‘There’s just so much to do’ – overflowing with stunning sights and attractions, there’s not a much better way to sum up this leafy suburb of Hampstead Heath.
Parks are an ubiquitous feature of my excursions and there are a number of reasons for this: firstly, London is an incredible 47% green space and so the likelihood of stumbling across a park is pretty high. Secondly, parks are not homogeneous. Yes, the occasional splodge of bland grass exists for dogs to do their business and for people to spontaneously picnic, but the vast majority of them are unique; cultural treasures in their own right. Third, they are inherently public: each one reserved for the use of all and, therefore, free. Why am I going off on one about London’s parks? Well, because Gospel Oak is the gateway to one of London’s most famous: the indomitable Hampstead Heath.
Hampstead Heath is so vast it’s hard to know where to begin, let alone where to middle and where to end; a decision made even harder by the bizarre and intriguing places within, such as the Vale of Health, Jack Straw’s Castle, the Sham Bridge and the Stone of Free Speech. Luckily, Gospel Oak is located on the Heath’s south-eastern tip, next to the Parliament Hill Lido, and so I headed in there for advice.
Built in 1938 for the princely sum of £34,000, Parliament Hill Lido was the most expensive lido constructed during the golden age of lidos (yes, there was such a thing – 1920-1939 – and yes, I like saying the word lido). After a quick chat about swimming, I asked the lifeguard about the Heath’s ‘must-sees’: ‘Well, it’s hard to say, there’s just so much to do’ – he replied helpfully, oblivious to the fact that his response was the reason for my enquiry.
Yet, after a couple of prods, he soon became more animated: ‘Most people go to Parliament Hill first, also known as Kite Hill, as that’s where the kids go to fly their kites – it’s got great views of London’. First stop sorted. ‘The Vale of Health is so-called because during the plague they set a perimeter of fire around it to stop the infection from getting through’. Interesting; stop two. ‘Kenwood House is beautiful and is the backdrop to many films’. Ah, ‘yes’, I said, ‘Notting Hill’? ‘No, nowhere near it’. Stop three.
Parliament Hill, whose name derives from its defence by Parliament troops during the Civil War, offers cinematic views of London – a panoramic sandwich of Canary Wharf and the BT Tower with everything in between. It’s pretty spectacular and rightly takes the view plaudits, but casting a glance in other directions is hardly a wasted effort. Rows upon rows of neatly stacked Victorian homes, sprinkled with church spires and steeples, once again reminds you that London is just a patchwork of different villages; a very large patchwork.
Also, an uneven patchwork. In fact, London is a crumpled quilt. From Watford to Wimbledon, Uxbridge to Upminster, London ripples with peaks and troughs and nowhere are these undulations more evident than in Hampstead Heath. It’s a lolloping roller-coaster. Mezzanines of ponds, fields and woodlands interconnected by topsy-turvy walkways.
As I weaved westward, initially down tarmac paths and then down increasingly muddy paths, I realised how easy it would be to get lost here. I was lost. Every five minutes of strolling and I was confronted with yet another fork: Robert Frost would have had a meltdown. I went past the same viaduct (although, indeed lovely) twice, before I ended up at a public toilet that wouldn’t look out of place in Hansel and Gretel. A lady, who was clearly a fan of the hand-soap given her distinctive odour, kindly pointed me in the direction of the Vale of Health. Her directions led me to a caravan park. Turns out, this was the Vale of Health.
Stop three was Kenwood House – ‘one of the finest country houses in London’. Bought by the Earl of Mansfield in 1754 as a country escape from London, Kenwood still feels like a country retreat despite now being entirely engulfed by the city. How so? Well, the estate is a prime example of the ‘English Landscape-garden’ – during its construction, roads were purposefully moved, woods were planted and water features added to make the estate seem like an endless landscape. That’s why. Oh and I should mention the house – remodelled by Robert Adam (the architect behind Syon House) after Mansfield bought it – is mesmerising, both inside and out.
Whilst we should laud Mansfield for these decisions, higher praise must be bestowed upon Edward Cecil Guinness, the 1St Earl of Iveagh and heir to the Guinness Fortune. Not only did he save the estate from being turned into housing in the 1920s, but he later bequeathed it all – along with is phenomenal art collection – to the public.
As a result, you can peruse over 60 stunning masterpieces free of charge. And, when I say masterpieces, I’m not saying this lightly. One of the volunteers told me that the collection is ‘easily one of the Top 10 in the country’ and with internationally-known paintings, such as Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait with Two Circles and Vermeer’s The Guitar Player, complemented by works from Turner, Constable, Gainsborough, Van Dyck and Reynolds to name just a few, I can see why. That’s even before you take into the account the breath-taking neoclassical interior of Kenwood House, which serves as the gallery. Edward Cecil Guinness, I take a bow.
Wondering where to head next, the volunteer asked if ‘I had been to Highgate Cemetery?’ – I had not – and ‘did I know that Karl Marx was buried there?’ – weirdly, I did.
The Grade I listed Highgate Cemetery may well be the most famous cemetery in London. 100 years before the golden age of lidos was the golden age of cemeteries. A combination of overcrowded graveyards, non-Church of England members wanting somewhere to bury their dead and a Parliamentary Bill encouraging their construction, saw private cemeteries begin to proliferate in the 1830s and 40s. Highgate Cemetery was London’s third in 1839.
The Cemetery is ‘above all else a place for tranquil reflection’, but below that, is a treasure chest of ornate memorials, insightful epitaphs (‘had a faithful dog called Emperor’), obscure professions (‘Urologist’; ‘Ophthalmic Surgeon’) and superb first-names (‘Dugmore’; ‘Clarabetty’; ‘Annamelia’). My favourite? Well, it was a tie between Issachar Zacaharie – the ‘First Grand Supreme Ruler of the Masonic Order of the Secret Monitor within the British Empire’ – and Hercules Belleville – a film producer. Undoubtedly celebrities in their own right, most of Highgate Cemetery’s famous residents are overshadowed (quite literally, considering the size of his memorial) by Karl Marx. Author of the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, Marx is arguably the most influential political philosopher in human history – laying the foundations for Marxism, socialism and communism and effectively designing modern sociology. He also had a cracking beard.
For a place that profits from death (and still does, both in terms of new arrivals and visitor fees – £4), it’s remarkably lovely, which, incidentally, is the whole point: the London Cemetery Company ‘determined that Highgate should attract custom by the splendour of its architectural features and the beauty of its landscape’. 53,000 graves is a pretty strong endorsement.
The Cemetery neighbours Waterlow Park. Home to the 16th Century Lauderdale House, a variety of gardens and ponds and overlooked by the imposing St Joseph’s Church, Waterlow Park is a microcosm of what the Heath has to offer, without the fear of getting lost. Although, like the Heath, there is no escape from the plethora of dogs in fleece onesies. I mean, c’mon, what do you think all that hair is for?
Given all the distractions, I’d completely forgotten about eating until my stomach growled at a passing jogger. A fellow park enthusiast told me that the Flask in Highgate Village was very popular as Jude Law often frequents it and so, listening to his suggestion, I walked in the opposite direction of the Flask until I came to the Star Inn. The Star, however, was jammed pack full of funeral-goers and so I continued on to the Bull and Last, only to find the cheapest main was £15.
By this point, it was after 3pm and I was struggling to find a pub that was still serving lunch. I walked all the way down to Kentish Town and was about to cave to the delights of a local café, when I came to the Assembly House. The pub had clearly been through a recent renovation (‘cool’ modern posters and craft beers galore) and looked like the kind of place that thought it was pretty hip. Well, hip or not, the Fish and Chips (£11.50) was very nice, as was the Old Dairy Gold Top (£4). Just what I needed after nearly 5 hours on my feet.
Time: 5 hours