Hampstead Heath: Nature, Art and Artifice
London’s famous Tube isn’t always synonymous with Underground. To get to Hampstead Heath I take the Overground line. The view is revealing. A seemingly endless repetition of rooftops and apartment complexes, punctuated with the occasional church spire and vacant lot. Graffiti along the tops of buildings like friezes on the Parthenon. Said friezes, of course, are housed, controversially, in the British Museum here in London.
I alight at the Hampstead Heath station. Delicate plantlike forms are baked onto the ceramic tile wall of the platform. What is the nature of nature? I head out to find the reality suggested by this abstraction.
A friendly fruit and vegetable vendor on the street corner directs me towards the Heath. I walk uphill along the gently curving, tree-lined sidewalk. On one side is an unpainted wooden fence, green with age and mold. On the other is a street lined with tidy brick buildings, with ground floor shops. The narrow path doesn’t prepare me for the expanse of parkland I soon reach.
It seems traditional enough for an urban park. Though the landscape opens up the path remains narrow, runs between a parking lot and a duck pond named simply Hampstead No. 1 Pond. South Hill Mansions, a wall of private residences, faces towards the park across the pond. The sky is overcast and the temperature hasn’t risen significantly. Nevertheless, there are plenty of people out in the park. Joggers pass me by in both directions. I pass mothers pushing strollers. A young boy in a rain slicker and backpack feeds two swans. A crowd of familiar mallards and unfamiliar tufted ducks quickly assembles around the swans.
I’ve come on the recommendation of several people who’ve been here and know my predilection for urban wilderness. My guidebook is also enticing. Hampstead Heath: “One of the few places in the big city that feels properly wild; it’s a fantastic place to lose yourself on a rambling wander.” Game on, I think. Then I wonder which way to go and what Frommer means by “properly wild.”
I strike out along Pryors Field towards the East Heath, which the map shows to be a large woodland. Before long it is clear that this park is indeed wilder than Greenwich Park or any other I’ve yet encountered here in London.
I am attracted to a wide slough, wet from yesterday’s rain. A large tree stands in the middle of an opening in the wood. Enormous boughs extend outward in all directions like an excited terrestrial octopus. I almost expect it to move it seems so animated.
Two professional dog walkers head across the slough. They are dressed for the unseasonable weather and swampy conditions. Colorful hoodies stick out of parkas; waterproof pants; knee length rubber boots. Ten dogs of all sizes and a variety of breeds fan out around them. Eight are straining at leashes. Two range freely back and forth around the entourage. Several sport doggie sweaters. Two dark, elegant Mini Pinschers look particularly regal in royal red felt coats. The unruly pack is moving at a steady clip and I soon trail behind.
A multigenerational family is gathered underneath one of the giant trees. They are peering down at something at the base of it on the side facing away from the trail. After they move on I investigate and find two small holes leading underground and into the tree. Before that, as I approach, I overhear one, who appears to be the Grandmother, exclaim to the two children, “Oh, look! Just like Alice in Wonderland.” Then after a moment of reflection, perhaps anticipating a similar discovery in some unknown future without adult supervision, she adds, “If ever you do find a hole that’s big enough, don’t go down it!” Reading Lewis Carroll’s famous fantasy is all well and good, but I guess life is not supposed to imitate art in quite so precise a fashion.
The family moves on to another tree nearby. This one is even larger in girth and the six of them ring it, stretching their arms to reach all the way around. They make it—barely—and I am reminded of some of the ancient trees in Greenwich Park that would have been too large.
The park is thoroughly interwoven with trails. The more “properly wild” parts—briar patches and dense thickets of understory—are not exempt. Even on a day that is both dreary and (still) unseasonably cold, there are many people out and about. This week is a school holiday, too, which means there are more families and children in the park.
Two mothers stand by watching as three boys and two girls use a fallen tree as a jungle gym. The youngest, a girl of about 7, follows an older sister a bit too far up a limb and calls out to be rescued by the mom.
My rambling wander takes me through woodlands broken here and there with small meadows. Paths crisscross in every direction. In most places the woodlands are quite open, with little in the way of understory. I come upon a “fort” of large dead branches leaning like a teepee against the twisted trunk of a tree quite out in the open. Kids will be kids. It’s reassuring to see that English kids take the same delight in this simple pleasure that I see in my own local park.
Suddenly, in the middle of it all, I am surprised to be confronted with an iron fence and can proceed no further until I have followed it around a corner. There I discover a gate and a map. The map reveals my location at the Hampstead Gate entrance to Kenwood Estate, a park within a park.
Walking through the gate feels like entering a separate realm. There is an eerie stillness in the landscape, which also feels close, confined. At first I can’t quite put my finger on why, for it hasn’t been windy before this. Then I realize that there are no people about. The sensation is odd, as I have gotten used to seeing multitudes nearly everywhere in London. Even the joggers who pass at frequent intervals elsewhere in the heath are absent. It is almost as if I’ve stepped through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. There is a dark pall in this new forest. It isn’t my imagination. The trees here are in full leaf, unlike the rest of the park where the late spring has yet to bring even buds.
I am in the South Wood, one of two ancient forests of Kenwood. For all the luxuriance of foliage and solitude the forest has a curiously ambiguous relationship with the wild. It is not crisscrossed with innumerable paths, as elsewhere in the park. The reason is simple. Unpainted wooden fences with narrow pickets define the official trails to enforce preservation of the relative wilds on either side. The fences reduce the semblance of wilderness to the quality of a museum diorama or a modern zoo enclosure minus its wildlife.
Added to this already surreal combination are numerous green tubes, like mortar barrels from an abandoned military campaign, which stand in irregular ranks throughout the forest. The seedlings they protect will eventually outgrow them, of course. Meanwhile, the science and utilitarian exigencies of forestry are not without aesthetic implications. Once more, nature and art are not so easily distinguished.
On the other hand, the North and South Woods at Kenwood are identified as “ancient woods at least 400 years old and may represent a continuous woodland cover, present since prehistoric times.” I marvel at the idea that I am rambling amongst such venerable trees.
The map points me in the direction of Kenwood House, a neo-Classical country estate designed by Robert Adam in the 18th Century. The guidebook tells me it now houses, along with period furniture, a remarkable collection of paintings, including—yes! Turner—and “Frans Hals, Gainsborough, Reynolds, and more.” I learn later that there is an important Rembrandt self-portrait here, too. Curious omission, Frommer!
I am thrilled by the prospect of thus discovering art amongst nature. But long before I get close to the house I can see that I am to be disappointed. From far off it is clear that the house is entirely enclosed, as if in a shroud. No part of the façade is exposed. Life inadvertently imitates art, for this shrouded monument echoes, at least for me, Christo’s wrapped Reichstag in Berlin. An exoskeleton of scaffolding doesn’t destroy the impression.
The interior is being renovated along with the exterior and so I am denied the pleasure of seeing the paintings as well as the architecture. I must satisfy myself with a solitary Henry Moore bronze. This “Two Piece Reclining Figure, No. 5” is solitary in more than one way. The only outdoor sculpture in the vicinity, “she” overlooks a vast open field identified as the “Pasture Ground.” Moore varied his treatment of the figure, of course. This figure is not recognizably female, though one can assume it based on other more representational versions. Indeed, “she” is scarcely recognizable as human, Moore accomplishing in bronze what the magician only suggests when slicing an assistant in two. The two bulky forms appear more similar to rocky outcroppings than human anatomy. The figure is objectified to the point where is to more akin to some “natural” feature of the landscape than to a human being, let alone an individual person. Kirk Varnedoe asserts, in his treatise Pictures of Nothing, “Abstract art absorbs projection and generates meaning ahead of naming.” An intriguing explanation of the power of abstraction. If true, however, then by naming it Moore forces an interpretation of his sculpture that may not match one’s first impression of it, especially when one encounters it out here in the landscape.
Similarly, where a construction contractor has erected utilitarian scaffolding, I see abstraction imposed onto the named structure of Kenwood House, which sits in uneasy alliance with its pastoral landscape.
Art and artifice derive from the same Latin root. Their meanings continue to overlap. Turning away from the shrouded, temporarily abstracted Kenwood House, I spy across the curiously named “Thousand Pound Pond” what appears to be a bridge. Two short spans flank a wider central one and the whole thing is topped with a balustrade. It is painted stark, Classical white that seems almost to glow on this gloomy day. Unaware that it is called “Sham Bridge” and for good reason, I make my way around a thicket behind it in order to take advantage of the view from the bridge. Except there is no bridge. It is a conceit, a visual folly, designed to be viewed from the terrace or lawn, creating the illusion that the pond extends farther into the wood. Artifice and abstraction.
My rambling wander has absorbed several hours and I still haven’t seen the view of downtown London touted by my guidebook. But as I exit the forest of Kenwood there it is in front of me. The sky is low overhead but it is clear enough to make out the towers through the haze. The only one I can identify is Renzo Piano’s tapering skyscraper. Commonly known as the Shard, it is the tallest building not only in the UK but also in the EU. From here on Parliament Hill, however, the trees in the hedgerow under which I stand dwarf it and all of downtown.
Having nearly completed a circuit that brings me back to the mansions of South Hill Park. A stout brick wall ensures privacy. My attention is immediately drawn, however, to the brightly painted door set into the wall. How wonderful it must be to live in London and to have all of Hampstead Heath for a backyard. And for the third time in one afternoon I am transported by my experience of urban nature into the world of literature, for this doorway that leads out of someone’s private dwelling turns this magnificent heath into an immense secret garden. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s lines from her famous story ring true to me here:
“The Secret Garden was what Mary called it when she was thinking of it. She liked the name, and she liked still more the feeling that when its beautiful old walls shut her in no one knew where she was. It seemed almost like being shut out of the world in some fairy place. The few books she had read and liked had been fairy-story books, and she had read of secret gardens in some of the stories. Sometimes people went to sleep in them for a hundred years, which she had thought must be rather stupid. She had no intention of going to sleep, and, in fact, she was becoming wider awake every day which passed at Misselthwaite.”
Although it is far from secret, I, like Mary, find myself refreshed and alert after wandering my way through Hampstead Heath.
Additional photos of Hampstead Heath and London are posted on my flickr page.
To read other posts from London, click here.
To read other posts from London, click here.