June in London: generally, if it isn’t raining, it’s pouring. But once in a great while a perfect day will come along – and if there’s one thing Londoners know how to do, it’s take advantage of a rare moment of sunshine. They fill every available green space with their beach blankets and iPads, risking sunburn and even playing hooky from work just to soak up a little vitamin D. But even in Hyde Park, central London’s largest green space, the oppressive crowds and noise of the city pervade. For a real countryside feel, escape up the Northern Line to Hampstead Heath instead.
Peace and Quiet in Hampstead
Arriving at Hampstead Station, visitors headed for the Heath need simply turn left and meander down Hampstead High Street. Admire the posh boutiques, stately homes and slower Sunday-afternoon pace of the neighbourhood before turning right into lovely Pilgrim Lane and following fellow travelers into the gradually growing green space of Hampstead Heath’s southern end. Entering from this direction explorers will find rolling hills covered in long grass. It’s a lovely walk, amid the tall reeds and lush trees that dot the landscape, but beware dropping anchor here if prone to hives or hay fever. Wait for the tamer lawns of Kenwood. Climb to the top for some lovely city views, and then head down the far side of the hill toward Kenwood House.
An old and sprawling manor, now an English Heritage site, the house is charming inside and out; but, if lucky enough to be experiencing the Heath on a sunny day, visitors are advised to skip the museum. It’s nothing that isn’t available in the city proper – and the English sun is all too rare. Enjoy the grounds instead: manicured lawns, shady archways of ivy, the sounds of playing children muted by the sheer space involved. There is even an outdoor amphitheatre (Rufus Wainwright is due to appear this week – more information on summer events can be found here). The House closes at four, but the grounds generally stay open past eight o’clock. Sunbathe, sit in the sun with a book or magazine – or even take this time away from city life to simply sit and be.
Kenwood has a lovely little restaurant, and there are several ice cream vendors nearby at any given time. There are also public water fountains dotted throughout the Heath at large, and if it gets really hot, find the nearest bathing pond and jump right in. You’ll find yourself surrounded by Londoners a little friendlier than their workaday selves, the quiet on the Heath a more companionable one than the strict silence on the weekday Underground.
The paths surrounding Kenwood and the ponds are a taste of nothing so much as Western Canada, with their dark green shade and uneven ground. Some of them will be quite abandoned even on a sunny weekend afternoon, and it is easy to imagine oneself a good deal further away than the short tube ride back to central London. Rather than backtracking, see as much as possible of this delightful park by exiting out the parking area behind Kenwood House. There is a bus stop just across the street from the gates, and the number 210 bus transports exhausted, happy sunbathers down to Archway Underground Station in Islington.
The Quietude of Highgate
Douglas Adams fans, or those who simply appreciate a beautiful view, may wish to get off the bus on Highgate Hill, a short walk north of Archway, and stop at Waterlow Park to round off their day. Adams frequented the area, which is lovely, and his grave can be found at the park’s far end, in Highgate East Cemetery, along with centuries of honoured Londoners great and small. Graves hundreds of years old are overgrown with ivy and daffodils, and any sign of the modern city is blocked by stately trees even older. Visitors can linger here in quiet meditation, considering the history beneath their feet. Here more than any other place within the city limits true quiet can be found, with nary a whisper to be heard as locals and tourists alike are overcome with the hush of this old and venerable space.
Wandering the wilds of North London it is easy to lose track of time and space, imagining oneself back in the city’s earlier and, some would say, more civilized days. The quiet, the open fields, and the friendly faces are reminscent of a London that is hard to hold on to in the weekday bustle of the modern city. But visitors should be sure to bring at least one small bit of modernity with them – a camera. Photographs taken on the Heath and in the surrounding streets and parks, not to mention the cemetery at Highgate, are always picturesque – and those lucky enough to be in the area on a sunny day will take away solid proof that the mental and physical fog of London does, on occasion, lift, and reveal the lovely and dignified city beneath.