression of something far more general, and in the hope that some readers may perhaps be sufficiently interested and inspired to look at other, comparable, areas with fresh eyes afterwards.
I am also conscious of being typical of my own era, just as Mr Howitt was of his, just as the Rev. Dr Stukeley, eighteenth-century resident, Druid, and enthusiastic Roman camp-finder, was of his. That I should wish to live in and even write about a district as traditionally ‘unpromising’ as Kentish Town, is, I have no doubt at all, symptomatic of certain social shifts that have taken place within my adult lifetime. In the last fifteen years or so large areas of this inner-city ring have become visible again in a way they were not when Mr Howitt was writing. Paradoxically, it is now these areas, which appear so unattractive to the outsider travelling – traffic himself – through the traffic-wracked main street, which actually attract the most passionate loyalty and commitment from inhabitants of several different social levels. It is perhaps here, rather than in the self-conscious, ex-rural ‘villages’ of the Bucks, Herts, and Sussex commuterlands, that something resembling an old-fashioned identification with the soil of the place can most readily be found, even though that soil is represented by tarmac, asphalt and the sort of old York stone slabs which ‘no local authority could afford to buy and lay in these days’ (in the words of the urban historian H. J. Dyos).
Possibly the very existence of commuterlands, spreading wider and wider, and more and more dependent on the car, devaluing the rural image by associations with the phoney, has helped to revive the idea of attachment to a physically compact urban landscape, and to the ‘urban values’ reassessed by sociologists such as Peter Willmott and Jane Jacobs. Certainly the wholesale destruction of large parts of London and many other towns since the Second World War in the name of ‘planning’ has led to a massive loss of confidence in shining visions of a Brave New Future and to a revaluing of such districts as still retain some of their traditional aspect. The loss of a sense of place that follows upon big urban redevelopment schemes is not just due to the physical disturbance and remodelling of the territory: even when the new tower blocks, motorway junction or whatever have become familiar to the eye, they still convey little idea of being
, on some ordinary but individual patch of land. This is partly because they have no local distinguishing features and ‘could be anywhere’, but more because the whole scale is wrong – non-domestic, monolithic, discouraging. Urban motorways work very well when you are in a motorcar, and tower blocks work well too when seen from a car speeding along: soothing white oblongs that rise and sink before your eyes, dream cities, not quite real. But none of it works well for the pedestrian on the ground. By contrast, areas like Kentish Town are, despite huge traffic problems passing slowly through them, essentially pedestrian areas to the people who live in them. If you want to get to your place of work, or to a school or a shop or a street market or to visit a friend on the far side of Kentish Town, you don’t get the car out or wait for a bus: you walk, in just the same way, and quite likely along the identical route, that other people, hundreds of years ago, walked on similar errands. Their paths, their muddy cart-tracks, their hedgerows, lie beneath your feet.