A Travellerspoint blog

May 2017

FROM CALCUTTA TO HAMPSTEAD

The Vale of Health

Recently, I took my friend Murari on a walking tour around Hampstead. I had a route in my mind, but my friend’s curiosity and enthusiasm led us to deviate from it frequently. I had not intended showing him the Vale of Health, but now I am pleased that we went there. The Vale of Health (‘Vale’) is a cluster of houses in a hollow surrounded by wooded slopes of Hampstead Heath (to the east of the rest of Hampstead).

Vale of Health Pond

Vale of Health Pond

The land on which the Vale is situated is mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086 AD). It was then owned by the Abbots and monks of Westminster. By the 18th century this swampland in the middle of the part of the Heath, then known as part of ‘Gangmoor’, was inhabited by impoverished people and was malarial. In the 1770s, the area was known as ‘Hatches’ or ‘Hatchett’s’ Bottom, because Samuel Hatch, a harness-maker, had owned a cottage there before 1770. This unsavoury hollow was described in about 1817 as a “stagnate bottom, a pit in the heath” by the sculptor Joseph Nolleken’s wife (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp71-73). It was a vale, but not a healthy one.

By 1801 (or ’02), the name ‘Vale of Health’ began to be used to refer to this area. By then, the marshland had been drained, and property developers began building houses in the Vale. The new name was probably chosen to entice people to buy homes in the greatly improved isolated hollow. According to one source (see above):
“The middle-class element became increasingly important from the early 19th century. In 1801 the attractions of the area included ‘unbounded prospects’ of Kent and the river Thames, and screening, presumably by trees and the lie of the land, from north winds. By 1821 the inhabitants, petitioning for the removal of the poor houses, observed that the neighbourhood had ‘greatly increased in respectability’ through the ‘improvement of property’.”
The early ‘respectable’ residents of the Vale included: the law reformer Sir Samuel Romilly (1757-1818); the poet and essayist James Leigh Hunt (1784-1859), who entertained leading literary figures such as Hazlitt, Keats, Lord Byron and Shelley in his house in the Vale; the publisher Charles Knight (1791- 1873); and, also, a Prince Eszterhazy. Between 1815 and 1851, the number of houses built in the Vale grew from four to eighteen. These figures do not include the cottages that were built there. The Vale attracted many trippers. A weekly fair was established, as well as a tavern and tea gardens. Two hotels were built in the Vale, but neither of these nor the other ‘attractions’ exist today. This ‘vulgarisation’ of the area did not deter ‘elevated’ people from settling there.

Over-expansion of the Vale was limited by law. The Hampstead Heath Act, 1871 stated that: “the board shall at all times preserve, as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the Heath” (the ‘board’ being the Metropolitan Board of Works; see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/8432619/The-Heath.html). This law effectively protected what was left of Hampstead Heath from becoming further urbanised. This far-sighted legislation is paying off dividends today by making the Heath a place where one can escape from London and imagine that one is in the heart of the country. As my walking companion, Murari, put it: who needs to live in rural Hampshire when countryside like this is within a few minutes journey from the city?

One winding road leads downhill from East Heath Road into the Vale. This lane is bordered by dense woodland and, in spring and summer, by luxuriant banks of stinging nettles. At the bottom of this thoroughfare, there are houses. Most of the cars parked outside them suggest that the Vale is no longer a home for the impoverished as it was in the 18th century and before.

Villas on the Heath

Villas on the Heath

Two large Victorian buildings whose front doors are framed by gothic-style archways bear the name ‘Villas on the Heath’. One of them bore a circular blue commemorative plaque, which was difficult to read because of leafy creepers growing over it. But, to our excitement, we discovered that it read: “Rabindranath Tagore 1861-1941 Indian poet stayed here in 1912.” I have visited the palatial Jorasanko where Tagore was brought up in Calcutta. The large (by London standards) ‘villa’ in the Vale is tiny in comparison. An article published in a Calcutta newspaper “The Telegraph” on the 13th September 2009 reported with some accuracy:
“In Hampstead, north London, regarded as a cultural “village” today for left-wing but arty champagne socialists, there is a plaque to Rabindranath Tagore at 3 Villas on Vale of Heath.”

Tagore plaque

Tagore plaque

For those, who are not familiar with this name, let me just say that Tagore was one of India’s geniuses: artist, poet, writer, dramatist, musician, educator, promoter of Indian independence, Nobel laureate, and much more. But, what was he doing in the Vale of Health in 1912? An article published in the local newspaper “The Ham & High” on the 6th of April 2013 provides the answer. In February 1911, according to this article, Tagore met the English artist William Rothenstein (1872-1945) in Calcutta, where he was visiting Rabindranath’s brother, the artist Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), many of whose works I have seen at the lovely National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore (India) and at Jorasanko. According to Rothenstein in his “Men and Memories…” (publ. 1932):
“Before leaving Darjeeling a telegram came from Rabindranath Tagore, asking me to join him at Bolpur; but my passage was booked, and I must reluctantly refuse.”

Rothenstein, who lived in Hampstead, and Rabindranath became friends, and began a lively correspondence. In 1912, Tagore arrived in England. It was Rothenstein who found him lodgings at Number 3 Villas on the Heath, where he stayed for a few months in the summer. While living in the Vale, Tagore worked on translating some of his works from Bengali into English. Some of these were published later in 1912 in London as the English version of “Gitanjali” (meaning ‘song offerings’). It was this work that, to a great extent, led to its author being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.

JORASANKO in Calcutta - one of its courtyards

JORASANKO in Calcutta - one of its courtyards

After Tagore’s London visit, Rothenstein wrote an extensive account of his visit (see: http://fortnightlyreview.co.uk/2013/05/tagore-in-london/). I will reprint some extracts of this here:
“Promotto Loll Sen … brought to our house Dr Brajendranath Seal, then on a visit to London, a philosopher with a brilliant mind … They both wrote Tagore, urging him to come to London; he would meet, they said, at our house and elsewhere, men after his heart. Then news came that Rabindranath was on his way. I eagerly awaited his visit. At last he arrived, accompanied by two friends, and by his son…
…I sent word to Yeats, who failed to reply; but when I wrote again he asked me to send him the poems, and when he had read them his enthusiasm equalled mine…
…Tagore’s dignity and handsome presence, the ease of his manners and his quiet wisdom made a marked impression on all who met him…
…BEFORE TAGORE LEFT for India, Yeats and I arranged a small dinner in his honour. After dinner we asked Tagore to sing Bande Mataram, the nationalist song. He hummed the tune but after the first words broke down; he could not remember the rest. Then Yeats began the Irish anthem—and his memory, again, was at fault; and Ernest Rhys could not for the life of him recollect the words of the Welsh national anthem. ‘What a crew!’ I said, when I too stumbled over God save the King….”

After leaving Hampstead, Tagore wrote to Rothenstein in November 1912 after the successful publication of “Gitanjali”. Here are some extracts from his letter:
“I am so glad to learn from your letter that my book has been favourably criticised in The Times Literary Supplement. … I feel that the success of my book is your own success. But for your assurance I never could have dreamt that my translations were worth anything… Remember me kindly to Mrs Rothenstein and give our love to the children. Ever your affectionate friend, RABINDRANATH TAGORE”

In 2015:
“On her recent visit to London, Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee reportedly asked the Indian high commissioner if he would make an offer to the owners on Bengal’s behalf – valued at an estimated £2.7 million. … Business tycoon Harsh Neotia accompanied Ms Banergee on her official visit, and said: “It would be a lot of pride and interest for the people of India and Bengal if the state government could get the house and convert it into a museum or study and research centre.”” (see: http://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/politics/indian-state-wants-to-buy-former-home-of-poet-rabindranath-tagore-in-hampstead-1-4198256).

Rabindranath TAGORE sketched by Rothenstein

Rabindranath TAGORE sketched by Rothenstein

Tagore was not the only notable resident of the Vale in later times. The author Compton MacKenzie (1883-1972) lived in the Vale at Woodbine Cottage in the 1930s, writing the “Four Wings of Love” (publ. 1937-1945). Near his house, was the abode of the barrister Alfred Harmsworth (1837-1889) and his family between 1870 and 1873 when family fortunes declined temporarily. Part of the reason for this decline was drink and the size of his family. Amongst his fourteen children were the two future ‘press barons’ Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Northcliffe (1865–1922) and Harold Harmsworth, 1st Viscount Rothermere (1868–1940).

Harmsworths lived here

Harmsworths lived here

The author DH Lawrence (1885-1930) and his wife Frieda lived in the Vale briefly in 1915 at number 1 Byron Villas. The authoress Stella Gibbons (1902-1989) lived in the Vale from about 1926. According to Compton MacKenzie, the appeal of the Vale to writers was:
“… village life half an hour from Piccadilly Circus was a continuous refreshment and stimulus…”

DH Lawrence lived here

DH Lawrence lived here

Byron Villas stands on a road, a cul-de-sac, that leads downwards towards a large pond. Just before the road ends, you reach something that seems quite out of character with the rest of the smart residences in the Vale. It is a square lot on which several caravans are parked. One is immediately minded of Romany people.

Caravan site

Caravan site

This plot of land has been in the possession of the Abbotts family for over 160 years (see: http://www.thecnj.com/camden/2008/073108/news073108_03.html). Since the late 19th century, it has been fairground land. About ten members of the family live on the site in caravans, and other travelling fair workers are allowed to camp there free of charge. In exchange, members of the Abbott family, who operate travelling fairs, are allowed camp for nothing on other fairground owners’ sites when they travel around the country. The Abbotts do not regard themselves as ‘Travellers’ (Romany people), but as ‘fairground people’. An article published in 2011(see: “Evening Standard” 5th May 2011) reveals:
“Residents in nearby Byron Villas all look as though they read the London Review of Books. ‘No trouble at all, never bother us,’ they say of the 20 or so residents of the caravan site.
A father and son, both called Charlie Abbott, invite me to sit down outside their caravan, part of a tidy settlement about half the size of a football pitch. Again, the caravans are more like what you would find at a seaside holiday site, though some have traditional shiny Travellers’ water pots with spouts on their front steps. Mr Abbott Jr looks and talks like any other North Londoner, while his father has the more wizened features and air of a man who has spent his whole life in a caravan, much of it travelling. ‘We are not Travellers, we are fairground people, all members of the Showmen’s Guild,’ Mr Abbott Snr, 81, tells me firmly…”

Caravan site

Caravan site

An attempt was made to buy the land for development in 2008, but this has not happened (yet!). Given the strict protection of the integrity of the Heath, it is highly improbable that planning permission to build on this site would ever be granted.

Vale of Health Pond

Vale of Health Pond

Beyond the caravan site, a path leads to the pond. It was here, many years ago, that I attempted fishing with a friend’s rod and other angling tackle. This first experience of angling, has to date been my only one. Most of the pond is surrounded by the wild Heath, but the northwest side of it has well-manicured private gardens that run down to the water’s edge.

Although the hotels and other visitors’ amenities have long since disappeared, the Vale of Health is both a beautiful and unusually interesting place to visit.

Vale of Health Pond

Vale of Health Pond

Posted by ADAMYAMEY 11:30 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged london literature calcutta tagore hampstead Comments (2)

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