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An Almost Perfect London Walk

As, I suspect, do many of us, I have a love/hate relationship with Barnes and Noble. It’s a huge chain, it drives out small, independent book stores etc. etc.; but it’s got SO MANY BOOKS. I try to avoid it but its siren call beckons me. When I really, really need some books and have about say, sixteen hours to kill, I must go. When I do, I inevitably, at some point in my fall from grace, find myself plopped happily down in the travel section. I surround myself with books on Greece and the Himalayas and Bolivia and Beijing.

Barnes and Noble stocks the usual tomes, Let’s Go which I may be getting too old for, Rough Guides, and Lonely Planet whose cheeky and irreverent insight I enjoy enormously, Frommers’ and Rick Steves, for which I hope I’ll never be old enough, and books you won’t see anywhere else. Want to know the complete BritRail timetable for the year 2000? Have an itch for an incredibly detailed map of the Brooks Range in Alaska? This is the place.

So, of course I wasn’t surprised when I found the slim little book by Roger Ebert (of movie critic two thumbs up fame) and Daniel Curley (academic and short story author) entitled, The Perfect London Walk, first published in 1986. The cover is inviting; a slightly out of focus color photograph showing a green swath of spring yews lining a path to a very British great house. Opening it and quickly flipping through, a first impression says, “Weird.” There’s not much stuff on the pages, some writing, fuzzy black and white photos. It looks like something my twins might have slapped together, a kind of Blair Witch Project of guide books. Apparently it is written by friends about a walk they have long enjoyed over the Hampstead Heath in northwest London. You wonder how many Fullers’ Best ales, Jack Lane, the photographer had on the day they decided to record it for posterity.

“Even if you could get a taxi, Ebert and Curley’s walk is worth taking,” writes Michael Caine in the foreword. I adore Michael Caine, I’m intrigued by the idea of the book even though it’s pretty strange, and it’s only nine bucks. I buy it. When I get home, I toss it on the pile of books next to my bed and forget about it for a time since I also seem to have purchased my own copies of Frances Mayles’ Tuscan books, and am about to go through an annoying phase of responding to human queries in Italian, a language I know only by inflection.

It’s early fall by the time I’ve stopped yearning for fresh parmagiano and moonlit strolls through Etruscan ruins. Someone borrows my stack of Italy and the little green book reappears. Both Ebert and Curley offer advice to the reader on the premise that she or he will be actually taking this walk, not just reading about it. Frances Mayles knows that her Tuscany will never be ours, that we will not be purchasing ancient villas and spending our holidays searching for the right house wine. I’m having to switch gears here.

Ebert credits his pal Curley with introducing him to this “..bracing ramble on the Heath” while Curley himself admonishes us to set off in a timely fashion since there’s a small window of opportunity between the opening of the pubs (11 a.m.) and the closing of Highgate Cemetery (4 p.m. summers, 3 p.m. winters). He advises us to wear boots.

I start reading and can’t put this thing down. I am right there, “…about four inches above the top edge of most tourist maps of central London,” according to Ebert, and stepping smartly along, accompanied by literary references at all stops. Apparently there’s been a lot written about Hampstead, and Curley’s read it all. Some he includes opportunely (I mean why NOT read a little “Ode To A Nightingale” while gazing at the cherry tree which offered Keats the shade under which to write it?) and some is right out of Nairn’s London which is a favorite of Ebert’s (“..the most passionate and acerbic guide every written about London”). Mostly it’s directions written in bold print, “Turn right and walk along the street.” Each page has a photograph to accompany the walking clues, along with some brief background info and the inevitable literary quotation. This is a book you could actually use while you are walking without the risk of running into things.

I simply must read aloud from The Perfect London Walk while my husband Tom, is trying to read his own book. I can’t help snorting at the funny parts, insisting that he look at the picture of “the tree with a curious knob on its trunk, ” and Karl Marx’s enormous marble head on his Highgate Cemetery grave. Finally, out of sheer desperation, Tom reads it too and it briefly becomes part of our bedtime ritual to share bits and pieces. “Listen here, a quote by a writer named Ian Norrie after, ‘Cross the causeway between the second pond and the bathing pond’ says, ‘Dead bodies are not infrequently found floating….and are not uncommon anywhere on the Heath.’-presumably he meant in Victorian times?” For all we know, Curley and Ebert are simply providing us with more useful observation.

We finish the book but it stays on my bedside table. Fall advances and we find ourselves serendipitously needing to schedule a week in England . I pack the little green book, just in case we have time to actually take the perfect London walk.

London in November can be miserable-wet, cold, chilblain producing weather. No problem, there are lots of warm, cozy pubs. This late autumn however brings pleasant days, cool nights. We have decided to spend Thanksgiving in East Sussex, exploring the South Downs but extend our London stay one more day-to take The Walk.

Anyone can tell we are out- of -towners in chic Hampstead. We do not have mobile phones glued to our ears and we are not wearing black. Setting off from our hotel, with its enormous Victorian windows and hissing radiators, we are taking Daniel Curley’s advice. Backpacked, booted and camera-ed , we “turn right and walk across the street” noting things that stay the same and those that, since the 1986 book, are different. The pub on Haverstock Hill is no longer. The George Inn, has sadly given way to one of the new upscale Rat and Parrot chain. Tom, an amateur photographer who uses color film and has not (yet) indulged in any Fullers’ Best, hopes to document the same walk sites as Jack Lane, only clearer. His camera is equipped with automatic focus, and he gets a shot of The Rat and Parrot and of the Kentucky Fried Chicken which is just as Lane’s picture shows it! The thrill has begun.

We head down the hill past the great crumbling wreck of St. Stephens Church, which shelters a child care center right under its iffy eastern wall and around the perimeter of the hideously sixties- modern Royal Free Hospital on Pond Street. I’m quite taken with the large sign in the hospital’s parking lot, politely asking us if we’ve had an accident and including a detailed but helpful map of where to take our injured selves, presuming that we can both walk and see. We pass (and document) several other mentioned sites, greeting them as long-lost friends, so familiar are we with this route via armchair, three thousand miles away. Having now walked for at least four blocks, we feel we richly deserve a coffee break on the South End Road where we watch the pedestrian traffic coming in and out of the BritRail station and one entrance to The Heath (not the one The Walk wants us to take). Loitering youths with huge boom boxes listen to reggae in the little green at the corner of South End. Mums with prams and dogs walk together into the greater green that beckons us onward to The Heath.

First, however, we must gawk at Keat’s House, and force ourselves to pass by the incredibly inviting Freemasons Arms, which boasts the largest outdoor beer garden in London but, there, across the road is the entrance we have been approaching for the past three months. The “800 acres of common ground” extend invitingly ahead of us. We reassure each other that The Freemasons will still be there on our return and hike on.

We walk past the Hampstead Ponds-one for bathing, one for ‘waterfowl’ (there are ponds on the Highgate side of the Heath one for the ladies, one for the gents-where bathing costume is optional) and spy no floating corpses. This is where things get sticky. We’ve only been on the heath for ten minutes and we have dilemma number one. Should we “most easily bear slightly right” on a shady path that will eventually lead on to Parliament Hill or take a “memorable walk down a leafy corridor” and seek the “extraordinary gnarled tree” ?

We’ve been anxious to witness this tree for months, and head off down the leafy corridor looking for two wooden fence posts. This is where a walk guide written over fifteen years ago can throw you-there are no fence posts. The leafy corridor becomes dense wood, giving no sign of Lane’s picture. However, we are both historians after a fashion, and intrepid wanderers, we valiantly struggle on, looking for the “little fenced lane” that will guide us to the tree, but no luck. It is only by pure happenstance that we stumble upon the tree-or at least a tree rather like it. We’re not too sure if this tree we’ve found is extraordinarily gnarled or just normally gnarled but Tom snaps a shot and we “plunge straight ahead” to the slope that is Parliament Hill.

You can see a lot on a clear day from the top of this bald hill. “You will inevitably find interesting people atop Parliament Hill and as you walk across the Heath.” We’ve actually met very few people out and about on this late November weekday but we can see 360 degrees, clear across to London City and we find one very nice Doc Marten boot, no sign of its mate or its owner. A bench and a view guide are occupied by a couple who are unmistakably reading aloud from The Perfect London Walk. They are arguing about the next move, towards a grove of oaks (which grove of oaks is, I believe, their dilemma). Tom reads aloud from the poem Curley has chosen for us at this miraculous view. The sixth of Leigh Hunt’s Hampstead Sonnets opines, “…that clear path through all, where daily meet, Cool cheeks, and brilliant eyes, and morn-elastic feet!” This does not, as Tom had hoped, cheer the couple on. They stride down the hill, still arguing, shaking the book a bit as if that might solve their riddle. Tom looks sadly at them, “They’re doing it wrong.”

We get almost our fill of the view and face the challenge. The Book tells us that we can find the right grove of oaks “…at approximately eleven o’clock” if we turn our backs on London. We are about to actually walk across the Heath.

We know we’ve done it right because we pass through the oak grove, and come across a line of trees we know by heart because there, in a little dip which requires a hop and a jump, is the “tree with a curious knob on its trunk.” It’s real, it exists, it was probably a pollarded oak (some of the trees on the Heath may be as old as four hundred years) and I simply must give it a hug. The other couple can be seen, still arguing, heading off towards Highgate, in what one could only term a two o’clock direction.

Britain is big on tumuli-prehistoric gravesites. The ancients liked to bury their important dead in great mounds, and one lies just the other side of the “tree with the curious knob.” Legend says it’s the burying place of Queen Bodicea of the Iceni, an eastern Brit tribe who led a rebellion that wiped out the Roman Ninth legion and very nearly won back Londinium until she died by possibly foul hand in A.D. 61.

The tumulus is pretty big, it’s got trees on it, an iron fence to keep grave robbers out, and a comfy wooden bench just the other side of the fence. It’s no surprise that the only other walkers anywhere in sight, are seated on the bench, reading from The Book. I wave ours, and they cheerfully wave theirs. We have bonded as only countryfolk can in a distant land. They are from Minnesota and they bought their Perfect Walk in a Barnes and Noble in Minneapolis. This is their second walk through but they have made it only as far as Queen Bodicea, and no, they couldn’t find the wooden gate posts either. They will sit here on this pleasant bench until the Freemasons Arms opens at 11. Isn’t this place terrific? We all shake our heads at the rogue couple who can now be seen distantly striding towards Kenwood, completely off the trail.

We wave our goodbyes and saunter on, to, ” press forward into grove of trees” after which we must, “…plunge into the dark woods.” Here’s where we again come acropper. Our guide to all this is supposed to be a “solitary birch” but, there are several paths and no lonely white trees. There are birches to be sure along with dark woods aplenty but which is OUR way? Holding the book with the picture of the unique birch close to my eyeballs much the way viewers of “America’s Most Wanted” must look at their new neighbors, we guess. It is, hopefully, thataway. After several quiet, dubious minutes we realize we have chosen correctly, there is the sign we are to pass, there is the fence to our right and there, oh there, is the “narrow path beside a grassy field.” Like children having found the next treasure hunt clue, we hold hands and look for the bench in Lane’s photo.

But wait, there are two benches. The first is clearly the one in the picture. The second is somewhat newer. Shocked and solemn, we read its inscription, “In Memory of Daniel Curley.” As far as I know, in order to qualify for a memorial, one has to be dead. During these past months of reading the book, anticipating its fond peculiarities, and now actually wandering its circuit, we have heard Curley’s laughter. We felt as though we were part of that walking trio; Ebert, the famous, funny film critic whose own partner had died not too long ago, Lane, the shadowy photographer whose dark, blurry pictures brought us such delight, Curley, the esoteric author, creator and guide sharer of this magical mystery tour.

But, how fitting that he have this bench, in this place. Tom sits thoughtfully upon it and reads Curley’s Keats’ selection (Keats is supposed to have written “I Stood Tiptoe Upon A Little Hill” right here) aloud to me. I steal a few leaves from the tree sheltering Curley’s bench and carefully press them into his little green book. I take a picture of this one site that could surely not have been included in The Book. We do, “..want to pause for a time.”

Still, the time comes to press on. We follow the path up to the busy Spaniard’s Road, and head down the hill past Jack Straw’s Castle and the tollhouse to the Spaniard’s Inn. Time for that best bitter and a sandwich. Ebert and Curley tell us that there has been an inn on this spot since the seventeenth century (“at least”) and that it was infamous for having lodged the highwayman Dick Turpin, who would spy likely victims as they passed through the toll, and later gallop after them to rob and plunder. Right now, in the twenty-first century, it’s a heck of a nice place for a cozy bite to eat. Locals tie their Labradors to the bar while they hoist an ale. The pub has a well kept Hancock and Fullers’ London Pride and a tasty steak and Guinness pie. I look surreptitiously around for a sign of any other little green books but see only the hilltopping couple who have clearly shortcutted to get here. We take off several layers of sweaters and sweatshirts and put our boots up for a while, thinking about friends, and walks, and memorials. The place has a very nice ladies’ room.

At this point, we have just two further destinations. One just up the road at Kenwood House, with its orangery, Rembrandts and sweeping lawns, the other a short bus ride farther on, at Highgate Cemetery. We cursorily view Kenwood, but time flees and if we are to journey into Highgate we must catch the next number 210 bus, which we do, “alighting at The Rose and Crown.” Ebert and Curley tell us to carefully, “Cross the zebra lines” where we head down a very narrow lane past odd statuary, and a telecom tower (which certainly wasn’t there in 1986) . The writers warn us to “Keep your wits about you in Swain’s Lane” or we might suffer the same demise as brilliant scientist Sir Francis Bacon, who died from purchasing a cold chicken from a poor woman on this site.

Tom simply has to see Marx’s grave in East Highgate Cemetery. He just wants a snapshot but the Friends of Highgate need to support their upkeep of this private site, and charge him a whopping two quid to get in and two for his camera. I wait at the entrance, having my ear filled by the enthusiastic young keeper who goes on about the trials and tribulations of taking care of the place. Nicely cared for it is too, very green, well mown, it’s quite up to American standards. Many English cemeteries have given up the daily grind and allowed their plots to “go natural” which mostly means letting grass grow into hay and allowing the foxes to make their dens wherever they darn please.

Highgate West is our real itinerary. A shrine to the Victorian fear of death, this is, as Nairns says, “…the creepiest place in London….” Abandoned in bankruptcy by the company which founded it in 1839, it’s maintained now by the Friends of Highgate Cemetery which do guided tours of the areas they have heroically partially reclaimed from weed and vine. At three pounds for the tour, it’s steep, but for a totally incredible, exotic, very bizarre experience, not to be missed. Our small group clings tightly to our ancient tour guide, leading us up past angels strangled by ivy, tilted headstones forced aside by rooted trees and sarcophagi gone dank and dark in the ruins of this wild jungle. Highgate East has its Karl Marx, its George Eliot-the western side’s admission ticket is affluence. Inventors, Captains of Industry, a prize fighter, and a famous author who wrote about lesbian love, their final resting place is a fortress of reassurance that wealth does indeed carry clout after death.

Oddest of them all is the Egyptian alley, where families walled their dead in catacombs. Huge, ornate mausoleums, personalized statuary, these people did not go easily into the night. They tried their hardest to take it all with them. Still, this final part of Curley and Ebert’s walk is a fitting end to a very satisfying day. Dark is quickly descending, in this place, anything could happen-and I don’t want to be here when it does. Highgate Cemetery furthers my resolve to have my corpse, when the time comes, thrown off the back of a Provincetown whale watch boat. It’s no surprise that several of the graves in this cemetery sport air vents as a just-in-case the newly buried weren’t quite dead.

We head across Highgate to the Archway tube and speed back to London, where we have an honest to goodness tea date at the British Library. It’s a shock to be back amongst the living and we sit a bit stunned as the train rockets its way towards the twenty first century. I am still so caught up in the moment that I press The Book upon our scholarly tea host and insist that he take his family to Hampstead. We will walk back to the Freemasons for a last pub dinner later tonight and drink a round to those fine fellows Roger, Jack and their pal Daniel. Here’s to London Walks, may they always be almost perfect.

I realize a few weeks after our return that I must venture again to Barnes and Noble, at the very least to replace my copy of The Perfect London Walk . As I sit amidst my pile of books, impeding all traffic in the travel section, I find just one copy on the shelf. Taking it down I know that it is too new-there are no notes in its margin, no droplet stains of Fullers’ London Pride, no fold to the binding where it has been stuffed into pockets and backpacks and bedside tables. Worse, on the page with the picture of one bench by the “narrow path by the grassy field”-there are no pressed leaves from the tree by Daniel Curley’s bench, a sure sign that I’ll need to be taking his walk again.

Further Reading

The Perfect London Walk, Roger Ebert and Daniel Curley, photographs by Jack Lane. Andrews and McNeel; Kansas City 1997.

Daniel Curley’s novel In The Hands Of Our Enemies ( most of the plot takes place on The Walk)

Hampstead Heath: The Walker’s Guide, 1998. David McDowall and Deborah Wolton, a very knowledgeable but possibly boring guide, mostly useful for its geological, botanical and historical background. This is the kind of book where the authors tell us, “It has been frequently asked why the sands of Hampstead are confined to the Heath,” I don’t know about you but that question was never heard from My lips.

Time Out Book of London Walks, the Heath chapters by writers Margaret Foster (“The Full Curcuit”), Bill Oddie (“Dawn Chorus With Mute Swans”), and Peter Paphides (“One Summer’s Morning”-where he describes falling out of what might have been the “extraordinary gnarled tree” practically into the startled arms of the actor who plays Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise).

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