Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 12:13 pm
This little tale provides a heady mix of rural nostalgia, history, one of London’s best views, a mysterious bump in the ground and a touch of culture, before ending up in a haunted pub. In the event, the stroll was more of a stumble. The last time I’d visited Hampstead Heath, a vast open space, a slice of ancient countryside covering 790 acres in north London, I hadn’t been overweight, with feet that ached at the mere accusatory glance from a neglected walking boot. And, let’s face it, back then I wasn’t so close to getting old.
Mrs Britain had granted me a weekend pass to visit my daughter in London. I was even trusted to catch a train all by myself, and find my own way, without a minder. I can cope with London and met my daughter without getting lost or having to talk to anyone. Anyway, when it came to discussing optional Saturday excursions, and the weather seemed too perfect to be inside anywhere, Hampstead was my preferred choice; in fact, to be honest, it was my idea. I was sure Cat hadn’t experienced London north of Camden Market and my memory of Hampstead Heath conjured up images of some kind of bucolic idyll. I had not only forgotten how big it is but, also, its entire geography. That was as well as forgetting all the other, inconvenient, handicaps: the expanding waistline, podiatric, aging stuff; did I mention that? Anyway, we set off, accompanied by Cat’s charming Kiwi flat-mate, Phoebe. There may even have been a song on our lips.
Hampstead Heath isn’t just some kind of park: it has history and it would take years to get to know its unique glades, meadows, cosy corners and many features; we will barely scratch the surface here. The name Hampstead has pre-Conquest roots. It is derived from hem – home – and stede – place – so it means ‘homestead’, or, possibly, ‘manor’. In medieval times, the Heath was rough moorland, later used for common grazing, gathering useful herbs and other plants, and digging sand and gravel. Its springs supplied London; some were dammed, creating reservoirs – some of Hampstead Heath’s many ponds. Two of London’s rivers, the Fleet and the Westbourne, or Kilburn, have their sources on Hampstead Heath before meandering their way south, largely underground now, into the welcoming Thames. The chalybeate properties of at least one spring gave Hampstead a brief status as a spa; there is still a chalybeate well in Well Walk, Hampstead.
The Heath once boasted its very own gibbet and was considered a lawless place, the haunt of footpads and highwaymen. The AA’s Book of London, published in 1979, suggests that romanticised rogues such as the gallant Claude Duval, born in France in 1643 and executed at Tyburn in 1670, Sixteen String Jack (John Rann, born 1750, executed at Tyburn in 1774) and the infamous Dick Turpin, probably born in Hempstead, Essex, in 1705 and executed in York in 1739, all frequented Hampstead Heath. That seems unlikely; from what I can make out, these particular crooks appear to have hunted elsewhere, but I’m sure some equally nasty, albeit unknown, contemporaries frequented the Heath.
Highwaymen or not, Hampstead Heath inspired artists, poets and authors…Constable and Keats lived close by. So did DH Lawrence. Mind you, the number of celebs associated with Hampstead in general deserves a discrete article all of its own.
You can approach Hampstead Heath from any point of the compass, and most visitors do. Its heathland, woodland, ponds and sporting facilities are popular with walkers, runners and sportspeople of all types, families, nature-lovers (it is a haven for wildlife) and, so it said, courting couples of various inclinations who can’t get a room. We took the northern line (Edgware extension) to Hampstead and walked up Heath Street. My feet were aching already. A small brown leafy corridor led off to the right, down a shallow incline through some woods. Phoebe was wary of rampant brambles and stinging nettles, protesting that the latter, like snakes, were unknown to her and to all civilised New Zealanders. A jogger, coming from the opposite direction, seemed mildly irritated that people were on his personal running track, moreover discussing Antipodean flora and fauna – and What To Do When Stung By Stinging Nettles. I resisted the urge to beat him about the body with something barbed and scratchy, and merely got in his way for longer than necessary; well, really!
It is astonishing that this place exists, less than four miles from Trafalgar Square, and that you can plunge into what looks like unspoilt countryside so easily after leaving the urban gentility of Hampstead town. Yet the Heath was almost lost. In the 19th century, the wicked Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, attempted to sell or build on parts of it. There was much public outcry until, in 1888, the Heath became public property and the responsibility of the Metropolitan Board of Works. Since then, its area has been expanded and the responsibility for managing it now rests with the City of London Corporation. Hampstead Heath even has its own constabulary, consisting of a dozen officers and six dogs. This knowledge made me feel infinitely safer, as the girls chattered along grassy paths and I limped behind, taking photographs and trying to figure out where we were.
I have since learned that we were traversing an area known as the Vale of Health, renamed from the somewhat less appealing Hatchett’s Bottom by some long-dead 18th century comic spin-doctor. Once water-logged and malarial, when Hatchett’s Bottom was drained it created the tranquil Vale of Health Pond, now beloved, it seems, by dogs. Vale of Health Pond supplies Hampstead Brook, a tributary, if that isn’t too grand a word, of the River Fleet. Beyond it lies Viaduct Pond, subject of a learned paper in Dickens’ imagination, presented by Mr Pickwick to the Pickwick Club entitled, ‘Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with Some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats’. A tittlebat is a river stickleback – a fish. We passed lampposts straight out of the Land of Lantern Waste. I imagined Mr Tumnus scurrying away, reluctantly luring us deeper into the wood to feast on tea and crumpets, and was delighted to later read that a snowy winter’s day on Hampstead Heath may have helped CS Lewis create his imaginary land of Narnia. That said, the very best imaginary lands are composites of many and I gather that the inspiration for Narnia owes much to Lewis’ birthplace of Northern Ireland and to what is now the CS Lewis Nature Reserve, next to his home, The Kilns, in Oxford.
I digress. What I really wanted to find was Parliament Hill. This was (and still is, relatively speaking) beyond the Fairground Site and the somewhat dubiously named Hampstead No 1 and No 2 Ponds. There is also a No 3 Pond, where brave folk were bathing. Parliament Hill is 322 feet (98 metres) high, provides tremendous views over Central London and is greatly favoured by kite-fliers. Formally known as Traitors’ Hill – possibly because traitors may have been executed there, though there is also an unlikely rumour that the Gunpowder Plotters planned to watch the Houses of Parliament explode from the summit – its current name is said to originate from it being a key point in the Parliamentary defences of London during the English Civil War. The view is a protected one, taking in Canary Wharf, the City and the Palace of Westminster. On a clear day, it’s possible to see the Crystal Palace transmitter in south-east London and beyond, to the hills of the North (Surrey) Downs. Parliament Hill often pops up in films and TV. Until the 1940s, livestock grazed nearby. Turning round, there’s a further lovely vista to the north-east, of Highgate Hill.
And it was to the north that our intrepid trio now turned, heading for the neo-classical grandeur of Kenwood House. On the way, we passed one of London’s curiosities, the Hampstead Heath Tumulus. Actually, no one knows what it is. It certainly looks like a burial mound, topped with a circle of trees and surrounded by an old iron fence – though that doesn’t seem to deter people from clambering on it. It was long rumoured to be the last resting place of Boudicca, rebel Queen of the Iceni, finally defeated in battle by the Romans at an unknown location north of London, possibly in the West Midlands, in 61AD. However, though it is sometimes referred to as Boadicea’s Grave, it almost certainly isn’t. Some have suggested it is the base of a vanished windmill, a theory dismissed through total lack of evidence and logic. Could it have been part of an 18th century folly for Kenwood House? Another proposal is that it contains the ‘dust of the slain’ as someone euphemistically put it – the remains of the dead following an ancient battle between two ancient tribes. Or perhaps it has some sort of spiritual significance and is at the centre of overlapping ley lines. Or maybe it really is a Bronze Age burial mound. Whatever the Hampstead Heath Tumulus is, it is a reminder that London has not always been there and is not omnipotent.
Kenwood House, after a few false trails to confuse my companions (they asked the way, which I thought was rather unsporting), eventually emerged through the trees. It was surrounded with people playing in the sunshine and looked simply beautiful, shining as though it was brand new – which in some ways it is. The original house was probably built in the early 17th century, but was extensively remodelled between 1764 and 1779 by Robert Adam, who transformed it for William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield – a hugely respected reforming lawyer. The interiors include some of Adam’s finest surviving schemes, and the reason it looks much as it must have done 250 years back is due to recent, extensive and careful, renovation work. The house contains an astonishing art collection, with works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds. The whole lot, art and all, was bequeathed to the nation by brewing magnate Edward Guinness, Earl of Iveagh, in 1927. Film buffs will recognise Kenwood, the exterior at least, as the ‘film within a film’ location from the 1999 Richard Curtis movie Notting Hill, starring Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant, as well as from other productions.
Surrounded by the languages and accents of the world, and the obviously well-heeled, we enjoyed a much-needed coffee and sandwich in Kenwood’s café, situated in the old stables. Though crowded, it was a well-ordered, civilised kind of place; I liked it very much. My young companions were very kind about allowing me to have a quick peek inside the house. Cat, indeed, came with me, bless her cotton socks. However, I defy anyone to just have ‘a quick peek’ inside Kenwood House; it and its art collection are stunning – more of that another time. Suffice to say that it was getting close to pub o’ clock before we emerged into the afternoon sun, to find Phoebe dozing patiently on the grass.
And so we embarked on the final leg. When I say, ‘final leg’, you can take that whichever way you like – by now my feet were killing me. Our destination was another haunt I remembered from yesteryear, the Spaniards Inn, one of the oldest pubs in London, said to date from 1585. It is so called either because it was once the country house of the Spanish Ambassador to the Court of King James I, or because it belonged to two Spanish brothers, Francis and Juan Porrero. They argued and fought a duel over a woman; Juan lost, is buried in the garden and his ghost is said to haunt it to this day. Some stories say both brothers died. Other phantoms include Dick Turpin’s, along with the ghostly hoof beats of his horse, Black Bess. Popular legend is that Dick Turpin’s father was once the landlord of the Spaniards and that the highwayman was a regular. Maybe not, but it has certainly been frequented by the great and the good, including the artist Joshua Reynolds and the poets, Byron and Keats. The pub used to claim that Keats composed ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the garden – though a similar claim is made for Keats’ own house, across the Heath. Dickens was a customer, too – the Spaniards Inn is another place he mentions in Pickwick Papers (1837) and, as it crops up in Dracula (1897) as well, we could guess that Bram Stoker may have dropped in for an occasional tipple – a Bloody Mary, perhaps. Hampstead is good vampire-hunting territory; in Stoker’s tale of horror, poor undead Lucy Westenra emerges from her tomb in the graveyard of nearby St John at Hampstead to prey upon children on the Heath.
During the violent Gordon Riots of 1780, a group of protestors en route to wreck Kenwood House was offered unlimited drink by the quick-witted landlord of the Spaniards, thus delaying the gang until troops arrived and, in consequence, saving Kenwood.
I had forgotten that the traffic is forced to narrow into single file at the Spaniards, where an 18th century toll house is located on the opposite side of the road. It was amusing, but also disturbing, to see how impatient some of the drivers became; you could probably halve the traffic on Britain’s roads and reduce accidents by introducing a drivers’ intelligence test. But, then, think of the lost tax revenue and impact on the motor industry.
By this time, my afternoon nap was long overdue and I allowed myself to be talked into having a pint of Old Willie’s Ankle Wobbler cider, or some such thing. It had a wonderful, anaesthetising, effect on my aching feet; so I simply had to have a couple more pints to guarantee a pain-free journey back to South London.
There, that’s a bit about Hampstead Heath for you. No doubt the 2017 film, Hampstead, starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson, whetted your appetite even more.