A Walk in Waterlow Park

View of St Joseph’s Church, Highgate from Waterlow Park

Dear Readers, as you stagger up the hill from Archway to the heady heights of Highgate, you might be tempted to stop in Waterlow Park. For one thing, they have a very nice cafe, and I can recommend the cheesecake brownie. For another, the grounds are rather lovely at any time of year, and there is a kitchen garden to admire and several borders that are full of pollinator-friendly plants. 

The park was originally the grounds of Lauderdale House, which dates back to the 1580s and was the home of the Dukes of Lauderdale. Following relentless ‘improvements’ and a fire in the 1960s nothing of the Tudor building remains, but there are still rumours that Nell Gwyn, Charles II’s mistress, used to live there, and the poet Andrew Marvell also had a house in the grounds. The estate was bought by Sir Sidney Waterlow, Lord Mayor of London, who leased the site to St Bartholemew’s Hospital as a convalescent home in 1872. I can’t help thinking that convalescent homes were a great idea which should be brought back into service, but I digress. Then in 1889 Waterlow donated the estate to the London County Council as a ‘garden for the gardenless’. Looking at the range of people using it when we visited, I can’t help thinking what a generous gesture this was. The park suffered a period of neglect in the 1980s and 1990s but was restored with a grant from the Lottery Fund in 2001, and is now in the loving hands of the London Borough of Camden.

There are three ponds, all fed by natural springs. In spite of the signs asking people not to feed the ducks, the number of pigeons, moorhens and ducks who looked hopefully at us as we walked past makes me think that many folk are just doing what comes naturally.

Young moorhen

Adult coot. Look at the feet!

Foot close-up!

Young heron

Pretty hybrid duck

We found this astonishing oak tree, which may have been struck by lightning and then vandalised by some idiot setting a fire inside the hollow. I’m pleased to report that it still has leaves and seems to be doing fine in spite of the nonsense.

We take a wander down to the kitchen garden and amidst the sweetcorn and the cabbages there are these sunflowers, still abuzz with bees in spite of the cold.

The church of St Josephs towers over the park – it was originally established in 1858 by Father Ignatius Spencer, who had converted to the Roman Catholic faith and was a member of the Passionist order, who have a special mission to evangelise on the meaning of the Passion of Christ. The church itself opened in 1889, and a very fine building it is too, with its copper dome estimated to weigh 2000 tonnes. The cost was so great that the church wasn’t consecrated until 1932 when the debt for building it was cleared.

In addition to the church itself there is a community of Passionist fathers who live on the site. Their way of life is described below:

“The Passionists make a special promise to promote the Memory of the Passion of Jesus by word and deed. They do this especially in preaching and in various ministries among the poor and the marginalised of every kind in whom they see the Crucified today.

Another characteristic of the Passionists is their life in community. Passionist fraternity means that everything is held in common. Time is given to community prayer and to the contemplative dimension of life. Passionists are active contemplatives who, in a creative way, unite contemplation and an active pastoral life.” (from the St Josephs Highgate website).

But of course, in addition to the cake I visit places for the plants. And here is a quick view of some of the borders. Notice the sedums, the cosmos, the verbena boniarensis and the rudbeckias. There’s something here for pollinators of all kinds just as they head into their winter hibernation.

Waterlow Park has lots going for it – there are a variety of playgrounds for children and young people, the ponds, the cafe and a variety of art and musical events at Lauderdale House throughout the year (I’ve certainly gone to a very nice crafts/antiques market). But it also has places which are peaceful, where you can sit and read a book and gaze at the trees and feel a sense of serenity gradually seeping into your bones. I shall definitely visit again.

4 thoughts on “A Walk in Waterlow Park

  1. Sarah

    I’m surprised to read Waterlow Park suffered neglect in the 1980s and 1990s as that was when I was a regular visitor and I thought it was a wonderful place. Perhaps our expectations were lower then. It was a particular solace when my twin daughters were born prematurely in the Whittington Hospital and spent six weeks in neonatal intensive care. I used to take breaks from watching over their incubators in the Park where the trees and flowers gave me a perspective bigger than the frail tube-covered bodies that were dominating my thoughts.

    You don’t mention the depressing aviary so I hope that is no more.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      The depressing aviary is empty, thank goodness, but that must only have happened in the last year or so. And what a story about your daughters – I think the vandalism must just have been in certain places, or as you say maybe we had lower expectations, and you had so much on your mind too. It certainly looks pretty splendid now!

  2. Alexandra Roo

    I’m gad to see I’m not alone in thinking NHS convalescent homes should be brought back. It would free up acute beds & people would get better quicker in a more pleasant environment. My father went to St.Oryth’s near Clacton in the late 1960s. It was comandered as a hospital during the war, as were so many large country houses, often of historic interest, & inherited by the NHS rather than returned to previous owner. It’s a fabulous place with a C16th gatehouse & many listed structures, now back in private hands.


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