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 Pack animals had long since been replaced by wagons and carriages.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