Hampstead Heath 150: The Disappearance of the old heathland

John Constable's famous painting of Branch Hill Pond on Hampstead Heath

John Constable's famous painting of Branch Hill Pond on Hampstead Heath - Credit: Cleveland Museum of Art (Public Domain)

I grew up as a boy in Hampstead in the 1940s. We lived in the heart of the village (in Mount Square) in a small house with no garden.

As a result, I was always being told to go out and play with my friends. Usually, we would roam the heath playing cowboys and Indians or teasing the two heath-keepers.

Since then, I’ve lived in Hampstead for over thirty years and whenever I pass through the village I recognise it as it was when I was young – apart from the ever-changing shopfronts. This, to an old man of 80, gives comforting reassurance.

The Heath, on the other hand, has changed. And by ‘"he Heath" I mean the old heath, the traditional commons on sandy soil that remained uncultivated for hundreds of years.

I mean the heath that Constable painted, the "west heath" and the "east heath" (acquired for the public in 1871), not the smooth, cultivated farmlands – Parliament Hill Fields or the Heath Extension – added later. These additions are very different from the rugged heath I used to love as a boy.

There are, it’s true, small vestiges of the old heath still to be seen, just below Judges Walk, for instance, or beside East Heath Road. But these, too, are slowly disappearing under woodland.

The Hampstead Heath I knew has become Hampstead Woods, and I find this upsetting. Woodland you can find everywhere. Heathland is rare. Parks we have in abundance, but the wild, rugged heath at the top of the hill was something else. 

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In the 1820s, Constable loved to paint it. In the 1940s and 1950s, on a fine day, you would always see artists on the old heath sitting at their easels and people in deckchairs or on benches admiring the views. These views – and the artists painting them – are now gone.

Most of the benches can no longer be seen, choked into disuse beneath the undergrowth.

Today, you’ll see crowds gathering on Parliament Hill or Golders Hill Park, but on the old heath people stick to the paths, rarely seated. Much of the woodland – seen as uninviting or inaccessible – is deserted. 

The old heath – unlike Hampstead Village – has not been preserved as originally intended. The 1871 Act, which saved the Heath for the public, stated that "the Board shall forever keep the Heath open, unenclosed and unbuilt on". Thankfully, it remains unbuilt on and unenclosed, but the "old heath" is no longer "open". 

Again, the act stated that "the Board shall at all times preserve, as far as may be, the natural aspect and state of the Heath, and to that end shall protect the turf, gorse, heather, timber and other trees, shrubs and brushwood thereon". This, too, has not been done.

The "natural aspect and state of the Heath", the "the turf, gorse, and heather’, has not been preserved.

You need only look at old paintings and photographs to see that it has changed beyond recognition.
I used to hope that the Heath and Hampstead Society (to which I belong) would persuade the City Corporation to comply with its duty. I now doubt it will do so.

Today, it seems to regard Hampstead Heath as a nature reserve. In fact, greater public use of the heath recently has been regarded as a nuisance. In its latest newsletter (May 2021), page 20, it emphasises "biodiversity" which, it says, "is under threat from our growing use of the Heath".

Birds and trees have become the key concern for many influential members of the society who, it seems, are advocating biodiversity notices on the Heath which will inform us that straying off designated paths is damaging.

That we have lost the old rugged heathland does not seem to trouble them. Maybe they don’t remember the Heath as it used to be. They are probably younger than me, and some may be relatively new to Hampstead.

They may assume that the Heath is as good as it ever was and that to talk of "woodland" as a problem makes no sense. If so, it will be hard to convince them that 50 years ago there was more beauty to the old Heath in its wild and natural state, and that far more people would then be seen enjoying the old heath, east and west. 

The Heath and Hampstead Society takes good care, fortunately, to prevent any new building near the Heath from spoiling our views, but the creeping disappearance of the old Heath beneath the advancing woodland has been accepted without any apparent concern.

Michael Chambers is a member of the Heath and Hampstead Society.