Next time you're with a group of friends, try telling them in all seriousness that you're "off for a romp on the Heath" and watch them explode into guffaws of rapturous amusement. "What's so funny?" you plead as they slap their thighs with glee, gasp hopelessly for air and wipe tears from streaming eyes. Yes, unfortunately Hampstead Heath still carries a dubious reputation, but contrary to some of the popular belief, London's highest park is not a cruising ground for insane perverts, bush-dwelling pop stars and Conservative MPs – at least not exclusively. By day it is also a fantastic green space for normal people. Here are a few innocent ways to experience it:
It is a wonderful thing simply to get lost on Hampstead Heath – stumble aimlessly through it, select a square metre of some 320 hectares of natural beauty, lay a blanket and spread out a picnic. For many Londoners who have seen only the landscaped regal Parks of central London, it can come as quite a shock to find such a wild and rambling tract of land just 30 minutes journey from Piccadilly Circus. And it is quite possible to find your own corner which is all but entirely deserted. The geology of the Heath – both London clay and sandy soil – has produced a diverse landscape of wooded groves, rolling meadows, and natural ponds, providing countless beauty spots to enjoy a tiny triangular sandwich. For tanners and sun worshippers there are many grassy open plains to collapse upon and catch some rays such as the South End Green, or the northwest end just below the Spaniards Road.
Dip and Mix
There is of course more to do on Hampstead Heath than falling asleep under a tree. And people of an active disposition are extremely well catered for. There are three natural ponds which are reserved for swimming. The mixed bathing pond, next to South Hill Park at the most southerly point of the Heath, is the largest and busiest, but unlike the single-sex ponds, it opens only in the summer months – so bear that in mind before blowing up your armbands. More serious swimmers might try The Highgate Men's Pond or the Kenwood Ladies' Pond which attract mixed crowds of committed regulars, liberated of body, mind and very often, clothes. Following a controversial decsision last year by the Hampstead's management committee, entry to all three ponds now costs £2.
The Heath's hilly and varied terrain makes for challenging cross-country jogs. Competitive runners can join the weekly Hampstead Heath parkrun which is a 5 kilometre timed event held every Saturday at 9am.
I Behold London Wikimedia Commons
Surely the best way to absorb the magic of the Heath is to take a stroll through it. Get an Overground train to Gospel Oak, join the Heath at the south end and follow the track up Parliament Hill. It's a long and unforgiving incline which rewards you with the single most spectacular panorama of the London skyline – a protected view that takes in St Paul's and the Skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and where people congregate to stand and sigh, fly a kite, belt out a verse of Jerusalem or have a nice little sit and a biscuit. Take a moment too, to note the well out-of-date steel plan which reveals the rapid upward expansion of London by omitting half of today's notable structures, including the London Eye, the Gherkin and the Shard.
On the northeast corner of the Heath lies the mansion and grounds of Kenwood House, a grand old home of the early 17th century, pimped for modern tastes by the Scottish architect Robert Adam in 1764. Unfortunately the interior, including paintings by Rembrandt, Turner and Gainsborough, has been closed to the public until August 2013 while urgent repairs are made to the roof. However, approach on foot from the southwest via Kenwood Farm Cottage and walkers can appreciate the grand frontage of the south side as well as the landscaped surrounding lawns and garden, home to several stone sculptures and half-human monoliths.
Join the Heath at the bottom from the South End road and continue north along the path past various bird-ponds and the Mixed Swimming Pool. Weave through a copse, up a steep hill and emerge at the Viaduct Bridge and pond. Built in 1847 by the then Lord of the Manor, St Thomas Maryon Wilson, the striking brick edifice, known locally as the Red Arches, was intended to provide water to a number of homes whose construction was rightly blocked by local objectors. Pause here to admire the harmony of industry and nature or throw lumps of bread at a grebe.
Enjoyment of the Heath and its splendid views, like pretty much everything in the world, is enhanced by the consumption of ale. And fortunately, there are many notable pubs on the fringes offering refreshment for weary walkers. Emerge from the northwest corner on the Spaniards Road and follow it north to reach the Spaniards Inn. This renowned drinking establishment is one of the oldest pubs in London and boasts what must surely be the largest beer garden in the capital. Compose a little ditty on a napkin à la John Keats, who famously took inspiration here between "draughts of vintage" for his Ode to a Nightingale.
The Roebuck off the Heath Road, beside the Queen Mary's Hospital, is renowned for an easy atmosphere, sumptuous decor and two words no man can reject; Barbecue Saturdays. Finally the Southampton Arms, south of the Heath on the Highgate Road, is a charming 'old-man's pub' in London with a tremendous selection of ales and ciders from independent British breweries - two pints of the stronger varieties will get you devastatingly drunk - just don't expect legroom and no, they don't serve Fosters.