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Rural Muswell Hill

One can imagine how pleasant it was to live in Muswell Hill at this time. Situated at the Eastern edge of the hilly Northern Heights, the village sat on land which dropped sharply down the hill towards the Lea Valley in the East and to the Thames Valley in the South. If you stand in Muswell Hill Broadway today and look down Hillfield Park on the South side you see the vast panoramic view of London stretching before your eyes. Those who had villas on their estates could walk out of their homes through the mature trees, which graced most properties and enjoy this superb view.

Round the hill top and down St James’ Lane clustered a few cottages and small village shops. Some of these late 18th century cottages in the St James’ Lane vicinity, then known as “The Village”, survived into the 1920’s and a weatherboard, tiny country pub known as “The Royal Oak” was not rebuilt until 1965.

To the East of Muswell Hill, an adjacent village known as Fortis Green developed, and a few of these early 19th century houses, and later small cottages still survive. The brewery that was situated here - convenient for the north road at East Finchley - was demolished at the turn of the 20th century, and now Muswell Hill police station stands on its site.

In a house at the top of Muswell Hill lived, as a young boy, Frederick Harrison, a now almost forgotten philosopher who has left a short vivid description of Muswell Hill as a rural place.

“We lived in a pretty cottage, on the crest of Muswell Hill, just opposite the big pond which stood in the square at the three cross way. The spot in the 1830’s was a beautiful and peaceful village. How well I can remember the limpid stillness of the Muswell and the knolls where the cowslip and violets grew under the oaks in the region now covered by the Alexandra Palace and its grounds. We would wander all day there and meet no one but a carter or a milkmaid….”

Grove Lodge, which stands back from the tree-lined part of Muswell Hill, was occupied mid-century by William Ashurst. This solicitor was a radical, and amongst his many visitors was Mazzini, the Italian patriot who helped create a united Italy.

Woodlands, an estate which originally stood where Woodlands Rise has been laid out, was a second home for the Lehmann family, of which Frederick Lehmann was the head. He was a business man from the family of artists, who knew all the leading arts figures such as Dickens, Browning, George Eliot, Sir Arthur Sullivan and Millais.

Many of these renowned figures were guests at the Woodlands. In fact, to escape town pressures, Wilkie Collins stayed at Woodlands in 1869 to write one of his intriguing novels, “Man and Wife”.

Mrs Lehmann wrote of Muswell Hill :

“If only I could give you a picture that could convey an ideal of the brilliant beauty in which the Woodlands bathes this morning. The atmosphere is so clear, that we see the Essex Hills, over the terraces of the trees, the ivy covered tower of Hornsey, the line of delicious fields dotted with white houses, sheep, horses, cattle….”

Little wonder, perhaps, that this rural scene survived longer than elsewhere in the Hornsey parish. Suburbs can only be built if landowners are willing to sell and those who lived in Muswell Hill were not anxious to make their properties available for development whilst they enjoyed the trees, views and rural peacefulness.

Consequently Muswell Hill remained untouched until the very end of the 19th century. Its population in 1891 was under 2,000 compared with the 28,000 of today - yet even now in the 21st century, because of its careful layout, Muswell Hill still feels spacious and green.

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