Wednesday, 13 February 2013

The Number 603 Route

Muswell Hill to Swiss Cottage Station 
Monday February 11h 2013

With military-style precision planning we had got ourselves, via two W route buses, to Muswell Hill so early (so perhaps not so precision ) that we had time for a leisurely pub lunch at the very Irish O’Neill’s on the Broadway, which the chain had converted from a large and derelict church. Even more of a treasure trove was the carefully preserved  grocery store, opened 1897, selling a wonderful array of tea, coffee and dried fruits. These passengers walked out with a Dundee cake for Valentine’s day, some poppyseed, some Southern Hemisphere apricots, and a small packet of home-made fudge.

The 603, according to the time-tables, runs 4 times a day, in both directions at what one might loosely term school hours. I had to think back to a friend of mine in the Sixties who used to endure 2 hour bus trips between home (Muswell Hill) and school (Swiss Cottage, effectively) for whom this route, however restricted, would have been a boon. So was it a boon?

Considering it supposedly runs to a tight time-table, it seemed to be late but we uncomplainingly boarded our third double-decker of the day to set off along Muswell Hill’s Broadway, followed by St James’ Parade (named for the church). With small niche shops on one side and a fine parade of Arts & Crafts flats on the other we left commerce behind and tangled with some road works along Fortis Green . The houses seemed to be of all vintages and included small workmen’s cottages and early Victorian villas and in fact examples of just about every period and style of building.

We eked our way down into East Finchley (and Barnet borough) passing the Phoenix Cinema, neon lit even during the day, though in fact today was gloomier than some summer nights. East Finchley station is topped by its very own marksman pointing somewhat strangely at the overhead Northern line bridge.

By the time we had sneakled (yes it’s a typo but quite a good one) our way round the one way system that gives you access to the A1 and started climbing up towards Highgate we had re-entered Haringey. This was to be a route of high points, having started from Muswell Hill and then dipped down we rose to 100 metres  above sea level atop Highgate Hill, which again is lined with a variety of vernacular building styles, and at this point few commercial outlets. About halfway up on the right sits Highpoint designed by Lubetkin and built by Arup for the Gestetner Family who planned to house their workers there; it has been well maintained and like all good buildings looks timeless.

Coming this way to the top of the hill, the 603 of course passes Highgate School which triggered an animated conversation about the evils of private (boarding) education and the evils that can be experienced there. Somewhere close by one of the party spotted a Blue Plaque; as usual we have had some difficulties in tracing for whom it might be. The nearest guess is for Mary Kingsley a rather intrepid and surprisingly anti-colonial explorer and writer, but we are not sure. Less controversially the Gatehouse pub and  theatre sits on the highest point of Highgate Hill, permitting the pun top theatre. 

The 603 was getting in its stride now, and bowled along Hampstead Lane past even grander houses, playing fields and of course ultimately Kenwood House, an Adam gem, which is currently closed for refurbishment. In theory the views from any double-decker along here should be superb, as eventually you get a sweeping vista over Central London and beyond. However the weather was against us today and all we could see was blurry snow covered trees, which you can probably get for free without boarding a bus. We squeezed past The Spaniards' Inn, much to the delight of my fellow passengers who remembered it fondly as a pub frequented in their student days – visiting a Hampstead hostelry must be some kind of rite of passage and as the local I did it before legally allowed, though I am not sure the food looked much like that!

It was hard not to reminisce as the snowy weather today reminded me of skating parties on the Whitestone Pond during the hard winter of 1962-3 (the year it snowed on Boxing Day not to thaw much before Easter). The pond today looked pretty but not frozen.

Rather harder for us local schoolgirls that year was the weekly compulsory run UP Fitzjohns Avenue which replaced games afternoon as the hockey fields remained under snow.  The descent through scenic, expensive and arty Hampstead starts very slowly – Heath Street is narrow and not at all suited to double-deckers (no wonder they only allow it twice a day) – so slowly in fact we were almost able to read the prices in the shop windows. Once past the Everyman cinema the road widens, bordered by those large red brick Victorian villas that once got turned into schools. Accompanied primary school children boarded at several points along here.

‘Don’t tell Mummy we came upstairs on the bus. She does not allow it and does not think it is safe. But it is safe as daddy is here and of course we don’t go downstairs while the bus is moving’… such parents would go pale at the very thought of our journeys home from school, hanging off the back platform on the open ended Routemasters. As Hampstead merges into Swiss Cottage the bus passes the end of Maresfield Gardens, the home of Freud (and then his daughter) when he moved to London  and continued to teach. Having the father of psycho-analysis in Hampstead encouraged the growth of other clinics and today the Tavistock thrives here. The bus stops (so that small boys can descend in the safety of a stationary bus) just short of the Basil Spence Library and the newly built Hampstead Theatre, and another more mainstream cinema.

Given the delights on this route it is hard not to stereotype Hampstead as one of the arty and cultural hubs of London: the reputation may be dated or may be thriving still, but unless you get on a 603 you will not get the full experience or judge for yourself.

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