10 Things to Enjoy in Highgate

From London National Park City Wiki
Highgate back in time

Explore ancient Highgate wood

One of several entrance gates to Highgate wood

Highgate is a leafy area of north London that sits on the Northern line, and was once a distinct village. One of the most loved places to visit in the area is Highgate wood, which is run by the City of London Corporation who also look after Queen’s wood, which sits on the other side of Muswell Hill Road.

Highgate wood is an ancient woodland (defined as those known to have been present since at least 1600), 28 hectares in area and once part of the ancient Forest of Middlesex, which covered much of London. Prehistoric flints have been found in the wood, and excavations have shown that people were producing pottery here from local materials as early as AD 50-100. Geologists believe that, like nearby Hampstead Heath, the foundations of the wood have been present since prehistoric times, sitting mainly on London clay and a small part on glacial gravel (called Gravel Pit Wood in the 19th century).

Highgate wood is now managed with wildlife in mind, with dead wood left in situ to encourage fungi and invertebrates, which attract great spotted woodpeckers. In springtime the canopy is often bustling with their raucous calls, and if you’re lucky you may hear the chicks calling to their parents during nesting season. There is also a pair of kestrels that usually nest in the wood, and their young can sometimes be seen practicing their hunting skills nearby.

Over 70 species of birds have been recorded in the woods over the years, as well as 400 species of moths and 7 species of bats. Many of these animals rely on the complex ecosystem of this ancient woodland. A wildlife information board outside the information hut is regularly updated by the Woodkeepers and always makes for an interesting read if you're on the lookout for any particular species that have been recently spotted in the woods.

Go on a fungi foray

Parts of Highgate wood have been designated as conservation areas and are now managed specifically to allow for tree root expansion and for dead wood to break down. These processes are incredibly important for fungi growth, which often also benefits the resident trees. Many trees and fungi have a symbiotic relationship rather than a destructive one, and it is important to note that without fungi, trees would greatly suffer.

Autumn is the best time to spot fungi in the woods, and it is a great activity to do with children – you can show them how different species live together in the woods, aswell as teaching them the most important lessons when it comes to fungi – don’t touch, and don’t destroy! Fungi comes in many shapes, sizes and colours, and over 350 different species of fungi have been recorded here. All of these species have an important part to play in the biodiversity of the area. How many can you spot?

For more information on fungi, check out our new London Fungus Network page.

Hop across the road to Queen's wood

A pair of hawfinches were spotted in Queen's wood in the early 1990's

Just across the road from Highgate wood is Queen’s wood, which was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 1990. It was once known as Churchyard Bottom wood, possibly due to the discovery of human bones in the western part of the wood which were thought to be evidence of a plague pit. In appearance it may seem similar to its neighbour, Highgate wood, but Queen’s wood has its own history, ecology and personality.

There is a small stream in the northern part of the wood which provides a habitat of damp woodland, supporting plants such as Goldilocks buttercup and wood sorrel. You can also see wood anemone, which in springtime can cover the woodland floor in white, and native bluebells. It has a high biodiversity of birds including jays, green woodpeckers, great spotted woodpeckers, sparrowhawks, tree creepers, song thrushes, nuthatches and even hawfinches, which were spotted in 1991 and 1992 and are believed to have been the only pair recorded in Haringey.

Walk the Parkland walk

The popular Parkland walk, the longest linear nature reserve in London, is a highlight of this part of the capital. The whole walk is around 5 miles long, and is split into manageable sections if you don't fancy taking on the whole walk in a day. It follows the ghost of a long derelict railway line which once connected Finsbury Park, Highgate and Alexandra Palace - the Edgware, Highgate and London railway - a precursor to this part of the Northern line.

A good route to take begins at Alexandra Palace station, getting the hilly part of the walk done first as you ascend to the Palace itself - once you get to the top, the views are more than rewarding. From there, head west downhill and you can find the beginning of the Parkland walk proper, which takes you through leafy woodland with excellent views of Muswell Hill. You will walk past a rope swing that is, apparently, nearly 20 years old. The trail will take you through parts of Highgate and Queen's Wood, where it then joins up for a while with the Capital Ring, before heading east towards Finsbury Park.

According to the Friends of the Parkland Walk group, over 300 species of wildflowers have been recorded along the trail. When the railway line was functioning, the embankments would have all been grassland. When it closed, bramble and other shrubs began to take over, and regular management was implemented. This meant that the original grassland now thrives once again, and supports a diversity of insect life. Animals spotted along the walk include foxes, squirrels, jays, tawny owls, goldcrests and muntjac deer. For tree lovers, the walk takes you past two notable fig trees (which are likely to have grown up from discarded fruit) aswell as oaks, sycamores, London planes and the beautiful hornbeams and beech trees of Highgate wood.

Find the Parkland walk spriggan

The Parkland walk spriggan emerging from a disused railway arch

Coined the "fairy bodyguard of north London" by Londonist, the Parkland walk spriggan can be found emerging from the side of an old railway arch like a gargoyle or relic, and if you manage to find it you may well think that you're gazing on something as old as the railway itself. In fact, the spriggan is just under 30 years old and was the only commissioned piece for what was going to be an entire sculpture trail for the walk. Based on folklore from the west country, spriggans are said to be related to piskies but are slightly darker and sinister, haunting lonely places such as castles, coves, barrows and crags - and now, it seems, they have spread to the capital and taken hold of disused railway lines. But why is this creature from Cornish folklore here in north London? There are two long-standing theories...

Despite its Cornish relatives wanting to cause trouble, the artist behind the sculpture, Marilyn Collins, has always claimed that the Parkland walk spriggan was actually created to reflect the local area's permaculture roots (the first UK talk on permaculture was given in nearby Crouch End, with the first course in the country being developed soon after). The first urban forest garden was also planted in Crouch End, and the area is still proud of its trailblazing history in the green movement. With its crown of leaves and green man-like appearance, it is certainly plausible that the spriggan represents the green roots of a local community who have been environmentally conscious for many years.

The second, more esoteric theory is that Collins was inspired by a local legend that warned of a ghostly "goat man" who wandered the Parkland walk in the 1970's. Urban legend has it that local children would dare one another to walk the Parkland walk at night to see if they would run into this other-worldly creature (some people claim that this urban legend is the inspiration behind a Stephen King book from 1980 called "Crouch End", although Collins doubts this).

Get lost in Highgate cemetery

The entrance to Egyptian Avenue

Opened in 1839, Highgate cemetery was once run by a private company. Due to a lack of burial space for London's increasing population, Parliament was forced to open seven cemeteries in the surrounding countryside, known as the "Magnificent seven" - these include Kensal Green cemetery, Brompton and Nunhead which are also fascinating and beautiful spaces to explore. After falling into ruin at the beginning of the 20th century, Highgate cemetery is now lovingly looked after and is celebrated as a biodiverse, historical and architectural gem in north London.

Highgate cemetery boasts some impressive gothic architecture which was a fashionable design in Victorian Britain. Some of the most notable features have now been listed by English Heritage, including the Egyptian Avenue and the Terrace catacomb. On your visit you may also come across some famous names, with authors including Douglas Adams and George Eliot being buried here as well as its most famous and probably the most visited person, Karl Marx.

The cemetery is also a designated nature reserve, and is managed by a group of volunteers who always keep wildlife in mind when carrying out essential conservation work and maintenance. In 1975, "The Friends of Highgate cemetery" group was formed with the aim of promoting the conservation of the cemetery and its monuments and graves as well as the local flora and fauna who thrive there. It is a haven for foxes, and 40 bird species and 20 butterfly species have been recorded there over the years. There are also several animals featured on graves and monuments around the cemetery - can you find the lion and the dog statues? The dog is, rather confusingly, called Lion.

Before visiting the cemetery, make sure you book your slot and if there's a specific grave or monument you would like to see, check whether it is in the east or west part of the cemetery. Tickets are not sold at the cemetery itself, so booking online and planning your visit is advised.

Enjoy Waterlow park

Gifted to the public in 1889 by Sir Sydney Waterlow and described as a "garden for the gardenless," Waterlow park sits on the side of a hill and has some fantastic views of the City. It is set out as a more traditional garden than other nearby open spaces such as Hampstead Heath, and as you walk around it you can imagine the Victorian day-trippers that it appealed to enjoying the fresh air as they escaped the smog of the City. Features of the park include a rose garden, three ponds fed by natural springs, a kitchen garden which is managed by local community groups and even a community orchard with a selection of plum, apple, cherry and pear trees.

One of the free activities to do as you walk around the park is to follow the tree trail. This is a great way to explore the park and its magnificent collection of trees, both native and non-native, common and rare. Trees on the trail include a strawberry tree (not the same plant as the vine that produces the edible fruit that we know, so please don't eat it!), an impressive Scots pine which is an excellent habitat for wildlife, and a beautiful lime tree that attracts pollinators in the summer and is a great source of nectar.

Visit Lauderdale house

A view of Lauderdale house as it looks today

Set within Waterlow park is Lauderdale house, which dates back to 1582 and is now used as a creative hub, arts and education centre. The house was saved from demolition in the 1800's by William Morris, and was rescued once again in 1978 by the local community after a devastating fire in the early 1960's. Although much of the original building has been altered over the centuries by various owners and inhabitants, there are still remnants of the original Tudor structure including beautiful wooden beams. The building is now Grade II Listed.

One of the notable features of the house is the terraced garden, which also dates back to the 16th century and is one of the earliest examples of such a garden, making it of interest to garden historians. To the south west of the house, set within flower beds and lawn, is a giant wrought iron sundial - a surviving feature of Sir Sidney Waterlow's formal garden before he donated the park to the public.

Amble to Alexandra palace

Once dubbed the "Palace of the people" but now generally referred to as "Ally Pally", and forming part of the Parkland walk route (often considered to be a good start or end point), is the historic Alexandra palace. After being destroyed by fire just 16 days after its grand opening in 1873, the palace was redesigned and rebuilt on the same site and opened to the public again in 1875, with the building itself being influenced by the Victorian train stations of its time. Throughout its life it has been used to shelter refugees fleeing war, it has hosted countless ceremonies and concerts, and in 1936 it hosted the worlds first ever full television broadcast by the BBC. It was victim to fire once again in 1980, but it has since been restored and is now a popular indoor and outdoor venue.

Set in the beautiful Alexandra park which was designated a Local Nature Reserve in 2013, the palace sits on a hill with stunning views of the city, including familiar landmarks such as The Shard and St Paul's Cathedral. The park and palace also provide a fascinating vantage point to take in the structure and architecture of north London, while being reminded of just how green the capital is. At over 190 acres, the park has been welcoming Londoners to its green lungs since the early 1860's. It is home to over 690 different types of plants, animals and fungi, with 38 of these species being rare or protected according to the Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust, which takes care of the building and its green surroundings. The park includes an impressive avenue of lime trees, a lake which often attracts some interesting waterfowl, a garden center and a children's play area.

Seek out Dick Whittington's cat

Cat sitting atop the Whittington stone on Highgate hill

The legend of Dick Whittington isn't just the stuff of fairytale and pantomime. Legend has it that the real Dick Whittington, originally hailing from Gloucestershire and seeking his fortune in London in the late 1300's, passed through Highgate on his way home after an unsuccessful visit to the City. As the story goes, he was climbing Highgate Hill and sat to rest when he heard the distant sound of the bells at St Mary Le Bow (the famous Bow bells) calling him back to the the capital to continue his quest and persuading him that he would someday become Mayor. Historians doubt this, as it is unlikely that the bells could be heard from such a distance and, if you're geographically minded, you may have noted that Highgate hill is in the opposite direction from London to Gloucestershire. However, it's a great story.

Whether you believe this folk tale or not, an interesting quest that you can do yourself is to find the statue of his famous cat, which sits in the spot where the bells called him back to London. At the foot of Highgate hill on the bustling Archway Road stands a stone with a limestone cat atop it - this is the Whittington stone, and the cat was a relatively recent addition, being carved and placed there in 1964. The stone itself, which according to most sources was placed there in the early 1800's, has been the source of mystery and folklore itself for many years. There are legends that say that if the stone is ever removed, bad luck will haunt Highgate. The provenance of the stone has never really been confirmed - you can read more about it here. If you do visit the stone, take note of the direction the cat is facing.