As it was a bright sunny day today, not at all cold, I decided to pay a visit to Hampstead in NW London. I used to go there often but haven’t been for a while and it’s a pleasant place to go on a bright day.
You can get to Hampstead by bus but it is a slightly tedious journey from Angel and the best way to go, in my opinion is by tube. Here’s where you arrive, at the station that is today called “Hampstead” but was once known as “Heath Street”.
Hampstead sits on a stiff slope near the top of a hill. For this reason, its tube station has the deepest lift shaft on the Underground, at 55.2m or 181 feet. To cover this distance quickly, the lift accelerates noticeably as it starts. Going down you feel your stomach rise and on the upward journey your feet push against the floor!
I have some appreciation of the distance travelled because I once became impatient waiting for the lift and took to the stairs. It was like being alone in another world, a vertical world stretching to infinity in either direction!
There are at least three famous pubs in Hampstead, though many would extend my list. Sticking to the area around the tube station, I include The Flask, in Flask Walk, The Horse and Groom, in Heath Street, and the Holly Bush, in Holly Rise.
I have been in other Hampstead pubs, but these three hold special memories for me, especially The Horse and Groom, where I occasionally met up with a colleague who became a friend but who died some time ago. He once gave me a copy of Bertrand Russell’s collection of essays, Mysticism and Logic, which I still have. It’s rather sad that the building is no longer a pub.
Hampstead High Street is urban in its traffic flow but has something of the village about it. Life there is a little bit more relaxed than on most high streets as the cafe culture testifies. There is probably a higher concentration of coffee shops here than in most high streets even in newly coffee-conscious Britain.
In the outer reaches, especially where it borders Hampstead Heath, it almost becomes an archetypal leafy suburb.
Hampstead always was one of the more “exclusive” of the villages of which outer London consists. In the early days of urbanization, the horse trams couldn’t climb the steep hill, effectively shutting out the working classes who had to find lodgings lower down in Kentish Town and Somers Town.
This is less true today, perhaps, now that the tube and the motor bus have penetrated the fortress, but there is still plenty of money and privilege to be found. You don’t need to search for it: it jumps out at you. This house with splendid gilded gates, an old merchant’s house, is Fenton House, now owned by the National Trust and can be visited. I photographed this in preference to private homes because I found that I and my camera were attracting hostile stares from residents. Maybe they thought I was casing their houses to burgle them.
Heath Street leads up the hill to what is said to be the highest point in London, marked by Whitestone Pond.
Now called Whitestone, this body of water used to be called the Horse Pond because the military watered horses here. Military horses are rarely seen here now but generations of children have floated toy boats on it and even ventured to paddle in it. I heard that during WWII, the military used it to test amphibious vehicles.
In case you are wondering, this isn’t one of the famous open-air bathing ponds. They are on Hampstead Heath and bathing still continues, rather surprisingly in this age obsessed with health and safety.
Heath Street, the long road that gave Hampstead tube station its original name, takes us down from Whitestone Pond to Hampstead High Street. Looking at my photo, you might think it is a quiet street. You can hardly imagine that just around the corner is a busy high street. This is because I waited a long time for a moment when there were no vehicles rushing up or down the hill.
There are quiet streets in Hampstead, of course, though most of us couldn’t afford to live in them.
To end my visit, I did some cafe-culturing myself. I chose the Coffee Cup Cafe, where I had previously been with Tigger, and I enjoyed two cups of very good coffee. You might think from the photo that it was early in the morning but no, it was around midday. Where was everybody?
The answer is that today was such a fine day with clear blue sky and bright sun, that all the customers were sitting at tables outside. Only I came inside because I wanted a quiet place where I could email Tigger and write some of this blog.