Hampstead Heath guardians to highlight past battles in first walk of 2018

PUBLISHED: 11:12 31 January 2018 | UPDATED: 11:12 31 January 2018

The ponds.           Picture: Patrick McLennan

The ponds. Picture: Patrick McLennan


The fascinating history of the Heath is to be revealed with the Heath and Hampstead Society’s unsuccessful legal challenge forming part of the organisation’s first guided walk of 2018. Society member Thomas Radice offers a preview of what walkers can expect to find out.

Two streams run south on either side of the Heath from the ridge that connects Hampstead to Highgate.

Originally, they met in Kentish Town to form the Fleet River, piped underground in the 19th century.

In earlier times there is evidence the Fleet was navigable up the confluence of the streams, but it would have been pretty unpleasant. Ben Jonson (1572–1637) described how every stroke of the oar ‘belched forth an ayre as hot as the muster of all your night tubs’. In other words, the river had become an open sewer.

Upstream, however, the streams and associated springs fed watercress beds right up to late Victorian times, and to this day it is safe to drink from the Goodison Fountain, off the upper part of Millfield Lane.

A century before Jonson drinkable water for the growing population was running low. In 1544, under Henry VIII, the City Corporation (responsible for London’s water supplies since the 13th century) was authorised to tap the Fleet’s headwaters by laying pipes, digging pits and constructing conduits.

In 1692 the Corporation leased the Hampstead springs to the Hampstead Water Company, who over two centuries created chains of reservoirs, first on the Hampstead side and then on the Highgate side. The present ponds on the Heath are the legacy of these activities.

The three largest ponds (the model boating and men’s bathing ponds on the Highgate side and the Hampstead No 1 pond), although no longer used as reservoirs, still rank as statutory reservoirs (having a capacity of over 25,000 cubic metres each).

The City of London’s recently completed ponds project was undertaken on professional advice to comply with its duties as a reservoir owner under the 1975 Reservoirs Act.

On Sunday, February 4, Marc Hutchinson will tell the story of the Heath & Hampstead Society’s unsuccessful legal challenge to the ponds project and invite participants in the organisation’s first guided walk in 2018 to form their opinions of the visual impact on the Heath, now that the engineering works have nearly finished grassing over 
and are blending into the landscape.

Heath & Hampstead Society chairman, Marc Hutchinson, will lead the walk and trace the history of the ponds. The walk leaves Burgh House at 10.30am.

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