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Spring has Sprung on Hampstead Heath

Explore one of London's best-loved open spaces, a one-time spa and the scene of an unfortunate murder in the 1950s.

Distance 4.2 miles (6.8km)

Minimum time 2hrs

Ascent/gradient 344ft (105m)

Level of difficulty Hard

Paths Mainly well-trodden heathland tracks

Landscape Heath and woodland scenery and some impressive views across London

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 173 London North

Start/finish TQ 264858; Hampstead tube

Dog friendliness Keep on lead near Kenwood House

Parking Car park off East Heath Road

Public toilets Highgate


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1 Turn left outside Hampstead tube into Back Lane and on into Flask Walk. Continue down the hill past Burgh House and follow Well Walk, passing Wellside on the right until it reaches East Heath Road. Cross over and continue along the heath path.

2 Follow a tree-lined path for 200yds (183m), as far as a junction and a water tap. Continue for a further 100yds (91m) and turn left at a bench. The track narrows and zig-zags slightly before coming to a gate indicating the entrance to the 112 acres (45ha) maintained by English Heritage's Iveagh Bequest.

3 Bear left. The path descends gently and opens on to heathland. Follow this path to the right, on to a wider track. Pass some benches with views over to Highgate village. Continue ahead into woodland. If you have a dog, it should be on a lead now. Pass through a wooden gate along an ivy-lined path, passing two cottages, then bear right towards Kenwood House car park. (For a detour to the Spaniards Inn take the exit on to Spaniards Road and you'll find the inn 300yds (274m) on the left.)

4 To continue, bear right through the car park following signs to Kenwood House. Turn right, through the main gates. Take the path on the right of the house, through an ivy arch and on to a wide terrace that overlooks an expanse of grassland. Beyond the tea room take a left fork to a pergola, for fine views including Canary Wharf and the Post Office Tower. Next, take a path to the right, passing a metal gate.

5 Turn left, downhill, passing to the left of a lake. Keep ahead through some woodland and go through another metal gate. Continue along the track ahead, take the next left fork and head uphill. At a fork take the left-hand path, which then descends. Follow the tarmac path past a pond.

6 Pass three more ponds to turn sharp right after the last one, along a path that climbs uphill. At the next junction follow the right-hand path to the top of Parliament Hill. Continue down this path, through the trees and between two ponds. Head uphill for 50yds (46m).

7 Turn left. After 250yds (229m) bear right on to a wider track, following it to East Heath Road. Cross over into Devonshire Hill and turn first left into Keats Grove to visit Keats House. Otherwise continue along Devonshire Hill, turning right at the end into Rosslyn Hill, then back up to Hampstead tube.

A walk on the sprawling Heath, just 4 miles (6.4km) from central London, is the perfect escape from the pressures of city life. Hampstead first became fashionable in the 18th century, when the discovery of spring water transformed the village into a Georgian spa town. There was no stopping the writers, poets and painters who were attracted by the green, open spaces and healthy aspect. This remains the case today, although the only spring water you'll find now is that produced by the large manufacturers and sold by the bottle in shops and pubs.

Hampstead has another claim to fame or, perhaps in this case, notoriety. The village was the scene of a murder that signalled the end of capital punishment in this country. The crime was committed by Ruth Ellis, who became the last woman to be hanged in Britain. Near the end of the walk, in a road called South Hill Park, is the Magdala Tavern. Ruth Ellis was a hostess at a nightclub in Soho. During this time she had a stormy relationship with a racing driver, David Blakely. When he ended the affair Ellis first caused a disturbance outside his Hampstead flat. Two days later, as he left the Magdala Tavern, she took a gun from her handbag and shot him - he was dead on arrival at hospital. The case aroused a lot of public interest and although a newspaper paid for two defence barristers at her trial at the Old Bailey, Ellis remained adamant that she intended to kill Blakely. With no doubts about her guilt, the jury took less than 30 minutes to agree on a verdict, and the rest is history.

Aside from that episode, Hampstead remains pretty much untainted by modern life. There are plenty of opportunities for you to wander off in to the wilder side of the Heath should you wish. Indeed, one of the delights of this area is in exploring the many pathways that criss-cross the grasslands and delve into woodland. If you use the directions as a base and decide to veer off the beaten track, you shouldn't have many problems finding your way back to the main paths.

Covering almost 800 acres (324ha), Hampstead Heath contains 25 ponds and a mixture of ancient woodland, bogs, hedgerows and grassland. Many writers seeking inspiration have discovered that this environment is the perfect antidote to writers' block. In fact, Keats had one of his most creative periods after moving to Hampstead. No doubt he was inspired by the wonderful vistas and the variety of walks that make the area so special, both to locals and to its millions of visitors each year.

Where to eat and drink

The café at Kenwood House, with its outdoor herb garden and sun canopies, is a pleasant place for lunch or a lighter snack. If it's a pub you're after, head for the Spaniards Inn. This was once a toll booth and is nowadays notorious for the way it causes a bottleneck for traffic trying to pass. Inside, the good food may be enjoyed in snug, oak-panelled rooms with open fires and low ceilings.

What to look for

Built in 1703, Burgh House was the home of Dr William Gibbons, who first highlighted the medicinal qualities of Hampstead's spa water. Just past this, notice the plaque on Wellside, a residential house built on the site of the original pump house. The painter, John Constable, lived at 40 Well Walk for ten years. He is buried in the nearby St John's churchyard.

While you're there

Keats House is a Grade I listed building. He wrote Ode to a Nightingale here, apparently after hearing one sing in the gardens of the Spaniards Inn. Many of his personal possessions are also on display. After finishing his training at medical school Keats chose instead to be a poet, after a long-time interest in Elizabethan writers. It wasn't long before he was introduced to Shelley, Wordsworth and Hazlitt.


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