Hampstead’s heaven: 150 years of the Heath

The best view of London from Hampstead Heath — or anywhere — is from Kite Hill. There’s always somebody on the benches up there, and I usually detect a wariness in their expression as they gaze at the problematic city, which seems not so much on the horizon to the south as directly below. And given that London has become increasingly infernal looking at night, what with all the red aeroplane warning lights blazing away, a biblical metaphor suggests itself . . .

I became attuned to the heavenliness of the heath in the locked-down year of 2020, when I walked on it every day. True, I had nowhere else to go, but I didn’t want to go anywhere else. I can’t claim any great originality here. According to the City of London Corporation, which manages the heath, visitor numbers tripled during the pandemic, and the heath remained in the spotlight this year, in which its 150th anniversary has been celebrated.

The Hampstead Heath Act of 1871 saved the original 200 acres forming the core of the 800 acres we have today. (The principal additions being Parliament Hill Fields in 1888, Golders Hill Estate, 1898; the Kenwood Estate in the 1920s.)

I come at the heath from Highgate to the east, counterpart of Hampstead to the west, in that both are referred to as villages by the people who live there — an affectation, perhaps, but surely not too objectionable. Both look like villages, being quaint, partly Georgian, tree-shaded.

According to Mike Tracy in Knight Frank’s Hampstead office, Hampstead is “the prime north London spot, a notch above Highgate”. The average price of a four-bedroom house he puts at £2.5-£3m, as opposed to £2m in Highgate. As a factor in the appeal of both, he rates the heath as “massive”.

Whereas a stranger to New York might need a guidebook to find the similarly sized Central Park, it being flat and with buildings in the way, you can’t miss Hampstead Heath. It’s that great green lump in north London, with church spires on either side like candles on a birthday cake.

Author Andrew Martin
Author Andrew Martin on Hampstead Heath: during lockdown, ’I had nowhere else to go, but I didn’t want to go anywhere else’ © Max Miechowski for the FT

And nor is it a park. The heath is countryside, but it’s better than most of the country that’s in the countryside: more beautiful, more acc­essible, freer from automotive droning.

The 1871 Act stipulated that the heath be “uninclosed and unbuilt on”, its “natural aspect and state” preserved. It would be an antidote to London at a time when the city’s expansion seemed limitless. The population of London was 1m in 1800; by 1871 it would be nearly 4m. A cartoon of 1829 by George Cruikshank, “London Going Out of Town”, shows anthropomorphised bricks invading the beleaguered countryside.

As I began to read about the heath, it seemed to me that it really is a blessed plot, beautified by all weathers; a fairy ring in which, historically, things have kept turning out right. For instance, some of my favourite bits of it were created by its greatest enemy, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, Victorian Lord of the Manor of Hampstead.

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The original heath comprised the common or “waste” within his estate. A common was part of on estate suitable only for pastoral farming, to which there was a degree of public access. Recreationalists aside, the typical beneficiary — or commoner — was a smallholder who used the common as an annexe of his own land. Commoners were underdogs, the rights having been steadily eroded by the enclosures of commons since the early 17th century.

But the “commoners” of fashionable Hampstead were a cut above, and vocal with it. They were copyholders — owners of plots on the margins of the common, on which they had usually built a big house and garden. Having grabbed a bit of the common for themselves, they naturally wanted to stop anyone else doing so: they didn’t want it developed further. But Wilson sought to turn the heath “to account”, mainly by excavating it for sand, hence that strange and silent subdivision called the Sandy Heath, now colonised by ghostly birch trees.

Wilson also proposed to build an estate on the East Park, adjacent to the heath, and now part of it. To serve this, he built a road over the heath and a large viaduct to traverse marshy ground. The estate was never built; the road — now gravel and mud — is the principal cycle route on the heath, and the viaduct dreamily traverses nothing more than a green duck pond.

Parliament Hill, also known as Kite Hill, with its celebrated view of London
Parliament Hill, also known as Kite Hill, with its celebrated view of London © Max Miechowski for the FT

Wilson fortuitously died in 1869 and was succeeded by his more amenable brother, who agreed to sell the heath to the Metropolitan Board of Works. But if Wilson had not existed, it might have been necessary to invent him. To counter his obduracy, strategies and arguments were forged that led to the Metropolitan Commons Act of 1866, which allowed London ratepayers’ money to be spent on the preservation of commons.

As Helen Lawrence writes in her readable and comprehensive book, How Hampstead Heath was Saved, “A group of formidable people had joined the campaign for the heath and went on to be at the heart of what became a new conservation movement.” She relates this to the saving of Wandsworth, Wimbledon and Clapham Common and Blackheath, among others. There was, writes Lawrence, “a new understanding of the value of open space”, and Hampstead Heath was the cause célèbre.

The heath was hymned by Romantic poets in the early 19th century — Keats, Shelley and Leigh Hunt had formed “a nest of singing birds” at Hunt’s house on the Vale of Health (a sleepy satellite of Hampstead located actually on the heath).

In the mid-century, two civic-minded families of Hampstead Unitarians, the Fields and the Sharpes, promoted the heath in more practical ways. They were less Nimby-ish than the copyholders. Lawrence writes that “their concern for the Heath was as a public amenity for those less privileged than themselves”. They defended the provision of donkey rides on the heath, for instance, against those who thought such amusements lowered the tone.

Lawrence tells me she considers their focal point, the Rosslyn Hill Chapel — which is still going strong — the cornerstone of Hampstead’s vaunted liberalism. (There are more Black Lives Matter posters in the windows of Hampstead villas than there are black people in Hampstead, I sometimes think.)

A later torchbearer was the social reformer Octavia Hill, who had spent the happiest part of her childhood at her grandfather’s house on the edge of the heath. In his book A Walk in the Park, Travis Elborough reports that Hill dreamt as a girl of “finding a field so large that she could run in it for ever”. Hill, a Christian socialist, was active in the Commons Preservation Society and in 1876 she co-founded the Kyrle Society, named after John Kyrle, the philanthropist and outdoorsman memorialised as the Man of Ross by Alexander Pope in his Moral Essays (as the members of Hill’s beloved Hampstead Circle probably knew without needing to be told). From the Kyrle Society grew the National Trust, also co-founded by Hill.

Scene from Hampstead Heath
In the mid 19th century, Hampstead Heath was championed by liberal-minded residents as ‘a public amenity for those less privileged than themselves’; London Underground advertised it as ‘Appy Ampstead’ in a nod to cockney visitors © Max Miechowski for the FT

Scene from Hampstead Heath

Hill’s preoccupation was “the people whose view from their window is only of the blank wall”. In her biography of Hill, Gillian Darley suggests that, in modern terms, the Kyrle Society sought to improve “quality of life”, but Hill’s work also chimes with present-day concerns for mental health and the environment.

Hampstead Heath station opened in 1860, connecting the heath to the East End via what is today the London Overground. The heath was the subject of some of the rowdiest music-hall songs, including Down at the Old Bull and Bush. Hampstead had its own Pearly King and Queen, symbols of cockney culture, and they were regulars at the heath fairs.

London Underground lured the masses to the heath, with amusingly class-
conscious posters: one of 1913 shows ex­uberant funfair scenes above the slogan “Appy Ampstead by the Underground (If you want a beano, it’s a fair old treat)”.

It’s true that, during lockdown, I felt like going up to anyone on the heath walking a dog other than a £2,000 cockapoo and shaking them by the hand (or banging elbows), but there’s nothing genteel about your typical Hampstead fisherman, who dresses like an urban guerrilla. And most of the swimmers in the Men’s Pond are scrawny, Pinteresque types — not your chattering classes.

© Ruby Taylor

One result of the “conservation movement” described by Helen Lawrence was the founding in 1897 of the Heath & Hampstead Society, the oldest civic society in Britain and the inspiration for many others. I took a walk on the heath with society member John Beyer, a retired diplomat whose property (“half a house”) overlooks one of the Hampstead ponds. We headed up towards Kite Hill, skirting what’s officially called Hedge Number 1, although it’s been mainly trees for 100 years.

The celebrated view of London, protected by statute, is through a gap in those trees, and the society keeps a careful eye on it. “The crown of that oak’s going to have to come down a bit,” says Beyer. It was blocking out part of the East End.

A purist might want to fell a lot of the heath’s 25,000 trees, since the original heath — as painted by Constable — was a blasted heath: moorland of heather and gorse. The trees have grown accidentally or by design, and the H&H society had many battles with the London County Council (successor to the Board of Works), charging them with planting trees “like lampposts”.

A spokesman for the Highgate Society, counterpart to the H&H, tells me he considers today’s custodians, the Corporation, “first rate” at maintaining the balance between wildness and “parkism”, and John Beyer says, “Yes, that’s about right.” 

On East Heath, Beyer showed me a clump of gorse, one of the last remnants of true heathland. There was a poignancy about the sight, as if it were a grave or memorial stone, but the attitude to the usurper trees has changed: they absorb carbon.

The heath’s 25,000 trees were either planted or seeded accidentally; originally it was all moorland
The heath’s 25,000 trees were either planted or seeded accidentally; originally it was all moorland © Max Miechowski for the FT

Scene from Hampstead Heath

The society is developing an interactive heath map on its website. I like looking at heath maps. What with Leg of Mutton Pond, Bird Bridge, Goodison Fountain etc, they have the whimsical quality of the maps that precede an Edwardian children’s story. But map or no map, I still get enjoyably lost on the heath. I’ll emerge from a clump of trees, and the spires of Christ Church in Hampstead and St Michael’s in Highgate will seem to have swapped places.

For all the wildness of the heath, I find it hard not to take the same fork in the footpaths every time. The heath seduces you into soothing rituals. I once interviewed Al Alvarez, one of the last Hampstead poets. He swam in the Men’s Pond every day, always swimming front crawl away from the jetty, backstroke on the way back.

You will find me on the heath on December 25 — earning, or walking off, my turkey dinner. It will be particularly festive at the end of this anniversary year, with a nightly light show at Kenwood and (for the first time) a children’s fair on the East Heath fairground. As we close in on that time of supposed largesse, I do think of the heath as a present to modern London from our Victorian forebears: the gift that keeps on giving.; Andrew Martin’s latest novel is ‘Powder Smoke’ (Corsair)

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