It is, indeed, difficult to imagine a more retired and romantic spot, and yet of such an extent, so near a great metropolis.
JOHN CLAUDIUS LOUDON, The suburban gardener and villa companion
My favourite walk in London. I start from Hampstead High Street, go along Flask Walk with its host of small cafes, past the gorgeous brick building that is The Wells Tavern and then, crossing the street, enter the Heath on a quiet lane where trees hang over your head, protecting you from everything you need hiding from.
The anticipation is already rising in my chest as I approach the open space. Drinking in the meadow, or pasture if you will, that overflows with long grass and wild flowers, I find a quiet spot to lie under a solitary oak. I read Yeats’ poems while chewing lazily on a straw. For a moment I doze off in the hazy light of the sunny afternoon.
I could stay here all day and watch the crow beside me hop inquisitively about, but the highest point of Parliament Hill is calling me. Seeing the city as a mere skyline on the edge of the horizon, I imagine what it’s like to never return to pedestrian life. I turn around and head down the hill towards the woodlands where the wild things are waiting in the shadows.
I follow a winding path until I come to the sign that informs me I am about to enter Kenwood Estate. I go through the gate. Here is the real treasure of the Heath. The scent of pine trees and wet soil make me whistle as I pass exposed tree trunks, terraced mushrooms and tiny fairy doors. The light has turned softer and casts a spell over the forest.
I reach the water and catch a first glimpse of Kenwood House. Suddenly the Heath is brimming with life. I sit down on the front lawn and let elderflower cordial sizzle on my tongue. A line of verse flashes through my mind: “the loveliness that has long faded from the world.” A girl doing cartwheels with her friends, a child taking the hand of his grandmother, doting lovers on the grass – city life seems at its best here. Quiet words, a smile, bonds of love.
Walking through the grounds, I pass an ivy tunnel, sculptures and the rose garden. I long to go to the garden shop. Is it not the most picturesque cottage in all of London? White, pink and purple flowers are blossoming against the blanket of ivy that covers the walls.
I buy some seeds and then make my way down to the ponds. I stop for a moment at Goodison fountain. As I dip my fingers into the water, I notice a squirrel scurrying towards me. I kneel down on the stones to greet her but she darts around me. I get up and look over my shoulder. She has stopped a few feet away, her right paw raised against her chest as if intrigued. I smile. We share a moment before she moves on.
By the time I make it to the ponds, it’s quite late and the place looks deserted, with only a pair of ducks in sight. It’s too cold for an evening swim. I feel a bit lost. I seem to have missed the short cut that leads through the private estate and I struggle to find it without a map.
I continue past the men’s bathing ponds towards the far south-east exit, which takes me further than I would have liked. Darkness will come soon. Suddenly the atmosphere has shifted; the park no longer seems so welcoming. I start to hurry and sense something behind me. Is there someone walking there or is it just a ghost from my past that evokes stolen kisses, whispered lies and lover’s perfidy?
It makes me run until I exit the park at Millfield. Here are cyclists and cars, and all the harsh sounds that traffic makes. I climb Swain’s Lane. My calves are aching and I start to sound like the joggers who huff and puff their way through town. It’s not until I spot the familiar iron bars of Highgate Cemetery that I calm down. Meandering past poets, philosophers and fallen angels, I finally rest at George Eliot’s obelisk. I touch the earth and pick inspiration growing between the bluebells.
© Mischa van den Brandhof 2014