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Mount pleasant: ten lofty facts about London’s hills

Posted at 8:00 am, July 11, 2014 in Outdoor London
Mount London, edited by Tom Chivers & Martin Kratz

The phrase ‘London hills’ might surprise you, but we reckon it’s about time the rolling hills of Yorkshire gave us some of the limelight. Oyster cards away ’cause thanks to new book ‘Mount London’ you can explore the lesser known hills of our fair city, and learn a little something about each one while you’re at it. With 32 boroughs it might be difficult to choose where to start, so we asked the man behind the book, poet Tom Chivers, for a nudge in the right direction.

1. Ludgate and Cornhill: A City of Hills

‘London is a city of hills. Its earliest incarnation, as a Roman military settlement, was built across two small peaks – Cornhill and Ludgate Hill – and the freshwater stream that ran between them (the Walbrook). These gravel promontories would have provided strategic capabilities as they were easily defended and commanded a wide vista across the Thames, but they may also have assumed ritual significance. The 17th century antiquarian William Camden believed that St Paul’s Cathedral was built over the ruins of a temple to the Roman goddess Diana.’

 2. Horsenden Hill: Doctor Who in Perivale

‘The final storyline of the original run of Doctor Who – ‘Survival’ – was set and filmed on Horsenden Hill, Perivale. The Hill, looming above suburban west London, is reputedly the burial place of the ancient British King Horsa. In Doctor Who it is transformed into an alien landscape populated by hunter-gatherers called the Cheetah People.’

 3. Snow Hill: A Ghost Station

‘One of London’s abandoned stations can be glimpsed in the tunnel between Farringdon and City Thameslink. If you squint out of the window you can make out the eerie platforms of Snow Hill Station, lit by security lights. The Station was named after a winding street that lead up from the valley of the Fleet river. The street is still there, though much levelled by the Victorians. The Station closed in 1916 due to lack of use.’

 4. Stave Hill: Spoiling the View

‘Rotherhithe is one of the flattest places in London. Lacking any hills of its own, the only option was to build one. Stave Hill is a thirty feet-high grass mound in the shape of a truncated cone. It is popular with joggers and dog walkers, who climb to the summit for panoramic views of the city. Its skin may be turfy, but Stave Hill’s innards are all rubble and waste; it was constructed in 1985 using spoil from the dismantling of the Surrey Docks.’

 5. Gipsy Hill: The Gypsy Queen of Norwood

‘Gipsy Hill in south London is named after the local Romany population who settled there in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Queen of the Gypsies was Margaret Finch, who lived beneath an ancient oak in Norwood Park. An etching from the time shows her crouched in a mossy hollow, smoking a long pipe, two small dogs and a mug of something robust-looking at her feet.’

 6. Northala Fields: A Ruin Within a Ruin

‘In Northolt, on the outskirts of north-west London, lies a series of artificial mounds known as Northala Fields. These picturesque hillocks were fashioned from the spoil from the dismantling of the old Wembley Stadium. They may contain traces of an earlier ruin that was built at Wembley – a structure known as Watkin’s Folly. It was designed to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but construction was never finished and it reached an unspectacular 154 feet before being dynamited in 1907.’

 7. Clapton: The Farm on the Hill

‘Until the 18th century, Clapton in east London was known as Clopton – ‘the farm on the hill’ – from the Old English word for farm, clop. Nowadays Clapton has a less bucolic reputation; Lower Clapton Road gained the nickname ‘Murder Mile’ in the 1990s. But if you look carefully there are still glimpses of its past in the undulating land that rises from the flood plain of the river Lea. The street names of Clapton are a mantra to a mountainous terrain: Spring Hill, Baker’s Hill, Big Hill, Mount Pleasant Lane, High Hill Ferry.’

8. Hampstead Station: The Staircase in the Hill

‘Hampstead Underground Station boasts the deepest lift shaft on the network, at 192 feet. Pray the lift’s not out of order: the emergency staircase boasts 320 thigh-crunching steps. When the Northern Line was extended here in the nineteenth century, Hampstead residents complained that the underground machinery would disrupt the Heath’s surface ecosystem, as tree roots lose purchase on the loosened soil. Their fears were unfounded. The Line burrows beneath the rising ground to a depth of 250 feet, packed safely in London Clay like a kidney in suet.’

9. Brixton Hill: The Urban Windmill

Centuries ago, London’s high points were graced by numerous windmills. At least one remains: concealed incongruously off the residential streets of Brixton Hill. The windmill was built in 1816, when much of Lambeth was still semi-rural. It’s even open for free tours. And you can go for a pint in The Windmill pub afterwards.

10. Telegraph Hill: A Line of Communication

‘Telegraph Hill in Lewisham was originally known as Plow’d Garlick Hill. In 1795 the Admiralty responded to the threat of a French invasion by establishing an optical telegraph station at the summit. The station established a direct line of communication linking Whitehall to the Kent coast. In 1815 it played a pivotal role in relaying news of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo to Admiralty House.’

Hill facts from Tom Chivers, Martin Kratz, Karen McCarthy Woolf, David Cooper, Tim Cresswell, Gareth E. Rees, Justin Hopper, Amber Massie-Blomfield. ‘Mount London’ is out now from Penned in the Margins.

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