The story of Dick Whittington (c.1356–1423) climbing up Highgate Hill and hearing church bells call him back has been shared with British children for six hundred years. As a result of his change of heart, Richard Whittington famously turned around and then went on to become an exceedingly rich merchant and three times Lord Mayor of London.
The area now known as ‘Archway’ has not forgotten this moving story. To this day, every year the Lord Mayor of The City of London, Whittington’s direct successor, and other mayors from London’s 32 Boroughs, touch the ‘Whittington cat‘ statue (outside the Whittington hospital – he is always shown with a cat) as they walk, dressed in all their mayoral regalia, to the ancient City of London, raising money for charity). Nearby Whittington Park has its own topiary ‘Whittington cat’.
But this area I LOVE (and represent in local government) has so much more to offer than Dick Whittington. Wonderful pubs (the reopened Archway Tavern is the cover of a famous 1960s Kinks LP), novels were set in the area (not least the comical Victorian comic series ‘Diary of a Nobody’), a local church, St Johns, was designed by Charles Barry (architect of the House of Commons), and, for lovers of the quirky, the only McDonalds in the world that coincidentally is on ….. McDonald Road.
Gruesome legal history
On the much darker side, a plaque was scheduled to be laid in November 2020 commemorating every child at a party (and many, many adults) who tragically died under a ‘V2’ bomb at the end of the Second World War (yes, those rocket ‘flying bombs’ designed by Wernher Von Braun that were so successful that he was saved from War trials as he was needed in the US, where he eventually ended with NASA on our TVs for the first moon rocket landing).
If you like the truly gruesome, residential-looking Waterlow road was the final home of George Smith, who murdered seven wives for their money. His final murder there in 1914 created legal history when forensics were successfully used in court (almost drowning to death the poor nurse, demonstrating how the murders were done, in the process).
Always a futuristic transport hub
A small stretch of road encapsulates the history of transport in Britain. One of the reasons England had the first industrial revolution was the success of our transport system. Private companies sprung up able to charge a ‘toll’ for travelling on the roads they built – from 1803-1864 traffic paid a toll at Archway.
To avoid neighbouring Highgate hill, in 1808, an early ‘bypass’ was created cutting through the hill to a tunnel – that collapsed. Then the road surface was unsuccessful, and even when they had a good road surface the first bridge over the road cutting had to be rebuilt in 1907 (despite being designed by the celebrity royal architect John Nash!).
The new ‘Archway’ bridge now has views of London so majestic that proposed new buildings for many miles have to provide evidence they do not ruin the iconic view from Archway bridge.
The Brits learnt from our mistakes in Archway. Thomas Telford, England’s greatest road engineer, successfully experimented with the same cement the Romans had used for the first time on Archway Road and it remains the basis for modern road building. The great railway engineer George Stephenson similarly learnt from the failings of the tunnel.
As the twentieth century grew to love the car, Archway was the scene of a lost battle for a six-lane central London motorway. Now the four lane traffic crawls along, while the former 1960s ‘gyratory’ is an outdoor market welcoming cyclists and pedestrians.
The area boasts the largest covered bus garage in Western Europe.
Our hero was never here!
Archway road goes north. If Whittington ever ‘turned again’ listening to the City of London’s famous bow bells, he would have been somewhere like the modern west end aiming further West (possibly going via the old Roman ‘Watling Street’ to St. Albans)! Records indeed show that back in 1795 a stone marking the spot where he ‘turned again’, supposedly put there by Whittington himself, was removed and sawn in two, and some locals see this as ‘evidence’ that puts Whttington’s ‘turn’ on this very spot (400 years earlier). Who knows? To me (and many others), turning on Highgate Hill shows a somewhat uncharacteristic lack of a sense of direction for a man from Gloucestershire who later made a massive fortune exporting wool, while importing velvet and gold. His legend, like the Robin Hood stories, developed over many hundred years, and surely it simply ‘made sense’ for him to have left London by the uphill northern route known to so many Londoners, glancing back one last time at The City of London, listening to those melancholic church bells,
Featured image: The Tally-Ho London to Birmingham stage coach, passing the old ‘Whittington College’. James Pollard, 1836, oil on canvas. Photo © Tate Gallery, London
About the Author:
Dave Poyser is a Blue Badge tourist guide, first elected as a local councillor in the Archway area in 2014. He is as proud to show off his beloved Islington to visitors as he is to give tours around world-famous historic sites like Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle.