Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hurray for Hampstead--and its Heath!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

            Although I went to bed at 1.00 am, I was up before 6.00 am—what is it about my body that allows it to make do with so little sleep? There wasn’t a moment to waste, however, as I am still fighting a submission deadline for a chapter in an Anglo-Indian anthology that has been returned to me by the editors. So after brekkie (foraged from whatever I could find in the fridge as my food supplies have run low and since I am moving again tomorrow, I don’t want to buy anything more)—which ended up being cereal flakes with raspberry yoghurt—I began working. Must admit I could not resist switching on Saturday Kitchen on the BBC for a glimpse of the very dishy James Martin. Bonus was the BBC Weather Woman Carol Kirkwood with her pretty smiling face and lovely demeanor. I worked swiftly and was all done in three hours. I am happy to say that my essay is ready to be emailed to the editors after I have read it through one more time tomorrow.
            Since tomorrow is Moving Day again (I go off to Battersea to my friend Roz as my friends Raquel and Chris return from the States), I began packing and put away the bulk of my clothes. As always, only last-minute things will go into my backpack tomorrow. I showered and changed and before I knew it, it was 2. 30 pm and time to leave for my appointment with my friend Murali outside Hampstead Underground Station. A quick look at the Tube map told me it would take almost an hour and three changes to get there by Tube, Another quick look at the Journey Planner website told me that I could take a single bus there (No. 46) from Finchley Road and get there in 22 minutes! Go Figure!
            So off I went to the bus stop and in three minutes, along rolled the bus. The journey took me through parts of London with which I am unfamiliar—Finchley, Swiss Cottage and then we arrived in Hampstead. Murali was there on cue and we began a Walking Tour of Hampstead from the DK Eyewitness Guides.

Rediscovering Hampstead:
            Hampstead is a delightful part of London. Far from the madding crowd, in a sense, it is removed from the bustle of the city. It has always been a rather exclusive neighborhood—ever since curing spa waters were found in its vicinity. For lovers of Britain’s domestic Victorian architecture such as Moi, it is a dream venue with its red brick façade houses, elaborately designed gables and rich stucco decoration. I never tire of simply running my eyes over the structures that line its leafy streets as I wander aimlessly through this unspoiled village. Hampstead is also home to some beautiful and historic stately houses—all of which I have visited over the years (Fenton House full of Chelsea porcelain and a collection of musical instruments; Kenwood which is one of Robert Adams’ first creations filled with its Wedgwood-style plasterwork and an amazing collection of art including a Vermeer; Burgh House which houses a Hampstead Museum; “2 Willow Road”, the home of architect Erno Goldfinger whose Modernist vision revolutionized British architecture in the 1960s; Keats’ House in which the poet composed his best-known poem and my favorite, “Ode to a Nightingale”, etc. ). I was there to simply amble around at will enjoying the ambience of a lovely summer weekend afternoon.
            So off we went, down Flash Walk (so-called because soothing spa waters were once sold in flasks along this lane) and Well Walk (so-called because it was the location of the well that was the source of the soothing waters) and passing by the 1888 Public Baths and Wash House. Few people know that when many of the Anglo-Indian immigrants that I interviewed for my forthcoming book first arrived in the UK, they had no bathrooms in their homes. They used Public Baths where for one penny, they were handed a towel and a sliver of hard carbolic soap and allowed to bathe! Naturally, the advent of indoor bathrooms made these public baths redundant. Many have been converted into community swimming pools but some (such as the building at Hampstead) have remained disused because many councils do not have the resources to refurbish them for other uses (this is probably not the case in affluent Hampstead, of course, and it is possible that it has been simply retained as is to preserve its vintage feel). I was charmed to come upon it so suddenly and took a picture.
            We pressed on towards the New End Theater where, five years ago, I had escorted my students to a play. I discovered that two years ago it was converted into a mosque—how things change! We climbed up Christ Church Passageway and arrived at the quaint stone church called Christ Church with its leafy yard, its fairy-tale wooden doors sporting big iron door knockers and hardware and its lovely steeple reaching out towards blue skies. This is the true essence of Hampstead—a church here, a corner pub there, a garden café in a Georgian museum from which the sounds of classical music faintly emerged in another bend). Around a corner, we arrived at Jack Straw’s Castle which was once a pub but is now converted to a block of flats. Not very appealing in its attempts to imitate the crennellated towers of a castle, it was nevertheless a fine landmark at a corner where an ancient white milestone stood not too far away to mark the distance from Hampstead to Holborn—4 and a half miles! A pretty pond filled with bulrushes and green algea punctuates this part of Hampstead and along Spaniard Lane (known for its old Spaniard Inn where highwayman Dick Turpin once waylaid innocent travelers and robbed them), we found a narrow set of steps leading down to the famous Hampstead Heath (a Heath is a wide open parkland and London has a few).
A Walk on Hampstead Heath:
          It was a lovely day for a picnic on the Heath and there were many people enjoying the outdoors—sunbathing, walking dogs, pushing babies in strollers or jogging. We strolled along hoping to get to Parliament Hill which offers lovely views of London from St. Paul’s dome (which was once the most prominent landmark in the city) to the Shard whose skinny contours now dominate the skyline. It took us some looking to find the spot as the Heath is not marked at all and maps are conspicuous by their absence (I believe it has something to do with keeping the outdoors unspoiled). Eventually, we did find the trail leading to the hill and when we were fairly close to it, the skies opened, gently, and the drizzle began. We took shelter under a tree studded with tiny pine cones for at least 20 minutes as we waited out the shower.
            In a few minutes, we were at the top of the hill joining other walkers in identifying the rooftops (St. Paul’s, St. Pancras Station, Anish Kapoor’s sculpture at the Olympics site—which had revived for the weekend to mark the first anniversary of Britain’s most glorious recent weeks, the Gherkin, the Shard).  Seen in a lot of movies (the last scene from Notes on a Scandal with Judi Dench sitting on a bench at this spot overlooking the city is memorable), this part of London is special. Parliament Hill was supposedly given its name from Guy Fawkes and his cronies who climbed up this hill to view the Houses of Parliament blow up through their Gunpowder Plot. Happily, they never did, the plot was exposed and the conspirators hanged. But Parliament Hill retains a name that brings back regular memories of the historical event (just as much as the traditional fireworks do on Guy Fawkes Night).
            It was time to try to find Kenwood House but without maps on the Heath to guide us, we were at a complete loss. That’s when we ran into Sophia, a lovely young girl who walked hand in hand with her husband Jasmeet and who guided us vaguely towards its location. Ten minutes later,  after we had walked through a meadow with knee-high grass, we asked directions from another Indian man who informed us that Kenwood House was closed for renovation for a couple of years. With our mission aborted, we attempted to find an exit from the park and realized that we had reached Highgate by this point and were far away from Hampstead—for the Heath stretches over two major London hamlets.
            That’s when we spotted Sophia and Jasmeet again—they offered us a ride in their car back to Hampstead because they saw how clueless we were about how to proceed! It was a very welcome lift indeed and off we went. In ten minutes, we were at Hampstead again and after thanking them, we proceeded with our walk by continuing where we had left off before entering the Heath.
            So one we went but as the walk was not too well marked, we did our own thing and arrived finally at Church Row which has one of London’s best-preserved Georgian streets with perfectly intact Georgian terraced houses lining it. At its end is St. John’s Parish Church where the artist John Constable lies buried in the adjoining church yard. It was lovely to take in this very pretty part of the village.
            In a few moments, we rounded a bend that brought us back on the High Street. In search of sustenance (a cup of tea would have been welcome at this point), we eventually found the place I was seeking: an American burger and milk shakes place that I remembered well from having taken my students there, five years ago. We did find it, right off the High Street on a slope leading up a hill—Tinsel Town reportedly serves 50 kinds of burgers and shakes. We settled down and had lovely milks shakes filled with rich chocolate sauce and Ferrerro Rocher chocolate. They were so delicious, satisfying and comforting after we had walked for nearly 6 miles!
            It was then time to get back home and Murali and I jumped back on the 46 bus heading back to St. John’s Wood. A thunderstorm had begun and as Murali walked to the Tube station, I (who hate getting wet in the rain, especially the cold rain of the West) took shelter under a bus stop and waited it out.
            About 15 minutes later, I was home and hunkering down for the night by 10.00 pm as I suddenly felt very fatigued indeed.
             Until tomorrow, cheerio!            

1 comment:

prem kishore said...

The Nightingale Ode one of my dearly beloved poems.Who can forget' Sunburnt mirth and Melodious plot of beechen green?Six miles again?
But what a joy on a summer day in London!You should have had a 'draught of vintage ale" as Keats suggests!