"Hurrah for Bank Holiday"
A Fascinating glimpse into Hampstead Heath's past, collated by the author, from
an original article by Lieut-Colonel Newnam-Davis (1904)
For the churlish people who pretend not to enjoy Bank Holidays!
When the days are long and the sun is bright and London goes junketing for a whole long day, there is an immense amount of pleasure to be obtained by watching one's fellow men and fellow women at play, and he must be a poor curmudgeon who is not glad that the lads and lasses still sing when they are light hearted and dance when they feel feather-heeled and squeeze all the joy there is to be found out of life in the sunshine and open air!
Let us, you and me, amuse ourselves, as the heroes of The Arabian Knights' did, invisibly from point to point, around London. We will have no oriental carpet as our conveyance, but the most modern type of airship.
Let us up very early and watch the gathering of the cockney force on Hampstead Heath, the great playground of the north of London.
We arrive at our destination. Northward lies the real country, green fields and tall trees and hedgerows of dog-roses and blackberry brambles. The footpaths that run in snaky curves down the hill skirting the clumps of gorse lead to Child's Hill, and that road goes to Golders Hill, which was bought for nearly forty thousand pounds in order that you and I and all the rest of London should enjoy its beauties, and that it should not be handed over to the Jerry builder. Behind us London lies in a light mist, its steeples and domes showing dimly in the light of the morning.
Mark the early comers, all of whom have something to sell or to hire to the holiday makers. That horsey-looking man in the light trousers, and with his hat well on the back of his head, is the owner of those riding horses which the lad in the cloth cap is now bringing on to the heath, riding one and leading three, after the approved military fashion. They are not very spirited-looking animals, but your lad and your lass out for a holiday do not want to be kicked or bucked off, and you can flourish a whip and behave generally in a devil-may-care manner when you know that your steed will do nothing more dangerous than break into a gentle canter.
They are well fed, however, as their owner will tell you "Each one of them 'osses eats more oats than a nobleman's 'unter" is his way of putting it, for they have a long and hard day's work before them trotting and cantering over the heath.
There like a flock of sheep come trotting up a clump of donkeys, the donkey boys, some in the saddle, some running behind, as though they expected not to have enough exercise during the day. Here is a flower-girl in a straw hat, and the shawl without which she never appears, summer or winter. She has carried her tray of roses straight from Covent Garden.
Now appear the men, Italian mostly, with ice-cream barrows, one pulling and one pushing at their wheeled counter bright with paintings of sea-fights and generals in crimson uniforms.
Here a belated " 'oos for a coker-nut" couple, with their long poles and blankets, and cocoanuts, and short sticks, drive up in a pony cart. Over the crest of the hill this pair go to take up a pitch on some wayside patch of grass land.
The old blind beggar with a tangled beard and his dog, which holds the handle of a little bag in his mouth, are earlier arrivals than we are, and are already established by the way-side. From the bottom of the hill where the road curves down towards Highgate comes the sound of a steam organ, which tells that the show folk have all taken up their positions over-night.
A vendor of socialistic literature, an African with a tray of sweetmeats, two "ni----s" with banjo and tambourine, an organ-grinder and his monkey, a peep-show man, a curious survival of the past, and sellers of fruit go past us each making for his own particular "pitch," by the Spaniards Road, or under some clump of trees or by some pathway.
Outside Jack Straw's Castle, the inn where travellers to London used in the old days to call a halt for a brush and stirrup cup and, perhaps a change of coats before they started the long road to London, a man in shirt sleeves is strewing the ground with red sand and a group of ostlers stand ready to run to horses' heads.
The holiday makers begin to arrive. First a father, a clerk in some office to judge from the well-worn elbows of his coat, and two little boys and a little girl. The father has a bowler hat set rakishly on one side of his head and a purple tie instead of the silk hat and quiet neckware he adopts, I am sure, on ordinary days of his life in the City. The two little fellows are in cricketing caps, the little girl has thin legs and a diminutive pig-tail of yellow hair. They carry a basket with their lunch in it and go over the rise down towards Finchley.
Now the lads and lasses come in couples and groups. Some of them are already in high spirits and more than one has already bought a paper feather to decorate his or her hat. Before the day is out there will be an interchange of headgear and Tom will, at nightfall, go down Fitzjohn's Avenue with Harriet's plumed trophy on his head singing some music-hall song.
There is much consultation at the top of the hill as to what the amusement of the morning is to be, horse rides, donkey rides, a walk in the country all being advocated, and the groups break up, the couples going their own ways.
In pony-traps and waggonettes, sometimes with a cornet player, or the possessor of a concertina sitting by the driver, the good citizens come now in their scores and the ostlers are busy at the inn. The dust rises from the long, white road on the crest, there are shouts and laughter from the riding-parties and the strident sound of steam organs tempered by the distance.
The bicyclists come toiling up the hill, hunching their shoulders, and start northwards down the slope at the speed of express trains. They are off through Chipping Barnet somewhere on one of the great north roads.
The sun is halfway up the heavens by now and if we are to do our round of suburban gaiety in a day we must be off and away
Shall we fly east or west?
Yonder shiver as of diamonds away there to the North-East is the Alexandra Palace, which, with its "side-shows," its great slopes of turf, its little lake with a show ground alongside it, is to North London what the Crystal Palace is to the South.
Already the paths are dotted with moving humanity, and I would be surprised if there were not to be a pastoral play in the grounds during the afternoon, and fireworks in the evening.
There, beyond the palace, almost on the horizon, like a shadow on the sea of fields and bricks and mortar, is Epping Forest.
Were we to fly there we should find the girls from the match manufacturers, and from the great feather houses of the East-end, and the mechanics from Waltham Abbey, enjoying themselves in the woodland, or rowing on the Connaught waters.
Some there will be who will seek out the mounds that mark the spots where Boadicea and Suetonius pitched their camps. There will be picnics galore under the trees, and probably the afternoon will be ended by a dance in the great ballroom which the Queen's Pavilion, attached to the Forest Hotel, forms.
Let us, howevever, forego the delights of the Muswell slopes and the Epping glades, and turn the prow of our airship eastwards.
That forked piece of water shining yonder is the Brent Reservoir, and that group of houses on its bank is the Welsh Harp, which Chevalier tells us in song is " 'Endon wai."
There, in its grounds, are all manner of delights, swings and roundabouts, and arbours for drinking of the tea, and there are boats of all kinds on the lake from the great pinnace which we hold an excursion party to the little canoe which scarcely contains a full-grown man.
Let us alight, invisible by the road, and watch some of the fun that is going on.
Here comes a couple of costers, each with his lady by his side, racing in their donkey-carts. The little animals they drive are admirably kept and groomed and the rosettes at their ears shows that a coster is as careful of the adornment of his donkey as he is of his own person. Look at the lines of pearl buttons on the mens' trousers, "cut saucy over the trotters," and on their coats and listen to the stream of good-natured chaff that they exchange with their kind as they drive along.
Now a sporting publican with a bit of blood between the shafts of his high dog-cart, and a lady beside him who wears a vast amount of jewellery go past at a spanking pace, the horse lifting his knees almost to his nose, and here are more costers, and bicyclists, oft to Elstree and Stanmore and Watford.
With a "whup-whup-whup" a great red motor car, the two men it with goggles on, the ladies with veils tied round their heads, slips through the traffic and every coster some novel shaft of chaff to hurl at the chauffeur.
Amusing as the Edgeware Road is we must not linger too long, for the sun is overhead and it is the hour of lunch.
As we fly high in the air we can see the school children trooping into the long refreshment sheds in Wembley Park where the stump of the great tower, which was to rival the Eiffel pinnacle in Paris, is a majestic structure though it is unfinished.
Southward we turn and the Thames flashes into view as a long waving ribbon. Due east the dot of white on a field of green is a windmill on Wimbledon Common.
We are in picnic land and we can take our choice whether we will eat our lunch amidst the fern, or by a lake side, or under the shade of the great trees.
Before we turn the prow of our good ship eastward and southward we must spend some portion of the early afternoon in the beautiful gardens of Hampton Court Palace, and wander through the rooms of the stately old house looking at the pictures.
The coach horns ring out before we fly onwards for we are on one of the great coaching roads now, and at the Mitre and the Greyhound the teams are being changed. Note how the touch of scarlet mixes here and there with the pepper and salt, pinks and blues, and greys of the holiday crowd. Cavalry are quartered at Hampton Court; there is the glint of steel and brass, and the trumpet call throws in its deep notes sometimes, calling to stables, while the guards on the coaches shrill out "Who'll buy a broom?"
Look due east and over the miles of streets of small houses, and the maze of railwaylines rise two glittering towers, slim as the minarets of a mosque, and between them lies a long roof of glass, twinkling in the hot rays of the afternoon sun.
It is the Crystal Palace, which with its vast grounds, and its scores of amusements under its great transparent curve, is now the especial playground of Southern London.
Here we see the people in their thousands, of all ages and all classes. There a band of boys and girls from a great pottery factory are forming a circle to play "kiss in the ring"; there the members of a workman's club with their wives, prosperous ladies with long gold earrings and cameo brooches, and their offspring, mostly munching buns of which each has a bag-full, are tramping the paths in a compact little procession going from sight to sight.
Here are the sons of the Phoenix with gorgeous scarves and battle axes, and somewhere else in the grounds we shall find the Oddfellows and the Foresters with brass bands and scarves and regalia. The ancient order of the Buffaloes I daresay are represented also.
It is a crowd that defies classification for in it are all the men of the old nursery rhyme, tinker, soldier, sailor, 'pothecary, ploughboy - only the policeman takes care that the thief shall be eliminated - and their wives and their children, and their sweethearts are there also.
The sun sets slowly, and as darkness creeps onmen are busy around the long lines of scaffolding on the great terrace. Suddenly against the purple sky a fiery-tailed rocket which has hissed up from earth bursts into a shower of white lights and shows on banks and terraces and galleries a vast crowd, a mass of faces upturned to the wonders in the heaven. There is more to come, but we will not wait for these as our day has already been a long one. Turning our airy vessel's head towards home we will skim over the city, and, marking the glow where Greenwich edges the Thames with lights, drop down once more to visibility in the centre of the world of London.