June 7, 2017
Where are London’s highest points? In search of the capital’s thinnest air and fairest natural views, I got researching. The question’s initially problematic because it depends what you count as London – Wikipedia names Westerham Heights as the loftiest spot, for instance, but that’s, like, halfway to France, man. In the end, I’ve decided anywhere in TfL’s zones 1-3 counts as genuine London, meaning contenders like Croydon, Barnet and Havering are abandoned on the vertical wayside. Here then, literally, is London’s true high five, with the uppermost perch first:
A common misconception has it that Parliament Hill is the beautiful Heath’s highpoint. But that’s complete codswallop: London’s highest non-manmade spot is actually about a third of a mile west, by Whitestone Pond, where Spaniards Way and North End Road meet. It’s very close to the former pub, Jack Straw’s Castle, and to The Flagstaff, where a billowing City of London flag marks where a fire beacon first warned of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Behind is West Heath, perhaps London’s foremost cottaging location. Also nearby is London’s only never-used tube station.
Heading up a neighbourhood of the same name, Shooter’s Hill is an idyllic green climb with views as far north as Wembley on a clear day. Things weren’t always this peaceful at South London’s number one peak, though: the mound supposedly takes it name from the highwaymen who congregated there in the 1600s to rob struggling carriages, while Pepys’ diary for 1661 has him passing under “the man that hangs upon Shooters Hill”, presumably a hung highwayman left to rot as a warning to others. And then, more recently, Shooter’s Hill housed an array of anti-aircraft guns which helped protect London during the Second World War.
“If you’re ever up on Highgate Hill on a clear day / You can see right down to Leicester Square”: so warbled the former Kinks frontman Ray Davies on London Song in 1998. What Ray didn’t say is that even better views await on North Hill, a giddy 29m higher still. In between these two vistas lies the famous Highgate village: a Georgian dream of steeples, quaint shops, squares and copper domes. On one of the surrounding slopes is Highgate’s atmospheric Victorian cemetery, the resting place of Karl Marx. Douglas Adams and, quite newly, Alexander Litvinenko.
Together with its flanks, Sydenham Hill’s the largest remaining tract of the Great North Wood, a vast oak forest that, in today’s money, extended from Croydon to Camberwell. In the 17th century, the surrounding area’s medicinal springs attracted crowds of people; some of the former wells in the area are within the current Sydenham Wells Park’s grounds, with still-active springs. The way up the steep hill itself is today a popular cycling challenge, while the roads around it are lined with attractive, ostentatious Victorian mansions.
Westow Hill is a rather unremarkable part of the east-west A214, full of gridlocked traffic, pizzerias and double yellow lines. But, as it approaches Crystal Palace Park, the views northwards down side roads are sensational, providing sweeping, silence-inducing glimpses of North London. The precise peak is beside the boarded-up Cambridge pub, with the entrance to the Park just across the frenetic junction. It hasn’t exactly earned rave reviews on Hill Bagging…
*Height above sea level