The largest green space in inner London
, and the wildest, at least in part, being about half woodland
, with plunging valleys and secluded grove
s, banks covered in bracken
and brooks lined with rosebay willowherb
. Other parts of it are smoothly mown, and much of it in between is thick grassland
jewelled with buttercup
To the south-west is Hampstead, and to the north-east is Highgate, two parts of north London renowned for their elegance and character. Between them and sprawling to the north and south lies the Heath. There are so many different scenes here. To the south, on Parliament Hill, people fly bright plastic racing kites while others gaze out across at St Paul's Cathedral and the rest of central London laid out far below.
In the north is Kenwood, a grand eighteenth-century house with landscaped gardens and a superb collection of paintings, including Rembrandt and Vermeer. Between them are lush woods and rolling hills.
Down both sides of it are chains of ponds, artificial remnants of the rivers that rise here and feed the Thames. In the centre is a tumulus, perhaps a Bronze Age barrow, though excavation has revealed nothing but rubbish from a few centuries ago. It is covered in "writhen trees", as Sylvia Plath describes them in 'Parliament Hill Fields': "faithful dark-boughed cypresses".
Across the main roads that enclose it to the north, the Heath has extensions, generally less well known than the main parts, and quieter walks. One of these goes up to Golders Green, and ends in an animal park where you may see deer, rheas, and numerous exotic animals such as mara. Another arm goes right up into the heart of Hampstead Garden Suburb, and here is a secret, the blackberry pickings are much better in these unfrequented parts.
There is not much history to Hampstead Heath, though there is great age: not much dynamic history anyway, with movements of people. During the anti-Papist Gordon Riots of the late 18th century, a mob moved towards Kenwood, and troops were sent to repel them. That and the renowned Spaniards Inn on the northern edge are mentioned in Dickens's Barnaby Rudge.
The Manor of Hampstead was given to the monks of Westminster by King Edgar the Peaceable in 970, and the adjoining manor of Tottenhall, a great long wedge extending from central London up to Highgate, is also of Saxon antiquity. For almost all its history the Heath was used for harmless pastoral occupations such as grazing sheep and giving tithes to the absent monks.
It was the last active Lord of the Manor of Hampstead, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, who brought the thing to a head in the mid nineteenth century, by proposing to sell off what he owned of it, which was most of it, for housing development. Remarkably, he failed, and the public outcry brought the Heath into public ownership as a place of repose and pleasure for all time. When the Greater London Council (GLC) was broken up in the 1980s it did not go to the neighbouring borough of Camden but to the Corporation of London, who rule the City of London itself.
The other important individual was the first Lord Mansfield, the late eighteenth-century Lord Chief Justice who abolished slavery in England. The Bishop of London had owned the northern woods from time immemorial, but Lord Mansfeld his tenant was so powerful that he had new roads built to suit his convenience and avoid his magnificent new house in Caen Wood, or Kenwood, which he had designed by Robert Adam, and his son had it landscaped by Humphrey Repton. This was an independent estate until the 1920s, when having passed through numerous owners and sales endangering it, it finally came to Lord Iveagh, who left it to the nation. It is now an English Heritage property, but is de facto an integral part of the Heath.
In the Highgate ponds there is the Kenwood Ladies Bathing Pond
, and further down is the men's pond. On the other side, in the southern Hampstead part, is a mixed bathing
pond. In the centre is the Viaduct
pond, named after a brick bridge Sir Thomas built to support a small railway with which he intended to extract brick clay. In the far south-east towards Gospel Oak
there is a running track, bandstand, lido
, and playground.
But it is the intangible beauties you go there for, over and over again: the solitude in the early morning before the dog-walkers and families have got there, or perhaps when it is all blanketed in fresh snow; seeing the swans with their cygnets, and the coots with their chicks; resting by the great silent oaks, six hundred years old, forming part of a boundary twice that age; the taste of chalybeate water from the spring; the soft look of enquiry of the girl playing the guitar in the Vermeer, or the imperious assuredness of Gainsborough's Countess Howe.
Part of JudyT's Golden Jubilee celebration of Britain.