We have Dr Dyne, Highgate’s headmaster from 1838 to 1874, to thank for both the chapel and the main school building that we see today – almost unchanged from this 1867 image in the London Illustrated News. In 1866 he commissioned Frederick Pepys Cockerell, a successful architect of grand country houses and a distant descendant of diarist Samuel Pepys, to design both buildings on the site of the original foundation – 2 acres of the Bishop of London’s hunting park which had been given to Sir Roger Cholmeley when, in 1565, Queen Elizabeth I authorised him to found ‘a grammar school for the good education and instruction of boys and young men.’
Although Cockerell’s chapel is most definitely Gothic in style – the intricate patterns of the internal brickwork look almost North African. Meanwhile the apse above the altar is richly and gloriously decorated, sparkling stars shooting between planets with, below, a finely gilded crop of angels and saints, their halos all aglow.
All but one of the fine stained glass windows (one was blown out by a bomb during the war) are original while the chapel boasts two organs – the one in use both for services and for teaching purposes today and the rather fine wooden organ which was played by the composer John Rutter when he was a pupil at Highgate. (Fellow pupils included John Taverner and Howards Shelley and, while a chorister at Highgate, Rutter took part in the first recording of Britten’s War Requiem under the composer’s baton.)
Both Father Robert Easton, Highgate’s chaplain and Jonathan Murphy, director of music at the school, are keen to see the chapel used not just for school purposes, but involving the wider Highgate community. Which is why they were happy for it to host some of the 2021 Festival concerts. A massive plus as far as the festival were concerned as the acoustic is lovely and the audience was protected from the vagaries of the weather – it had originally been planned to stage the concerts in Highgate gardens.
Meanwhile, Father Robert has another project in which he wants to involve the village. Behind the chapel, nosing its way into the village but so overhung with trees that no one really notices it, is a small churchyard.
A very stiff and battered gate gives access to a handful of rather lopsided gravestones being rapidly overwhelmed by this year’s ‘wild’ garden. Slightly bizarrely, the graveyard does not belong to the school or the chapel but is ‘shared’ between Haringey council and St Michael’s church across the road although, Father Robert says, the school retains ‘moral’ responsibility for it. However, he is keen for it to be opened up to be used by villagers as a place to sit in the cool on a hot day – or indeed to shelter under the trees on a wet one. A lovely idea. Do just go round the corner, if you come to a concert, and peer through the railings.