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Hampstead Is an Inspiration to the Literary Set

August 07, 1988|JAMIE STIEHM | Stiehm is a free-lance writer and assignment editor at the CBS News bureau in London. She lives in Hampstead

HAMPSTEAD, England — Hampstead is to the book world what Hollywood is to the movies, what Washington, D.C., is to politics.

So it was no surprise that poet Joseph Brodsky was dining with his old friend, novelist Kingsley Amis, in Hampstead when he heard that he had won the Nobel Prize for literature.

This is, after all, the north London village where English poet Stephen Spender and English biographer Lytton Strachey were schoolboys, and where the Keats House overlooks Margaret Drabble's back yard. Writers and Hampstead just go together.

Hampstead is more an atmosphere than anything else. Something in the village air, in the clean church steeples and graveyards, in the narrow courtyards and curving streets, and in the hills and heathland captures the imagination. Part of its attraction are contrasts between the old and new, urban and rural, bustle and quiet. It seems a long way from central London, but in fact it's only a short tube ride away.

Artists have found solace and inspiration here. In 1749 Samuel Johnson started a literary trend when he polished off "The Vanity of Human Wishes" while vacationing to escape the dirty air of nearby London. Hampstead was a resort town then, kind of an early Palm Springs for those who could afford its elegant brick mansions.

Famous Names

Those who followed in his footsteps were Robert Louis Stevenson, who lived on Mt. Vernon, the highest point of the village; John Keats, who lived at the edge of Hampstead Heath; D. H. Lawrence, who lived with his wife, Frieda, in the Vale of Health; Katherine Mansfield, who lived in a tall, gray house she called "The Elephant," and H. G. Wells, who lived with his wife on stately Church Row before running off with Rebecca West.

No longer a bohemian hideaway, Hampstead has become an upscale neighborhood, yet some of its country-cousin charm lingers on. On the main avenue, Hampstead High Street, you can envision when the shop spaces were not mostly boutiques, restaurants and real estate agents but butcher shops, haberdashers and greengrocers.

Then, cars were not crawling up the hill at a snail's pace, but horses took people and goods from place to place. That is the Hampstead most of its writers knew and loved.

A landmark, Admiral's House, contains a clue to Hampstead's character. The house deliberately resembles a ship, built in the form of decks, with white paint, orange trim and a weather vane perched on top. The original owner was a lieutenant, not an admiral. The present owner is a tax lawyer, so visitors must content themselves with the outside of the house.

Admiral's House suggests that Hampstead nurtures the eccentric, an impression echoed by the Vale of Health where Frieda and D. H. Lawrence lived. Set next to Hampstead Heath, the vale is a world of its own, a village within a village.

Colorful cottages, each expressing a distinct personality, display names such as Ashdown or Lakeview. Sprawling heath on all sides creates an untamed feeling that Lawrence described in several short stories.

A narrow passageway covered with shrubbery leads past people's living rooms, so small and tidy that they look like doll houses.

You may have another look at Hampstead's past and a writer's life at Keats House, a handsome white structure in the area of Hampstead that Amis calls the "most romantic."

In the front garden you can see where the 23-year-old Keats furiously penned his "Ode to a Nightingale" under a plum tree in a few hours. Inside the house the furniture and decor remains much as it was when Keats lived there with a friend in the 1820s.

Far from poetic poverty, the three-story house is designed in the elegant simplicity and light colors that predated Victorian interiors. A collection of Keats memorabilia--letters, reviews, original manuscripts, locks of hair--is unobtrusively arranged for students of literary history.

Especially poignant are the letters he exchanged with his fiancee, Fanny Brawne, who lived in a separate part of the same house, before his death in Rome.

Sylvia Plath Wrote Here

Primrose Hill in South Hampstead, the setting of "A Thousand and One Dalmatians," also has its share of literary ghosts. Sylvia Plath wrote her most haunting poems here before killing herself during one of London's worst winters ever, 1963.

Did she know that William Butler Yeats, poet and playwright, once lived around the block? You can only guess; this, like many Hampstead secrets, has faded into the mists of time.

Sigmund Freud was another resident of Primrose Hill. He lived here briefly after being chased out of Vienna by the Nazis and before dying of throat cancer in 1939. Perhaps Plath and Freud found a brief respite from their troubles in the glorious view of London seen from the top of Primrose Hill's enormous green park.

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