Starring Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson, Hampstead loosely tells the story of Harry Hallowes, ‘Harry the Hermit’, who was a homeless man who lived in a shack on Hampstead Heath for over 20 years until his death in 2016.
Harry set up camp on the Heath near Athlone House after he was evicted from his Highgate council flat in 1987, and won a legal battle for ownership of his plot (worth over £2 million) in 2007 through squatters’ rights, after developers tried to kick him out of his home.
Belle tells the extraordinary true story of Dido Elizabeth Belle, who lived at Kenwood House with her great aunt and uncle, the 1st Mansfields, for 31 years in the late 1700s. Dido was born into slavery, the mixed race, illegitimate daughter of the Mansfield’s nephew Sir John Lindsay and an enslaved African woman in the West Indies. She was brought to Kenwood by her father and raised as an educated gentlewoman alongside her cousin Elizabeth, at a time of extreme racism when the slave trade was at its height. Not much is known of her life, but her family was incredibly fond of her and her influence is thought to have played a part in key legal decisions that helped to bring about the abolition of slavery - her great uncle, the 1st Earl of Mansfield, was Lord Chief Justice at the time, ruled in 1772 that slavery had no precedent in English common law and had never been authorised under positive law. He also ruled against slave owners in the landmark Zong massacre case.
Kenwood House was undergoing restoration work when the film was released, so unfortunately the film was not shot here. Instead, the West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire stood in for Kenwood in exterior shots, and interiors were filmed at Chiswick House and other west London locations. Still, this is arguably the most heartening and mysterious story of Kenwood’s history.
elsewhere on screen
The 2006 film Scenes of a Sexual Nature, which actually contains no scenes of a sexual nature, was shot entirely on Hampstead Heath. Starring Ewan McGregor, Sophie Okonedo, Hugh Bonneville, Catherine Tate, Andrew Lincoln, Tom Hardy and others, it follows seven couples as they talk love, sex and politics on a sunny summer afternoon. The Heath also features in Notting Hill, mostly around Kenwood House where Julia Robert’s character was filming a movie, and in the 1950s films Dangerous Youth and The Noble Art filmed scenes on the Heath.
John Keats’ moved to Hampstead in 1817, and his famous poem Ode to a Nightingale was inspired by a bird he heard while at the Spaniards Inn, and written in the his garden at what is now Keats House. The poet Leigh Hunt wrote the first of his five sonnets, To Hampstead, invoking the Heath’s ‘sweet upland’ while in prison in August 1813. After his release, he settled at the Vale of Health in 1816 for five years. Shelley, Keats and Byron were among his visitors. The prominent Victorian women’s rights campaigner, poet and writer Bessie Rayner Parkes wrote a very long poem called London from Hampstead Heath, and Wordsworth wrote a very short one of the same name. The acclaimed poet and playwright Joanna Baillie lived in Hampstead for several decades at Bolton House with her sister, where she counted Wordsworth, Keats and Byron as friends and was, along with artist John Constable, a founding member of Hampstead Public Library (opened 1833).
Later, the novelist, playwright and poet James Elroy Flecker also wrote several poems referencing Hampstead Heath. James’s death in 1915 at the age of thirty was described at the time as "unquestionably the greatest premature loss that English literature has suffered since the death of Keats".
The Heath was as popular with the painters as it was with the poets. Most famously, John Constable spent his final ten years here, until 1837. Other artists who lived and painted in the area include Thomas Gainsborough and George Romney (both portrait painters, so no Hampstead Heath), Robert Finlay McIntyre, John Linnell, Ernest Stamp, Charles Ginner, Patrick Lewis Forbes and more recently, Gillian Lawson. Wyldes Farm, then known as Collins Farm, was home to John Linnell for four years from 1824 and Charles Ginner lived for several years at 61 Hampstead High Street until 1938.
In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Lucy Westenra lived and was buried in Hampstead. When Professor Abraham van Helsing and Dr John Stewart visit Lucy’s tomb they visit The Spaniards Inn and Jack Straw’s Castle, and Lucy abducts children playing on the Heath when she rises. The opening scenes of Wilkie Collins’ 1859 The Woman In White are set on Hampstead Heath - this is where Walter Hartright first encounters a strange woman, dressed all in white - though the Heath scenes in the recent film adaptation were filmed instead in Ireland. More recently, Hampstead Heath is a primary location in Will Self’s 2006 novel The Book of Dave, and Zadie Smith wrote about the Heath in NW and On Beauty.
Many authors have also lived by the Heath over the years, and countless more have been regular visitors. Famously, a distraught Charles Dickens escaped to Wyldes Farm for five weeks in 1837 following the unexpected death of his sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. He was writing the Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist at the time, both of which were being published as monthly serials and had hectic deadlines. Dickens is thought to have known North End well since his childhood, having visited with his father when he was trying to evade creditors, and visited the Heath and pubs like Jack Straw’s Castle and the Spaniards regularly throughout his life.
In 1934-1935, George Orwell (or Eric Blair, as he was born) worked afternoons in the Booklovers’ Corner bookshop on the corner where Pond Street and South End Road meet - now the site of Le Pain Quotidien. He lived in a flat above the bookshop, and later at what was then a dingy flat at 77 Parliament Hill. This was just after his Down and Out in Paris and London had been published, and he was writing his third novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying while he lived here. His work in the bookshop was the source of his essay Bookshop Memories. After Hampstead, he didn’t move far - his next stop was 50 Lawford Road, Kentish Town. It’s also said that CS Lewis was inspired to write the novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe while walking on the Heath on a snowy day.
The Kinks, 1968
Photoshoot on the Heath for The Village Preservation Society.
Photos by Barrie Wentzell.