Heath150: Dear Hampstead Heath, I LOVE you, your biggest fan, Joanna

Writer Joanna Briscoe's tribute to Hampstead Heath

Monday, 28th June 2021 — By Joanna Briscoe


Novellist Joanna Briscoe

TO be asked to write about Hampstead Heath feels like a holiday rather than a commission. So here is my warning: this is little more than fan mail from a panting devotee.

Those 800 acres of ancient woodlands, commons, hills and ponds have pretty much saved me and so many others during lockdown.

I also feel like a bit of a spoilt bitch for living so close to the Heath, though I want to add that affording such proximity required choosing to live on a rat run.

It seemed worth the hooting and pollution to have those expanses of green so close.

When the kids were little and had only a small roof terrace to play on, we told them that the Heath was their garden.

Theirs to run wild in.

Theirs for mud rolling, kite flying, tree climbing, conker gathering and picnics.

I think there’s a level where all Heath lovers think it’s theirs: one’s own special place, so intimately known, so loved, so full of favourite spots, it feels personal.

We all have our own emotional map of Hampstead Heath.

I constantly marvel that it’s possible to live by a place where you can swim in a pond surrounded by herons and bullrushes, yet get to the West End on a fifteen-minute tube ride.

We who do are blessed, and I for one am inordinately grateful.

If work allows, I’m on the Heath twice a day, raving with my regular walking companions in a repetitive fashion about how lucky we are to live here, how the Heath is the most stunningly beautiful place in all its different seasons, and how its very existence in a capital city is astonishing.

We laugh at ourselves for our daily outbursts of appreciation, and then start all over again, with a gaze at the Kenwood magnolia, a happy meander up Fitzroy Park, a gasp at kingfishers at the ponds.

Who would expect a Saxon ditch, a tumulus, an eighteenth century dairy or a boating pond in Zone 2? Bat walks at night; sledge rides in winter; dawn swims among mallards; concerts beside a seventeenth century stately home; rare trees and Rembrandts?

What’s not to like in a place that has been home to so many great writers, artists, emigres and exiles?

As a country girl who longed for the city and came here at 18, who mixes utterly urban habits with nostalgia for that past, I have only to stand on Parliament Hill to realise how here we truly have it all.

A riot of blossom frames distant skyscrapers; there is neither the desire to bolt from mud and fields, nor the choking taxi fumes of central London.

As a novelist, nothing unlocks plot difficulties like a storm through the woods, and a love of the poets whose ghosts roam the place.

The Heath is for all of us who can get here, past and present, and I can’t even join in the carping about the lockdown-tramped mud paths, the weekend country-seekers, the crazy proliferation of dogs, unless they end up in post-Covid shelters.

And here I have to hand it to the management and volunteers.

What they achieve is a perfect compromise between the tamed and the wild, and I’m constantly admiring their ability to get this right.

From the manicured Highgate Road side to the plunging woods, snarls, tangles and mud slides further in, they allow just the right balance of fallen tree, rampaging growth, creepy crawlies, fungus outcrops, coppicing, clearing and mowing, along with a merciful lack of signposting. Let’s keep this place as it is.

It is a national treasure, a local marvel.

Hampstead Heath, I’m just a little bit in love with you.

Joanna Briscoe’s latest novel, The Seduction, is published by Bloomsbury

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