Highgate – What’s In A Name?

What can we glean about how Highgate may have looked in the past by studying its name? And what does it tell us about Highgate today?

Many local history primers confidently (and rather dryly) inform the novice reader that Highgate takes its name from its previous role as a kind of border pass, situated on extremely high terrain and invested of a large gate, through which travellers to ‘the north’ could pass upon paying a toll.

There is much accuracy in this interpretation of the name. The hamlet of Highgate seems to have grown up around the ancient hermitage which once stood there, and it was the hermit thereof who was entrusted by the Bishop of London from at least 1318 to extract tolls from travellers wishing to pass through his land, and specifically his enclosed hunting ground. Indeed, for centuries Highgate’s position on the only road through London to the north of England was exploited – or rather, those wishing to traverse it were. Today the village retains a modern relic from Highgate’s stagecoaching past in the form of the mock-tudor framed Ye Olde Gatehouse public house, which stands on the site of the original tollhouse and that of a tavern first referenced in 1668 (although some sources claim that an inn has stood there since the 1300s).

Certainly this explanation makes prima facie sense. Highgate was one of three entrances to the bishop’s park, and certainly the highest. But there is some evidence to suggest that its simplicity is a little too convenient, and that a more prosaic origin can legitimately be suggested.

One of the earliest surviving written references to the hamlet’s name dates from the reign of Edward III. On January 15th 1354 John Lovell and William Smyth of ‘Heghgate’ were granted the right to take tolls at “Le Heighgate and elsewhere in the highway from the two crosses at Fyncheley” in return for repairing (or maintaining) said highway. In 1377 we find this contract being renewed, to the benefit of three Williams; Smyth of Iseldon (Islington), and Smyth and Maynerd of  Heghegate. By 1391 the hamlet is found referred to as Heygate. By 1543, if the spelling of extant references is any way phonetic it is more along the lines of the modern pronunciation, ‘Hyegat’ (although I am sure there is at least one other early written reference to Highgate which might slightly muddy this theory). A 21st century traveller on the Northern Line might be forgiven for thinking that ‘Hyegat’ subsequently evolved into ‘Heigh-git’ – but this is merely one of many unsolvable British Transport mysteries of our times! The name is today pronounced exactly as it is spelt i.e. Highgate, with the emphasis on the first syllable.

And it is this first syllable which gives us a clue. I am certainly not the first researcher to suggest that when our ancestors needed a name with which to identify the tiny cluster of dwellings  huddled around the entrance to the Bishop’s park, they were using an entirely different frame of reference. This was also for example the view of the late and great local historian Joan Schwitzer who stated in several articles and booklets that she veered towards the Saxon origin of the name, as well as that proposed by Steven Denford and David A. Hayes in Camden History Society’s fascinating book ‘The Streets of Highgate’.

The highway previously mentioned, despite its importance as a trade and communications route, was notoriously waterlogged and insurmountable. This precursor to the Great North Road which developed later on to the east was essentially a green lane, a bridle path no more than 15 ft wide, winding and sunk deep into the northern heights of London by the passage of thousands of struggling wayfarers. It is this old track which was in centuries past known as ‘Hagbush Lane’, and William Hone writing in 1826 offers the following explanation as to the origin of this enchanting and mysterious name:

Now for its name—Hagbush-lane. Hag is the old Saxon word haeg, which became corrupted into hegh, and afterwards into haw, and is the name for the berry of the hawthorn; also the Saxon word haga signified a hedge or any enclosure. Hag afterwards signified a bramble, and hence, for instance, the blackberry-bush, or any other bramble, would be properly  denominated a hag. Hagbush-lane, therefore, may be taken to signify either  Hawthornbush-lane, Bramble-lane, or Hedgebush-lane; more probably the latter.

That Hagbush Lane was in many places bordered by high and well-established bramble and hawthorn bushes is evidenced by many other nineteenth century sources, and I revisit these in another blog entry ‘Tracing Hagbush Lane’.  It was this lane by which Highgate was primarily reached for well over 500 years, until it finally became rejected as an outmoded and ridiculous method of ascent. The Old English ‘geat’ and the Norse term ‘gat’ give us the modern suffix, both indicating a way through a barrier of some kind. Anyone familiar with the many cultivated hedges of great antiquity in certain boundary positions within Highgate Woods will have learned of their previous effectiveness at keeping animals including deer and boars in – and intruders out. It is therefore not an extraordinary leap of conjecture to suggest that Heghe-Gat originally referred to a gate in these high hedges which continued north and surrounded the Bishop’s park, eventually giving way to a dark and gnarled passage which predates today’s Gatehouse. At some stage, because of its position on the brow of the hill, heghe/haigh/hag/haw may have sharpened into ‘high’, an equally descriptive term which would have become more apposite as the bishops’ old hunting ground became undefended common land, and its boundary hedges ceased to be so carefully coppiced.

The idea that Highgate’s very name suggests a gap in a barrier is interesting, especially in context of its paranormal reputation. The unusual proliferance of hauntings in the area perhaps suggests that at Highgate the walls between the normal everyday world and that of the unseen are particularly thin, sometimes allowing the two to collide. Indeed, much of Highgate’s landscape has always been about moving from one world to another – from the south into the north through the arch at the Gatehouse, and across the parish boundaries within the same. If one accepts the existence of the energy lines known as leys, one is informed that this energy courses up through Highgate, breaking through these man-made and society-enforced barriers with ease. By the same token the underground watercourses which run down the hill push against and through this same energy creating a frisson.

Hawthorn, which seems to have grown in abundance in Highgate, is still a very significant plant in Druidry, Wicca and other pagan belief systems. It is known, like mistletoe, as a magical plant, and its origins in the Saxon word Haeg connect it with the now derogatory term ‘hag’ used to denote a female witch. Wise women, herbalists who knew the bounty of the hedgerow’s curative properties, were known as a hagtesse, or ‘hedge rider’ – she who straddles the worlds, she who exists inbetween, she uses the hawthorn to move from one world to another.

Highgate was for so many centuries the hamlet of the traveller, of those pausing between worlds before paying the toll to pass through. In fact, this is its whole reason for existing at all as a settlement. The constant energetic process of transition may well have impacted upon the psychic landscape.  As one elderly resident of Highgate, a long term member of the Highgate Society who is well respected within the community, remarked to me recently: “Well you must be aware, my dear – the whole place is one giant vortex. I’ve lived here for 50 years, I ought to know. There’s no sense pretending otherwise!”

Make of that what you will, but it certainly presents a more romantic and stimulating vision than a gate on a high hill!

Hawthorn hedge image (c) Jennifer Tetlow. Check out her journal here

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