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Jack Straw’s Castle: Recovering a Festive Social Geography

January 26, 2014

Indicative…

Jack Straw’s Castle, on the edge of Hampstead Heath, was said to be the highest pub in London.  It was probably named after one of the leaders of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, who addressed rebels on Hampstead Heath from a hay wagon known as “Jack Straw’s Castle”. (From here).

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Jack Straw’s Castle, 1903

This public house – rebuilt after bomb damage in WWII – has now been ‘sympathetically converted’, under the guidance of English Heritage, to private luxury housing. This process is called ‘Maximising value‘… A further step in the enclosure of the commons.

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So it’s now:

A Landmark Development of Luxury Apartments, 2 Penthouses & 4 Houses in the prime of Hampstead, overlooking the Heath.

The braying arrogance of this statement, as today’s privileged appropriate what was once public space, is epitomised by the flashy sports car zipping sleekly across the front of the ex-pub.

468px-William.Morris.John.Ball

The words of another rebel leader of 1381, John Ball, come to mind. They are quoted on the title page of the novel, A Dream of John Ball, by William Morris (1888).

A festive social geography

The place of Jack Straw’s Castle in an archaic social geography revolving around popular festivity is emphasised in an article by Morris Cluse in issue 77 of The Ley Hunter, edited by Paul Devereux:

In The Green Roads of England R Hippisley Cox mentions Jack Straws Castle on Kingsettle Hill (bordered by Kings Wood Warren) whence a track leads to Whitesheet Castle (2 miles NW from Mere). This Jack Straws Castle was an ancient great gathering place and a road goes SW to Cadbury. King Alfred mustered there before attacking the Danes.

Cox also pointed out that there is a public house named Jack Straws Castle on what might be termed the top of Hampstead Heath. He understood that there were some earthworks in the vicinity… It happens that the building overlooks the ‘Vale of Health’ upon which traditionally has been and still is held the August Bank Holiday Fair attended by Londoners from remote times (Ed. It also stands next to Whitestone Pond).

Cluse goes on to mention yet another Jack Straw’s Castle he found in a different part of north London:

at the top of Highbury Hill was a respectable public house called ‘Highbury Barn’. I recollect that my grandmother with a twinkle in her eye, had referred to lively goings on at Highbury Barn in her youth. Rocques map showed what looks like a square of earthworks with rounder corners at Highbury Barn. Sir Montague Sharpe in his book Middlesex in British, Roman and Saxon Times (Methuen 1932) mentioned that 5 small rectangular entrenchments were visible in Middlesex which had been threwn up by Count Theodosius in AD 368… There was one at Barnsbury… What really surprised me however was that over the area now covered by Highbury Fields (but possibly alluding to the entrenchments) was written ‘Jack Straws Castle’. So here was another place of merry public gathering. At Highbury Corner up to at least 1916, public meetings were held, sometimes 4 or 5 simultaneously in the roadway on Sunday mornings. Free Trade, Tariff Reform, Socialism and Religion were all expounded.

All in all, yet another incitement to a utopian hope for some kind of festive revival beyond the current, value-driven repression of public sociability.

Skaters dance to a band, on Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath, 1933

Skaters dance to a band on Whitestone Pond, Hampstead Heath, 1933

Reference:

* Cluse, M. 1977. ‘Who was the Man of Straw?’ The Ley Hunter 77, pp 20-21.

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