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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 25 January 2007
A snowy scene in Flask Walk in 2005
A snowy scene in Flask Walk in 2005.
The short street with a long and vibrant history

From Lord Tennyson to Sid Vicious
it seems anyone who is anyone
has lived or worked in Flask Walk writes Ruth Gorb

Flask Walk NW3 compiled and edited by Micahael Lee, Marianne Colloms and Ellen Emerson
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OF all the nostalgia-scented streets in Hampstead, Flask Walk takes the prize. Long-term residents remember a time when it boasted a greengrocer, a chemist, a sweetshop where rows of jars held humbugs and acid drops, a shop where you could buy knitting wool... and there were the Baths.
Let’s put aside nostalgia. Flask Walk may have become a chic (not to mention expensive) place to live, but it still has small independent shops (including one of the best butchers for miles), it still has its sense of community, its street parties, its pub – now a rather more decorous meeting-place than in the days when it was described as “a place where second-rate characters are to be found, occasionally in a swinish condition”. And it has what amounts to a miracle in 21st-century London – it has no traffic.
The whole street has what it has always had, vitality – a buzz that emanates from the people who live there, and from the variety of people who have lived there in the past. It is on their stories that three current residents – Michael Lee, Marianne Colloms and Ellen Emerson – have based their book, Flask Walk NW3. It is a piece of social history that will revive memories for the old, intrigue the young, and delight everyone.
One of the editors, Michael Lee, had the good fortune to talk to Dennis Cooper, a man whose family for many years owned a grocers shop in Flask Walk. They bought number 48 in the 1920s (it had been a tailor’s shop until the turn of the century), and their little “open all hours” establishment was at the hub of the street’s life. It was the place where housewives bought their blacking for the grate and their hair-nets, where you could buy blocks of salt and patent medicines and Camp Coffee.
There was a fair sprinkling of celebrities in those days – Alexander Korda came to the shop, and Professor Joad – but it was still largely a working class area, its cottages, an aspidistra in every window, all heated with coal fires. Baths and washing, of course, all happened in the washhouses. They were opened in 1888, but were used right up until they were closed in 1978 – much to the consternation of many elderly ladies of the area who pronounced the washhouses infinitely superior to the launderette; you have only to look at the illustrations in the book to see what they meant.
There are two separate families living in the stylishly refurbished washhouse now (one of the residents, Ellen Emerson, is an editor of this book) but the building survives, unlike that of the Salvation Army which had its Hampstead headquarters for about 50 years from 1906.
The presence of the Salvation Army shows that Flask Walk was essentially a working-class neighbourhood at the time.
The history of the Flask Tavern makes fascinating reading, from its beginning in the early 18th century as a beer house, through its glory days when it was part of the drunken four-day Hampstead Fair and gained its censorious description in Richardson’s novel, Clarissa, through to its Victorian reincarnation.
It has always had its share of celebrity residents and visitors, from Alfred Lord Tennyson to Sid Vicious who with a fellow Sex Pistol squatted for a while in a top floor flat in New Court, the block of flats built in the 1840s by philanthropists “to improve the condition of the working classes in Hampstead”. Brigitte Bardot was spotted on a film shoot, and Kingsley Amis and his wife Elizabeth Jane Howard lived in some splendour, but not for very long, in the elegant Georgian Gardnor House.
For most residents though, Flask Walk is a hard place to leave. The late lamented actor and man of Hampstead, Peter Barkworth, lived in his Georgian cottage for over 40 years. And his neighbour, the poet Al Alvarez, has said in his introduction to the book that he can’t think of anywhere else he would rather live.
Postscript: Two guardian angels made sure that a modicum of peace would be maintained in Flask Walk. It was in the 1970s that Camden’s director of Planning, Bruno Schlaffenberg, and the chairman of the Planning Committee Ivor Walker, decided that if an official application was made to pedestrianise Flask Walk, it would take too long to get permission to do it. So they just did it. The street running between the shops was paved, bollards were put up, and it was closed to traffic. A little shopping precinct had been created by stealth. (Official permission was granted two years later. A case of fait accompli?)

* Flask Walk NW3 is available, price £10, from Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, from Daunts in South End Road, Hampstead, or from Pumpkinseed Productions, PO BOX 29760, NW3 1FH. The book is sold by Burgh House, Judy Green’s Garden Store, 11 Flask Walk, or direct from the Flask Walk Association (PO Box 59217, London NW3 9FD), for £10 (plus £2.50 for postage, etc, outside Hampstead).

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