Out of all London’s numerous green open spaces that act as the city’s lungs, Hampstead Heath is “the daddy!” A green and pleasant swathe of land, the Heath has been a playground for Londoners for more than 100 years. When famous British landscape artist John Constable painted it in the 1820s, Hampstead Heath was still a windswept high heathland to the north of the great metropolis.
Covering 790 acres, the Heath offers up its rambling and hilly vistas to the many who seek a place of refuge and solace from the fast pace of London life. Cross country trails, numerous ponds, ancient and more recent woodlands, a Lido, children’s playgrounds, landscaped gardens, a zoo and an athletics track are just some of the features that can be found in this huge expanse of a public park that has been the backdrop to the memories of countless Londoners from all denominations.
Here are 5 features of the Heath to look out for…
1. With over 25 ponds within its perimeter, the Heath is a great place to fish, sail a model boat or just observe the natural wildlife drawn to the environment. More famously, it remains a sanctuary for those who enjoy the sensation of swimming in icy cold but rejuvenating pools of water. To the east side of the park there is a series of eight former reservoirs, known as the Highgate Ponds, which include two single-sex swimming pools (the men’s and women’s pools were opened up in 1890 and 1925 respectively) that are available to use all year round. Meanwhile, towards the south-west corner of the Heath are three more pools (the Hampstead Ponds), one of which is the “mixed pond” where both sexes are allowed to enjoy a swim in close company.
2. The Heath’s essence of freedom is best symbolized by the kite flyers who take advantage of the swirling winds on top of Parliament Hill. Located in the south-east vicinity of the Heath, the Hill is 322 feet high and is the focal point of Parliament Hill Fields, which officially became part the park in 1888. The Fields provide an opportunity to keep fit and enjoy some recreational activity, whether it’s on the athletics track, tennis courts, café, Lido swimming pool or the adventure playground for the young and reckless. Parliament Hill is considered by some to be the major focal point of the Heath itself, and is notable for the excellent unobstructed views it provides of the London skyline. The skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the City of London can be seen, along with St Paul’s Cathedral and other landmarks, all in one panorama.
3. Kenwood House is a former stately home found within the northern boundary of Hampstead Heath. A fantastic example of 18th Century landscaping with enormous gardens and adjacent woodlands, the Regency house is the perfect place for a picnic while overlooking the lake with its curious folly bridge. Kenwood House is a part of 120-acre Kenwood Estate which is maintained by English Heritage, which became part of the Heath when it was bequeathed to the nation by Lord Iveagh and opened to the public in 1928. A passionate art collector, Lord Iveagh also left an extraordinary collection of paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, van Dyck and Gainsborough that are adorned onto the walls of Kenwood House.
Unfortunately, due to repair and conservation work, Kenwood House will be closed to the public until 2013 although the grounds will remain open and this summer’s picnic concerts will be unaffected.
4. The Hill Garden and Pergola are beautiful hidden gems that are located on West Heath. Originally part of the gardens of 19th century Iverforth House, but now common land and part of Hampstead Heath, these adjacent but distinctly different forms of garden experience are relatively unknown even by Londoners. The pergola, full of fragrant flowers including, jasmine, sage, honeysuckle, clematis, lavender, wisteria and various vines, offers two stunning views from it north-westerly point. Look straight out and over the Heaths canopy and see nothing but mature trees. Alternatively, you can look down and see the beautifully manicured herb garden and the length of the pergola. The Hill Garden offers a complete contrast to the unruliness of the pergola. The garden is beautifully manicured and is a favourite haunt for artists seeking inspiration. The bench by the ornamental fish pond here gives a stunning view of Hampstead Heath with the towers of urban London as the backdrop.
5. One of the most undervalued aspects of the park are the benches. Strategically placed to give weary visitors a respite while offering up a secluded view for reflection and idle chatter, the Heath’s benches have stories of their own too. Benches are purchased by Heath lovers for a variety of reasons as the inscribed epitaphs and narratives revealSome are “in memorial” and pay homage to dear souls “who loved this place” or simply “in loving memory of”, from a son, wife, relative or friend and the words implying a long and fruitful life. Others have a message for those who pause long enough to absorb a line or two of worldly advice before rejoining their path along the road…
For more information you can contact the Superintendent of Hampstead Heath on tel: +44 (0) 20 7332 3322.
By Bus Golders Hill Park: 210, 268 (stop on North End Road); Kenwood: 210, H3 (stop on Hampstead Lane); East Heath and the Hampstead Ponds: 24, 46,168 and C11 (stop at South End Green); Parliament Hill, Highgate Ponds and Athletics Track: 214, C2, C11 (stop at Highgate Road); Lido and Education Centre: C11 (stop at Gordon House Road).
By tube (all Northern Line) Golders Green Station (15 mins from Kings Cross) for Golders Hill Park and Heath Extension; Hampstead Station (12 mins from Kings Cross) for Vale of Health, East Heath and Hampstead Ponds; Kentish Town station (8 mins from Kings Cross) for Parliament Hill and Highgate Ponds.
By London Overground Hampstead Heath station for East Heath and Hampstead Ponds; Gospel Oak station for Parliament Hill, Athletics Track, Lido and Highgate Ponds.
FasLondon skylinet, frequent trains on this line link the Heath with the Olympic Park at Stratford.