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Hampstead Instead

Minutes from central London, it's bucolic, historic and hip, a little-changed village where celebrities and intelligentsia flee to escape the urban frenzy


LONDON — When a man is tired of London, Samuel Johnson famously suggested in 1777, he is tired of life. What Johnson neglected to mention, however, is that then, as now, London's smart set had a ready remedy for city-weariness: a retreat to Hampstead.

The village and heath of Hampstead, just minutes from central London by subway, for centuries has stood above and apart from the rest of the city. In centuries past, Londoners came here to escape the plague, to buy clean water and to see the uncompromised countryside of Hampstead Heath, whose rolling hills remain undeveloped and protected. These days, Hampstead is a small world of hip storefronts, historical overtones, generous parkland and high-end residences, where oil-rich Arabs live around the corner from pop-music stars. It is a place where, one way or another, one can bump into Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, John Keats, Mary Poppins and Boy George.

But for most foreigners, the appeal of Hampstead is probably more than the sum of its commerce, its residences and its celebrity imprimatur. During the three days my wife and I spent in the neighborhood last August, the bonus for me was its sense of self-containment. That can be a deep relief for a visitor who has spent too many days contending with the crowds, traffic and vast sprawl of London.

The spine and shoulder blades of Hampstead are Hampstead High Street and Heath Street. They house art galleries, trendy restaurants, the Yankee Doodle American clothing store, design shops teeming with bright colors, '60s nostalgia and $80 lava lamps and, less fetching, several latecomers to the neighborhood, such as Nachos Restaurant ("since 1990") and a McDonald's.

But it's easy enough to concentrate on the historic and the fashionable. Along Flask Walk, where 19th century Londoners came to buy spring water, organic butcher J.A. Steele's shingle hangs across the alley from Keith Fawkes' shop full of secondhand books, and a guitar player sits on a step, straining to tame a flamenco melody.

On Church Row, strollers pass H.G. Wells' old house (No. 17) and explore the graveyard of St. John's Church. At the far end of the property one afternoon, my wife, Mary Frances, and I turned a corner to find the body of a bony, pale woman in a black bikini. Not dead. Alive and tanning, between two headstones. We passed in silence, lest she roll over to reveal glowing eyes or long fangs.

Near the edge of the heath off Downshire Hill stands Keats' House, where the poet lived for a couple of years in the early 19th century before his death at age 26. Admission is free; the interior fairly spartan. But in the front yard, by some greenery, stands perhaps the most scrupulously honest tourist sign I've ever seen: "This plum tree replaces the one beneath which John Keats wrote "Ode to a Nightingale."

Just off Heath Street on Hollybush Vale, attesting to the neighborhood's Bohemian tradition, stands Everyman Cinema, an art house that calls itself "the oldest repertory cinema in the world." During our visit features included "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!" and "La Dolce Vita" and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being."

The Everyman has its own bar next door, but choosing a venue for a drink is no easy task. In the space of a few Hampstead blocks, one passes the Flask, the Coach & Horses, the Horse & Groom, the King of Bohemia, the Duke of Hamilton and the King William IV. I liked the Flask's location best because it stands on a pedestrian street. Safer for staggerers.

The heath of Hampstead is about 800 acres, sloping, partly wooded, generally unmanicured. Like an off-center Central Park, it accommodates performing arts stagings, a few landmark buildings, scenic bodies of water (28 natural ponds, some still used by bathers), and in some shady corners, especially after dark, gay trysters.


On the Saturday afternoon that I walked its main paths, the place was full of purple flowers, green-brown lawns, panting sheep dogs and scores of reclining melanin-challenged Londoners soaking up what they could of the sunny day.

After about a half an hour of walking, I climbed a hill for an overview, and imagined I heard a swell of brass and a rolling kettledrum. There on a slope to my left presided Kenwood House, a stately, beige 18th century mansion now open to the paying public. Ahead of me lay a pond. Upon it, skittering ducks. And beyond the ducks lay proof that I wasn't imagining that brass and percussion. There sat 70 or so members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in shirt sleeves, practicing Elgar's Symphony No. 1 before a performance that night.

All was in its place. At any moment, I expected the voice of Sir John Gielgud to come echoing down from the heavens, declaiming Shakespeare's lines from "Richard II" on the majesty of "this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

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