It is not intended to point out the tortuous directions of Hagbush-lane; for the chief object of this notice is to excite the reader to one of the pleasantest walks he can imagine, and to tax his ingenuity to the discovery of the route the road takes. This, the ancient north road, comes into the present north road, in Upper Holloway, at the foot of Highgate-hill, and went in that direction to Hornsey. ~ William Hone
Taking a 43 bus down Archway Road recently, and glancing south towards London Bridge, I caught a glimpse of the recently erected Shard and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. Anyone who has enjoyed this vista themselves will be aware of the sheer mass of concrete and exhaust fumes which link Highgate in its elevated position with the ‘whirl and rush of humanity’ chugging away below.
In the sixteenth century, the famous prophetess Ursula Southeil, better known as Old Mother Shipton, made the following prediction:
When Highgate Hill stands in the midst of London
Then shall the folk of London be undone.’
Indeed, by the early nineteenth century, the sprawling development of the metropolis towards the north was of concern to many with an interest in protecting the rustic fields and lanes of Middlesex and Hertfordshire.
Among these was William Hone, who in his Everyday Book of 1831 bemoaned and warned against the loss of Hagbush Lane, the ancient bridleway which had for centuries formed one of the chief routes from London to the mysterious ‘North’ via the tollgate at Highgate. The lane, however, did not resemble a sensible Roman road of straight and wide proportions. From Hone and other contemporary sources we learn that it was of a serpentine, narrow construction. Unpaved and poorly maintained, it was in some places only wide enough to admit a pack of horses and riders single-file, the view obscured by large banks of hawthorn and hedgerow which bordered it on both sides. We have seen that Highgate may well take its name from the saxon ‘Haeg’ or Hawthorn, and Hagbush Lane’s own obvious etymology appears to support this, with the tollgate at Highgate forming a gap in its impenetrable walls of bramble.
While for the long distance traveller, perhaps transporting goods or conveying personal or political messages between various parties, Hagbush Lane must have been a ridiculous, muddy and frustrating way of getting from A to B. At dusk it may well have been frightening, the high, claustrophobic hedges casting shadows across one’s path. Highwaymen who knew each twist and turn of the lane and could pounce at any suitable juncture would have been a constant threat. But for those at liberty to enjoy the stillness and natural beauty of undeveloped Highgate and Islington, the lanes represented oases of tranquility, and charming links to the past. Hone writes:
Hagbush-lane is well known to every botanizing perambulator on the west side of London. The wild onion, clowns-wound-wort, wake-robin, and abundance of other simples, lovely in their form, and of high medicinal repute in our old herbals and receipt-books, take root, and seed and flower here in great variety. How long beneath the tall elms and pollard oaks, and the luxuriant beauties on the banks, the infirm may be suffered to seek health, and the healthy to recreate, who shall say? Spoilers are abroad.
The construction of the road known as Highgate Hill in 1386 by the hermit William Litchfield provided merchants with the choice of a more sensible climb than Hagbush Lane. The “deepness and dirty passage” which made the traditional green lanes impassable in winter was remedied with the use of gravel sourced from what is now Pond Square. The empty pits gained a use as the ponds (now filled in) to which the Square owes its name. But Highgate, situated as it is over 400ft above sea level, has never been an easy place to reach, and from 1813 the newly devised Archway Road became and remains for northbound travellers the preferential method of ascent. A tramline, however – the first of its kind to manage such a near-vertical ascent as Highgate Hill – did save many a Highgate Villager’s aching legs from 1884 until 1909.
This ongoing battle between man and nature meant that by 1818 Hagbush Lane was largely disused as a highway, and its various stretches were being eyed up greedily as prime real estate. Hone, for one, attempted to encourage a greater social conscience amongst his peers, but as an early conservationist during a time of rapid industrial development he did not gain much support:
Through Hagbush-lane every man has a right to ride and walk; in Hagbush-lane no one man has even a shadow of right to an inch as private property. It is a public road, and public property. The trees, as well as the road, are public property; and the very form of the road is public property. Yet bargains and sales have been made, and are said to be now making, under which the trees are cut down and sold, and the public road thrown, bit by bit, into private fields as pasture.
For me, sensing Hone’s evident frustration today recalls the many news reports during the 1980s in which campaigners – aware of an even bleaker future than Hone perceived – attempted to energise the public to stop the bunding off and development of Green Lanes. He continues:
Under no conveyance or admission to land by any proprietor, whether freeholder or lord of a manor, can any person legally dispossess the public of a single foot of Hagbush-lane, or obstruct the passage of any individual through it. All the people of London, and indeed all the people of England, have a right in this road as a common highway. Hitherto, among the inhabitants of Islington, many of whom are opulent, and all of whom are the local guardians of the public rights in this road, not one has been found with sufficient public virtue, or rather with enough of common manly spirit, to compel the restoration of public plunder, and in his own defence, and on the behalf of the public, arrest the highway robber.
There is some confusion as to whether Maiden Lane (sometimes referred to as Mayden Lane), the other chief ascent from London to Highgate, and Hagbush Lane intersected and where. Tantalising points of reference provide us with clues, from which it could just be possible to rise to Hone’s challenge and to plot out the routes of these old paths – now smothered in tarmac and Victorian (and twentieth century) housing developments. Could it be done?? Could Hagbush Lane be traced on a modern map? Engaging with the landscape around us has become a bit of a zeitgeist. For some it is parcour. But I prefer old maps and legends, and I’m not alone. There has been a surge of interest in recent years in taking to foot on London and discovering what lies beneath. Check out this article and podcast about John Rogers’ and Nick Padadimitriou’s Ventures and Adventures in Topography upon the Northern Heights for inspiration.
If you are a local resident reading this your house may well be built upon a fragment of green lane long forgot. Hagbush and Maiden Lane are also traceable in part from certain maps housed at Camden Local Studies library, and, through consulting layers of written and drawn sources, we may get there in the end – and discover more about how our neighbours from centuries past lived, networked and travelled. Perhaps as well as mapping the lanes, we could collate photographs of key landmarks from the present day. I’ve got the software to do it, and I’m prepared to invest in a pair of walking boots. Is anyone up for it? Then get in touch below