Hampstead Heath's recovery after a lockdown trampling

Temporary fencing at Hampstead Heath's Mixed Pond

Temporary fencing at Hampstead Heath's Mixed Pond - Credit: Marc Hutchinson

The Heath & Hampstead Society continued its conservation work throughout the pandemic and associated lockdowns.

Committees met regularly by Zoom and senior Heath Committee members had fortnightly Zoom calls with the heath superintendent and his staff. The fact that the society did not have to suspend operations meant that it was well placed to resume its activities in full after the third and last lockdown.

It is scarcely credible how quickly the Heath recovered in summer after the trampling it received during the spring lockdown.

Annual Heath visits had risen from 9 million to 17 million. Parts of the Heath were virtually impassable owing to the fields of mud that had replaced the grass.  

Moreover, visiting crowds radiated outwards to hitherto unexplored (and so undisturbed) areas of the Heath, which became destinations in their own right.  

But the combination of heavy rain and sunshine in late spring meant that the grass grew again surprisingly quickly even on the hardest-hit areas, most of this occurring without human intervention.

In the worst areas Heath staff and Heath Hands worked to speed recovery and they are to be congratulated for what they achieved.

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One element of the restoration has been the erection of a significant amount of temporary fencing to protect tree roots and areas damaged by increased footfall. Some visitors have complained about the fencing, but it has been thoughtfully and sensitively done: it is made of light timber and wire/rope, does not spoil views and will eventually be taken down. The fencing is an absolutely necessary current step on the path to recovery.

Not every piece of work in the restoration programme can be undertaken at once. Visitors will have noticed, among other things, the loss of views towards London from the statutory viewpoint on Parliament Hill by reason of the pause in crowning the trees on the southern slope; and the unrestricted growth of bramble all over the Heath. These and other remedial works will be carried out as soon as possible.

The recovery of the Heath has been complemented, in the context of the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Act of Parliament which saved the Heath for the nation, by the return to an almost-full calendar of activities and entertainments on the Heath itself.

The society staged a kite display in June that was so popular, especially with children, that it will be repeated in 2022.  There were concerts and a week of outdoor film showings near the athletics track (where the audience wore headphones for perfect audio reproduction) and it is intended that these be repeated next year as well.  

At present there is a charming Christmas Fair on the fairground site on East Heath Road. There are even plans very small literary festival next year. It is as if the lockdowns have stimulated a fresh appetite for such out-of-door activities.

Marc Hutchinson, chair of the Heath & Hampstead Society

Marc Hutchinson, chair of the Heath & Hampstead Society - Credit: Marc Hutchinson

We have also witnessed a gratifying recovery in Hampstead village, symbolised perhaps by the last-minute installation of Christmas lights and tree, organised by ward councillor Stephen Stark out of funds contributed by local businesses and the society.

A significant number of retail outlets in Hampstead, both local and chain/franchised (eg Gap Kids) closed permanently during the pandemic. Walking the High Street during the last lockdown, the number of abandoned premises was troubling.  

Nevertheless, a walk down the High Street today reveals new shops of all kinds, and builders and decorators at work in the last remaining unoccupied outlets. Planet Organic has opened a supermarket and Sainsbury's Local will arrive in the spring, so removing Tesco's monopoly. And the famous Magdala Pub has reopened at South End Green. The streateries have been a real success, for restaurants and customers alike, and are surely here to stay.

None of this recovery could have been confidently predicted during the lockdowns of 2020 and the pessimism of those times. As we look back on 2021, it is a time to be grateful for the recovery proceeding all around us.

Marc Hutchinson is chair of the Heath & Hampstead Society.