|Start: Hampstead Underground Station
|Duration: 2 Hours
|Best of Times: Daytime.
|Worst of Times: Evenings
Hampstead is a delightful village perched on a hill 440 feet (135 metres) above sea level.
There has been a settlement here for over a thousand years, and since the Middle Ages Londoners have journeyed here to escape the often disease-ridden, certainly cramped and unimaginably filthy streets in the city below.
Much of this walk centres on parts of Hampstead Heath's 800 wild acres (323.8 ha), which, thanks to a determined preservation battle fought by the local residents throughout much of the 19th century, was finally given over to "the use of the public forever" by an Act of Parliament in 1872.
All in all, the walk is a fascinating stroll through a delightfully rugged wilderness that affords some wonderful views across the London skyline.
From Hampstead Station go left along Hampstead High Street, cross over the zebra crossing, and bear left to continue ahead until the pavement swings right into Prince Arthur Road.
Number 86 on the right was the home of artist Clarkson Stanfield (1793–1867) from 1847 until his death.
At the age of 19, Stanfield was pressed into the navy for a number of years. Returning to civilian life, he became a professional designer of stage scenery, working at theatres in both London and Edinburgh. As an artist, he was renowned for his seascapes, and no less an authority than John Ruskin considered him one of the finest realists of all the English painters. Stanfield met Dickens (who came to know him as ‘Stanny’) in 1837, and the two soon became good friends. Stanfield provided illustrations for several of Dickens’s Christmas books, and painted the scenery for many of his amateur theatricals. Their only real disagreement occurred when Stanfield, a devout Roman Catholic, refused to illustrate Dickens’s Pictures From Italy (1846), on account of its satirical treatment of Catholicism. But their friendship survived and, following Stanfield’s death in 1867, Dickens paid a moving tribute to him in All The Year Round (1859), recalling how, at their last meeting, the artist ‘had laid that once so skilful hand upon the writer’s breast and told him they would meet again “but not here”… ’
Backtrack along the High Street. Go over the crossing by the post office, and bear right then left into Gayton Road, noting the Victorian ‘Penfold’ post box on the corner. Keep going, past the sturdy, late 19th-century houses, and continue ahead into Well Walk.
Go over Christchurch Hill and a little further along on the right of Well Walk pause outside:
No 40 where a plaque commemorates the artist John Constable (1770–1837). He and his family moved here in 1827, and a year later his beloved wife, Maria, developed pulmonary consumption. A friend, who came to visit shortly before her death, found that Constable was his usual ebullient self in his wife’s presence, but recalled how later, when the artist had taken him into a separate room, he burst into tears without speaking. Despite his grief, however, Constable retained his acerbic wit and, on one occasion, informed the local dairyman, ‘In future we shall feel obliged if you will send us the milk and water in separate cans.’
Continue to No 44, then cross the road and go up the steps to the side of the Chalybeate Well. Bear right and continue along Well Walk.
Cautiously cross the very busy East Heath Road, and go straight ahead onto the rough path for your first encounter with Hampstead Heath. The path becomes more rugged and rural with each step, and soon the noise of the traffic is negligible.
Around you stretch 800 acres (324 ha) of wild and untamed heath, which as well as being a playground for Londoners provides a lush habitat for an abundance of wildlife.
However, was it not for a heroic battle fought by local residents in the 19th century, Hampstead Heath would have long since disappeared beneath a concatenation of Victorian developments. In 1829, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, Lord of the Manor, attempted to push the first of several Private Acts through Parliament that would enable him to build on the heath. Local residents, led by the banker John Gurney Hoare, were outraged, and began a campaign to save the heath that would last until Sir Thomas’s death in 1869. On one occasion, Sir Thomas decided to order the planting of thousands of willows, turkey oaks and firs upon the open heath, an action that brought a howl of indignation from Dickens, who protested at ‘such violation of virgin heathland’. However, Sir Thomas’s brother and heir, John, proved more amenable to local opinion, and in 1871, sold his estates hereabouts to the Metropolitan Board of Works and the cause was won.
Keep walking straight ahead. Just before you arrive at a drinking fountain, turn left, and walk to the bridge to look down upon the lily-starred surface of Viaduct Pond.
It was one of the Hampstead Ponds that was the subject of a learned paper, presented by Mr Pickwick to the Pickwick Club entitled, ‘Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with Some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats’. What Dickens meant by ‘Tittlebats’ is anyone’s guess.
Go over the bridge. Turn left along the earth path, and bear left at the end. On arrival at a bench, strike out right across the grass and pick up the downhill path.
Go straight as it passes into the undergrowth and becomes rather muddy, veering right where the log ramp intersects from the left. Head uphill between the trees. Cross over the clearing and follow another overgrown path that emerges at the Vale of Health Pond.
Go straight across to ascend the stepped track to the left of the pond, and follow it as it forks left into the woodlands and leads to a road, along which turn right. You will pass a haphazard huddle of houses and alleyways.
These originated in 1777 when a malodorous marsh was drained and the land developed. Its original residents were sweeps and washerwomen, but by the early 19th century it had become a fashionable enclave, and more houses were added until the success of the battle to save the heath ended its expansion. Famous former residents have included D H Lawrence (1853–1930) whose home at 4 Byron Villas you pass on the right.
Carry on walking ahead, and on arrival at the heath once more, follow the road to the left, then go left past the two bollards to look over the second gate on the left, where according to the wall plaque:-
Leigh Hunt lived ‘in a cottage on this site’ from 1816 to 1821. At the time he was editor of The Examiner, which he had founded with his brother, John, in 1808, and in whose pages they championed the work of Keats, Shelley and Byron. They also used it as a vehicle for their own radical views, clashing dramatically with the Prince Regent (later George IV), whom they described as ‘a corpulent man of fifty… a violator of his word… a despiser of domestic ties… who has just closed half a century without one single claim on the gratitude of his country... ’ Called upon to refrain from further attacks, the brothers refused, and were sent to prison for two years.
Continue along the alleyway, turn right and, on re-emerging at the road, cross back onto the heath to ascend the steep uphill track.
At the end of the first incline, take the right rough path through the gorse. On arrival at a fence, veer left to head for the clearly visible main road, pausing first to look back at the view over the Vale of Health and across the London skyline.
Go left along Spaniards Road. Cross at the pedestrian crossing, swerving left then right around the war memorial. Go over the next crossing and pause outside the castellated frontage of what was once:-
Jack Straw's Castle, a favoured tavern of Dickens, who spent many a happy hour here. He once wrote to John Forster inviting him to ‘muffle yourself up and start off with me for a good brisk walk over Hampstead Heath. I knows a good ‘ous there where we can have a red-hot chop… and a glass of good wine... ’ This, wrote Forster in his life of Dickens (1872–74), ‘led to our first experience of Jack Straw’s Castle, memorable for many happy meetings in coming years’. However, the bizarre fort-like building that greets today’s visitor, which at the time of writing has been sold to a property developers for conversion into private flats, is a 1960s rebuilding of the original.
It was on the heath near to Jack Straw’s Castle that the corpse of John Sadleir MP was discovered following his suicide in 1856. This ambitious Irishman arrived in London in 1846 determined to make his fortune. Within two years he had become a Member of Parliament and was chairman of the esteemed City Bank, London and County. By 1850 he was being hailed as one of the richest men in London and enjoyed a lifestyle to match. He rose to even loftier heights in 1853 when he became a junior treasury minister. And then it all went wrong. He was sacked from the Treasury for abusing his position for his own gain. This led to his being dismissed from the bank, causing the meltdown of his largely speculative and, as it transpired, totally fraudulent empire. In February 1856, having left a note confessing that ‘I cannot live. I have ruined too many. I could not live and see that agony’, he walked to Hampstead Heath, where he poisoned himself with prussic acid.
Dickens, who genuinely despised the mushrooming and frequently corrupt speculative commerce of his age, was at the time writing Little Dorrit (1855–57), and promptly immortalized Sadleir as the crooked financier Mr Merdle ‘who was simply the greatest Forger and the greatest Thief that ever cheated the gallows’.
Turn right in front of Jack Straw’s Castle and descend the delightfully rural North End Way. You arrive at the modern redbrick building where a black plaque marks the site near which John Gurney Hoare – ‘the prime mover in the battle to save Hampstead Heath from development’ – was born.
Cross the busy road via the central bollards, and take the left path by the Hampstead Heath signboard.
Follow it as it swerves immediately right and keep ahead. At the convergence of several paths, take the left track, go down the hill and pass through the barrier onto North End Avenue. Continue ahead, absorbing the rustic ambience of this idyllic backwater, and keep going into North End, where the road soon becomes a gravel path and the buildings, though modern, blend agreeably with their surroundings.
Just after the lane sweeps right, pause on the left where, nestling in quiet seclusion beyond the gates, is:-
Old Wylde’s. It was to this picturesque, white, weatherboard cottage, known then as Collins’s Farm, that Dickens and his wife, Catherine, retreated in 1837, to spend two weeks recovering from the shock of Mary Hogarth’s death. His description of it as ‘a cottage of our own, with large gardens, and everything on a small but comfortable scale’ still holds true today.
It was to the fields hereabouts that Bill Sikes fled, having murdered Nancy in Oliver Twist, and here that ‘he laid himself down under a hedge and slept’. The rugged wildness can hardly have changed since then and, as you continue along the path, you are struck by its pastoral timelessness.
At the end of the path, bear left to descend the hill and go right along Wildwood Road. Just before it bends left, turn right past the green barrier, ascend the pathway, and at the end, turn left along Spaniards Road. Ease your way round what must be one of London’s most precarious thoroughfares, and go left into the:-
Spaniards Inn. This atmospheric, low-beamed, 16th-century hostelry is supposedly named after two Spanish brothers and joint proprietors, who argued over a woman and killed each other in a duel. Another regular haunt of Dickens, it was to the garden of Spaniards Inn that Mrs Bardell and her friends came to take tea in Pickwick Papers. Here she was arrested for debt and conveyed to the Fleet Prison by Mr Jackson of the legal firm Dodson and Fogg.
During the Gordon Riots of 1780, the rioters passed by the inn on the way to destroy Kenwood House, then the home of the Earl of Mansfield. The quick thinking landlord of the Spaniards offered them unlimited refreshment and managed to stall them long enough for the military to arrive and prevent the destruction of Kenwood.
It is here that this walk ends. You can, if you wish, make the long trek back along Spaniards Road, past Whetstone Pond and down Heath Street, to return to Hampstead Underground Station. Alternatively and highly recommended, leave the inn and continue along Hampstead Lane, where a little way along on the right is Kenwood House. This stunning heath-side villa, set in its own extensive grounds, contains the most important private painting collection ever given to the nation. From Hampstead Lane outside Kenwood, you can take buses to either Golders Green or Archway Underground stations.