Hampstead Heath Circular Walk (4 or 6 miles)
This is an easy walk of about 4 miles (6 km), with an optional extension to include Highgate Village (an additional 2 miles (3km)). The route is mainly on surfaced or semi-surfaced paths, but the extension to Highgate includes some steep hills.
The walk explores one of London’s best known and loved open spaces. It ascends the viewpoint of Parliament Hill, then skirts the edges of the Heath by way of the Hampstead and Highgate Ponds, before affording the chance to visit one of Britain’s most important art collections. It then plunges into the heart of the Heath before emerging by the Whitestone Pond, and returns to the start via some of Hampstead’s most delightful streets. The longer version affords the chance to explore the famous Highgate Cemetery (admission charge) and to use the extensive refreshment facilities of Highgate Village.
1. Turn left out of the station down Hampstead High Street. Take the first left into the part-pedestrianised Flask Walk. There is a pleasant mixture of buildings here, with cottages contrasting with the larger terraces and town houses. At the junction, continue forward past the Victorian Wells and Campden Baths and Wash Houses of 1888 (now housing), and at the next junction, by Burgh House, turn right to cross the ends of Gayton Road and Well Walk and descend along Willow Road. Burgh House dates from 1703 and is now a museum and arts centre.
2. Follow Willow Road right to its end, passing the tree-clad Preacher’s Hill on the left. At the end of the road, pause for a moment outside No 2. This building is considered one of the most important Modernist houses in Britain, and was built as a family home by Ernö Goldfinger in 1937-9. It contains a number of innovations. It was not appreciated by everyone, however. Ian Fleming, the author of the Bond books, lived locally and objected to the concrete house. Ernö Goldfinger’s wishes prevailed, and the story is that Fleming took his revenge by naming one of his principal villains after the architect. 2 Willow Road is now owned by the National Trust and guided tours are available.
3. Fifty metres further on, turn left into a short section of Downshire Hill, then cross East Heath Road to go past a traffic barrier onto the Heath. Almost immediately, turn right downhill on a broad gravel track, then left to reach the corner of the first of the Hampstead Ponds.
The 320 hectares of Hampstead Heath are now well cared for, but it was not always so. In the early 19th century, the Lord of the Manor, Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson, attempted to sell off parts of the Heath for housing, and some parts of the Heath have suffered from large-scale sand extraction.
In 1871 the Hampstead Heath Act enabled the-then Metropolitan Board of Works to acquire the Heath. The Act laid an obligation on the Parks Committee to preserve “as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the Heath”. Successive local government reorganisation saw the Heath pass through the hands of a number of bodies, control finally residing in the hands of the Corporation of London, who look after it today. The Heath had its own protection society as early as 1897, now has its own constabulary, and the present Heath and Hampstead Society is still very much active in safeguarding the Heath.
The attractive ponds that skirt the Heath reflect its early use as a source of water supply for London. The ponds are fed by the River Fleet, which rises near here and flows into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge, but which now runs entirely underground. The Heath’s landscape has proved attractive to many artists, the most famous of whom, John Constable, came to live in Hampstead in 1827 and made a number of studies of the Heath.
Hampstead No 2 Pond
4. Now follow the earthen path close to the left edge of the pond. Cross over a made-up path and continue along the left edge of a second pond. At the end of this, turn right, along a railed path, with a third pond — the Mixed Bathing Pond — on your left. Keep forward along this path as it swings right, then left, then keep to the right and go over a cross-path to ascend Parliament Hill.
Parliament Hill is said to get its name from its designation by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War as a defence point for London. It was formerly known as Traitors' Hill. At the summit there is a viewpoint indicator which identifies buildings in the wide panorama over central London to the south. Looking over to the north-east is a verdant hillside climbing up to Highgate with the spire of St Michael’s Church prominent at the top. The green-domed building further to the right is St Joseph’s Catholic Church.
5. Keeping to the same path, fork left at the cross-path to descend to a T-junction near the corner of the Highgate ponds. Turn left here and, this time, take the hard-surfaced path (not the earth one). Go slightly uphill past a second pond. Just past a concrete pillar on the right, turn right at a cross-path and, in 20 metres, right again at a second cross-path to take a fenced path with the third pond — the Model Boating Pond — on your left.
6. Don’t take the now-rising path out to a road, but swing left along the top of this third pond. As this begins to bend left, take the narrow worn track rising half-right over grass and past logs to come out on a rising path by toilets. There is now a choice of routes. If opting for the short walk version, pass to the left of the toilet block and immediately right on a rise to come out on Millfield Lane in 20 metres. If opting for the longer version of the walk (which will return to this point), pass to the right of the toilet block and go straight ahead over the lane to climb Merton Lane, then follow the instructions from point 15 onwards.
7. Otherwise turn left along Millfield Lane, with an iron railing on your left and houses on your right. This tranquil, rough-surfaced, traffic-free lane passes alongside woods and even more ponds, one of which is a ladies-only bathing pond. Keep along this secluded lane for about 800 metres. It eventually comes into a clearing, rises, and follows the boundary fence of Kenwood on the left. When Millfield Gate is reached, go through to join a path running parallel, and follow this to Kenwood House, the large mansion you see ahead of you.
Kenwood House is said to be the finest 18th century country house in North London; it was remodelled by Robert Adam in 1764-79 and contains a fine art collection, donated by Earl of Iveagh in 1927, together with the house and grounds. The collection includes works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Turner, Gainsborough and Reynolds. The house and parkland, including extensive woods, are now in the care of English Heritage and entry is free. A good map of Hampstead Heath can be bought at the shop. A restaurant and toilets can be found in the service wing.
8. Once your appetite for coffee, cakes and culture has been satiated, ascend the steps from the service wing, turning right alongside the house to pass through an ivy arch at its corner. Now walk left of the house for about 25 metres to find a path passing underneath overhanging shrubbery. At the end of the lawn look for a modern sculpture, Barbara Hepworth’s “Monolith-Empyrean” on the left and take a path sharp left to go past it. This short path ends in a double-kink before emerging onto a wide terrace. Turn right here, soon swinging left to pass Henry Moore’s sculpture “Two Piece Reclining Figure No 5” close by. Follow this path downhill as it swings around to the Wood Pond in the valley bottom. You will have come in a wide semi-circle, with Kenwood House resplendent on its hill to your left.
9. Go forward over Stone Bridge and immediately turn right into the woods, keeping by a wire fence overlooking a shallow valley on the right. Further along, find a squat memorial to the 1987 hurricane which caused much damage to these woods. Continue on the main path as it twists about. Ignore the first gate on the right, but continue alongside iron railings, shortly taking the next gate on the right, just before the apex of a major bend. Turn immediately left downhill, left again around a tight bend, then - still downhill - take the next path on the right through trees (i.e. the narrowest path at this complex junction). Cross Bird Bridge at the bottom of the hill and turn left at the T-junction ahead, shortly arriving at the Viaduct Bridge to enjoy the picturesque view.
10. Now retrace your steps past the previous junction, this time continuing ahead, a deep valley visible to your right. Further along, pass a mock half-timbered building, containing toilets, on your right. The next point of interest is a small building with a conical roof, just off-route on the left. This was an ice-house, used before the days of modern refrigeration. Ice would be collected from frozen ponds and lakes during the winter and stored in these semi-subterranean buildings, being further insulated with straw. This was a means to keep meat fresh, or simply to provide a supply of ice during the warmer months.
11. Continue on the rising main path, swinging left on reaching the top of the hill. A little way along the level path, divert left to take a parallel earthen path running along the edge of the hill. From here enjoy fine views over the Vale of Health to central London. This path briefly descends into trees, before rising up steps to emerge on Spaniards Road opposite Jack Straw’s Castle.
Jack Straw’s Castle was one of Hampstead’s most famous pubs and the highest one in London prior to the creation of the new county of Greater London in 1964. Alas, it is no longer a pub. Originally a coaching inn, built in 1721, it has been largely rebuilt several times, especially after extensive war damage. Jack Straw was a ringleader in the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, and is said to have taken refuge hereabouts.
12. Turn left to go over the pedestrian crossing and continue in the same direction to cross Whitestone Walk with care, keeping Whitestone Pond and the flagstaff on your right. Cross West Heath Road at the lights and go forward into Hampstead Grove, offset slightly to the right from the main road.
Hampstead Grove is one of the most pleasant streets in Hampstead with many fine houses and several rewarding byways just off it. Further on, Fenton House is passed on the right. This dates from 1693, and is another National Trust property. It contains fine furniture and one of the largest gardens in Hampstead, but is chiefly known for the Benton Fletcher collection of early keyboard instruments. Most are in working order, and recitals are regularly given.
13. Where Hampstead Grove gives way to Holly Bush Hill, swing left, soon turning into Holly Mount and the Holly Bush pub. If time is pressing, a short-cut to the end can be gained here. A few metres past the pub, take steps down a wide passageway on the left to reach Heath Street. Go across the pedestrian crossing and turn right for 100 metres to return to Hampstead Underground Station. Otherwise retrace your steps from the pub back to Holly Bush Hill to reach the foot of the sloping path adjacent to the pub sign. At the top of the slope, turn right then left along Mount Vernon and, just before the iron bollards, swing left into Holly Walk.
Recommended pub: Hampstead is not short of good pubs, but the Holly Bush is one of the best. The building was converted to a pub from stables in 1896. There is a good selection of real ale, proper home-cooked food, and even a resident ghost!
14. Descend Holly Walk, passing the Catholic Church of 1816 on the left then, at the bottom of the hill, alongside Hampstead's additional burial ground.
At the end of Holly Walk, It is worth crossing to visit the church of St John, built in 1744-7. The interior is neat and airy and there are some interesting monuments. An unusual feature of the church is that the usual layout is reversed with the church entrance at the east and the altar at the west end, these arrangements necessitated by steep ground to the west. On leaving the church, keep the burial ground on your left. The grave of Hugh Gaitskell, the former Labour Party leader, can be found in this section towards the end of the wall.
Continue along Church Row, arguably the finest street in Hampstead, with an impressive range of tall houses along the south side, built between 1713-30. At the end, turn left along Heath Street to reach the Underground Station at the crossroads.
Extension to walk from point 7, taking in Highgate:
15. After a stiff climb up Merton Lane, cross busy Highgate West Hill with care, then turn left, still climbing. Witanhurst, left, on the crest of the hill, claims to be the largest private house in London, and was built in 1913 for the soap magnate, Sir Arthur Crosfield. On reaching South Grove, keep to the right past the spindly St Michael’s Church (1831), the Old Hall (c1691) and Pond Square Chapel (1859).
16. Twenty-five metres further on, turn down Swain’s Lane, go past the radio mast and Bisham Gardens to enter Waterlow Park after another 50 metres. Keep downhill close to the park boundary until another gate is reached on the right. Go through this to find the main entrance to Highgate (Western) Cemetery almost opposite. The entrance to the Eastern Cemetery is a few paces further down on the park side of the road. There is a separate admission charge payable to both parts of the cemetery.
Waterlow Park was given to the public by Sir Sydney Waterlow in 1889. The park, measuring ten-and-a-half hectares, contains Lauderdale House, where Nell Gwynne is said to have once lived. The house itself dates from the sixteenth century, although much of what can now be seen dates from two hundred years later. Its garden is bounded by an ancient wall.
Highgate Cemetery: Arguably the most famous of the “Magnificent Seven” group of cemeteries that were largely created by the urgent need to find a replacement for the overcrowded and insanitary conditions found in London’s parish churchyards. The population of London was to more than double in the first fifty years of the nineteenth century, and in 1832 Parliament passed a bill encouraging the creation of seven private cemeteries. The other cemeteries are Kensal Green, Brompton, Abney Park, Nunhead, West Norwood and Tower Hamlets. Highgate Cemetery was opened in 1839 and covers fifteen hectares. In 1855 a separate eastern extension was built. There is not enough space here to do justice to the long list of Victorian and other notables who are buried here, but mention must be made of Karl Marx, whose monument is in the Eastern Cemetery. Further details of access are given at the end of the walk description.
17. Return to Waterlow Park through the same gate and take the major path winding left up the hill, soon forking right towards St Joseph’s Church (1889). Pass between two lakes, immediately forking left, then turn left in front of the high brick wall. The second gap in the wall gives access to Lauderdale House, which contains a café and toilets, otherwise continue on either of two forward paths to pass Waterlow’s statue.There are fine views towards central London from hereabouts. Turn right at the T-junction, keeping right to exit the park at Highgate High Street.
18. Turn left and walk the length of the street, which affords a number of refreshment possibilities. Use pedestrian crossings over both South Grove and West Hill. Pass the Gatehouse Theatre-Pub on the left (good-value food and drink available here) and Highgate School (where John Betjeman was educated) in North Road on the right.
Drop-out point: Several bus routes are available from here connecting to local tube stations. Bus 604 (which runs Mondays-Fridays only) can take you back to Hampstead Tube.
19. Now turn left down Hampstead Lane and take the next left, The Grove, soon turning right into Fitzroy Park, a private road. Follow this all the way, bending left with the road at the foot of the hill, and eventually arriving back at the foot of Merton Lane, where turn very sharply right into Millfield Lane. You have now arrived back at point 7.
Visiting Highgate Cemetery: Exploration of the Western Cemetery is by guided tour only for safety reasons. Although there are frequent daily tours, these can be popular, and you might wish to book ahead by telephoning 020 8340 1834. Visits to the Eastern Cemetery are usually self-guided, although occasional guided tours do take place. Hours could be spent here, but the following instructions should suffice for a quick tour.
About 100 metres past the entrance kiosk, take the first major fork left, following the path as it bends left then right. Karl Marx’s monument is then on the right - its bulk making it unmissable. It bears the uncompromising inscription: “The philosophers have only interpreted the World in various ways. The point however is to change it.”
Continue on, following the cemetery’s bottom-most path. Near the south entrance gate is a monument with a depiction of a dog’s head - ironically his name is more prominent than his owner's. Turn right uphill here to follow the main path back to the entrance, noting a number of graves with Chinese inscriptions on the way.
Karl Marx Monument
A faithful dog - Emperor
© Mike Biggs, Ramblers (Inner London Area), 2006-2015.