Victorian London - Entertainment and Recreation - Gardens and Spas - Hornsey Wood


WITH his young woman, too, does the cockney explore the rural retreats of Highbury Barn and Hornsey Wood ; nay, he has been known to penetrate as far as the Seven Sisters in a fair summer's evening. Any of these retreats are well worth the attention of the student in human nature, but our own especial choice is Hornsey Wood, the most tea-drinkingest place north of the Metropolis. We like Hornsey Wood for reasons weighty and sundry ; first, all the roads leading to it are pretty, whether we travel north by Islington, Highbury, the Sluice House, and by the banks of the pleasant New River, not forgetting to tumble over every haycock in the season ; or whether we come west by the  Brecknock Arms, and along that pleasant, billiard-table-like turnpike-road, that kisseth the feet of the Hampstead and Highgate Hills ; or whether we reach it from the north, over Highgate Archway, as through the jocund village of Muswell, vulgo Mussel Hill ; or from the east; all our lines lie in pleasant places. Rights of way abound, and stiles - humane stiles ; fit, as old Judge Foster said, for very old women, and very young children, - stiles, which crossing, you invoke a blessing upon the worthy tenant, who respects the convenience of age, and the modesty of sex, and putteth the steps close together ;- nor is our visual orb degraded, as old Beckford of Fonthill used to say, by "trespassers will be prosecuted," or " No thoroughfare. We ramble along passing the Sluice House, famous for eel-pies, not without stopping to put half a dozen in our pocket, nor omitting to have a good laugh at the dozen of cockney anglers locked up in a kind of hen-coop, ten yards long by three wide, abutting upon the New River, for which these patient disciples of Walton pay a shilling a head, hoping therefore to captivate one or two tittlebats, roach, or gudgeons, allured to this preserve by the offal of the Sluice House larder. A pleasant pathway leadeth us gently up the swelling hill, upon which stands, in all its licensed dignity, Hornsey Wood House, a stately mansion. Beyond, on the very summit of the eminence, is the wood itself, a little scrubby patch of some dozen acres, not cut, carved, and dissected, by the hand of landscape or other gardener, but left in its natural boskiness, brushiness, wilderness,-and that's why we like it. For you must know, the gardens of most of the tea-drinking establishments about London consist merely of so many dozen arbours, as like as eggs to eggs, sheltered by honey-suckle, or hop, or alder, with beer-bemused bench in the middle, and sparrow-besmirched form on either side, with no other perfumes than stale tobacco, no other sound than the clinking ot pots of beer, and no more picturesque view than pot-boy hurrying to and fro with the same.
    But at Hornsey Wood there is a little mendow, a little lake, with little boats on it, and instead of arbours ready cut and dry for you, you have only to select your own, under the shade of spreading hawthorn, the little wood, and then and there you may kick up your heels, and enjoy yourself, reposing on the bosom of your mother earth. You have views, too, from Hornsey Wood, that anywhere would be accounted fine ; to the north-east a long, dense, horizontal line of deepest green points out the site of Epping Forest and nearer you have the sweet verdant meadows of the flowery vale of Lea - Walton's own pleasant vale, where angling, he caught the hearts of men, and basketed them to all ages, with the bait of his happy humour, natural piety, and sweet sensibility to the loveliness of all created things.
    In the north-west the sun is sinking in all his glory behind the massive woods of Caen, flinging broad deep shadows over the subjacent vale, while his departing ray glints upon the summit of the Kentish hills, and tips the giant dome of St. Paul's with a speck of golden fire. To the south, west, and east extends the long line of cloud that hovers over murky London, whose towers and pinacles vainly seek to penetrate the unobscured ether where reigns the crescent moon, and her lady in waiting, one fair star of evening. 
    Around, about, and on every side, is the hum of happy human voice ; the smile of happy human face ; the merry, musical laugh of childhood, mad with its escape from town, revelling in wild flowers, rejoicing in the luxury of life. The tender mother is there, with studious care watching over the little life at her breast; the buxom maid, with her watchful lover, jealous, attentive, and observant; the contented father, smiling inwardly at the freaks of his frolicksome little ones ; age does not disdain to look on, rejoicing in the general joy, or to receive from little hands the proffered wild flower or the ravished hawthorn bough. 
    This is what we like best of all. We like to see nature take men and bind them in her flowery chains, and make them feel that there are fairer things than money, and sweeter toils than work, and nobler cares than gain. Shall we be laughed at because nature is found in a cockney tea-garden, or because cockneys love the few and far between approaches to her that their pent-up lot admits? Laugh then, and grow fat; we are a cockney; we love a bit of anything green ; we love Stationers' Hall Court, with its one green plat, and its one green tree ; we love our own geranium in our own pot, and our own mignionette in our own broken jug ; we love our neighbour in the back attic, who has a Southern aspect, and who gets out his crocuses a fortnight before the second floor; we love o Hornsey Wood and everybody that goes there !
    There is a ball-room in Hornsey Woocl House, with an orchestra, and so forth ; but balls are uncommon events, your cockney is not a saltatory animal. Besides, we honestly confess we don't much relish ball-rooms ; they remind us forcibly of ten-and-sixpenny tickets, and King Street, St. James's ; the demon of gentility hovers over them and demands that everybody should do their best to freeze everybody. Why should we not, at Hornsey Wood, have a dancing green as well as a bowling green ? why should not the master of the ceremonies, as in merry France, come round, hat in hand, to arrange the quadrille, give partners, and collect coppers for the fiddlers? Why should not you or I lead a lady forth to the dance without the ceremony of a previous introduction ? why should cockneys not be lightheeled as well as light-hearted? and why should our souls be disquieted within us, because we only earn thirty shillings a week, and Snooks, of Clapham Common, our employer, is worth a hundred thousand pounds ?

John Fisher Murray, The Physiology of London Life , in Bentley's Miscellany, 1844