The best views across London are from Parliament Hill, the Tumulus field, the Pergola (the Hill Gardens), Judges Walk, Whitestone Pond, and the Vale of Health. As for the Heath itself, this is a short history of the main sights and features. Parliament Hill Fields and East Heath make up the southeastern Heath, while West Heath, North End & the Heath Extension - as their names suggest - are the woodier areas to the northwest. The ponds are scattered across the Heath, but the most well known are the Hampstead Ponds between Parliament Hill and Pryors Field, and the Highgate Ponds on the Highgate side (northeast) of Parliament Hill Fields.
You can find most of these landmarks mapped here.
Parliament Hill Fields & East Heath
Parliament Hill offers fantastic views of London. Legend has it that Guy Fawkes and his fellow 1605 Gunpowder Plot conspirators stood on the Hill as they looked toward parliament, waiting for it to blow up, earning it the name Traitors Hill for almost a century. It gained its current name while it served as a point of defence during the English Civil War for troops loyal to parliament. Today, Parliament Hill is one of the busiest parts of the Heath, and a very popular (and fitting!) spot for watching the fireworks on Bonfire Night, or New Year’s Eve. There are no official fireworks here but you can see them shooting up across London. Often, some generous soul brings a few fireworks to make the assembled crowd ‘Oo’ and ‘Ah’, and there’s usually a collective countdown to mark the turn of midnight on New Year’s Eve.
Situated in East Heath between Whitestone Pond and the Vale of Health, the Pound was built in 1787 to hold roaming pigs. Pigs used to be taken to the Heath by their owners to root about for food, but stealing resources from the Heath was a punishable offence. An elderly keeper of the manor of St John’s Hampstead, one John Stevenson, used to round up the pigs and hold them in the Pound. The Pound still stands to this day, but no pigs, though.
The Vale of health
The Vale of Health, known many years ago as Hatch’s Bottom (or maybe Hatchett’s), is situated in a basin near one of the Hampstead ponds. The poet Leigh Hunt came to live here in 1816, and his house was on the site of the Vale of Health Hotel. For many years it hosted fairs.
Preacher’s Hill is named for one George Whitfield who used to preach for daytrippers to turn away from the horse races held in those years and toward god, in 1739.
The Stone of free speech
The Stone of Free Speech is on the way down Parliament Hill, to the east. It’s origins are sketchy, but it’s thought that the Stone was a focus of religious and political meetings around 200 years ago, and until fairly recently it had an inscription on it to the effect that the space around the stone is available for public meetings. If anyone reading happens to the full inscription, let me know!
The Tumulus might seem to be just a cluster of trees on a small mound by the footpath from Well Walk to Merton Lane, but it’s been a distinct Heath landmark for centuries. Noone really knows what it is. Once thought to be Boadicea’s grave (it’s not), another local legend says it was the site of an ancient battle between two tribes, and that it contains the ‘dust of the slain’. Paintings from 1725 by William Stukeley of this spot showed a flat mound surrounded by a ditch marked “Immanuentiitumulus”, with an inscription that read “It was the tumulus of some ancient British king before Christianity”, but that also appears to be wrong. The site was excavated in 1894 and no trace of any burial was found, and in any case maps from the 16th Century show the area covered in dense woodland – any older burial mound would have been destroyed by tree roots. The explanation considered most likely is that the mound was made in the 17th Century, possibly for a windmill after the woodland was cleared, and the trees planted later (though there are no paintings of that windmill, and lots of paintings of the trees).
Elms House (The Elms), off Spaniards Road near Jack Straw’s Castle, stands on the site of Mother Huff’s Tea Garden, which flourished for 50 years from 1678 and was mentioned in a play in 1706. By 1728 Mother Huff herself had moved to the ‘Hoop and Bunch of Grapes’ at North End. The Elms House was home to Thomas Erskine (later Lord Chancellor) from 1811-1819, became St Columba’s hospital in 1957, and was later owned, but rarely inhabited, by Woolworths heiress Barbara Hutton. In 1981 it was sold to the president of the United Arab Emirates but it remained unoccupied and in 1987 was sold to developers and turned into a series of luxury flats.
West Heath, North End & the Heath Extension
West Heath, North End, Sandy Heath and the Extension are separated from the rest of the Heath by Spaniards Road. Unlike the rest of the Heath, this area is cut through by a few roads - West Heath sits to the right of North End Way, Sandy Heath and North End are sandwiched between North End Way and Spaniards Road, while the Extension lies to the north of Hampstead Way.
Golders Hill Park & mansion, west heath
The Park was once the grounds of another 18th century mansion, built by Charles Dingley in the 1760s after he converted his own house for William Pitt the Elder. Its last private owner was Sir Spencer Wells, surgeon to Queen Victoria and President of the Royal College of Surgeons, and it was put up for auction after his death in 1897. Thomas Barratt, chairman of A&F Pears (the soap company) obtained it briefly before its grounds were bought by the London County Council in 1898 for the public. The house became Manor House Hospital during the First World War, but sadly it was bombed and destroyed in 1940 during the Second World War. These days, it’s a park with tennis courts, a playground, bandstand and putting green, and there’s a restaurant at the top on the site of the original house.
Judges Walk, west heath
Judges Walk, which starts near Jack Straw’s Castle, shows up on plans of London from as early as 1745. Legend has it that Judges Walk acquired its name during the Great Plague of 1665, when the judges abandoned London and held court under cover of canvas, temporarily, at the edge of Hampstead Heath, though the accuracy of these stories is unknown. Constable lived in at 2 Lower Terrace, the next road over, during 1821.
Inverforth House, The Pergola & Hill Garden, west heath
The Pergola and Hill Garden is an old Georgian building and gardens, created after Lord Leverhulme bought a large town house on the Heath edge called the Hill. He acquired the surrounding land and built the Pergola. The house was later bought by Andrew Weir, first Baron Inverforth, after Leverhulme died in 1926, who left it to Manor House Hospital when he died in 1955. They named it Inverforth House in his honour. The Pergola and Hill Gardens were restored and opened to the public in 1963.
Pitt’s Garden, north end
There was once a mansion on this site, built by a Charles Dingley in the 1760s. It was here that William Pitt the Elder, who was the British leader during the Seven Years War and Prime Minister from 1766-68, lived during a serious illness and nervous breakdown in 1767. It appears in a news article in 1908 titled The House In Which Great Britain Lost America. The house had been known through its history as North End House, Wildwoods, and then Pitt House, but it was demolished in 1952. All that remains now is a large garden, and a single wall and archway.
The Avenue and The Firs, North end
These aren’t marked on the map - the Avenue branches off Sandy Road, toward the Spaniards Inn and the Firs toward the northern edge of North End, near the Spaniards. The Firs earned the nickname Constable’s Firs because of the artist’s habit of painting them.
Wyldes Farm, Heath Extension
In medieval times this area was the property of the Leper Hospital of St James. The history of Wyldes Farm itself goes back as far as the 15th century, when a farm its estate of what was then wild, open country was purchased by Eton College in 1449. The farmhouse itself dates back to about 1600. It was let to a John Collins, a small dairy farmer in the early 19th century, and was known for a time as Collins Farm before becoming the home of artists and well-heeled Bohemians a few decades later. It has an impressive list of past occupants and visitors, including the painter John Linnell, who is said to have entertained William Blake and Charles Dickens in his four years there from 1824. Charles Dickens lived at Wyldes Farm as a young man, just for a few weeks in 1837. Charlotte Wilson (1854-1944), a notable ‘Fabian-turned-anarchist’, founded the an informal political study group for ‘advanced thinkers’ called Hampstead Historic Society which met at Wyldes Farmhouse, leading George Bernard Shaw to describe Hampstead and these meetings as ‘the birthplace of middleclass socialism’. Sir Raymond Urwin, co-planner of the Hampstead Garden Suburb, lived at Wyldes Farm from 1906 until his death in 1940. It survives today as The Old Wyldes at the junction of Hampstead Way and Wildwood Road.
Walter Field Memorial Fountain
The Walter Field Memorial Fountain is in Sandy Heath. He was a landscape painter born in 1837, who exhibited at the Royal Academy. He died in Hampstead in 1901, and his family was connected to the movement to acquire the Heath Extension. The fountain was erected by his sister in 1907.
Notable statues on the Heath include the Monolith Empyreum (1953) by Barbara Hepworth in the ornamental garden at Kenwood, ‘Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 5’ (1964) by Henry Moore in the grounds of Kenwood, and Golders Hill Girl (1991) by Patricia Finch, in Golders hill Park.