I have been living in London for a month now, and while I love the rush of the city, after one trip too many on an overcrowded tube, pounding from dreary pavement into sweaty metal box, I needed some fresh air. So to Hampstead Heath I went. On a sunny Autumn afternoon, it was the most glorious place in all of London.
I had heard of Hampstead Heath of course, even seen it in films, with that iconic view of London in the background. But what surprised me, as I walked up a track, kicking through the first of the Autumn leaves, is how so much of the ‘Heath’ is actually much more like a forest. To me, a heath conjures up sparse, open land with maybe the odd scrubby plant, but the area called Hampstead Heath is mostly woodland. It took hardly any time at all to be completely lost among trees, squelching through mud, not a single sound of the city to be heard.
Birds chirruped, leaves rustled, the odd twig snapped underfoot. Occasionally, I would meet somebody else along one of the muddy trails, but they too were dressed in suitable attire for a woodland walk, and it felt like I had been transported back into the deep English countryside.
With golden rays of late afternoon sunlight filtering through the trees, it was almost impossible to believe that I was still in the middle of a metropolis. It bears no resemblance to any kind of city park – it is natural and wild.
Finally, after tramping round the woodland with little sense of direction, I emerged onto the ‘heath’ bit of Hampstead Heath. The trees gave way to an open hilltop. Then, as I reached the very top of the Heath, London reappeared. It is the kind of view you’ll pay £25 to see from the top of the Shard or on the London Eye, but here it is free. Even though I could pick out all of London’s major landmarks, they seemed reassuringly distant. The sinking sun was reflected in the shiny buildings of the city, making it seem as if they were glowing orange.
Over the city vista, an almost-whole moon was rising. I kept turning from city in front of me to nature behind me – and the whole place kept me captivated for more than an hour. I watched as they sky segued through paintbox colours – pink and orange, purple, then dusky blue.
The sun sank behind the trees; the moon rose ever higher and became bright. Slow, pulsating lights appeared at the top of the skyscrapers and planes flashed across the sky, flying under the moon.
I was tempted to wait until all the lights came on across the city, but it was getting colder by the minute and I was a little worried about finding my way off the Heath in the dark. So, once I had to pull on my gloves, I decided it was time to go.
Ten minutes later, I found myself in Starbucks, ordering a chai latte to warm myself up, while outside taxis and red London buses whizzed up and down the busy street. It felt like I had been so far away from London, yet it had still been here all along.
What a very blessed place London is, to have countryside right inside the city. I know I will be back at Hampstead Heath for my next country fix after a few more tube journeys.