Site unseen: Sir Sidney Waterlow, Highgate, London

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The recent and continuing fiasco over Railtrack's inability to produce accurate railway timetables must have had one man at least spinning in his grave. Sir Sidney Waterlow made his fortune by printing tickets and timetables for Victorian travellers.

But Sir Sidney has other claims to fame. A philanthropist and former Lord Mayor of London, he owned Lauderdale House at the top of Highgate Hill. Parts date from the 16th century and it was always a fashionable address. Nell Gwyn, for instance, spent some time here and, so legend has it, dangled her baby son out of an upstairs window until the father, Charles II, hurriedly granted him a title - one way of getting your name in the New Year's honours list.

Samuel Pepys also came to Lauderdale House for dinner in July 1666. A servant played the violin, but not to the great diarist's satisfaction: "the strangest ayre that ever I heard in my life, and all of one cast."

Although much altered, Lauderdale House still retains a sense of charm and intimacy. Waterlow bought it in 1871 and leased it to Barts Hospital for use as a convalescent home. In 1889 Waterlow presented the house to the London County Council. He also opened up the 29-acre grounds of Lauderdale House to the public and Waterlow Park remains one of the capital's most attractive lungs.

At the top of the park, staring benignly down, is an attractive statue of Sir Sidney which is special in two ways. First of all, it shows him holding his hat in one hand and a key in the other, symbolising his gift to London. Uniquely, Waterlow also carries an umbrella.

Secondly, the statue was paid for by public subscription in 1900 and much of the money was apparently contributed by the less well-off. Up to pounds 18 a day was collected from boxes in the park, all in coins of less than a shilling. Somehow one feels that the present chairman of Railtrack would not be so popular.

One of the joys of Waterlow Park, apart from browsing around the stalls in front of Lauderdale House, or at the exhibitions and concerts held inside, is its hilly and undulating terrain as it swoops down towards Highgate Cemetery. The fierce incline is a reminder that London has grown taller over the centuries by acquiring additional layers, rather like a gigantic sponge cake. Outside Lauderdale House is a plaque marking the site of poet Andrew Marvell's cottage - several feet down below.

How are the mighty risen.


Waterlow Park, Highgate, London N6