Begin at Belsize Park on the Northern Line. Alternatively, you can go on up to Hampstead; this is the deepest part of the Underground system – if the lifts fail, trains don’t stop.
As you come out of Belsize Park look left down the hill and you will see a large mural on the side of the wall of the Haverstock Arms. Try a pint here here after your walk.
So, turn right and proceed up the hill. Shortly the smart, chic and exclusive shops that are Hampstead’s trade mark begin to appear. Near the brow of the hill on the left is the William IV pub. This was the centre of Hampstead’s gay community but also attracts its clientele from far and wide.
A little further used to be Woolworth’s. It has been replaced by a coffee shop but I worked there on Saturday’s on the fruit and veg. I once served Britt Ekland with a pound of apples; and illustrates the attraction of places such as this and Chelsea. You just do not know who you might bump into.
Turn right at the lights by the tube station and you encounter what the English love doing best – queuing. One of the most popular venues is the Milk Churn – long a favourite coffee bar even before it attained notoriety when the police chased an armed gunman from its premises down the hill and onto the Underground tracks.
As you once again begin your ascent there are small alleys such as Money Yard and Golden Yard, too small to fit on any but the largest scale map; but the shops are even more exclusive and make for an interesting alternative to the High Street shop.
At the top of the hill the road flattens and in the middle of a confusing traffic system is Whitestone Pond. More a huge puddle, but it seemed large when I was a small boy and went paddling in it with my friends. We later discovered that those traders that still used them, used to walk their horses through the water………!!
On the furthest corner you cannot miss Jack Straws Castle. It is named after the leader of the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. This has a very basic public bar but a superb restaurant on the top floor, commanding excellent views over the heath and consequently the London skyline. It has seen many refurbishments and currently sports the kind of weatherboarding normally found in Essex. It is also the name of a currently serving Labour MP.
Down this hill topped by Jack Straws and on the right hand side is the old Bull and Bush, popularised by the music hall song penned by Florrie Forde ‘Come, come, come and make eyes at me Down At The Old Bull & Bush’. The bull of the title alludes to a farmhouse that once stood there and the bush was a yew tree said to have been planted by the artist William Hogarth, who stayed here during the summers.
The right hand fork at Jack Straws stretches down to the Spaniards Inn. This is a fast road; and at the end narrows to a space where two large people carriers could not pass without one giving way. The pub is said to have been named after two brothers and joint landlords of Spanish origin who killed each other in a duel. Or possibly after a Spanish Ambassador who escaped there during the plague.
Either way, Dick Turpin the legendary highwayman was also known to have stayed there and stabled his horse across the road.
There have been many attempts to widen the road so as to ease the number of cars, as well as tempers; but as it is the site of a famous inn and also the site of a listed building – a toll gate – traffic congestion is likely to continue for some time yet.
At this roundabout just described above, take the path onto the heath. Once on the heath you will appreciate why open grass land in London is so sacred. Hampstead is atop one of the highest hills in London. Down below Londoners go about their business in ever increasingly higher and denser buildings. Here, the air is cleaner and the space freer. On the other side of Jack Straws is Golders Green, centre of London’s Jewish population and many times I have driven into Golders Green in drizzle to be met by bright sunshine at the top.
The heaths are free, open, and for the enjoyment of everyone. If you follow the path you encounter three more ponds. The first was known as the boating pond; for toy boats with remote controls, not the rowboat type; the second pond was the dog pond for obvious reasons and the last one for swimming and fishing.
My father was one of the idiots that had to be the first to dive in and crack the ice on New Years Day such as they do on the Serpentine in Hyde Park; this was well before London warmed up a bit. He and his brothers dived off a concrete structure that was fine as a diving board in those days but reminds me now of the bombed out shell of a hotel block in a war torn state.
Enjoy your walk over the heath. The views of London stretch out ahead. I was never too sure where, but Hampstead Heath merges into Parliament Hill Fields, where London lies below and features in many English films and TV series when they want to shoot a panoramic backdrop.
By staying on the Hampstead side the path brings you to the bottom of Hampstead at the railway station. In doing so you have crossed over fields that host Hampstead fair, a large fair that is traditionally held over Easter and other Bank and Public Holidays. It used to be the largest travelling fair but has diminished over the years. A small permanent fair is situated over to the right on the Vale of Health. Unlike Barnet (Barnet – Barnet Fair – hair) Hampstead Fair never entered into cockney rhyming slang. But Hampstead Heath has – hampstead heath rhymes with teeth (hampsteads).
At the bottom of this hill you can cheat and walk up to the Royal Free Hospital just past the cinema where there is another baffling one-way system for the benefit of motorists. My mother spent some time in and out of the Royal Free during 2001 and I can say that the view from any of the topmost floors is magnificent. If you can find an excuse to visit someone incarcerated there, then do so.
By continuing up the hill by the Royal Free you can navigate yourself back into Belsize Park Hill and to the tube station. Here you come full circle and to the Haverstock Arms.
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