One of my favourite places in London for a Sunday stroll is Hampstead Heath in the north of the capital. When I lived in London, I spent many a morning tramping through the heath in all kinds of weather, but I hadn’t been back since I left the Big Smoke more than three years ago. So when I was up in London at the beginning of April, I decided it was the perfect time to revisit my old stomping ground.
During my trip, I recreated my favourite walk through heath, which starts at the entrance near Hampstead Heath Overground Station and takes me as far as Kenwood House, the stately home that sits on the northern edge of the heath, before looping back around to my starting point via a different route.
On joining the heath, I walked past the open grassland of Pryors Field and the Hampstead Ponds, and kept walking until I reached the woods. There I carried on through the woods for a short distance until I reached the Viaduct Pond (above). This pond is one of my favourite places on the heath as it’s so pretty and tranquil, and I love the weathered, red brick arches of the viaduct. There are usually a few ducks happily bobbing away on the water, too, which adds to the serene feel of the place.
From the pond, I walked up to and over the viaduct, and continued along the path until I reached the men’s toilets. There I turned to the right and carried on walking through the woods, past a massive overturned tree, until I reached the entrance to Kenwood House. This stretch of the heath can get very muddy, so wellies or hiking boots are essential during the winter months or if it’s been raining heavily.
Kenwood House is an elegant 18th century stately home and I always remember it for its starring role in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant’s character comes to meet Julia Roberts’s character on the set of the period drama she’s filming.
There’s a fair bit of parkland surrounding Kenwood House and once you reach the gates, you have to walk another 10 minutes or so through the grounds before you come upon the house. The grounds are lovely, stretching over some 112 acres, and there’s plenty to see. Alongside the rolling meadows and woods, there are ponds, a fake bridge, an old dairy and sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Its also the source of the old Fleet River.
It was lunchtime as I arrived at Kenwood House, so I made beeline for its café. The Brew House Café is a great place for a bite to eat, selling tasty food and delicious cakes, and I used to regularly stop off here for a hot chocolate or an ice cream (depending on the season) during my hikes across the heath. It can get very busy though, so if you’re planning to have lunch here, it’s best to do so sooner rather later. I arrived just before it got really busy, and I’m glad I did, as it was heaving some 10 minutes later.
Happily refreshed and sated, it was time to explore the house. The present house was built by the Scottish architect Robert Adam in the late 18th century and is now run by English Heritage. It’s a long, beautiful house with two floors open to the public.
On going inside, I found myself in the entrance hall, and from there, I did a loop of the ground floor, before venturing upstairs. From the hall, I went through a narrow corridor to the green room and onto the elegant music room (above). Then I headed back through the green room to the orangery, which boasts fabulous views over the grounds, and onto the breakfast room (below) and Lord Mansfield’s dressing room, finishing up in the grand dining room and the pastel-hued great library.
One thing I hadn’t appreciated before visiting Kenwood House was how extensive its art collection is. Almost every room in the house is filled with incredible paintings by acclaimed artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Vermeer and Van Dyke, to name a few. The astounding number of pieces, which once belonged to the 1st Earl of Iveagh, makes Kenwood House one of London’s great, unsung art galleries.
The artworks are superb and I was amazed at how many pieces by great artists were hanging on its walls – even the smaller, less distinguished rooms were dripping with paintings by well-known names.
My favourite room was the Great Library (above), which was refurbished between 2012 and 2013 with the aim of recreating the room’s original late-18th century decor. It’s a huge, light, airy room with an incredible pale blue and pink ceiling, and rows and rows of glorious book cases. It’s a spectacular space and so very, very pretty.
After seeing all there was to see downstairs, I headed upstairs. There are fewer rooms on the first floor so it doesn’t take as long to see it all, but the first floor, like the floor below, is home to countless works of art. There’s also a room filled with cabinets displaying pieces of jewellery, belt buckles (some of which are very bling) and miniatures. It’s a curious room with some superb, unusual objects and well worth venturing upstairs for.
Having looked around the house, I headed back outside where I wandered through the grounds until I reached the heath. From there, I took a slightly different route back, cutting across the woods via a different path to the Viaduct Pond, crossing the viaduct, and then carrying on in a straight line until I reached the other side of the Hampstead Ponds. There I crossed a path between two of the ponds and carried on walking until I reached Hampstead Heath Overground Station.
I loved my time on Hampstead Heath, it was just as beautifully wild and untamed as I remembered, and wonderfully relaxing, too. When I’m walking across the heath I find it hard to believe I’m in the middle of London as it feels as though I’m in the countryside. For huge stretches of my walk, I was all alone – it’s a fantastic place to unwind, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. By far and away, one of the best places in London for a walk.
Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, Hampstead NW3 7JR
Open seven days a week