In 1816, although only eight kilometres (five miles) from central London, Hampstead was enough of a remote, rural village for poet John Keats (1795-1821) to write the following about a visit there:
“To one who has been long in city pent,
‘Tis very sweet to look into the fair
And open face of Heaven.”
John Keats soon moved to Hampstead and lived there for four years, leaving only when his rapidly failing health forced him to seek warmer climes. Keats House is now one of the many attractions of this scenic little London suburb.
A recommended walking tour of Hampstead would start at the Hampstead underground station, on the Northern Line, the line shown in black on maps of London’s underground railway system.
On leaving the station, turn left down Hampstead High Street, the main shopping street with many interesting boutiques and restaurants. The signs to Keats House will direct you down Downshire Hill, past rows of fine Georgian houses. Take the right fork at Keats Grove, past St. John’s Church, an attractive, white, 19th-century church with a portico and domed bell turret. Keats House is down the road on the right, next to the Keats Memorial Library, containing some 8,000 volumes about the poet.
The collection includes just about every book ever written about Keats, his family and friends, along with a selection of periodicals containing reviews of his works and those of his contemporaries.
Strolling up the garden path to the front door you will see a plaque on your right marking the spot where Keats wrote his beautiful “Ode to a Nightingale.” The mulberry tree on the front lawn probably dates from Stuart times and must have been quite large when Keats composed poetry in its shade.
Inside the house, of particular interest is the Chester Room, containing a series of display cases housing the main Keats collection. Notice the life mask of the poet by Benjamin Robert Haydon, made while Haydon was painting Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem. Keats and another friend of Haydon’s, William Wordsworth, both appear in the crowd scene on the right of the picture. Other interesting exhibits include Keats’s writing desk; his inkstand with the bust of Shakespeare; his copies of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, with the manuscript of the “Bright Star” sonnet; the only letter from Keats to Shelley, dated August 4, 1820 and his anatomical notebook which he kept as a student at medical school. In another showcase is Keats’s heavily marked copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, one of his favourite works.
Keats House is open in Summer, Tuesday to Sunday, 1pm–5pm and in Winter, Friday to Sunday, 1pm–5pm.
On leaving Keats House, proceed down the hill towards Hampstead Heath. Turn left up Willow Road towards New End Square and Burgh House, your next stop on the trail. Burgh House was built in 1703 during the reign of Queen Anne and is now used as a community centre, local museum, art gallery and study centre. On the ground floor is the pinewood paneled Music Room, used for concerts and recitals. Hampstead’s history from prehistoric times to the present is vividly portrayed in the museum. Burgh House also boasts a bookshop and a licensed restaurant.
Hampstead has been a magnet for creative people for over two centuries and within a block or two of Burgh House have lived: Edgar Wallace, D.H. Lawrence, Compton MacKenzie and artist John Constable.
Upon leaving Burgh House, stroll down Flask Walk and, if thirsty, drop into The Flask and drink in the ambience of a genuine Victorian pub. Once back on Hampstead High Street, cross over to Church Row, an elegant 18th-century terrace of brown brick houses where George Du Maurier and H.G. Wells once lived. At the end of the row is the Church of St. John-at-Hampstead, where the artist John Constable is buried.
Northwards is Holly Walk with its pretty 19th-century pink and yellow washed cottages. Continue up across Mount Vernon Junction along Hampstead Grove and note on your left the elegant wrought iron gates of Fenton House.
Now a National Trust property, Fenton House is an attractive, redbrick, Queen Anne house, once the home of Philip Fenton, a wealthy merchant. The interior is authentic, early 18th-century, with fine furniture and an extensive porcelain collection. The most important feature is the assembly of early keyboard instruments, kept in good playing condition by visiting music students who give concerts here. Outside is the walled garden with terraced walks, a sunken garden and orchard.
Just beyond Fenton House is Admirals Walk where you’ll find Grove Lodge, the house in which John Galsworthy wrote The Forsyte Saga.
Continue uphill until you reach the Whitestone Pond, London’s highest point at 133 meters (437 feet), believed to be the site of one of the Armada beacons. On the left, the large, white weatherboard building is Jack Straw’s Castle, once a pub, now converted into residential flats, and once the gathering point for supporters of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. Take the right fork down Spaniards Road to the Spaniards Inn and Tollhouse. This weatherboard inn stands on the site of a house that belonged to a 17th-century Spanish ambassador. It was here that the Gordon Rioters stopped in 1780 to ask the way to Kenwood House, but their revolutionary zeal withered under the influence of excess ale.
Follow the footpath off Spaniards Road across Hampstead Heath to find Kenwood House. Lord Iveagh bequeathed this beautiful Adam-style house to England in 1828. Kenwood contains paintings by: Gainsborough, Stubbs, Rembrandt, Hals, Vermeer, Turner, Romney and Reynolds. There is also an extensive collection of 18th-century furniture, jewellery and shoebuckles. During the summer music recitals are given in the Orangery and evening concerts are held at the lakeside. Also in the grounds is Doctor Johnson’s Summerhouse, brought to Kenwood in 1968. Lunches and afternoon teas are served in the Old Kitchen and Coach House.
Make sure you leave time for a stroll on the heath itself. Comprising of 324 hectares (800 acres), it is just slightly smaller than New York’s Central Park (843 acres). With heathland, hills, ponds and pathways, for walking, kite flying, swimming and picnicking, it has been the playground of north Londoners for over 150 years since it was rescued at the eleventh hour from the greedy hands of developers. Detailed information about Hampstead Heath can be found on the website: http://www.hampsteadheath.net/.