A curious passageway of note in Highgate lies slightly to the north west, and beneath, the Hillcrest estate. Now a modernised cut-through between Broadlands and Talbot Roads, Park House Passage takes it name from the mansion of the same name which once stood on the looming bulwarks now occupied by Hillcrest.
To the folkloric and mystically inclined this shady little nook is of interest for several reasons; and indeed like many hidden crannies in and around Highgate its origins hold appeal for the local historian also. To the north side of the modern tarmac path lies a small plantation of tall fir trees (at least I think they are a species of fir, but I am no botanist!). At their western extremity is a peculiar dome-shaped mound. The mound is roughly covered with an irregular assortment of what appear to be the remains of some kind of archaic building materials, affording it a cairn-like appearance, and is surmounted by an enormous lime tree. The lime’s exposed roots have over time gnarled themselves around the tree’s unusual foundations, and the whole is partially covered by an abundance of ivy.
What could at first appear to be the remains of a Victorian folly is in fact the site of Highgate’s ancient village pound. Early sources help little in locating the Highgate pound or its origins (the earliest reference I have so far been able to source, the Court Leet records of 1673, merely mention that the pound was ‘found to be decayed’). However by the Victorian era it was certainly located in what was by then known as Park House Passage, and it is reasonable to assume that the location of the pound had not changed over the preceding centuries. Rather it is its surroundings which have altered, from open fields such as Baker’s field which became Broadlands Road, and woodland to Victorian housing developments. Long gone are the meadows in which sixteenth century herbalists so loved to collect and observe specimens of the glorious flora of the Northern Heights of London.
The pound was well-maintained and still serving its agricultural purpose at least until the last decades of the nineteenth century. In an autobiographical talk about 1890s Highgate, given for the Highgate Literary & Scientific Institute in 1958, Honoria Hetherington nee Ford recalled her memories ‘of stray donkeys, kept in the pound, now the passage-way leading from North Road opposite Broadlands Road to Talbot Road (Park House Passage), and the well at the bottom of the steep hill down from Park Passage to Southwood Lane’. Perhaps the donkeys were striving retirees from the pleasure riding circuit at Hampstead Heath; it is certainly true that older donkeys were kept as domestic pets in some of the larger gardens of Highgate in the first half of the twentieth century.
As previously stated, the true age of the pound is unknown. From the above photograph we can see that it was previously much larger than the remains which are visible today. Whether the creators of the original pound utilised an older tumulus or hillock we will never know. There are many examples throughout the UK of cairns or ancient burial sites, where the top soil has eroded revealing heaped stone ‘igloo’ like constructions beneath.
If the Highgate pound was ever the last resting place of an ancient Briton, it is notable that it is situated virtually behind the Bulwarks, surely one of the most desirable places in Highgate to establish a homestead when a clear view of invaders was vital. This could indicate that any interee was of quite some importance in life.
This is fantastical and whimsical conjecture in the case of the observable remains of the Highgate Pound however; a professional analysis of the stones around the base of the mound would most likely reveal them to be the remains of the lowish nineteenth century (and possibly earlier) wall which would have supported its squared off circumference and the wooden palisade which surmounted it. Any ancestral remains which it once housed were most likely moved or perished from the ravages of time and exposure centuries ago.
But speculation about the age of the mound itself is given added colour by the fact that, sitting as it does approximately 75ft NNW from Hillcrest and the bulwarks, it is directly placed upon the northern trajectory of the ley line which allegedly extends towards it from the circle of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery West and continues towards the 2000 year old Roman pottery works in Highgate Wood. Indeed the old lime tree rather gives the impression of being a rustic cousin of the more imposing cedar which dominates the circle of raised earth at the heart of the cemetery. If we were to adopt the view of Alfred Watkins, i.e. that networks of ancient tracks, connected by notable structures and natural anomalies, are traceable across the English countryside, the mound’s existence on the alleged ley makes perfect sense. A cattle pound would have been an important place for early farmers and travelling herders to locate, thus suggesting a logic behind its placement upon a recognisable path. Any earlier use as a burial mound or even a role as a recognizable and distinctive hillock would reinforce (in context of the geographic orientation of other sites nearby) its possible identification as a ley indicator. Burial mounds are one of the most frequently observed landmarks upon suggested leylines.
But there is something else which historically makes the old mound distinctive.
Highgate acquired a national reputation as a centre of black magical activity in the 1960s; but belying this hysteria is the fact that, along with Muswell Hill, Barnet and Finchley it does have a disproportionately high number of white magic covens – some of which have a lineage dating back far beyond the 1960s. Just how long magic has been seriously practiced in Highgate is lost to time, but there is some evidence extant which suggests magical rituals of varying kinds taking place in the village in the 1600s and 1500s (more on that in later blog entry).
Atropa Belladonna, known also as the Devil’s Herb or Deadly Nightshade is a poisonous plant native to Europe, distinguished by its shiny black berries. Associated in magic with the goddess Hecate, and with the night and lunar deities, depending upon its dosage it can cause delirium, hallucinations and a sensation of leaving one’s body (not to mention a painful death). Throughout history it has been valued for its medicinal and cosmetic properties. In the present age it is chiefly regarded as one of the ingredients utilised by medieval ‘witches’ in flying ointments. Indeed it is still used today by some magical practitioners, not for the crude purpose of flying about the village on a broomstick as depicted by the recorders of the witch trials, but as a catalyst for a variety of transcendental experiences.
In his classic herbal, ‘The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes (1597)’, John Gerard (1545 – 1612) suggests that in his time Belladonna was not a common plant to find in abundance (although cunning men and women would presumably have known of the inauspicious hedgerows and copses in which it could be sought). On a national scale, Gerard only refers to discovering significant instances of Belladonna colonies in Lincolnshire, Wisbech and Lancashire; but interestingly a fourth, much more precise location is also given: Highgate. He writes:
I found it growing without Highgate, neere unto a pound or pinfold on the left hand
Some later references to this work interpret the word ‘pound’ to mean ‘pond’, but its use in conjunction with the Saxon term ‘pinfold’ indicates that it actually refers to a man made enclosure, specifically a pound for temporarily housing stray cattle. Pounds seem to have usually been of stone construction, although wooden examples are noted in various of Norden’s 1617 surveys. George G. Sigmund M.D., in a lecture delivered in 1836 and published in The Lancet as ‘Dr Sigmund On The Nightshade’, appears to compound this error, when he refers to Highgate’s Belladonna as growing near a ‘pond’, adding ‘Such have been the changes since the days of our old herbalist that this topographical description is of no service to us.’
However, an attempt to locate the original site of this unusual proliferance of Belladonna – cultivated or natural as it may have been – may not be as futile as Dr Sigmund suggests.
The location of the Park House Passage pound, coupled with the lack of other historical references to a village pound (although pounds in Muswell Hill and Kentish Town are recorded), seems to correlate with the site which Gerard surveyed in the 1590s and recorded as being sited at the ‘left hand’ or west of the village. Needless to say, the efficiency of Haringey Council has long since denuded the mound of its poisonous and hallucinogenic harvest. But the previous existence of a crop of Belladonna remarkable enough in size to include in a national herbal, on an ancient mound on an alleged ley line is certainly extremely intriguing.
Park House passage is a quiet, rather eerie little twitten, afforded a degree of privacy by the fences, bulwarks and walls which border it to the north and south. What is additionally intriguing – as if all this wasn’t romantic enough – is the somewhat alarming realisation when facing the mound from the east that one is standing in a giant, purposefully planted pentagram of trees.
Before this, a short aisle of some kind must needs be entered as one approaches the pentacle.
Who devised this curious arrangement, we shall never know. Even Michael Hammerson, Chairman of the Highgate Society, who knows practically every tree in Highgate like the back of his hand, concedes puzzlement. What we do know is that the trees are fast growing, and that whoever planted them would have experienced them, at least at early maturity, within his own lifetime – perhaps only two or three generations back.
Would it be abject speculation to contemplate Highgate witches and cunning folk of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries – or the centuries on either side – gathering Belladonna from the old mound? Or even that there was some method or purpose behind the planting of the stoic and silent old trees? If anyone knows through oral tradition they aren’t saying. And so the pound on the mound must needs remain yet another mysterious relic of Highate’s occulted past.
Honoria Hetherington’s memoirs are reproduced thanks to the following source:
Honoria Hetherington nee Ford (with an introduction by Joan Schwitzer). ‘A Highgate Girl of the ‘nineties’’. Hornsey Historical Society; Hornsey Historical Bulletin No 25. 1984.
The Victorian image of Park House Passage appears in:
Christina M. Gee. Hampstead & Highgate in old photographs, 1870-1918; High Hill Press, 1974.