Hampstead Heath

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On Hampstead Heath

Hampstead Heath is the open land on a broad, high hill in Middlesex; a vast green space amidst the metropolis, much of which is a public park much enjoyed by the residents of the surrounding towns and those from further afield. This ancient park covers 791 acres.[1]

This grassy public space sits astride a sandy ridge, one of the highest points in Middlesex, running from Hampstead to Highgate, which rests on a band of London Clay.[2] The Heath is rambling and hilly, embracing ponds, recent and ancient woodlands, a lido, playgrounds, and a training track, and it adjoins the stately home of Kenwood House and its grounds.

The south-eastern part of the Heath is Parliament Hill, whose view over London is protected by law.

The Heath has long been a popular place for local folk to walk and take the air. Running along its eastern perimeter are a chain of ponds - including three open-air public swimming pools - which were originally reservoirs built along the headwaters of the River Fleet. The Fleet has its source on the heath, its two source branches (which unite at Gospel Oak) rising at the Hampstead Ponds and Highgate Ponds, respectively in the south and the northeast of the heath.

The Heath is designated a "Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation",[3] and part of Kenwood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Lakeside concerts are held on the heath in summer.


Hampstead Heath extension towards Barnet

The Heath first entered the history books in 986 when Ethelred II ("the Unready") granted one of his servants five hides of land at "Hemstede". This same land is later recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as held by the monastery of St. Peter's at Westminster Abbey, and by then is known as the "Manor of Hampstead".[4] Westminster held the land until 1133 when control of part of the manor was released to one Richard de Balta; then during Henry II's reign the whole of the manor became privately owned by Alexander de Barentyn, the King's butler. Manorial rights to the land remained in private hands until the 1940s when they lapsed under Sir Spencer Pocklington Maryon Wilson,[5] though the estate itself was passed on to Shane Gough, 5th Viscount Gough.[4]

Over time, plots of land in the manor were sold off for building, particularly in the early 19th century, though the Heath remained mainly common land. The main part of the Heath was acquired for the people by the Metropolitan Board of Works.[6] Parliament Hill was purchased for the public for £300,000 and added to the park in 1888. Golders Hill was added in 1898 and Kenwood House and grounds were added in 1928.[7]

Until the early eighteenth century, when meetings moved to Brentford, the electors of Middlesex met on Hampstead Heath to choose the two Members of Parliament for the county; the election was held here from 1681 to 1701 and in 1836.[8]

From 1808 to 1814 Hampstead Heath hosted a station in the shutter telegraph chain which connected the Admiralty in London to its naval ships in the port of Great Yarmouth.


Corporation of London sign

The City of London Corporation has managed the Heath since 1989.[9] Before that it was managed by the Greater London Council and before that by the London County Council.

The City of London proposed to build a new road on the Heath to service their 'Masterplan' developments. The proposal met with protests from local residents and celebrities, and did not proceed.


The Heath sits astride a sandy ridge that rests on a band of London clay. It runs from east to west, its highest point being 440 feet. As the sand was easily penetrated by rainwater which was then held by the clay, a landscape of swampy hollows, springs and man-made excavations was created.[2] Hampstead Heath contains the largest single area of common land in the metropolis, with 358.1 acres (144.9 ha) of protected commons.[10]

Public transport near the Heath includes London Overground railway stations Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak and London Underground stations at Hampstead and Belsize Park to the south, Golders Green to the northwest, and Highgate and Archway to the east. Buses serve several roads around the Heath.


Hampstead Heath is an important refuge for wildlife, including muntjac deer, grass snakes, foxes, rabbits, slow worms, squirrels, terrapins and frogs.

Kingfishers, jackdaws and ring-necked parakeets, pipistrelles and Daubenton's bats may be seen over the ponds.

Areas of the Heath

Kenwood House false bridge

The Heath's 790.7 acres (320.0 ha) include a number of distinct areas. "Boudicca's Mound", near the present men's bathing pond, is a tumulus where, according to local legend, Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) was buried after she and 10,000 Iceni warriors were defeated at Battle Bridge.[11] However earlier drawings and paintings of the area show no mound other than a 17th-century windmill.

In the southeast of the Heath, on the southern slopes of Parliament Hill, is the Gospel Oak Lido, an open-air swimming pool, with a running track and fitness area to its north.

Highgate and Hampstead Ponds

A pond on Hampstead Heath

There are over 25 ponds on Hampstead Heath, mostly collected in two distinct areas. On the east (Highgate) side is a series of eight former reservoirs (known as Highgate Ponds) originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries.[12] These include two single-sex swimming pools (the men's and ladies' bathing ponds), a model boating pond, a wildlife reserve pond and a fishing lake.

In the south-west corner of the Heath, towards South End Green, are three further ponds (known as Hampstead Ponds), one of which is the 'mixed pond', where both sexes may swim. These ponds are the result of the damming in 1777 of Hampstead Brook, one of the sources of the Fleet River, by the Hampstead Water Company which had been formed in 1692 to meet London's growing water demands.[2]

In 2004 the City of London Corporation, which manages the Heath, tried to close the ponds on the grounds that they were an unsustainable expense and posed a health risk to swimmers. The swimmers challenged this and won in the High Court. To defray costs, the Corporation introduced a charge for swimmers of £2 per session, £1 for concessions. There was some opposition to this and some of the ticket machines were vandalized.[13]

In January 2011 the City of London announced a scheme which it says will improve the safety of the dams in the event of a very rare storm which it says may happen once every 10,000 years.

Caen Wood Towers

To the north east of the Heath is a derelict site within the conservation area comprising the grounds and mansion of the former Caen Wood Towers (renamed Athlone House in 1972). This historic building, currently in disrepair, was built in 1872 for Edward Brooke, aniline dye manufacturer (architect, Edward Salomons). In 1942 the building was taken for war service by the Royal Air Force and was used to house the RAF Intelligence School, although the 'official' line was that it was a convalescence hospital. The Operational Record (Form 540) of RAF Station Highgate (currently in the National Archives, Kew) was declassified in the late 1990s and shows the true role of this building in wartime service. The building sustained 2 near misses from V-1 flying bombs in late 1944, causing damage and injuries to staff. The RAF Intelligence School remained in Caen Wood Towers until 1948, when the building was handed over to the Ministry of Health. It was then used as a hospital and finally a post-operative recovery lodge, before falling into disrepair in the 1980s. The NHS sold off this part of their estate in 2004 to a private businessman who is currently redeveloping much of the site; however the House and its gardens fall within the conservation area of Hampstead Heath.

Parliament Hill Fields

Main article: Parliament Hill

Parliament Hill Fields lies on the south and east of the Heath; it was officially recognised as part of the Heath in 1888. The Fields contain various sporting facilities including an athletics track, tennis courts and Parliament Hill Lido.[14]

Parliament Hill itself is considered by some to be the focal point of the Heath,[15] with the highest part of it known to some as "Kite Hill" because of its popularity for flying kites.[16] The hill is 321.9 feet (98.1 m) high and is noted for the excellent 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, parts of which are protected views.

The main staff yards for the management of the Heath are located at Parliament Hill Fields.[9]


Main article: Kenwood House

Kenwood House

The area to the north of the Heath is the Kenwood Estate and House - a total area of 123.6 acres (50.0 ha) which is maintained by English Heritage. This became part of the Heath when it was bequeathed to the nation by Edward Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh on his death in 1927, and opened to the public in 1928.

One third of the estate (Ken Wood and North Wood) is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated by Natural England.[17][18] It is home to many birds and insects and the largest pipistrelle bat roost in London.

The original house dates from the early 17th century. The orangery was added in about 1700.

The popular summer lakeside concerts, which started in 1951, ceased in February 2007 after complaints from some local residents.[19] However, the return of the concerts was announced in March 2008 after English Heritage agreed a number of changes with Camden Council, notably with regard to noise levels.[20]

The Vale of Health

The Vale of Health

The Vale of Health is a hamlet (named "Hatchett's Bottom" until 1801) accessed by a lane from East Heath Road; it is surrounded entirely by the Heath.


The Extension is an open space to the north-west of the main heath. It does not share the history of common and heathland of the rest of the Heath. Instead it was created out of farmland, largely due to the efforts of Henrietta Barnett who went on to found Hampstead Garden Suburb. Its farmland origins can still be seen in the form of old field boundaries, hedgerows and trees.

Golders Hill Park

Golders Hill Park is a formal park adjoining the West Heath. It occupies the site of a large house that was bombed during Second World War. It has an expanse of grass, with a formal flower garden a duck pond and a separate water garden that leads to a separate area for deer, near a recently renovated small zoo. The zoo has donkeys, maras, ring-tailed lemurs, ring-tailed coatis, white-cheeked turacos and European Eagle Owls among other animals. There are also tennis courts, a butterfly house and a putting green.

Unlike the rest of the Heath, Golders Hill Park is fenced in, and is closed at night.

Hampstead Heath Constabulary

The "Hampstead Heath Constabulary" consists of twelve constables, four with trained General Purpose police dogs all licensed to ACPO/Home Office standards. They have been responsible for patrolling the Heath 24 hours a day since 1992.[21]

They are attested as constables under Article 18 of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government Provisional Order Confirmation (Greater London Parks and Open Spaces) Act 1967 before a City of London magistrate. This authorises them to enforce the Hampstead Heath bylaws. They enjoy full powers of a constable in relation to the bylaws and legislation of open spaces when in their jurisdiction of the Heath and have a good working partnership with the Metropolitan Police, who deal with actual criminal offences.

Given the regrettable abuse of the public space of the heath by some individuals, the constabulary is needed, though not as effective as one might wish after hours.


The Heath is home to a range of activities, including 16 different sports.[9] It is used by walkers, runners, swimmers and kite-flyers, and is regarded as the home of cross-country running in Britain.[9] There is an annual 5000 metres run through the Heath organised by Umbrella,[22] and until February 2007 Kenwood held a series of popular lakeside concerts.

Swimming takes place all year round in two of the three natural swimming ponds: the men's pond which opened in the 1890s, and the ladies' pond which opened in 1925. The mixed pond is only open from May to September, though it is the oldest, having been in use since the 1860s.[23]

Facilities include an athletics track, a pétanque pitch, a volleyball court and eight separate children's play areas including an adventure playground.[9]


Many fine paintings have been executed showing the heath and its views out over the townscape of Middlesex. John Atkinson Grimshaw, a Victorian era painter, painted an elaborate night-time scene of Hampstead Hill in oils.

Hampstead Heath was featured on the television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of the London area, with a focus on Parliament Hill to the south. The episode was presented by Bill Oddie, who lives in nearby Gospel Oak, and watches birds there regularly.

On film

The Heath frequently appears in films, amongst which:

  • "Les Bicyclettes de Belsize" (1968) was mainly filmed in Hampstead Village, and Belsize Park.
  • It (1990), an adaptation of the book by Stephen King, featured a fictional American writer who takes up residence at Hampstead Heath.
  • Notting Hill (1999) featured scenes shot on the Heath, primarily around Kenwood House, where Julia Roberts's character was making a film.
  • Scenes of a Sexual Nature (2006) was shot entirely on Hampstead Heath.

In books

The Woman in White by the Victorian Gothic writer Wilkie Collins has Hampstead Heath as the backdrop for the opening scene in novel.

GK Chesterton's The Innocence of Father Brown has Hampstead Heath as part of the location for the story The Blue Cross.[24]

The Book of Dave, a novel by Will Self (2006), has Hampstead Heath as its main location. Half of the book is set 500 years in the future, when all of London has been submerged by a catastrophic flood, leaving only the hilltops of Hampstead and the Heath as a tiny island - The Island of Ham. The parts of the book set in the present-day also make references to the Heath's high and dry location which would preserve the area in the event of sea level rises over 300 feet. Self writes, "...the Heath...this peculiar island, a couple of square miles of woodland and meadow set down in the lagoon of the city."[25]

The Strange Case of the Murder in Wax, a radio story written by Denis Green and Anthony Boucher and broadcast on 7 January 1946, featured a murderer who killed women on Hampstead Heath.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther, includes a chapter called "On Hampstead Heath", where actions take place.[26]

Smiley's People by John LeCarre (1979) has a crucial event at the beginning of the novel on Hampstead Heath, which is also the site of subsequent investigations.[27] These scenes are also depicted in the BBC mini-series of the same name (1982).



"Gherkin" ┐
┌ Tower 42
┌ St Paul's
London Eye ┐
┌ BT Tower

Wide view of London from Parliament Hill

View of London from Parliament Hill

Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Hampstead Heath)

Coordinates: 51°33′47″N 0°10′6″W / 51.56306°N 0.16833°W / 51.56306; -0.16833


  1. David Bentley (Last modified: 12 February 2010). "City of London Hampstead Heath". City of London. http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/Corporation/LGNL_Services/Environment_and_planning/Parks_and_open_spaces/Hampstead_Heath/. Retrieved 13 March 2010. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Hampstead - Hampstead Heath
  3. "Hampstead Heath". Greenspace Information for Greater London. 2006. http://www.gigl.org.uk/igigl/siteDetails.aspx?sID=M072&sType=sinc. Retrieved 9 September 2012. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Hampstead - Manor and Other Estates
  5. thePeerage.com - Person Page 7102
  6. Thompson, Hampstead, 130, 165, 195, 317-18, 329- 30; G.L.R.O., E/MW/H, old no. 27/15 (sales parts. 1875).
  7. The London Encyclopaedia, Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 1983, ISBN 0-333-57688-8
  8. 'Hampstead: Hampstead Heath', A History of the County of Middlesex: Volume 9: Hampstead, Paddington (1989), pp. 75-81
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Hampstead Heath
  10. "Common Land and the Commons Act 2006". Defra. 13 November 2012. http://www.defra.gov.uk/rural/protected/commons/. Retrieved 3 February 2013. 
  11. London, Rob Humphreys, Rough Guides Ltd, 2004, ISBN 978-1-84353-316-0
  12. Hampstead Heath
  13. London Pools Campaign: Save the Ponds Campaign
  14. Camden Council: Contact Parliament Hill Fields
  15. BBC - Seven Wonders - Parliament Hill
  16. Hampstead Heath - Sightseeing, Areas & Squares
  17. Natural England, Map of Hampstead Heath Woods SSSI
  18. Natural England, Hampstead Heath Woods citation
  19. End of an Era for Kenwood House Concerts
  20. IMG and English Heritage announce stunning line up for Kenwood House Picnic Concerts
  21. untitled
  22. Umbrella - Working For Positive Mental Health
  23. Greater London Authority - Press Release.
  24. The Innocence of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton
  25. Self, Will (2006). The Book of Dave. Penguin. p. 161. ISBN 978-0-14-101454-8. 
  26. Struther, Jan (1939). Mrs. Miniver. Pocket Books, Inc. p. 33. 
  27. Le Carre, John. Smiley's People=1979. Hodder & Stoughton (UK) & Random House (USA. ISBN ISBN 0-340-24704-5 (UK hardback edition) & ISBN 0-394-50843-2 (US hardback edition). 


  • Hampstead Heath: Its Geology and Natural History. Prepared under the Auspices of the Hampstead Scientific Society with 3 maps (pull-out) and 11 plates, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1913
  • Weinreb, Ben; Hibbert, Christopher (2010). The London Encyclopaedia. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1405049252. 
  • Hewlett, Janet (1997). Nature Conservation in Barnet. London Ecology Unit. ISBN 1 871045 27 4.