Return to Hampstead Heath

beech and oak

Every time I stay in London, I pay a visit to Hampstead Heath—which, despite its name, is in fact more like what we Yanks would call a forest with a few large meadows (while many of the historical “forests” around the UK are, I gather, more like heaths).

hollow oak

It’s only a short train ride away from where I’m staying, and it’s home to many grand old trees, some of which look as if they’ve been around since the days of Ethelred the Unready.

The Heath first entered the history books in 986 when Ethelred 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”. 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, though the estate itself was passed on to Shane Gough, 5th Viscount Gough.

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. 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.

fence and plane trees

Even the London plane trees lining the walkway in from the train station are venerable.

Hampstead beech 3

The above beech was almost completely dead in 2011, so we were lucky to see it still standing. Most trees in the Heath are allowed to stay where they fall, unless they block a path, and it’s fun to see the changes from one visit to the next.

yellow lichen

The understorey isn’t as healthy as it could be, due to—I’m guessing—a combination of too much human foot traffic and over-grazing by deer. But a few patches have been fenced off now, presumably to allow for seedling recruitment, and it seems to be working. Which is good, because there’s nothing more tragic than a beautiful old-growth forest with no future.

autumn bridge

I’ve visited the Heath in the spring and summer, but this was my first visit in late autumn. It was fun to try and guess British trees by bark alone.


But not knowing for sure is a bit freeing, actually, allowing me to focus on aesthetics. While I was admiring this ivy-draped tree, a European robin popped out of the ivy and cocked his head at me, though sadly he buggered off before I could get a decent photo of him.


A favorite oak from a previous visit.

beech cave

One hollow beech is so enormous, you could almost live inside—and judging from the polishing, it looks as if large numbers of children have tried.


Not all the cool trees are big in diameter, though multi-stem birches like this can have roots that date back hundreds if not thousands of years and just keep throwing up new stems as the old ones die.


I’m not sure what this round cottage was built for. This was the first we’d seen it, so it’s a good reminder that there’s still a lot of the Heath we have yet to explore.

Happy egg, happy Dave #tw

The dog was thirsty after a couple of hours wandering the Heath, so of course we had to stop at the pub across from the station. It turned out they had Scotch eggs as well—a good way to end the afternoon. (Photo by Rachel.)

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