The fascinating history of the ‘time warp’ property
PUBLISHED: 09:32 25 September 2015 | UPDATED: 12:28 07 October 2015
The homely comfort of this Highgate house – with interiors barely touched since 1948 – belies the dramatic wartime experiences of its former inhabitants
It was commissioned in 1806 by Mr John Cooke, during the reign of King George III and built by a Mr George Smart,” estate agent Chris Underhill tells me of what has now been dubbed the ‘time warp’ property.
“The current clients have owned it for a very long time, 67 years, and it’s barely been updated since then. Finding an untouched gem like this with all the original detail is incredibly unusual in Highgate.”
The Grade II-listed house has fantastic panoramic views over Hampstead Heath thanks to its location on the summit of Highgate West Hill. It is a beautiful example of Georgian architecture and retains many of its original features, including wrought iron decorations around the entrance and multi-panelled windows.
But this is just the beginning of the fascinating history of the Holly Terrace property, currently on the market for £3,850,000 with Prickett & Ellis.
The tale begins with a love story on an army training field in Salisbury Plain during the Second World War – where night-time mass parachute training drops were taking place.
Harold Daintree Johnson, the former owner of the property, met his future wife, Margaret (née Dixon), on this training field a few years into the war.
“She was driving an ambulance for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry, known as the FANYs,” David Johnson, their 67-year-old son explains.
Harold, a surgeon, joined the war as a late volunteer. He was a little older than most paratroopers and became part of an unusual medical team. Apart from his sergeant, the rest of the team had all been conscientious objectors.
David reveals that his father shouldn’t even have been allowed to join the paratroopers because his night sight was too bad. When they would land at night he was forced to make owl noises so that other members of the military could find him.
“His friend told him to look out of the corner of his eye during the night vision test because the cells that react at night are more profuse there. It turned out there was a hole in the corner of his goggles and he ended up being the only person who got full marks!” says David.
Like many people who served in the war, Harold barely spoke about the trials he faced during the 1940s in later life.
“He hardly spoke about his experiences in the war, I don’t know if he didn’t want to think about it himself perhaps,” says David.
But Harold had more reason that most to be scarred. He was one of the first members of the British Army on the scene at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany. According to David, the Germans had been afraid that the inmates would escape and spread typhoid throughout the German population. They asked the British to take over the camp several days before they withdrew.
In a letter home to Margaret, Harold wrote: “My Darling, usually I seem to start by saying I have no news but tonight there is so much to tell you about I am overwhelmed and hardly know where to start.
“Today our job was switched and we were sent instead to take over the site of a German concentration camp. We came here today and I have seen things which I could not have believed possible.
“Darling it is too horrible to describe. I have never really hated the Germans till now. Now I cannot believe they belong to the same species as you and I. This camp is over four miles long. It is packed with filthy, ragged, starving, people – 60,000 of them.”
David adds: “When the British soldiers saw what the Germans did to the inmates they had to be restrained from attacking the guards. My father met the woman guard who had made lampshades from human skin.”
Harold later contracted typhoid himself, and was invalided for the rest of the war, returning to London to continue his medical work and to start his small family. They moved into the Highgate property a few months after David was born.
“They always wanted a period home, either Georgian or Queen Anne, and initially they nearly bought one of the houses at the bottom of the hill. They liked the feeling that it was both secluded and yet close to a community village,” David explains.
Following his experiences, it makes sense that Harold would want peaceful surroundings in later life. David describes a happy upbringing in a busy home. His mother, an academic who studied at the London School of Economics, had a busy social life and his father made inventions as well as continuing his work as a surgeon.
“It was a wonderful place to grow up. I had a view right across London, although the view is slightly reduced now because the trees have grown up a bit,” says David.
“I got used to having that sort of broad view. Feeling up above everything.”
However, their home wasn’t without sadness when David’s baby brother, Piers, died. The couple didn’t have any further children and Harold died in 1980, aged 70. Margaret stayed in the house and celebrated her 100th birthday in February this year before she passed away a few months later.
“Earlier this year she was still walking up and down stairs and discussing the election – as a long time Liberal she would have been upset at the result,” David tells me.
I wonder if the home has been kept in its original state, in part because Margaret wanted to preserve her husband’s memory. The house is bright and clean but the 18th-century and Regency furnishings, which remained almost untouched since the Johnson’s installed them in the late 40s, are reminiscent of the preserved period rooms in the Geffrye Museum.
On a polished wooden bureau Margaret’s belongings, necklaces, hairbrushes and black and white pictures of David as a cute, blonde-haired child, are laid out neatly. David produces his grandmother’s exquisitely preserved wedding dress from 1910 from a wardrobe. The silk shines and large pink, pearly buttons hold the fabric in place.
The whole home would be a treasure trove for a historian, but my favourite room is possibly the basement – Harold’s former study – where David’s brightly coloured childhood books are now stored.
David, who currently works as an artist in north London, sounds a little sad when we return to the topic of the house sale.
“I am sad, but also ambivalent,” he says. “I wouldn’t like to live there myself, it feels too much like my parents’ home. Taking a step backwards instead of forwards.
“Also I’ll have to pay death duties on the house (40 per cent after the first £320,000) and that is a more important reason I’m not keeping it.”