diamond geezer

 Friday, January 27, 2023

A Nice Walk: West Heath (1 mile)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, nothing too taxing, a bit of a stroll, lots to see, pretty views, close to public transport, no distractions, potentially muddy, occasional wallabies, won't take long. So here's an off-piste mile across the western flank of Hampstead Heath, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a nice walk all the same.

Let's start in Golders Hill Park. You can't just materialise here, you might have to catch a bus or walk up from Golders Green station but rest assured it's not far. The park's lovely, a large landscaped space sloping down from North End Road to a pair of woody ponds. It has a walled garden with exotic plants, an isolated bandstand and a footpath across a lake into a stumpery. It also has a cafe on the site of a big Victorian house, although the food offer was much better before the City of London allowed Benugo to take it over. And best of all it has wallabies.

The zoo at Golders Hill Park evolved out of donations from the rich and famous in Edwardian times. Have some deer, said Sir Samuel Scott. Do you fancy two emus, two kangaroos and two rheas, asked Lionel Walter Rothschild MP. I've got a black bear you can borrow for a couple of years, said Captain RW Templeton. The wallabies are a postwar addition arriving in 1949 along with a white stag and some rabbits. Today a long chain of double-fenced enclosures ascends from the wallaby enclosure, nothing enormous but enough to entrance a toddler for a decent while. I failed to spot the ring-tailed lemurs or the Scottish wildcats because they were wisely tucked away, but the donkeys were out being fed, Bubo the eagle owl gave me a good stare and the kookaburras reminded me of Orville the duck.

The signs on the fence are chattily informative, so for example I now know which animals have a tendency not to eat all their vegetables. A separate enclosure includes fallow deer, although I only spotted one yesterday and that was inert so best pick your time. But the best bit was definitely the wallabies, especially when they started hopping en masse down the hill because you don't see that every day, and that was my Australia Day experience.

Step through the gate beyond the deer enclosure and not only are you crossing from Barnet into Camden but also passing onto Hampstead Heath. This is the lesser known West Heath, a sprawling triangle of thick woodland crisscrossed by muddy paths and populated by many a labrador and their owners. The trick is to keep climbing, and at this time of year to wear stout footwear, and also to aim for the gate in the fence else you won't get into the next bit. This is the Hill Garden and Pergola, formerly the backyard of soap magnate Lord Leverhulme and exactly the kind of grand statement you can afford to make when you've made a fortune from detergent. In his day the pond used to be a tennis court so that's an improvement, but the surrounding raised paths and shelter are original.

The best part is up the steps at the rear and that's the pergola. It was started in 1905 as somewhere impressive for dinner guests to stroll, and is supported by tons of earth excavated during the digging of the Northern line extension to Golders Green. In 1911 it was extended above a pesky public right of way as a high level solution to provide access to the Hill Garden, and further extended in the years leading up to Leverhulme's death until it was over 250m long. These days it just goes on and on with endless rustic wiggles, and if you come in spring the wisteria is something magnificent.

It's not so colourful in January but still an extraordinarily attractive structure and best of all devoid of other people. Usually if you come up here it's thronging with folk lining up Insta-zingers, more folk waiting for the first lot to get out of the way so they can line-up their Insta-zingers, Asian couples posing for interminable wedding shots, YouTubers pretending they discovered the place and assorted tourists just hanging out. If you're ever considering starting your own London-based social media channel it's de rigeur to kick off with a report from The Amazing Secret Pergola, even though the crowds suggest it can't be that secret after all.

Once you've had enough pergolaing you should descend the spiral staircase and yomp your way up to the top of the Heath. Here we find Jack Straw's Castle, a former hostelry admired by Dickens and Betjeman, now luxury flats. Here we find Whitestone Pond, a bullrushed gyratory and the highest point in inner London, which is currently semi-iced. Here we find Heath Brow, a cul-de-sac that's only one letter away from Heathrow Airport. Here we find the stone obelisk that's been Hampstead's war memorial since 1922, shifted from its original position to make way for more traffic. And here we find several paths down muddy slopes leading to Hampstead's exclusive hamlet.

This is the Vale of Health, an inappropriately upbeat name for what was originally a boggy bottom near the start of the River Fleet. It started out in 1720 as a single workshop for a harness-maker and grew inexorably into a few cottages, then a cluster of terraces and today a compact enclave of desirable homes. Those who've lived here include DH Lawrence, Stella Gibbons, Anthony Minghella and Liam Gallagher, although only DH has a blue plaque. Even newspaper baron Lord Northcliffe, founder of the Daily Mail, lived here in the 1870s and I particularly like that his childhood home now has a 'No Junk Mail' sign below the letterbox.

Wandering round the Vale of Health always feels a bit like trespassing, but feel free to follow the lamplit alleys, explore the quaint dead ends or head out to the caravan park where fairground owners overwinter their rides. I ended my nice walk by half-slipping down the muddy track to Vale of Health Pond for a reflective pause by the outflow drain. It makes sense to continue across the Heath and revel in the delights this has to offer but so many subsequent paths are possible that it would be presumptuous to label any such route the optimum nice walk to follow, just go your own way.

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