Seven reasons why you DON’T live in a village if you live in Hampstead or Highgate (and why that’s a good thing)
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Ask anyone who lives in one of north London’s nicer enclaves just what it is they particularly like about the area and the phrase “village atmosphere” will come up with infuriating regularity. But what should people say instead?
I’ve always found north Londoners’ addiction to describing their part of London as a village a bit baffling: surely the reason most people move to London in the first place is to escape the genuine countryside villages where they grew up.
My colleague India did spend part of her childhood living in an actual village called Netheravon in rural Wiltshire. For the sake of research, I’ve asked her to help me with a compare and contrast of her real life village in Wiltshire and the soi-disant urban villages covered by the Ham & High.
1. Flat whites
It used to be that you knew you were in a London café when they had a fancy Italian coffee machine to give you your daily caffeine fix. Now even the crummiest joint in the furthest flung reaches of the British Isles can boast a gleaming La Marzocco and a cappuccino is standard fare. In London we’ve moved on to the Antipodean variant of posh coffee – if there isn’t a fern or heart swirled on top of your gently frothed beverage it’s not acceptable. And catering for north London’s faddy eaters means soy milk comes as standard – you should be able to ask for oat, rice or almond milk as well in a north London coffee shop. Hampstead, Highgate, Primrose Hill, hell, even East Finchley, all boast multiple outlets where one can purchase a flat white. What of the true village? “You’d probably get a lukewarm tea at a parish council meeting, or after church on a Sunday,” says India. Not so villagey.
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2. Fringe theatre
From the Gatehouse in Highgate to Pentameters Theatre in Hampstead, you don’t live in an urban village unless there’s a fringe theatre above a pub attracting shows which may well transfer to the West End or star a bona fide famous thesp attracted by the ‘brilliant script’. So, India, where can you catch an award-winning production in rural Wiltshire? “Unless it’s the Christmas Nativity in the village hall there’s not much in the way of theatrical goings on. The village church does a good line in choral recitals, otherwise someone’s posh niece might be doing a private opera recital at home.”
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3. Independent shops
This is one of the main things that passionate Hampsteadians (erroneously) believe gives them village status. It’s a true delight being able to skip from the local butcher (organic, of course and with a very well-stocked deli section) to the wine merchant to the gluten-free bakery to pick up supplies for the evening victuals. This vision is a delightful cross between a rural French idyll and pre-War England but how about the 21st century village?
“We do actually have a McColls. It burnt down but they’ve just reopened it,” says India. “That’s considered very lucky for a village to have its own shop. It’s where I used to buy litre bottles of cider to drink in a field if we couldn’t get in to the pub.”
4. Tube station
Often people who live in Hampstead will mention the village atmosphere and the tube stop in one breath, without considering the irony for a second. The fact that you can be at Oxford Circus or Bank within half an hour surely means that village this ain’t.
Please fill us in on all the public transport options in Netheravon India. “There’s a bus stop. The bus comes a couple of times a day, but never according to the schedule. You learn to drive as soon as possible or become adept at cadging a lift (it took me four attempts to pass my test so I got pretty good at calling in favours).”
Who particularly loves a north London village? All those celebs that live there of course! From Tom Conti and Esther Rantzen hamming it up together on a community protest to Ricky Gervais judging the dog show or Alan Bennett volunteering at the local library, no event in Hampstead, Highgate, Primrose Hill, or Crouch End is complete without several local ‘faces’ adding a touch of glamour to proceedings.
“Rupert Everett did give a reading in the church one Christmas. And Obama visited Stonehenge once, which is only a 15-minute drive away.” Hmmmmmm.
6. Dog walking
The Heath, Primrose Hill, Parkland Walk. These north London villagers really love their large open green spaces and a ‘perfect Sunday’ usually involves taking the dog (labradoodle or similar cute but hypoallergenic breed for preference) for a romp in one of them. Sounds pretty villagey actually.
“We have a labradoodle but we live on Salisbury Plain so you can walk for miles in either direction. In fact, it can be quite creepy because you can walk for miles without seeing a single living soul. Maybe the odd tank if you wander too close to the military zones.” Bit different to the Heath then.
7. Arthouse cinema
Want to catch the new François Ozon film the day it’s released in the cinema? In Hampstead, no problem. In Netheravon? “It would never come to the village. It’s a half hour drive to the nearest cinema. Sometimes they do special showings in the village hall but it’ll be a film that’s been out for ages and it’ll be a crowd-pleaser. Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, basically.”
At this point India’s getting a bit depressed about her boring adolescence so we leave it at that.
If you really want to make your London locale sound a bit cosier though, India suggests comparing it to a market town instead.
“Devizes, the town nearest my parents’ house has most of these things in it,” she says. “It’s still a bit of a dump though.”
So, ‘market town atmosphere’ it is. Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.