Only 4 miles from Trafalgar Square, but bordering 790 acres of green space, Hampstead has a totally different vibe to much of inner London. Yes, it has a bustling high street, but venture into the neighbouring laneways or along the many footpaths onto Hampstead Heath and you could be miles from the city.
The husband likes to look at multimillion-pound houses (one of his hobbies) and Hampstead has plenty of those – it has some of the most expensive homes and more millionaires than anywhere else in the UK. As you know, I’ll walk anywhere, so off we go on another lockdown adventure. We park at Heath Brow and staightaway we plunge into the trees of the West Heath. It feels like we’re a long, long way from Oxford Street already.
The Heath at Hampstead has always been common ground, and evidence of a settlement here goes back to 986 in the reign of King Ethelred the Unready. This is one of the highest points of the capital so it was thought to be a healthy escape from the smog of the city, hence it was where the wealthy built their homes.
Just a few metres along the path we come across The Hill Garden and Pergola, unfortunately closed due to Covid 19. This lovely structure was conceived by Lord Leverhulme as a setting for extravagent garden parties at his neighbouring mansion, The Hill. Construction started in 1905 using soil from the excavations of the Northern Line of the underground railway. It’s a spectacular venue for a party – I could just imagine myself here with a glass of Pimms and a cucumber sandwich.
Our next landmark is one of Hampstead’s most famous pubs, which has been serving alcohol since 1721. It was a popular destination for cockneys wanting a ‘healthy’ day trip in the fresh air and music hall star Florrie Forde celebrated this in her well- known song…Come and have a drink or two down at the Old Bull and Bush. No drinks today I’m afraid – it’s shut.
Behind the pub we cross Sandy Heath towards Spaniards Road. This area was the haunt of highwaymen in the 18th century, including the legendary Dick Turpin, who was a regular at the nearby Spaniards Inn after relieving wealthy travellers of their cash. It took two hours to get here by coach from central London in those days – the Northern Line’s not so bad after all.
The East Heath is the largest expanse of open ground, stretching across to Highgate and Kentish Town, with a string of pools and ponds along the eastern and southern edges. These were dug in the 17th and 18th centuries as reservoirs to supply London with water, but are now used for swimming, boating, angling and exercising dogs. I’m not game to have a swim personally – muddy cold water isn’t really my thing – but the dogs are having fun.
We head south towards the village centre, through the aspirationally named Vale of Health. Originally known as Hatches Bottom, the name was changed after the area was drained and housing built, in order to attract well-to-do residents. Developers haven’t changed much over the years really…
Hampstead is renowned for attracting artistic types – writers, actors, musicians and painters flocked all here in the past due to the intellectual associations of the village. Freud, Betjeman, Keats, Constable, Darwin, Dickens, Galsworthy, Huxley, Maynard Keynes, Orwell, Moore, Mondrian, Lawrence, du Maurier – the list just goes on.
The many English Heritage blue plaques around the streets bear witness to this illustrious history. It’s quite good fun playing spot the star! I have to admit that I didn’t recognise some of the ‘famous’ names. Obviously I’m not as knowledgeable as I’d like to believe.
The area continues to draw celebrities today. Why wouldn’t you want to live here if you had several million to spend? We spotted The Logs, which is the huge home of Boy George. Ricky Gervais, Jamie Oliver, Liam Gallagher, James Corden, Ridley Scott and Harry Styles all live in Hampstead too. The husband is clearly envious, it’s quite nice here!
The village also abounds in quirky historical features. We pass an old lock-up set into the wall of a house, a Victorian drinking fountain and a 19th century water trough for horses passing through. This is a place where it really pays to keep your eyes open for details.
Although best known for well-preserved and ever so desirable Victorian and Edwardian housing, Hampstead also has some modernist buildings sprinkled around, including the former home of Erno Goldfinger on Willow Road. Goldfinger was famous for his brutalist residential tower blocks – not everyone’s cup of tea, but some are preserved as listed buildings so we are stuck with them regardless. His home is now a National Trust museum.
Walking around Hampstead, you might get the feeling that past residents were particularly religious – there are no fewer than nine churches here, plus a synagogue. Admittedly, they are outnumbered by the dozen or so traditional pubs. Life here was all about balance, it seems. How sensible.
Our last stop on this particular walk may surprise you. If you’ve read my earlier blogs you will know how often I bemoan the closure of pubs during the current pandemic. Walking is thirsty work, after all. Well, this time I’ve found one that’s open, so we can reward ourselves for our exertions. It’s takeaway only, but beggars can’t be choosy. Cheers!