My Highgate: Michael Hammerson on why replacing ‘dreadful new developments’ makes him smile

15:00 07 September 2013

Historian Michael Hammerson

Historian Michael Hammerson

© Nigel Sutton email

Michael Hammerson has lived in Highgate for more than 40 years and is an active member of the Highgate Society, campaigning on planning and environmental issues. His book, Highgate From Old Photographs, has just been published.

What brought you to Highgate?

I spent my childhood and schooldays here, and always wanted to return.

How long have you lived in Highgate?

For my first 12 years and I came back in 1979.

What is your favourite thing about the area?

Its historic village and community atmosphere, its closeness to London’s best open spaces, and the ease with which you can get into London and out to the countryside.

What is missing from the area?

A great hotel – Highgate should be much better promoted for tourism. Athlone House would make the perfect bijou hotel.

What makes you smile on your way home?

Seeing a butterfly in summer and a cat in winter! And seeing some of the dreadful new developments which have been permitted in our conservation area demolished, and replaced with something better, would make me smile too.

If you were mayor for a day, what would you change?

I’d rather be planning minister for a day, so I could reverse the disastrous planning legislation of the past two governments, which is wrecking local democracy across the country.

How would you spend your perfect Sunday?

Photographing the wildlife on Hampstead Heath or in Highgate Wood.

Tell us about your new book.

Pretty simple. 180 photographs of Highgate from the 1860s to the 1930s, with some historical research on each, and a good number published for the first time. And at £14.99, the ideal Christmas present!

What other local campaigns or projects are you working on?

Far, far too many – and I acquire more as I get older. I’m working on a new book on an amazing recently-found collection of photographs of Hampstead Heath in the 1880s, and want to do a coffee-table book of old photographs of the Heath. I’m also researching a biography of the first vicar of Belsize Park, who was England’s leading supporter of the rebel cause during the American Civil War, and am doing a survey of veterans of that war buried in the mainland UK. So far, I know of about 1,200, two of whom are buried in Highgate Cemetery.

What tips would you give to somebody moving to the area?

Join the Highgate Society!

Where in the world would you twin with Highgate?

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I’m fascinated by American history, and particularly the era of the Civil War. You can’t understand the world’s most powerful country without understanding the origins, impact and legacy of its Civil War.

If you had to write your own epitaph what would it say?

“I’ll be back. Too much still to do.” But, if you had asked the achievement of which I was most proud, it would be getting a hectare of land donated to Hampstead Heath by the previous owners of Athlone House.

Michael Hammerson was in conversation with Amie Keeley


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