Looking after high society
LOOKING after the N6 postcode and having some fun at the same time are the principal aims of the Highgate Society, according to Gordon Forbes, now in his third year as the group's chairman
LOOKING after the N6 postcode and having some fun at the same time are the principal aims of the Highgate Society, according to Gordon Forbes, now in his third year as the group's chairman.
Amid the bustling confines of the Costa Coffee cafe where we agreed to meet, he is a picture of calm dignity - an image that belies his organisation's passionate struggle to preserve the character of the area.
"Highgate is such a nice place to live and the quality of the environment is fantastic," he said. "My favourite bit is Highpoint, where I live - it's beautiful. But the thing I love primarily about the area is the people."
The Highgate Society was founded in 1966 to oppose former transport minister Ernie Marples' proposal to route all the northbound traffic from London through Highgate - a battle the society famously won. After the row subsided, the group remained, and vowed to fight on behalf of the people who live and work in Highgate. Today it has close to 1,200 members and is embroiled in the fight to save the post office in Highgate Village.
"We are concerned for the future of traders in Highgate," said Mr Forbes. "Life is getting harder for them because of the limitations of parking which constrains the number of people who can stop here to do their shopping. Over the years, Highgate has lost its retailers and those who are left are struggling. That's one of the main reasons we are so strongly opposed to losing our post office - because it attracts business for the other traders.
"But while we are primarily concerned with planning issues, we also want to have fun."
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He explained how the group supports a fun-loving community with various meetings, including a Monday club for the elderly, a bridge club, coffee mornings, and earlier this year the society staged its first barn dance.
"These are good things in the village. And it's important to remember Highgate is a village," he said.
"But we are also concerned with the whole of the N6 postcode and the hinterland of Archway Road."
Mr Forbes is a retired architect of some distinction who played a crucial role in the development of the National Theatre. He also took charge of the design and building of the Donmar Warehouse. As such, he is well qualified to cast a keen eye over the aesthetic qualities of Highgate.
"I think Pond Square is very important to us as a quiet place and is much cherished for its peaceful quality - it's wonderful," he said.
He previously submitted drawings to support his proposals for a fountain in the square, but these were not taken up.
"I made suggestions for the fountain to attract children by giving them somewhere to play. The idea was intended to improve the quality of the village," he said.
"We vigorously opposed the recent suggestion by police that Pond Square should be enclosed with railings. It would have completely changed the character of the place."
One of his pet hates is the lack of cohesion between bus routes in Highgate, and he imagines a future in which Hampstead, Highgate, Muswell Hill and Crouch End are far better connected.
He said: "We are still continuing in our discussions with Transport for London about the bus services in and through Highgate. They have evolved over the years but haven't resulted in a coherent pattern. For example, we have two routes that start in Highgate and end at Moorgate but none from Highgate to the West End.
"It takes two buses to get to Muswell Hill. Between Hamp-stead, Highgate, Muswell Hill and Crouch End it's becoming more important - especially with the congestion charge discouraging people from going up town unless they have to. We want to connect the 214 with all the other bus services."
Mr Forbes is aware his society's quest to preserve the character of Highgate can lead to them being seen by some as the 'toffs on the hill'. "The pressure on developers means we have to be vigilant in reviewing the planning lists on the agendas of all the local authorities," he said.
"It can be tricky because we fall under four different local authorities - Barnet, Haringey, Islington and Camden. We have four conservation strategies to read and you have to bring them all together so they make sense. You really have to draw the authorities' attention to the fact that there's a world outside their boundaries."
After our coffee, Mr Forbes gave me a tour of the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institute, which is next door to the Highgate Society's headquarters in Pond Square.
"The HLSI is almost unique as these kinds of institution go," he said. "It has a wonderful library that is particularly strong on biographies and it's a wonderfully calm place to come and read.
"Highgate is under great pressure from high property values. You can be light-hearted about it and say it's the highest point above sea level in London, so at least there is very little risk of flooding.
"The area hasn't been swallowed up by the rest of London yet and I think it's something to do with the topography of the place. I don't want to be complacent but I have the feeling it will continue like this for some time yet."