Dear Readers, we are lucky in East Finchley to be an easy walk away from the Edwardian suburb of Muswell Hill, and in particular the area to the north-west known as Fortis Green. Fortis Green Road is a splendid example of Edwardian architecture, and it feels like a miracle to me that the shops have been mostly preserved and the flats above retain their plasterwork and the other little details that make them so splendid. I often wonder what the circular room at the top of the building to the left in the photo above is like, and whether it’s actually possible to sit out on the balcony below, though I guess your main view would be of traffic heading to the crossroads below.
This side of the road was developed by James Edmondson (1857 to 1931), who bought two large estates in Muswell Hill and proceeded to build most of Muswell Hill, including this impressive parade. Edmondson was a keen naturalist and a rider of a penny-farthing bike, but was also clearly a canny property developer. His shopping parades cover the whole of central Muswell Hill, and although the signage often leaves something to be desired, the buildings themselves have a touch of turn-of-the-century gentility about them. The buildings in the photo above form part of Queen’s Mansions, but further down the road are several other parades, including St James’s Parade, built in 1900.
Further down the road is the site of the Athenaeum, built by Edmondson in 1905 as a venue for concerts, dances and meetings, and for the meetings of a society known as ‘The Muswell Hill Parliament’. In 1918 it was converted into a cinema, but in 1935 a rival cinema was constructed opposite it (this building is itself described as one of the best Expressionist cinemas in the UK). Sadly, the Athenaeum was demolished and replaced by a typical 1960s apartment block in 1966, with a Sainsburys supermarket on the ground level. This really does stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
At the end of Fortis Green Road stands St James’s church. It was built between 1902 and 1910 and is in the Perpendicular style. My old friend Wikipedia tells me that this is the third and final stage of English Gothic church building, characterised by:
‘.… large windows, four-centred arches, straight vertical and horizontal lines in the tracery, and regular arch-topped rectangular panelling ‘.
It is a very imposing building – the spire reaches to 179 feet, and as the church is already 337 feet above sea level (it’s not called Muswell Hill for nothing) it sometimes seems as if it’s the highest point for miles.
If I now turn on my tail and head back down the road, we pass the side of the street that was developed by a different man, William. B. Collins. This side of Fortis Green Road houses The Children’s Bookshop which has a fine collection not only of books for young people, but also graphic novels (which as we know are now very popular with people of all ages). There’s also Cheeses of Muswell Hill, a teeny-tiny shop where the queue for stilton at Christmas can stretch all the way to that Expressionist cinema. I note that they do mail-order now, which might take some away some of the strain.
What’s noticeable about this side of the road is that there are a number of half-shops with curved windows. As with the semi-circular windows on the other side of the road, these can cost a small fortune to replace. I note that a group of drunken youths managed to crack several windows in Muswell Hill a few weeks ago, and then moved on to crack a few in East Finchley as well. As if times weren’t hard enough for local shops.
And finally, here is my absolute favourite apartment building in Muswell Hill (and possibly anywhere). This is a perfect Arts and Crafts building, with more than a whiff of William Morris about it, and I would love to see what the flats themselves are like. The complex, built by Collins, is called Birchwood Mansions. It’s Grade II listed, and the last flat that sold there went for £700k, just in case you have any loose change rattling about :-).
And so, on a sunny afternoon it’s always fun to walk and do some people-watching in Fortis Green. It’s even more fun if you can get hold of Ken Gay’s excellent guide to Muswell Hill, which has a guided walk at the end. At any rate, you’re never short of a coffee stop in Muswell Hill, so there are plenty of places to rest your tired feet and at the end of the walk, the 234 or 102 buses will take you back to East Finchley tube station for the journey home.