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 Pack animals had long since been replaced by wagons and carriages.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.

 

Clarence House: Nash’s Regency Palace

“Oh, that fool coachman has set us down at the wrong place,” Diana exclaimed.

Vivien felt sorry for Diana’s new driver.  He had only been brought up from the country just the week before and had little experience in navigating London’s congested street.  Yet he had much to recommend him, in her estimation.  His careful handling of the reins was a welcome respite from the reckless driving of Northam’s previous coachman who used to tool the massive four-in-hand coach at breakneck speed.  After years of terrorizing the streets of London, the old retainer had finally given his notice to quit.

“But I am persuaded we are precisely where we should be.”  Vivien hastened to reassure her friend.  “Look, this is clearly Nash’s work.  Take the portico for instance. The upper part is Corinthian.  The lower is Doric.  Very admirable for the new Clarence House.”

“But this stucco and pink cannot be a house for Old Bill.  I suppose Her Highness had a say in its design.”

“And no doubt she is waiting for us even now.  While we stand about dawdling!”

Vivien did not like to be late, especially when invited to take tea with HRH Princess Adelaide, soon to become Queen Adelaide to her husband’s William IV, the Sailor King.  This was understandable, she being the granddaughter of a sheep herder.  Diana, her companion, was the daughter of the Earl of Northam, and stood on ceremony with no one.  Not even a German princess and the wife of a future king she referred to as “Old Bill.”

“Old Bill” was Princess Charlotte’s uncle, the Duke of Clarence.  He was the man George Washington once plotted to kidnap while the prince was serving in the British Navy during the War of Independence.  Happy July 4th!

When Diana and Vivien visited the Duke’s addition to St. James Palace in 1827 it had just been finished.  There was much to admire in the Palladian design of the noted architect John Nash, who was also responsible for Park Crescent (used in abundance to display the finest in Regency architecture in various Jane Austen films) and part of Buckingham Palace.  William IV was a frugal man whose careful expenditures are credited to Queen Adelaide.  They remained in Clarence House even after he became King, despite the availability of Buckingham Palace.

Clarence House is expected to be the London residence of the newest royal couple.  It is currently occupied by the Prince of Wales and his wife, as well as Prince Harry.  The palace is also noted for being the long-time residence of HRH Elizabeth the Queen Mother, whose lovely blue morning room with her coat of arms is especially inviting: