The Heath. Photo: Andy Sewell, text: Katy Evans-Bush (1/5)

Photo © Andy Sewell

Time was when Hampstead was a happy hunting-ground for lurking footpads and half-masked highwaymen. Coaches were stopped and rifled on the roads that crossed or skirted the famous Heath, while hapless pedestrians were not infrequently stripped of money and jewels and left dead or well nigh strangled under the bushes. The daring outlaws guilty of such crimes were, after capture and trial at the Old Bailey, strung up to prominent trees on the Heath and kept dangling there till their skins were “crackling in the sun.”

There was an earlier time, fully seven centuries ago, when all Hampstead was so infested with wolves that the pioneer settlers on its wild heights dare not venture out across the Heath after dark; and geologists tell us that farther back still far back in prehistoric ages the whole Thames valley was a vast arm of the sea, and the higher ridges of Hampstead, that are to this day thickly coated with a soft, silvery sea-sand, may have formed part of an ancient beach that was foam-whitened and deserted daily by the incoming and the outgoing tides.

Out of these mists of conjecture and tradition Hampstead materialises, clothes itself with history, and grows in size and definite importance as a very popular and fashionable health and pleasure resort; an importance that, with certain modifications, it retains to this day. By the year 1698 its chalybeate springs had become so famous for their medicinal qualities that the waters were sold by the flask at apothecaries’ shops and at Coffee Houses in Fleet Street and Charing Cross, while physicians sent their patients out to lodgings in the village of Hampstead that they might drink at the Wells daily and enjoy the benefit of the purer air of the locality. It presently came to pass, therefore, that a Pump Room and Assembly Rooms were established in Well Walk, and Hampstead competed successfully with Bath and Tunbridge as a health resort for wealthy and fashionable invalids and idlers.

from Some Hampstead Memories, by Mary Adams
Priory Press 1909

To this day, Hampstead Heath exists out of time. Certain times lie very heavy on it; we feel the 18th and 19th centuries all over it, but that is because of the houses, the personalities who still help to define London for us – Leigh Hunt, Keats, Dr Johnson – and because we simply know more about the more recent times. In some way, though, the other times all still co-exist up there on those hills over London. On some days you can even feel the wolves. Maybe, “up where the air is clear” (as they said in Mary Poppins) you can not only see further across, but feel further back. In fact, it is like the way time stands utterly still to a person lying suspended in water, alone, surrounded by nothing but trees and sky, on a summer day. All heaviness vanishes: the world stops its ceaseless dragging, and only the water, the sky, the summer day – and Hampstead Heath – remain.

… for the London Column. © Katy Evans Bush 2011

Andy Sewell’s book The Heath may be purchased here.