Hampstead's high on the list of London's most enticing neighbourhoods, and is always good for a visit. The High Street has a bohemian vibe, the backstreets are gorgeous and the Heath is extensively explorable. But if your day out needs a little extra, Hampstead is also home to half a dozen historic houses... just don't try to do them all in one go.
A fine old house on the higher side of town, Fenton House is a treasure trove of ephemera amid a gorgeous garden. Its last owner, Lady Binning, loved to collect porcelain of dubious artistic value, and the National Trust have used this as an excuse to cram the house with more porcelain, period tapestries and keyboard instruments. "If you hurry upstairs," said the guide at the door, "the harpsichords are about to kick off." The garden is on the large side for Hampstead, and exquisite, with an upper terrace and a lower orchard/vegetable garden which don't initially appear to be connected. At present the house and garden are overrun with middle class off-school children, and this weekend sees the annual Egg Hunt Weekend so stay well away, but avoid the holidays and Fenton is a truly genteel treat.
At the heart of chalybeate Hampstead, Burgh House was rescued by local residents in the 1970s before it could be sold off as yet another private dwelling. They established a museum upstairs to tell Hampstead's story, filling two rooms, and later added an art gallery round the back. The main display doesn't change much, so they keep visitors coming back with additional exhibitions, which at present include a lovely paean to The Ponds on the Heath. Keeping the place ticking over is expensive, so the fact that weddings are booked every Saturday until next year really helps, plus what people really come for isn't the museum but the basement cafe. Its terrace teems with local life, politely poised over coffee and cake, but do step beyond to the enjoy the collection.
Admission £7.50 (free to Art Pass holders, half price NT members, £2 Camden residents)
Opens at 11am (closed Mondays, Tuesdays) [website][blog report, 2011]
This is the poetic/dreamy one.
The creative high point of John Keats' tragically short life came during his brief stay in Hampstead, precisely 200 years ago. In 1818 he took lodgings with his publisher on the edge of the Heath, in April 1819 the love of his life moved in nextdoor, and in 1820 tuberculosis struck and off he sailed to Italy. The house is now Keats House in Keats Grove, adjacent to Keats Community Library, and is operated as a visitor attraction by the City of London. It's very well done, essentially in setting an atmosphere because not much survives of Keats time' here other than letters and of course those odes. Sit here, listen to this, read these, and stand in the actual rooms where he wrote and slept. With three storeys-worth to explore and several bicentenary events planned, now is a great time to visit (just not next week when the house is closed for maintenance).
2 Willow Road
Admission £8.00 (free to NT members, joint ticket with Fenton House, £14.50)
First tour at 11am, explore independently from 3pm (closed Mondays, Tuesdays) [website][full-on blog report, 2012]
This is the modernist/architectural one.
Hampstead's long had a creative left-leaning bent, so was the obvious place for Hungarian architect Ernö Goldfinger to build a house. Neighbours protested at his plan to replace a row of cottages with a box on concrete stilts, but today his home is thought worthy enough to be protected by the National Trust. Come early and you'll need to join a tour, kicking off with a seriously retro 1996 documentary in the garage, then following your guide up the spiral stairs into the house proper. The guide I got was excellent, buoyed by guests who asked pertinent questions, and gave us 15 minutes longer upstairs than we were due. Only the Goldfingers ever lived here so the place is a proper time capsule (Sony Trinitron in the lounge, tin of M&S ham in the kitchen, Rimmel eyeshadow in the bathroom), as well as being an pioneering exemplar of interior design. My third time round, but I still loved it.
Kenwood House perches at the top of the Heath, surrounded by trees, and is the most-visited of the six. It was gifted to the nation by the Guinness family and English Heritage now use it to display the finer points of their art collection. That means florid portraits, including Vermeers and Rembrandts, but with plenty of other historical infill, and the Library is symmetrically gorgeous. When I dropped by yesterday upstairs had been roped off, which limited the attraction somewhat, and the sentinel at the door was attempting to flog the guidebook with coldcaller-levels of focused devotion. For most the cafe is the focus rather than the house, but Searcys don't come cheap so feasting on the paintings might be the wiser option.