Travel Report: Hampstead Heath, London.
Hampstead Heath, London.
There are worse things one could do in London on a sunny Sunday afternoon than stroll around Hampstead Heath with an old friend. Due to my nomadic lifestyle, I only get to see my buddy Steppers every two to three years. Sometimes I go to him, with a visit to the English market town of Chesham in Buckinghamshire. Other times we find a neutral spot somewhere between his place and my London neighbourhood, Tooting Bec.
I had never been to Hampstead Heath, and in all honesty knew little about it. Beyond, of course, the fact that it’s a giant, 800-acre park of open fields, dotted woodlands and rolling meadows. “The lungs of London” some say.
It was a beautiful afternoon for our latest reunion. Unseasonably warm one might say, but the perfect day for some exploring around one of London’s most handsome and historical parks.
As with most of London’s green spaces, Hampstead Heath has some bewitching history. According to the ol’ history books, the area was first mentioned in around 986 when the brilliantly named Ethelred the Unready awarded one of his servants some land in an area known as Hemstede.
The heath pops up again in the Domesday Book of 1086. In fact, several paragraphs make mention of The Heath belonging to the monastery of Westminster Abbey. In 1160 King Henry II gave the land to his lucky butler, a little known man by the name of Alexander de Barentyn.
Hampstead Heath, London.
The Heath subsequently remained in private hands for centuries. Indeed a host of moneyed owners acquired different parts of the heath, on which they built grand country manors. Eventually, a good chunk of it became available as a public park. In 1888 one of its finest viewpoints, Parliament Hill, became a fantastic addition to Hampstead Heath’s public space. And that’s exactly where Steppers and I were headed on that sunny April day.
There was much to talk about over the two years since we’d last seen each other. Working our way along the heath’s eastern perimeter, we covered all the usual ground: football, music, the old college crowd from our teenage days.
At some point we found our chatter interrupted by the striking sight of The Hampstead Heath ponds. The one pictured above was especially lovely, its emerald green water inhabited by the Hampstead Heath Viaduct. A man called Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, the Lord of the Manor of Hampstead, built the viaduct in the mid 1840s.
Adventures in London.
It was just one part of big plans Wilson had for Hampstead Heath. Having inherited most of the heath from his father in 1821, he soon set about trying to develop several sections of common land in order to build luxury properties. However, he soon got into trouble with Joe Public, who began protesting what they saw as a gross misuse of public space.
Wilson also hit a snag with his father’s will, which stipulated that he couldn’t grant building leases of more than 21 years. And yet Wilson was certainly determined in his cause. He even went to court, hoping to win the right to build properties with 99 year leases.
But Wilson faced a barrage of opposition. In addition to public unrest, the London press jumped on board, as did a number of influential MPs who regularly went walking on the heath. Finally, Wilson lost his case and much of the heath remained as a public park. The matter is now considered a landmark moment in London law. A case where, unusually for the time, public interest defeated a wealthy land owner’s property rights.
Beginning our climb up Parliament Hill, we soon realised how busy The Heath was that day. Groups picnicked… couples napped… jugglers juggled, while teenagers blared rubbish music out of their smartphones. Easier on the ears, by some distance, a lone man strummed away on his acoustic guitar. It was David Bowie’s Letter to Hermione, if I recall.
Hampstead Heath, London.
A short while later we settled on our own little spot on the hill. Just to take a breather before pushing on to the top. As per tradition with our long overdue reunions, the conversation soon entered surreal territory with a number of ludicrous imagined scenarios involving people we know.
These silly scenes wouldn’t make a lick of sense to anyone other than ourselves, which is just how we like it. That day, we dreamt up the bones of a potential screenplay, which we christened Simon Dick.
A young man, Simon, finds his life thrown into turmoil when his tennis partner gets abducted by a great white whale! Determined to save his old chum, Simon sets off to SERVE the beast some justice and save the day.
Parliament Hill dates back to the Bronze Age, when historians say it was the site of a burial ground. Later, when Henry I was king in 1133, he gave the hill to a baron called Richard de Balta. The hill got its current name in the 17th century during The English Civil War, when soldiers loyal to the English Parliament occupied the area in a large military barrack.
Moreover (and I really like this legend), they say this is where the villainous Guy Fawkes and Robert Catesby planned to watch the destruction of parliament. You know, if their devilish Gunpowder Plot hadn’t been foiled by Sir Thomas Knyvet and Edmund Doubleday.
Hampstead Heath, London.
That afternoon, in the April sunshine, we managed to pick out a host of London landmarks. Such as The Gherkin, The Walkie-Talkie, The Shard and St. Paul’s Cathedral.
It’s always a revelation to me just how transformed London is when the weather is behaving. And this day was definitely testament to that. It was also memorable because it was the first time in perhaps 35 years that I saw kids roly polying. And the last time I witnessed that, it was my childhood friends and I doing the rolling.
Steppers and I worked up quite a thirst that afternoon. As a result, we made sure to grab a drink on our way back to Hampstead Tube Station, where we’d be heading off in our separate directions for another two years.
There’s no shortage of excellent drinking spots in Hampstead and that afternoon we nipped into The Roebuck Pub. Dating back to Victorian times, this traditional free house on Pond Street features a sizeable lounge and a pretty garden in the back.
It’s the perfect venue for a draft beer and a house-baked pork pie served with sweet piccalilli. And this particularly pork pie was so dense it was virtually a meal that left me unfussed about dinner that evening.
The Roebuck Pub, Hampstead.
It feels like I have unfinished business with Hampstead Heath. If Sladja and I manage to achieve our long-proposed 2022 England stay, it would be great to come back here. Not only to revisit the spots featured in this article. But also to see Kenwood House, the 17th century stately home that once belonged to the Earls of Mansfield and the Irish philanthropist Edward Guinness.
I’d also like to hike deeper into the heath. See more of the bathing ponds and check out the curious Stone of Free Speech. If we do, rest assured I’ll update this article with the full lowdown. “Protect The Heath!”
For more on my hometown wanderings, check out my other reports from around London.
You can also take a look at my other articles from across England.
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