How did Hampstead Heath become a heaven to fear?

Stina Lyon, walking on the Heath

Stina Lyon, walking on the Heath - Credit: Stina Lyon

Towards the end of 2019 I wrote a piece for this column enthusiastically headed “How the Heath rescued me from anxiety”.

At the time recovering from major surgery, I was learning to walk again, one step at the time, with the Heath underfoot as my daily solace.

Having loved the Heath all my life, I now discovered its glorious recuperative powers, the hope in its wilderness.

Now think what a year can bring. During this last Covid lockdown I, and many others, have slowly come to fear stepping on to its increasingly well-worn paths.

All, lest an eager and dangerous little invisible virus gets aerosolized our way from crowds of mask-less people chatting away in groups, or we break a limb from being knocked over by overenthusiastic bicyclists, puffing marathon runners or herds of bouncy canines, some of them as big as me.

I can but shake my fists against inescapable fate yet again putting spikes in the wheels of the best-laid schemes of mice and men, or in this case woman.

I have learned to negotiate the mud on the side of asphalted paths full of families without falling over, but the slippery ice hidden there is equally treacherous.

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So, a self-reminder is in order. Where else can millions of Londoners go for much needed and encouraged exercise, fresh air and the opportunity to meet friends, when the virus locks them into small confined spaces all across the city? How can children be let loose to run freely on small balconies and in asphalted car porches? The Heath has now become everyone’s rescue from pandemic anxiety.

All one can plead is that as nature asks to be treated with respect, please respect others too. We have to learn to share.

My husband and I now get out early in the morning when the space is almost empty apart from the ever-present herons, the swans and their rowdy teenage cygnets, squirrels flying around like monkeys, tiny dormice, and birds of all kinds.

There are new rules of the road to learn. Does a cheerful but muffled “good morning” replace a broad smile? How can I smile with my eyes when the howling wind and rain make it look as though I am crying? A raised hand in a salute feels a bit militaristic, and it feels pathetic not to be able to hug a passing friend, most often as needy of a hug as I am.

Is picking up to throw away a dog poo bag dangerous, or shall I leave it for the overworked Health staff?

The only certainties are London continuing gloriously to appear at the horizon as the sun rises over the river mist, and that there will be another spring. Soon.

  • Stina Lyon has been a Belsize Park/Hampstead resident for 53 years and previously worked as an academic sociologist.
A heron at Hampstead Heath

A heron at Hampstead Heath - Credit: Stina Lyon