A Bridge for the Regency

Cover from an older edition of Heyer's Regency Buck

This is the cover of my copy. Judith’s impetuous race to Brighton is priceless.

“Highgate afforded the travellers their first glimpse of London. As the chaise topped the rise and began the descent on the southern side, the view spread itself before Miss Taverner’s wondering eyes.”

— Regency Buck, by Georgette Heyer (1935)

Until Regency times, the great northern road approaching London climbed a very steep hill, rising some 450 feet above the Thames. The summit at Highgate village certainly afforded a splendid view.

Today’s view of London from Highgate, no longer the hamlet that Heyer’s heroine passed through.

Highgate had once been a hermitage, under the protection of the Bishop of London. The hermit, however, was not entirely occupied with remaining aloof from society. The great northern road passing just by his door, he was in a great position to collect tolls. For the bishop.

Highgate hill became something more than just an obstacle in the Georgian era. Pack animals had long since been replaced by wagons and carriages. Increasing speed and traffic, combined with the slope’s incline:

“..occasioned the loss of many lives, both of men and cattle.”

— Ackermann’s Repository (July, 1813)

The village of Highgate served as an emergency way station, receiving many broken bodies and carriages from accidents upon the hill. Exhausted horses and impatient drivers, with London just in sight, made conditions ripe for skidding off the steep shoulder of the road, overturning conveyances and flinging passengers downhill with great force.

Parliament considered remedying the situation on several occasions. One surgeon residing in Highgate reported his observations during government proceedings on the matter:

“..during the preceding three years, he had had under his care two persons with compound fractures of the legs, who suffered amputation; two simple fractures; a boy who had his skull fractured, and died a few hours after..”

–Monthly Magazine (July, 1810)

 

1812 J. Hill print depicting construction of the Highgate Archway
— Credit British Library via Science Photo Library

It was decided to build a tunnel through the hill. Unfortunately this solution met with disaster, for the whole caved in during construction. The only other idea was to cut the road through the hill. To prevent the excavated hillside from falling into the road, John Nash was engaged to design a brick archway. The resulting monument, of great size and majesty, became a well-known sight in England.

Too, the great northern road became much more efficient–and profitable. To pass beneath Highgate Archway, one paid four pence per horse, and one penny per person on foot (Ackermann’s Repository, July 1813).

Meanwhile, a bridge was placed over the whole, so that traffic on Hornsey Lane could stop and view London from the elegant balustrades:

“From the path-way of the bridge, there is an excellent view of the surrounding country, and of many buildings in the capital.”

–A New Picture of England and Wales, Samuel Leigh (1820)

 

The completed Archway. Augustus Charles Pugin, the artist, was a draftsman for Nash. He later illustrated guide books.

 

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Bonomi – Architect to the Regency

” ‘I am excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them.’ ”

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen (1811)

So says Mr. Robert Ferrers, a secondary character in Austen’s novel. His oft-quoted ode, following a discourse on Gray’s toothpick cases, forms a particularly odious lecture given to Elinor, the heroine. Odious because he clearly imagines his patronizing speech will inspire her to feel fortunate in her much-reduced circumstances after his sister forces her and her family to move out of their home, Norland Park.

“..a cottage… calculated for the convenience of persons of moderate income.” Designs for Elegant Cottages and Small Villas, E. Gyffard (1806)

He positively presses Elinor on the advantages of building a cottage, going so far as to relate to her, in his self-important way, that he advised no less a personage than Lord Courtland on the matter.

” ‘Lord Courtland came to me the other day on purpose to ask my advice, and laid before me three different plans of Bonomi’s. I was to decide on the best of them.’ “

 

Rear view of cottage showing servants’ entrance to the kitchen and extension of a veranda

Joseph (born Giuseppe) Bonomi came to England in 1767 at age twenty-eight, to work as a draftsman at the invitation of the Adam brothers, innovators of Neo-classicism in Georgian design and architecture. Bonomi also worked with Thomas Leverton, the famed English architect who had the distinction of executing a triumphal arch commemorating American independence for a British nobleman.

From these connections, Bonomi took his native foundation in Roman antiquity to design country residences for the ton. He was known for adapting classicism to suit practical needs. As an example, classicism demands an even number of columns, but Bonomi would made their number odd, if that suited the proportion and function of a building. He took the classical portico and extended it, to protect arriving and departing carriages from inclement weather.

The Royal Institute of British Architects calls Bonomi the creator of the porte-cochère.

Roseneath House, designed by Bonomi for the Duke of Argyll. Note the fifth column, put there so folks wouldn’t confuse the carriage way with a grand entrance. — from Papers Read at the Royal Institute of British Architects (1869)

A Bonomi-designed country house was the sign of marked distinction during the Regency. Even his drawings were on display at the Royal Academy. Yet Robert Ferrers destroyed Lord Courtland’s set, boasting:

” ‘My dear Courtland,’ said I, immediately throwing them all into the fire, ‘do not adopt either of them, but by all means build a cottage.’ And that, I fancy, will be the end of it.”

One must surely choose a cottage over a mansion, after such a masterful demonstration of preference (and destruction!) We do not learn of Lord Courtland’s eventual course of action, but Robert Ferrers lives on as perhaps the most-quoted person on the desirability of cottage-living.

I daresay his brilliance has quite cast poor Elinor in the shade. Her reaction to his conceit, ever sublime, can scarcely be remembered:

“Elinor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of rational opposition.”