Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Where I Live

View of a House and its Estate in Belsize, Middlesex, by Jan Siberechts 1696.

I came upon this painting in Tate Britain and immediately recognised the scene.  This is where I live.  Or where I used to live before it became now.

The estate was established sometime after the Norman invasion and bore the name Bel Assis, which is Old French for well situated; in time Bel Assis became Belsize which is now the name of a neighbourhood in London just south of Hampstead.

The road running left to right in the foreground is called Haverstock Hill; leftwards it descends to London, rightwards it gradually climbs upwards to Hampstead and the Heath.

The avenue of trees leading from Haverstock Hill to the house is now called Belsize Avenue and it is still lined with trees, different trees, but still with the sense that it is an avenue of approach to some grand place.  A section of the high wall surrounding the immediate grounds of the house survives to the left of Belsize Avenue; you can see it by peeping into the gardens of numbers 14 and 16.

And at the far end of the orchard to the right of the avenue grew a mulberry tree which stands on the corner of Belsize Avenue and Belsize Terrace to this day, or a direct descendant of it does, and drips its deep purple juice all over the pavement every summer.

A footpath went along that way, running outside the near wall of the estate.  This is what survives of the path called Cut-Throat Alley, infamous for the murder in 1845 of James Delarue by Thomas Hocker which Charles Dickens called 'One of the worst murders I ever heard of', much regretting that it was along 'one of my daily walks near Hampstead'.

The great house had been the seat of the Earls of Chesterfield but had fallen into neglect not long before Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, came upon it in the early 1720s and described it in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.  The house had recently been taken over by an enterprising fellow who turned it into 'a true house of pleasure', offering a variety of sport and games, so that it attracted 'a wonderful concourse of people', among them the Prince and Princess of Wales, who were 'gratified by all sorts of diversion', until 'the wicked part broke in' so that the magistrates intervened and it was 'suppressed by the hand of justice'.

The Tyburn rises near here and flows down to the Thames, passing beneath Buckingham Palace and dividing to create an island on which Westminster Abbey was built.  Nowadays, though, it travels entirely through underground culverts. Along its journey towards the Thames from Bel Assis it passed by the western end of Oxford Street where Marble Arch now stands and gave its name to Tyburn, the spot where from medieval times to the eighteenth century criminals were hanged and the bodies of traitors were exposed.

As for me, when there is a torrential rain the Tyburn rises from beneath the streets like a memory.  I live behind the great house where a light coloured strip on the right marks the boundary of the gardens to its rear.  What looks like it might be a coach house more or less marks the spot. That is where I am, or where I used to be when this neighbourhood was Bel Assis.