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Primrose Hill, a gateway to a magical city

Up he goes, past London Zoo, over Regent’s Canal, and to the foot of Primrose Hill in the half-light of the early dawn.

Edward Gorey martian illustration for H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds.

Edward Gorey martian illustration for H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds.Credit:

The Martians had made this grassy, tree-dotted park their headquarters on Earth, raising huge mounds around a pit on the hill’s summit. And there the last of them died, “slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth”.

The genius of HG Wells lies not just in this twist but to choose this spot.

Because, the Martians defeated, this is the perfect and perhaps only vantage to view the full devastation of London: a prophecy of the Blitz half a century later.

Indeed, a German V2 rocket destroyed the Hill’s last tearoom, a loss that is only now being replaced. London reborn, again.

“All about the pit, and saved as by a miracle from everlasting destruction, stretched the great Mother of Cities. Those who have only seen London veiled in her sombre robes of smoke can scarcely imagine the naked clearness and beauty of the silent wilderness of houses.”

Light catches the city and paints it with the promise of life: “beyond the Martians, the green waves of Regent’s Park, the Langham Hotel, the dome of the Albert Hall, the Imperial Institute, and the giant mansions of the Brompton Road came out clear and little in the sunrise, the jagged ruins of Westminster rising hazily beyond.

“And as I looked at this wide expanse of houses and factories and churches, silent and abandoned … I realised that the shadow had been rolled back, and that men might still live in the streets, and this dear vast dead city of mine be once more alive and powerful, I felt a wave of emotion that was near akin to tears.”

Clouds obscure the view for people gathered to see the 'blood moon', the longest total eclipse of the moon this century, on Primrose Hill in London last week.

Clouds obscure the view for people gathered to see the ‘blood moon’, the longest total eclipse of the moon this century, on Primrose Hill in London last week.Credit:AP

The buildings are different but the emotions are the same. There are more famous views in London but few capture this city’s past, present and future, its breadth and colour, from the bankers in their silver towers on the left, past St Paul’s indomitable dome to the London Eye beside Gothic Westminster.

You know the view from Primrose Hill even if you’ve never been there or heard its name. It’s where the “twilight bark” begins in 101 Dalmatians, it’s where Bridget Jones came for romance. Down the road is the house that inspired the family home in Mary Poppins.

In the real world, Amy Winehouse was often seen lounging in the park in summer. Sylvia Plath gave birth, wrote The Bell Jar, then took her life in homes near the park.

Boris Johnson, widely seen as the British prime minister in waiting, grew up in Primrose Hill.

Boris Johnson, widely seen as the British prime minister in waiting, grew up in Primrose Hill.Credit:PA

Boris Johnson grew up here in the 70s and Primrose Hill had its own celebrity “set” in the 90s: Kate Moss, Sadie Frost, Sienna Miller, Jude Law, the Gallagher Brothers, Ewan McGregor and more had “a whale of a time with drink, drugs and bed-hopping” wrote one gossip journalist.

Soaring house prices have driven out most celebrities, though you still spot Helena Bonham Carter suitably dishevelled in the local cafes.

But the Hill is as popular as ever. As Blur sang in For Tomorrow, “She’s a naughty girl with a lovely smile, says, ‘let’s take a drive to Primrose Hill. It’s windy there, and the view’s so nice.’”

It is. A young girl tries to teach her puppy to sit. The whiff of pot drifts over the hill from a couple lurking in the long grass.

A half-naked man in a hairband does an exercise routine that mainly involves waving and trying to catch people’s eye.

A lot of people are taking photos – and few of them are selfies.

Another young couple sit next to each other tapping at their phones.

An ad for a new augmented reality app features an altered view from Primrose Hill of London dotted with wizard towers.

An ad for a new augmented reality app features an altered view from Primrose Hill of London dotted with wizard towers.Credit:

There’s a new “augmented reality” game that overlays London with a Harry Potter adventure, and Primrose Hill is rich pickings for spell duels (the ad for the app on the subway features an altered view from Primrose Hill of London dotted with wizard towers).

A century after Wells, there’s still something about this place that inspires a fantastical imagination.

“I remember, clearly and coldly and vividly, all that I did that day until the time that I stood weeping and praising God upon the summit of Primrose Hill. And then I forget.”

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