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Dean Whitbread 2013

Dean Whitbread 2020

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Written on December 5, 2004, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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Highgate Hill occupies the same position in the North as Crystal Palace Hill does in the South. From there, on a fine day, you can see the place I grew up, about 10 miles south. These two hills rise up as the twin lips of the Thames bowl. The air is noticeably cleaner out of the fumes which lie on bad days like a brown stain across the city, and the climate is about 2 degrees cooler.

At the top of Highgate Hill are Highgate Woods, hemmed in by roads and houses, but still somehow viable and operating, full of life, a vital public green space where traffic noise decreases and children and adults and dogs can run steaming and puffing, get covered in mud and lichen stains, and convince themselves briefly that the huge industrial metropolis is an illusion caused by lack of trees.

Where I grew up, I did most of my playing in parks and woods. Highgate reminds me very much of Spa Woods, the same mix of beech and birch, oak, ash and holly, nettle, elder and bramble, and a wide grassy place in the middle for games. It’s about the same size, too, but somehow more organised than Spa Woods, which always managed to hide odd back entrances to dark Victorian gardens, deep hollows which were excellent for letting off bangers and removing eyebrows, and it even had badgers living there, 380 feet above sea level.

I’ve always loved silver birch, and I’m fascinated by it’s peeling bark. You can write on it; it’s great as a firelighter. It looks amazing, and in the autumn and winter, once the green leaves are down and brown, it’s shine and colour contrasts vividly with the mosses and fungi.

From the top of Crystal Palace Hill, as a child I used to look across at the miles and miles of roofs and roads, thinking of the Great North Wood that gave it’s name to Upper, South and West Norwood, wishing the people would disappear and that one miraculous morning, I would wake up to find the city had been totally replaced by woodland.

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