I read somewhere that Hampstead Heath is so magical that when C.S. Lewis was walking in the snow in the heath, he spots an old fashioned lamp and comes up with the idea for the Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I may have missed the snow for this year, but I’m all up for being inspired to write a good story.
- Start of Day: Hampstead Overground Station, London
- Cost of Day Out: Moderate (£)
The River Fleet is said to start from Parliament Hill. Indeed, one of the tributary to the river was dammed up here in 1700 to form reservoirs to supply London. These ponds are only a 10 minute walk through a tree lined path that begins across the road from the Station.
The imiginatively named  Hampstead No 1, Hampstead No 2 and Mixed Bathing Pond, all next to each other, are today, bird habitats. The majestic swan, resident at No. 1, performs for my camera. However, I think he glided away most disappointed when he realised I had come empty handed.
Crossing between No 2 Pond and the Mixed Bathing Pond, I make my way up a slight slope to Parliament Hill view. The rising sun illuminates a dog and his walker on the brow of the hill. For how early it is, there are a surprising number of people around.
There are benches scattered around the park, many of them dedicated to past walkers of the heath. One bench I come across as I wander to the viewpoint has an intriguing inscription by Parviz Owsia, an Iranian writer. Although I ponder it for a while, I’m not sure if I’ve quite fathomed what the writer alludes to.
During the English Civil War (1642-1651), the hill was occupied by troops loyal to Parliament, and was called Traitors Hill. Here at the same vantage point, the city stretches out before me. Of course it wouldn’t have been glass and steel towers then, just distant church spires.
From here too, I can also make out the pointed spire of St Michael’s Church and the green-domed St Joseph’s Catholic Church in Highgate. But I soon lose sight of these towers as I take a track lower down the hill to enjoy the wonderful sculptures formed by the bare trees of a winter walk.
As I wander in the open heath, the sound of honking geese alert me to a pair flying low, to my right, towards the Men’s Bathing Pond, which is where I’m heading to. I soon spot the pond shimmering through the stripped back trees.
It’s only 08:00 a.m. Temperature on land is only 2 degrees. And yet a half naked man walks briskly along the spring diving board. I feel myself bracing as he lifts off to dive into the freezing grey water. Oooh ! That must be so cold.
At the corner where I’m stood, I hear the rush of water under a grate. I wonder if this is the other tributuary of the River Fleet that starts from Parliament Hill, now relegated to being just an underground drain. When I get to the other side of the Model Boating Pond, a host of pretty yellow daffodils beside the lake, beneath the trees, remind me of the words of Wordsworth.
I follow a tarmaced road outside the heath up the hill, past some handsome large houses. At the fork to Fitzroy Park, I take the left lane going past Kenwood Ladies’ Bathing Pond, in a secluded location, far away from prying eyes. An early morning, invigorated female bather wishes me good morning as she departs for the day after her dip.
I turn left at Stock Pond. A red robin flits in and out of the ivy and bramble along the pond. Stock Pond, has a natural wild look about it, with brambles and overgrowth. It is also liable to flood, as the sign warns me.
Soon after Stock Pond, I come across one of the many entrances to Kenwood House. This one dips into a dark green wood. When I turn around to warm my face in the sun before diving in, I’m surprised to find that I can still view the London skyline, even from here.
Emerging out of the woods, I am greeted by a sprawling lawn manicured with ponds and bridges, leading up a slope to a grand white building, in a setting typcial of an English country stately home. I clamber up to the side path for an obscured, yet charming view through trees.
Kenwood House would have been considered the countryside in Victorian times, with only a lonely track connecting it to London. The gardens here, with its outdoor sculptures including a Henry Moore, its views of London in the distance, ivy tunnels and ponds are peaceful and beautiful.
When the house opens, I wander in for a delightful tour of the house which Robert Adam remodelled between 1764 and 1779, in his trademark style of lightness and airiness. In the entrance, on the ceiling, is a painting of Bacchus and Ceres (Antonio Zucchi), Greek Gods of Agriculture complete with the ivy associated with Bacchus.
Through the first door, I come to my favourite bit, what I call the blue staircase. With the sun shining through the glass dome, catching the glass blue lamp above the staircase, which then casts a blue light over the duck egg blue ironwork and walls, there is a sense of calm in this stairwell.
Living in this house in the 18th century are 2 significant characters. The the Earl of Mansfield (1705 – 1793) and also Lord Justice, made several landmark rulings to abolish slavery. And then there is Belle (1761 -1804), the mixed race daughter of a middling class Navy officer who is brought up by her aristocratic great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield. So here I am wandering around the rooms that Belle used to wander around too.
The house is staffed by very knowledgeable volunteers, who point out something new to me everytime I visit. There is plenty of great art here to discuss with them. My top three are London Bridge (when it had houses on it) by Claude de Jongh, the Rembrandt self portrait and the lit up faces of the Girls playing with the Kitten by Joseph Wright of Derby.
I also love the shop in the orangerie. I always purchase a Xmas liquer gift as there is always a tasting involved to soften my departure. I depart Kenwood House, for a final stroll through the leafless trees, trying to bird spot. It’s not as easy as I thought !! Back at Hampstead I catch the tube home.
I started the walk seeking inspiration for a story. Let’s see… gnarled tree branches, puzzling inscriptions on a bench, swimming in freezing water, poetic daffodils, white mansions, granite giant sculptures, blue staircases, girls playing with kittens in the dark, a mixed race girl brought up in a white aristocrtic family when slavery was rife….. I think somewhere in there is a story that could even become a film.
Useful Stuff to Know
- Tube Map and City Mapper are free apps that provide London train and bus information.
- Guide to London panorama
- Kenwood House (website)- open daily, free. Guided tours are extra.