This may sound ridiculous, but it has taken us over 20 years to realise the convenience of London bus route number 46 that begins its journey at Lancaster Gate, which is close to where we live. This bus goes almost straight to Hampstead Village (which used to be known as 'Hampstead Town'). Until we 'discovered' it a few days ago, we took a far more roundabout and longer route to visit the village near to where I was brought up.
During my childhood in Hampstead Garden Suburb in the early 1960s, my parents used to take my sister and I to Hampstead almost every Saturday morning. My mother, who was the only driver in the family, drove us up to Jack Straws Castle, a pub that used to stand close to a war memorial and the Whitestone Pond. The car park behind this historic pub, which no longer exists, had a very uneven unmade surface. We walked from there to the pond, often passing men who offered donkey rides, which we never accepted. Whitestone Pond, which was popular with those who needed to sail toy boats, still exists but has recently had a cosmetic 'make-over'.
From the pond, we walked down Heath Street. In summer, the northern end of Heath Street which had a very broad pavement hosted an outdoor art exhibition. Paintings were hung in makeshift shelters under corrugated iron roofs. There were also artists selling wooden sculptures and bits of pottery, but these were outnumbered by the painters. My late mother, who was an accomplished artist, used to study the works of art on display, and rarely made kind comments about them. My parents knew one of the men who displayed carved wood sculpturs every year, and we always stopped to chat with him even though we never bought any of his works. The exhibition is no longer held there, and has not existed for several decades. For a long time after it ceased to be held, there used to be small blue marks on the wall that ran alongside the stalls. These had something to do with the positioning of the exhibition stands. Now, even those feint reminders of the open-air art exhibitions have disappeared; parts of the wall have been rebuilt or cleaned.
Soon after the pavement narrows, and Heath Street begins to descend steeply, we used to pass the picturesque Friends Meeting House. This Quaker establishment still exists, but was not a place that we ever entered. A little further down, and on the opposite side of the road one can still see and eat or stay at La Gaffe, an Italian restaurant that seems to have been in Hampstead as long as I can remember. It was not a place that we patronised.
Further down and on the same side of Heath Street as The Quaker's place there is a wedge shaped restaurant. Its only entrance is on the corner of Heath Street and Elm Row. This restaurant, currently selling Italian food, has been through many reincarnations. When I was a child it was an Italian restaurant called the Pimpernel. This was always our first stop on our Saturday morning excursions to Hampstead.
When I was a child in the '60s, there was a short bar next to, and on the left of the entrance. It was here that my parents, who were incredibly fond of Italy and the Italians, ordered their espresso coffees and fruit juices for my sister and I. As they drank thier beverages, they used to chat with the Pimpernel's staff, but mainly in English. When we finished what we had ordered, my sister and I were always given small pieces of torrone - the Italian version of nougat - as gifts by the staff. These were wrapped in silver paper and contained inside cardboard boxes that were the same size as small matchboxes. A newish (1960s) building across the main road from the Pimpernel housed the most wonderful classical music gramophone record shop. This moved away to another site in the early 1970s before going out of business. By then, a branch of the Our Price chain had opened in nearby Hampstead High Street. This has also disappeared. The shop opposite the Pimpernel looks much as it did when it housed the record shop, which I think was called 'Hampstead Hi-Fi', but now it contains a completely different kind of business. The picture below shows Heath Street looking northwards towards the former home of the Pimpernel on the right, and that of the record shop on the left.
Our next stop was a clothes shop further down Heath Street on the same side as the Pimpernel. My mother loved browsing in this shop, but never bought anything! After visiting that shop, we used to turn left, and walked down the steep Back Lane, which is still cobbled even today. This led to Flask Walk, a short pedestrian way lined with shops that links Back Lane to Hampstead High Street. Next to an old-fashioned butchers shop on the south side of Flask Walk, there used to be a small bookshop that sold both second-hand and remaindered books. This has gone, as has a small gallery opposite it that exhibited paintings by one of my parents' numerous friends, the portrait artist Milein Cosman. She was married to the music critic Hans Keller. We used to call in on her occasionally. Some years after I first began visiting Hampstead with my parents, a second and larger second-hand bookshop opened in Flask walk. This still exists, and is one of the only - if not the only - survivor of the 6 or 7 second-hand bookshops that were in Hampstead in the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from Keith Fawkes shop, one of the only places in Flask Walk apart from the pub that has survived since my much younger days is a small French restaurant called 'La Cage Imaginaire'. This did not exist in the 1960s; it opened after my mother died in 1980.
From Flask walk we used to turn left and walk down Hampstead High Street, which eventually becomes Rosslyn Hill. Before changing its name, there is on its south side, closed to what is now Waterstone's bookshop, a truly venerable Hampstead establishment: The Coffee Cup.
Oddly enough, I had never entered this place until a few days ago. It was not somewhere that my parents frequented, and I never ever felt the urge to do so. It dates back to 1954, when I was 2 years old, and is littled changed. Its archaic interior, illustrated below confirms this.
Further down Hampstead High Street, where it becomes Rosslyn Hill, there used to be three neighbouring shopfronts behind which stood the shelves of High Hill Bookshop. This was for me the highlight of our weekly visits to Hampstead. My sister and I were always allowed to choose a book to buy from its well-stocked childrens' department. Sadly, the shop has long gone. Its demise was in no little way the result of the opening of Waterstone's far inferior bookshop in the early 1980s. High Hill closed its doors forever in 1988.
From High Hill Bookshop, we used to make our way up hill and back to the car. Every Saturday was much the same. The very first cinema film that I ever watched was The Red Balloon. I saw thisFrench film, which was first released in 1956 in the Everyman Cinema in Hampstead. This cimema, which still exists, was first a drill hall, then a theatre, and in 1933 it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films. I loved these. In those days, the cinema's audtorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled gas. Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. The Everyman is located in Holly Bush Lane, which is close to Hampstead Underground Station.
This station's platforms are the deepest in London. They are 192 feet below street level. In my youth, these were reached by four or five lifts. Two of these were high-speed. They had metal concertina-like doors and travelled so fast that my stomach shifted and my ears popped. The other lifts with brown wooden sliding doors with art-nouveau decorations were used when the high-speed ones were out of action. They took ages to travel between the station entrance hall and the platforms. The station's entrance was where young people from all over northwest London loitered whist waiting for their friends.
Heath Street continues past the station and winds its way towards Fitzjohns Avenue which descends in a straight line to Swiss Cottage. Before doing so Heath Street is lined with shops and restaurants. One of these that has survived since my adolescence is Louis Hungarian Patisserie.
Even in its heyday, I thought little of it, but considered it a suitable place to entertain a young lady friend. recently, we revisited it, and were disappointed. Its fare was nothing special and its ambience was at best rather depressing. Further along from Louis and occupying a spot on the corner of Heath Street and Perrins Lane is another shop that has been there as long as I can recall: Photo Craft.
This camera shop is now showing its age. I believe that over the years I bought one or two accessories there, but I am recording its existence mainly because it is one of the few shops that has rmained unchanged in Hampstead for over 5 decades. Next to it on Perrins Lane there is a shop of recent vintage, but next to that there is a row of houses, the first of which can be seen in the picture below to have a green front door:
In my teens, this used to be a second-hand bookshop. It was run by a learned old man. The groundfloor was his shop; he lived above it. Although shelves lined the walls, every available surface including most of the floor was covered with disorderly piles of books. Whilst my friends and I rummaged about looking for interesting volumes, he sat at a book covered table reading. every now and then, he used to chuckle loudly and then he used to read us aloud a passage, often in Latin. We bought many books from him, but now he and the bookshop are merely memories.
Parallel to Perrins Lane, but a little near to the Underground station there is another narrow thoroughfare called Perrins Court. Near to the end of this where it meets Hampstead High Street, there is the Villa Bianca Restaurant. This opened long after my mother died in 1980. In the 1980s, I lived in Gillingham in Kent. On most weekends, I visited London and stayed with my widowed father. Often on Sundays, we used to eat lunch in this restaurant, or occasionally, the Cage Imaginaire. The Villa Bianca used to serve good Italian food in those days. I have not eaten there for at least 20 years. Returning to Heath Street and close to the Photo Craft Shop, we reach the beginning of the tree-lined Church Row. This is the locatiuon of another restaurant, the Cellier du Midi.
When the Cellier opened in the late 1960s or early 1970s, my parents, who were connoisseurs of good food rated it highly, but never took my sister and me tto eat there. A few years ago, we did visit the restaurant, thus fulfilling a long-held ambition. We were disappointed. Apart from being an interesting time-warp, the food was drearily prepared.
The end of Church Row is dominated by the attractive 18th century parish church of St John at Hampstead. Oddly, I had never set foot inside this lovely building until about 5 years ago. And, only yesterday did I discover that it is a real curiosity. Its high altar is at the west end of the church. It used to be, as convention dictates, at the east end of the church, but it was moved when there were fears about the stability of its bell-tower.
Before leaving Hampstead, let us return to Hampstead High Street. A little way down the hill from the Coffee Cup there is another institution that has been in Hampstead for many decades: La Creperie de Hampstead:
Finally, let me not forget the New End Hospital. Now, it has been converted into luxury flats, but when I was a school boy in the late 1960s, it was still a hospital. I used to do voluntary work in its thyroid treatment laboratory, and once in 1969 I narrowly escaped being attacked by a bunch of skin-heads who were lurking near it.
So, there you have it: a selection of my memories of Hampstead.
If you have enjoyed these reminiscences,
you will probably also enjoy reading:
CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME
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your local bookshop.