In praise of the less visited Heath Extension

Hampstead Heath Extension

Hampstead Heath Extension - Credit: Archant

This untraversed stretch of land boasts meadows brimming with wildflowers, says the City of London Corporation’s Conservation Team at Hampstead Heath.

The ridge of high ground delineated by the Spaniards Road splits Hampstead Heath in two. The area to the east, made up of Parliament Hill, Kenwood and East Heath receives many more visits, but the beautiful area to the west, which includes Sandy Heath, West Heath and Golders Hill Park deserves as much attention.

The Hampstead Heath Extension, also in this western part, is foreign to many, but ardently cherished by its regulars. It has a pastoral atmosphere unlike any other on the Heath. The geometric, patchwork-quilt layout of meadows divided by hedgerows hints at a landscape largely unchanged for decades. The land falls away to the north and affords views of the Hampstead Garden Suburb.

The Seven Sisters Ponds offer something different to others on the Heath, being rather small, in a tight line and forming a short chain of natural trinkets. These ponds were dug by unemployed labourers to provide water for livestock shortly after the Heath Extension was protected and added to Hampstead Heath in 1907. Spaniards Road is a watershed so the Seven Sisters disgorge their water to the north, feeding the Brent Reservoir, which itself feeds the River Brent, which ultimately empties into the Thames at Brentford.

The Heath Extension’s meadows provide sheltered plots brimming with wildflowers. Look for lady’s bedstraw, oxeye daisy, meadow cranesbill, knapweed and several species of vetch and listen for buzzing insect life as high summer approaches. The City of London Corporation is carrying out trials here to determine the best management for wildflowers, varying the times and frequency of cuts. The hedgerows that form the field boundaries are traditionally managed with wildlife and landscape in mind.

The ponds are some of the Heath’s best for dragonflies and their scrubby edges are attractive to mandarin ducks. Noteworthy plants include water figwort, broad-leaved pondweed and, around the water’s edge, meadowsweet.

The woodland holds good numbers of wild service trees, indicators of longevity, and the Heath’s only known population of broad-leaved helleborines.

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The Heath Extension has more than its fair share of benches in secluded locations. A sunny afternoon here with a book is a hugely attractive proposition that comes highly recommended.

Hampstead Heath’s grasslands attract roguish parties of starlings. Noisy and restless, they descend en masse and feed at speed in gregarious and charismatic gangs. The adult birds are blackish, with green and violet iridescence. This year’s young have a grey-brown plumage with white speckles on the underparts and a cream-coloured throat. Many people lump starlings in with crows, magpies and pigeons as ‘badly-behaved-birds’ that can dominate a feeding station and scare off goody-two-shoes blue tits, robins and chaffinches. But it pays not to let anthropomorphism get between you and the enjoyment of a truly fascinating species.