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.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
Hermione Farthingale ? He never let go of that one did he ?
Some characters stick I guess. It’s a great little early track.
What a great time that you enjoyed London. I was hoping like you to return to London.
Thanks for swinging by. Each time I return “home” I try to uncover another 6-8 corners of the capital. Hope you get back one day.
Hampstead Heath is a great place for a picnic and walk on a sunny day as the city views are stunning. That pork pie looks absolutely delicious too Leighton!
Hey Marion, thanks for chipping in! I so rarely eat a pork pie that it feels like a huge treat. And the piccalilli was the icing on the cake. Hope your week is unfolding well…
I don’t indulge in them too often either as I don’t want to pile on the pounds but if they are well made and the pastry is crisp they are definitely worth the extra calories and a special treat!
Thanks for taking us on a tour Leighton. We had meant to visit Hampstead Heath in 2017 and Greenwich in 2017, but only had time for Greenwich. Great views of the downtown skyline for sure and a nice place to relax, crappy phone music aside. Cheers. Allan
Thanks Allan, this is definitely a park I want to get back to, especially to see Kenwood House.
The history of land “ownership” is fascinating as most tracts were never surveyed much less with any precision. An area was what people generally understood it to mean. So good old Ethelred (a petty king?) ruled a “kingdom” by providing protection to it. He gives a portion as a reward for service, a common practice, and the land passes through multiple general understandings of who owns it. Along the way a sizable area becomes considered as public space meaning that the public uses the area for entertainment and relaxation until that concept becomes the common and legally significant view. It is a look back at the evolution of a culture. Well, worth pondering. BTW whatever happened to Simon Dick? I’d like to meet him some day.
You’re spot on Memo with your analysis of the land ownership issue. I hope I managed to present the info clearly as the history is often poorly put together in many online articles. Not to mention confusing and contradictory. Simon Dick is, the last I heard, a reclusive alcoholic living alone in a log cabin in a forest in Montenegro. Wracked by guilt, some say, over his failure to rescue his old tennis partner.
What a great park, and with great views of London. I loved reading about the long and interesting history of the park. Nice to see it’s remained public through all of the attempts to change it. Maggie
Hey Maggie. Thanks so much for wading through the history, it is pretty fascinating. Yes, a rare victory for the public over money, power and privilege. Thanks for stopping by!
Lucky butler indeed to receive such an incredible gift! Loved learning about the history of such a beautiful place, especially the issues of land ownership at the time. So glad that the power of the people overruled the wealthy landowner so the heath has remained. The pictures look so inviting that it makes me want to go roll down that hill with all those kids 🙂
Power to the people eh? It is indeed great that today so many people can wander through nearly all of Hampstead Heath. I really hope to show Sladja the place next year and maybe get into Kenwood House.
There are some pretty nice parks in London! Love the history behind this one … and found the photo of the kids playing roly polying so much fun (didn’t know that’s what it’s called though). And to end the day with a beer and pork pie … yes, that sounds about right!
Ha, indeed. Maybe that gourmet freeze dried meal company can make Pork Pie & Piccalilli, “a taste of London”.
Haha, I’m sure they will be able to make something like that … it just won’t look like a pie (more like a mashed pie 😁). We’ll have to come to London to try the real deal!!
I’ve never been to Hampstead Heath, I never imagined such a view of London. Kenwood House sounds like an interesting visit to make, I’m in.
Thanks for visiting!
I only know about Hampstead Heath through Keats House, which I visited back in 2015 during my whirlwind of a time in London. I’m a massive fan of John Keats’ works, so it was especially meaningful to have visited his living place during the last years of his life (before Rome, of course). I didn’t get to visit the rest of Hampstead Heath, but I’d be keen on revisiting for Parliament Hill, particularly for those stunning views of London center! Such views remind me of the stunning views you can get at the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, and I see similarities in both of them (e.g. slightly outside of heart of city, full of greenery, views of the city center…). Great place!
Ooh yes, I would absolutely throw Keats’ house into the mix on a return visit. That must have been a special experience!
Your photos bring back special memories. Just after my 60th (we were in Kolkata on the day), we met up with my two sons and my daughter, their respective partners and my granddaughter (one then, three now), was a lovely day and I pretty much fell in love with Hampstead Heath that day. It’s a gem among London’s best green spaces. Hermione was of course Bowie’s first love…his “one that got away”. Good choice by that lone strummer on the heath.
Glad to hear you enjoyed this article and that you have your own special Hampstead Heath memories. I knew you’d appreciate his choice of song.
Looks like a great place to spend the afternoon in the fresh air with wonderful views of London. If only Ethelred the Unready could see it now.
Frankly, I think he wouldn’t be ready for it.
Ha ha! There have been a few changes in society since his day.
Once Î managed to get lost in Hampstead Heath, and I remember never being so happy that Google Maps existed to find my north once again. I absolutely love it, as well as the adjacent park Golders Hill. I feel so lucky to live near this park. In fact, London having so many “lungs” is one of the reasons I love this city. If you ever feel you need to reconnect with nature, you don’t have to go too far 🙂
Yup, the green spaces are definitely one of London’s many pearls. Glad you managed to find your way out of The Heath! Very much hoping to see more when I get back next year. Thanks for reading!