Hampstead Heath has been a retreat for Londoners seeking to escape the urban sprawl for centuries and has been a source of inspiration for many of the capitals greatest literary figures and artists. In search of this inspiration I began my journey in Downshire Hill on the way to the home of the romantic poet John Keats 1795-1821, who lived in a street now named in his honour ‘Keats Grove’. Keats was one of many romantic poets that called Hampstead their home and though Keats had only resided in Hampstead between 1817 -1820 it is here that he wrote some of his greatest works, inspired by the natural beauty of the Heath.
Apart from finding Keats house I had no real plan for my journey, just a copy of Keats collected poems, which I intended to use as means to gain an understanding of how Keats interpreted the Heaths landscape. As I made my way down Keats Grove and approached the iron gate of his home (now a museum and literary centre dedicated to the poet) I decided to take a closer look at the garden surrounding the house. It is here that Keats allegedly wrote the draft of his poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ which, was inspired by the bird song of a nightingale nesting somewhere on the Heath (Everest, 2002. p.90-91). As I strolled around the garden I tried to get myself in the spirit of the poet, so that I could attempt to find the poetry in my surroundings.
As I continued on from Keats grove towards the heath I decided to seek higher ground turning left onto East Heath road, so that I could get a better perspective of the landscape. I moved up the hill and stopped as I noticed the name of the street to the left of me was Well Walk. It was here that Keats shared his first Hampstead lodgings with his brothers and where his friend and fellow poet Leigh Hunt 1784-1859 had lived (Roe, 2013. p.155-156). I imagined that Keats would have been here to meet him before embarking on their walks through the Heath together.
However, I was not yet ready to venture into it myself and continued along the Heaths eastern periphery, stopping once I had reached the its summit on Spaniards Road by the White Stone Pond. As I stood above the Heath I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the landscape beneath me and the view of London’s towering skyline in the distance. As I stood there I felt it a perfect opportunity to read one of Keats poems and felt that this verse from ‘I stood tip- toe upon a little hill’ was most fitting (Keats, 1991. p1).
‘The clouds were pure and white as flocks new shorn,
And fresh from the clear brook; sweetly they slept
On the blue fields of heaven, and then there crept
A little noiseless noise among the leaves:
For not the faintest motion could be seen
Of all the shades that slanted o’er the green.
There was wide wand’ring for the greediest eye,
To peer about upon variety;
Far round the horizon’s crystal air to skim,
And trace the dwindled edges of its brim’
After a moment of reflection, I continued on my journey down into the Heath following a path which ran past the Vale of Health, an encroachment of Houses situated on the slope of the Heath, which lead me to a pond situated at the back of the Vale.
The Heath is well known for its many ponds of which, many were formed as a result of centuries of quarrying for the Heaths Bagshot sand. From here I wondered further into the Heath were I came across the Viaduct pond. At first glance the bridge across the water had the look of a romantic folly however, it was in fact constructed for a practical purpose in 1847 as opposed to a purely aesthetic one.
The viaduct was commissioned by the then Lord of the Manor Sir Thomas Maryorn Wilson 1800-1869,who had intended it to be the entrance to his proposed housing development but thankfully his plans were blocked. Attempts to exploit the Heath both for its beauty and its very earth have seen it close to destruction but nature has clearly retaken the land. However, It made me realise that the heath that Keats would have known would have been a far wilder landscape than what it is now. Nevertheless, it is remarkably how the Heath has maintained so much of its natural beauty.
From the Viaduct Pond I continued south allowing the landscape to guide me downhill. It is easy to forgot whilst walking through the Heath that you are a mere 4 miles from the heart of the city. This deceiving landscape allows you to imagine yourself somewhere far from the hustle and bustle of city life, until that is you catch a glimpse of London’s not so distant obelisks. However, this does not dampen the romance of the Heath, it adds to it. As the ground began to level off I could see the Hampstead ponds in the distance and headed towards them.
Realising that I was only a short distance from where my journey began I decided to push on back into the Heath. I walked between the two ponds and up along a winding path, where I noticed a small gate to the right of me. Intrigued, I decided to enter, by this time the day light was beginning to fade and I found myself feeling disorientated by the winding paths, which was exacerbated further by the density of the woodland around me. After wondering aimlessly for a short time I came to a clearing with a stone bridge. Feeling pleased that I had freed myself from the wooded labyrinth I realised I had wondered into the grounds of Kenwood House a stunning neo classical building that in Keats time was owned by the 3rd and 4th Earls of Mansfield.
By this time it was quite dark so I decided to end my journey and as I made my way out of the grounds of Kenwood house I was gifted with one last view of the city skyline.
Everest, Kelvin. John Keats. Tavistock: Northcote House Publishers Ltd. 2002
Keats, John. Lyric Poems. Dover Thrift edition, Volume 5. New York: Dover Publication Inc. 1991.
Roe, Nicholas. John Keats. London: Yale University Press. 2013.
Title Image: Portrait of John Keats Listening to a nightingale on Hampstead Heath by Joseph Severn, c.1845