Shepherd’s Cottage dates from the early 17th century and is probably the oldest building in Highgate – a relic of the days when sheep along with the other animals designed to be sold at London’s busy markets, were driven, on foot, from as far away as Scotland. The journey could take six to eight weeks and, according to Shirley Toulson’s book The Drovers, quoted by the wonderful Highgate Vets in their current window display, ‘the cattle got specially made ironshoes fitted in the way that horses do – and even pigs and geese could get “shoes”, pigs with little woollen boots, and geese being driven through tar and grit to give them some protection to their feet’.
The cottage is tucked into Townsend Yard, just off the High Street, and looks east onto the ‘backlands’, the pasture land which ran in a large bowl down the hill from Highgate towards Crouch End and Hornsey – an ideal stopping off place where stock could be rested and fed before its final drive into London’s markets. The bowl was subsequently partially occupied by nurseries which grew flowers for the ‘new’ arboretum cemetery in Swain’s Lane, then by the Highgate Garden Centre and is now home to the spectacular OMVED gardens.
Thanks to the efforts of the cottage’s owner, art historian Jane Hill, it remains in good shape although it had to undergo major repairs five years ago when its outer chimney wall started to bulge alarmingly and threatened to part company with the rest of the cottage. If you are interested there is a fascinating account of the repair process, undertaken under the guidance of SPAB (the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings) here on the SPAB blog.
But now there is another threat, not to the cottage itself, but to its emergency access and views over the Highgate Bowl, by a development of mews houses which would run down the side of the yard. The Highgate Society and members of the local community are opposing the development in its current form and are currently crowdfunding to cover the legal costs of fighting the case.