The Gatehouse PH at the top of Highgate Hill is the real gateway to London in the north. It’s not in Islington but it’s relevant to the story about Archway not least because Archway was once thought of as the South of Highgate and because the history of the northern routes of Highgate Hill and at Archway Road are intertwined.

Perhaps the best place to start a history discussion about this place is around the time of the famous Dick Whittington. From here on we shall refer to the real person by his proper name and title.

Sir Richard Whittington lived from c. 1350 to 1423. It was a time that bridged the 14th and 15th Centuries as times moved out of the Middle Ages after the last Crusaders returned and into the Renaissance beginning after the first plague epidemic of the early 14th Century.

During the Middle Ages the boundaries of London parishes and councils were being established and hamlets around London were evolving and villages appearing. Major roads connecting the country had been the legacy left by the Romans and paths and tracks linking neighbouring places appeared, as they inevitably do, for people and horses to get about.

During the Renaissance, London was dealing with leprosy, plague and other diseases and the logistics of moving people around. For example it was the law that the dead had to be buried outside of the City of London. Meat was provided by live herds being shepherded in and long distance trading meant that cargoes arriving at ports like London and England’s second largest city Bristol, needed to be distributed.

The needs of managing these diseases led to the foundation of many hospitals that remain in use today. There was no understanding of how disease spreads but the basics were being laid in understanding the need for seclusion, the difference between physical illness and illness of the mind, and later on, as evidenced in the balconies and open bridges at St Mary’s Hospital, it was known that fresh air and sunlight aided recovery and good health.

For the next few centuries, urban planning greatly outpaced the ability to provide roads between them so that north of Islington for example grew Finchley and Barnet yet the way to get there was by an old route through Hornsey and Muswell Hill and not over Highgate.


King Henry I (fourth son of William the Conqueror,) began his reign in 1100. He struggled to keep a grip on his throne and enlisted the support of the London merchants. In exchange he gave them the right to charge taxes and elect a Sheriff. At the end of that century King John (Lackland) began his rule in 1199 and for the same favour, exempted the Bishop and his tenants from paying taxes making the Bishop of London virtually King of his domain.

Back then London then was in the capital county of Middlesex which reached Potters Bar in the North and Poplar in the East. Hard to believe that the population of London was around 18,000, less than half of the population in Roman times. In fact, for most of London’s history, deaths have exceeded the birth rate.

The Church acquired much land during these uncertain times. The Crusades started after the Muslims took Jerusalem in 1076 and would last for 200 years during which time the Church’s wealth was augmented with purchases of estates, often at a fraction of their value from noblemen that were raising money for expeditions.

Without the Crusades the map of England’s landowners would have been very different. Richard de Beauvois, when Bishop of London in 1112, granted the chapel at Muswell Hill to the priory of Clerkenwell, for example. In 1123 St Bartholomew’s Priory was founded at Smithfield, at the southern tip of Islington. Today it survives as The Royal Hospital of St Bartholomew.

The Manor of Fulham had been acquired by the church in 700 CE but the first mention of a bishop living at Fulham Palace is when Bishop Robert de Sigillo was captured there in 1141 and held to ransom. Fulham Palace was one of a number of residences within reach of London. In the 17th Century it became a summer retreat and the Bishop of London moved closer to St Paul’s at The Old Deanery near Ludgate.

The Bishop of London’s residence prior to 1141 is said to have been “… in the vicinity of which they were accustomed to hunt.“. A part of Highgate being in the parish of Isendone. In the Anglo-Saxon charter of 1,000 CE it is referred to as ‘Gislandune’ and later in the Domesday Book as ‘Isendone’ which may mean ‘the lower town or fort’. This is from where ‘Islington’ derives its name. The description from the Doomsday Book is as follows:

”The Canons of St. Paul’s hold two hides in Isendone. The land is one carucate and a half, on which there is only one plough; but another might be kept half employed. There are three villanes, who hold a vir-gate of land, and there is pasture for the cattle of the town.” The ploughed land mentioned is believed to be around where Hornsey Lane is.

By the 12th Century the Bishops had established a hunting park of 1070 acres accessed from the South, from Spaniards in the West, Highgate in the East and Finchley to the North, having a gate at each extremity. There were deer, woods and a hunting lodge in the centre (Kenwood), and the bishops used it for hunting from 1200 to around the 1660s.

The Hunting Park was also referred to as Hornsey Park because Hornsey Parish extended that far and the Bishop’s residence, was referred to as Hornsey Manor. Finchley started off as an appendage of the Bishop of London’s estate and would be administered as part of Hornsey. Between the High Gate and the Finch, were hunting grounds.

The hunting grounds were made up of large woods and large heaths. It is reported that stags, boars, and even wild bulls were roaming. Travelling through it could be dangerous for pilgrims heading to St Albans and other more affluent travellers being at the mercy of bandits. This wilderness would become the haunt of infamous highway men operating across a notorious Finchley Common and venturing down to the Spaniards and even to Highgate when it became more than the place of a hermitage.

The Bishop of London’s hunting grounds – (print of Hampstead Heath c1810)


In his The history and antiquities of Highgate, Middlesex, Frederick Prickett makes an assertion that hermitages had been “… scattered over the most wild and unfrequented parts of the country, and no part could have been much more wild than this — the summit of a steep hill, miles distant from any church, and to which no road conducted.

Little is known about the hermits of Middlesex but the best known about was at Highgate where the summit is about 350 feet above the level of the Thames and slightly higher than Hampstead Heath. All hermits seem attracted to heights. They don’t always live alone but sometimes band together in twos or as a community.

The top of Highgate was seen as the heights of London during that time when The Bishop of London was amassing a fortune and Kings were sending Crusaders to fight papal wars. If one draws a line from Euston to Hornsey Rise, anything North from this arc would be rising land and considered suburbs reaching out as far as Potters Bar.

Access to the North was hindered by the Bishop’s hunting territory and so tracks, footways, bridleways and carriageways arose to the East and West of it. Imagine the year is 1100 and you’ve arrived at the Nag’s Head where Holloway Road ended. You want to continue North but it’s just fields. Instead, you either take the north-west route up Tuffnel Park Road or the north-east route first heading down Seven Sister’s Road then turning left at Hornsey Road.

In the diagram below you can see the extent of green land remaining today that still demarks the vast area of the Bishop’s hunting park. Holloway Road, Archway Road and Highgate Hill did not exist and so even from the drawing below 1,000 years later, you can see the north-eastern route is via Finchley Road through Golders Green and the north-western route through Crouch End.

The road from St Pancras Church first reaches Camden Town where continuing along Haverstock Hill it eventually leads to Golder’s Green and the Finchley Road. Another road leads to Tuffnel Park and another is a direct route to the East through Holloway and Hornsey and continuing to Green Lanes, Tottenham.

The significance of Tottenham was that it linked up with Ermine Street, an Anglo-Saxon route that the Romans adopted and established as a major thoroughfare from London to York (174 miles as the crow flies). The Roman name of it is not known, but it would become the Old North Road and continues in use today as part of the A10.

King Harold used Ermine Street in 1066 to march his army to defeat the Vikings near York and then returned and went South where he was defeated at the Battle of Hastings. York was also an important connection as The Bishop of York was more senior than The Bishop of London, as he still is today.


Ermine Street at High Dyke – Photo 2015

Ermine Street at Harnston Heath – Photo 2009

Ermine Street photos courtesy of Richard Croft.

During the 12th Century Ermine Street became so flooded that it was impassable for up to five months in the year. So an alternative route became important as well as to connect to the suburbs, for instance to provide pilgrims with passage to St Albans. This was the route that was taken through Hornsey passing through Crouch End, Muswell Hill, Finchley, Barnet and on to St Albans and South Mimms. This was the origin of the Great North Road (A1). In the 14th Century it too suffered constant flooding that made it impassable.

So we are building up a picture of the way routes developed around the great fields and forests because there was no public way through them. Things either led left of Archway or to the right, but not directly to it. Archway did not even have a name as it was just open land with no purpose. There’s no doubting minor tracks formed between points such as between Tufnell Park and Hornsey Rise (Junction Road and St John’s Way) but as far as a main route, the triangle formed between Tufnell Park, Hornsey Rise (better known as Mount Pleasant) and Holloway (Nag’s Head) was the last to be developed.

It was however a significant route for the passage of animals coming into the city to be sold for meat. It’s known that drovers passed through Highgate Village and headed down the hill emerging at the Nag’s Head. One can imagine their satisfaction when passing through these fields, as it was illegal to graze upon the Bishop’s land.

In time Highgate and Archway would become major resting points for horses and travellers but drovers usually did not stop on account of their animals and would continue to Holloway as far as Liverpool Road where they rested before going on to Smithfield, a site where stood a livestock market since the beginning of the 10th Century. It’s this continuous use of the route that eroded the surface sufficiently to give it its name, ‘the hollow way.’

With both the Ermine and Hornsey routes North unreliable, the alternative was a continuation of Holloway Road to Highgate. This route would allow access to the park and to Finchley where the Barnet Road could be picked up or if not wanting to pay the toll at Highgate, turning into Hornsey Lane would take you to Crouch End. The Bishop of London had already provided as a business venture, a new toll in Finchley at (Park Gate) with the first recorded collection in 1321 and another toll at Spaniards allowing routes through his park.

By 1307 the road at Nag’s Head had become known as Holloway and where it started to rise from there became Upper Holloway. But it was not until c.1386 that Bishop Braybroke gifted the Highgate Hermitage a small chapel and dwelling (as most hermitages were) to hold as the earlier poor hermits had done, on account of the “deepnesse and dirtie” passageway. This is the first indication we have of the state of the area and that it was in some use by drovers of animals.

Minister and historian Thomas Fuller in his work ‘The History of the Worthies of England’ makes reference to “A nameless hermite, dwelling in the hermitage, where now the school is, on his own cost caused gravel to be digg’d in the top of Hygate Hill, where now is a fair pond of water, and therewith made a causeway from Hygate to Islington : a two-handed charity, providing water on the hill, where it was wanting, and cleanesse in the vale, which before, especially in winter, was passed with much molestation.

Another account by John Norden the cartographer gives the hermit a name: “William Lichfield, a poor infirm hermit, who caused to be made the cause way between Highgate and Islington, and the gravel was had from the top of Highgate hill, where is now a standing pond of water.

It was the hermit’s responsibility under the terms of the gift of his hermitage, that he should build and maintain the approach to Highgate. A seemingly impossible employment unless there were a community of hermits or he oversaw a local workforce. In any case, the hermits of Highgate maintained the road for about 170 years.

London sits on a massive clay deposit that’s stiff and not pliable at all like you might think. So it would have been an extremely difficult enterprise to construct a causeway on a steep hill wide enough for two carriages to pass without modern mechanical diggers. However, history credits the hermit with hewing out of the London clay a roadway and then metalling it with a layer of sand and gravel taken from Highgate. The excavated gravel created artificial ponds later known as Pond Square.

Until the hermit built the road there is no evidence of more than a walking track going over the hill and drovers using it. The toll gate was placed at the site of the current Gatehouse PH. With a gate going across from it to the old burial grounds opposite which became known as the gate on the hill, the High-Gate.

The toll collected from carts, carriages and pack-horses and it is said that not a thing got past without paying a fee. On the spot of the toll emerged a drinking establishment which is still in use today. Previous owners from the 19th Century claimed that it had been licensed since 1337, before the toll house was conceived, and Camden state that a road opened there about the year 1300.

The Highgate Gatehouse. The most direct northern route but passing through the Bishop of London’s vast fields.

If this early account of the Gatehouse is true then it is possible that the hermits may have had something to do with it, initially as a source of means and later to fund construction of the road, as one account we have seen so far states that the hermit funded he road himself.

Richard Cloudesley was a famous Islington resident and left £20 in his will dated 1517 to mend the road between Highgate and Ring Cross (The area around present day Holloway Road tube station). And he left an additional £20, if that should not be sufficient.

As far as is known, the hermit of Highgate was responsible for maintaining the causeway between Highgate and Islington up until the reign of Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s daughter Queen Elizabeth I whose coronation was in 1559. Sometime during the 1550s the hermit fades away and the road deteriorates. During the dissolution of the monasteries, the hermitage was closed and the land acquired in 1562 by Roger Cholmeley who build a school there known today as Highgate School.

We know that Henry VIII favoured these hunting grounds if not the hermits, because of a proclamation he issued in 1546 warning of imprisonment to anyone that interfered with the game, as follows:—

A PROCLAMATION Let no person interrupt the King’s game of partridge or pheasant. Rex majori et viccomitibus London. Vobis mandamus, &c.

Forasmuch as the King’s most Royale Majestie is much desirous of having the game of hare, partridge, pheasant, and heron, preserved in and about his manour at Westminster for his disport and pastime; that is to saye, from his said Palace toe our Ladye of Oke, toe Highgate and Hamsted Heathe, to be preserved for his owne pleasure and recreation; his Royale Highnesse doth straightway charge and commandeth all and singular of his subjects, of what estate and condition soev’ they be, not toe attempt toe hunte, or hawke, or kill anie of the said games within the precincts of Hamsted, as they tender his favour and wolvde eschewe the imprisonment of theyre bodies and further punishment, at his majestie’s will and pleasure.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, the main business of the Bishop was in providing wood. In the time of the Crusades it was the clearing of trees on the East and West of the estate that provided the space for the first exits out of the city. In 1545 timber from Finchley Wood was provided for the Tower of London and Westminster Palace.

Although from 1504 Finchley Wood was described as a Common, it never was one. The keepers of the woods had protested about wood being removed for the Tower but the Bishop tightened his grip. He forbade the felling and removal of timber and by 1645 was reserving all timber in the woods including Finchley common, when leasing out coppices and springs in Finchley and Hornsey.