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Hampstead Heath’s vast and hidden history

PUBLISHED: 07:00 15 November 2020

The Tumulus circa 1890. Picture: courtesy of Michael Hammerson

The Tumulus circa 1890. Picture: courtesy of Michael Hammerson

Michael Hammerson

We all love the Heath, for its wildlife, its scenery and its peace; but equally magical, and more mysterious, is the Heath of which most visitors are unaware: the unknown Heath beneath our feet.

A view of the Saxon Ditch near the viaduct. Picture: courtesy of Michael HammersonA view of the Saxon Ditch near the viaduct. Picture: courtesy of Michael Hammerson

However the evidence shows that the Heath was occupied long ago and is the remnant of a vast historic landscape, most of which was destroyed by London’s expansion.

My own historical walks for the Heath and Hampstead Society aim to show things visitors have walked past a thousand times without even noticing, but which are fascinating clues of the Heath’s past.

The Heath has been used for many things in recent centuries; but three hundred years ago it provided London’s Water supply, it had mediaeval mills (Millfield Lane, once an important mediaeval road) and farms like Shirewic, near Athlone House. A farm is recorded in Domesday Book at Hamstede, and the land was given by the Norman Kings to Westminster Abbey; its boundaries are described in Anglo-Saxon charters; and there is evidence of occupation during the Bronze (2,500-800 BC) and Mesolithic (8,000-6,000 BC) ages.

Excavations on the West Heath by the Hendon Archaeological Society in 1976-81 found a nationally important Mesolithic site, with traces of huts and thousands of flints, while analysis of the peats in the nearby West Heath Bog yielded pollen and plant remains showing how very different the area was then.

Victorian boundary marker stones in the Saxon Dotch. HV stands for Hornsey Vestry. Picture: courtesy of Michael HammersonVictorian boundary marker stones in the Saxon Dotch. HV stands for Hornsey Vestry. Picture: courtesy of Michael Hammerson

From the Bronze Age is the famous “Tumulus”, once called “Boadicea’s Tomb” (without a shred of evidence!). An excavation was carried out here in the 1880s, but with the crude techniques of the time, nothing was found. It is now a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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But Bronze Age Burial mounds don’t come in isolation. There could have been others, now lost, and its presence, together with the exciting find of a Late Bronze Age feature on Parliament Hill in 2017, suggests that the two sites sat in a Bronze Age landscape, yet to be explored. No signs of Roman occupation have yet been found.

READ MORE: Dame Jenny Abramsky: Friends of Kenwood’s new chair on childhood memories and the ‘huge challenge’ facing English Heritage

Haymaking on the South Meadow, 1891. Picture: courtesy of Michael HammersonHaymaking on the South Meadow, 1891. Picture: courtesy of Michael Hammerson

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The Heath’s magnificent ancient oaks are well known; but on a map it can be seen that they form hedgerows (some of them becoming swamped by secondary woodland growth after the Second World War). These mark the boundaries of ancient fields, from the days when most of the Heath was Middlesex farmland, and have large ditches. Some are thought to be at least 500 years old, and the most remarkable, the so-called “Saxon Ditch” – so-called because it follows the line mentioned in the Saxon charters - follows the west boundary of the mediaeval Tottenhall Manor and can be traced from the southern end of the Heath right to the eastern edge of the Kenwood Estate. But, if it is at least Saxon (8th-10th century?), it may well mark farm or estate boundaries established in the Roman, Iron or even Bronze Ages. Our knowledge of the Heath’s archaeology is still minimal, because current academic thought frowns on excavating sites not threatened by development. However, a thoughtful programme of exploring the Heath’s archaeology would make a big contribution to our knowledge of the archaeologically underexplored north-west London.

The Ponds and their dams, which were recently a subject of intense debate, are of archaeological importance too. They were created in the late 16th and early 17th centuries to provide a water supply for London. A small excavation in 2009, and more extensive excavations during the Ponds project, found clay pipes, pottery and a hearth which could have been used by the Ponds work gangs, as well as stray flints.

There is so much more than can be covered here. Ken Wood is mediaeval in origin, Hampstead Lane is mediaeval or earlier – its original route, some 75 metres south of the present road, can still be traced by lines of trees and old boundary markers). The Flagstaff is thought to be the site of an Armada Beacon and the area near Whitestone Pond known as “The Battery” marks the site of a fort on a Napoleonic War defence line. What was the “White Stone” after which the Pond was named?

A map showing the ancient oaks on the Heath. Picture: courtesy of Michael HammersonA map showing the ancient oaks on the Heath. Picture: courtesy of Michael Hammerson

Enjoy spotting these features and trying to imagine what they were. But – if you find anything, particularly struck flints, please let us know, to help us build up our knowledge of the Heath’s mysterious history. And never relic-hunt on the Heath; it’s illegal, and will destroy the very history it unearths.


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