As a child, I must have passed an old pub called the Spaniards Inn, on the road between Hampstead and Highgate, a thousand times. The road narrowed there to a single lane, causing hold-ups to the traffic, because on the other side of the road was an old toll keeper’s cottage. Here, modern life had to defer to the preservation of historic buildings. It was all very romantic, except for drivers in a hurry, who were (and still are) exasperated at having to wait their turn to pass between the Spaniards and the cottage.

It always thrilled me to go through that narrowing in the road, not because it was our turn at last, but because I believed, as soon as I was old enough to remember the inn’s name, that the famous highwayman Dick Turpin had jumped from its upper window straight onto the back of his equally famous mare, Black Bess, to escape the arresting officers, and then rode straight to York without stopping. (The bar on the...