With this week’s guest post we travel to London but away from the oft-visited sights and attractions of Britain’s capital and into a little-known neighborhood in its northern reaches. Julie of A Lady in London takes us around Hampstead, her adopted home that she describes as “a little English country village just on the edge of the city center”. With Julie, we discover Hampstead’s hidden parks, secret gardens and pretty side streets lined with historic red-brick homes.
London has been done. Most people traveling to England have visited the capital city. They’ve seen the Tower of London, they’ve walked through the National Gallery and the Tate Modern. It goes without saying that Big Ben and Hyde Park have figured into their itineraries.
When I first moved to London two and a half years ago, I took the advice of a friend who told me to live outside of Central London. She suggested Hampstead, which, as it turned out, was a little English country village just on the edge of the city center. It offered the best of both worlds: a neighborhood feel with an easy commute to Central London. I moved in.
Just fifteen minutes on the Tube from the heart of the city, Hampstead is a great escape from the crowds, both of the tourist and the working variety. The neighborhood has a plethora of trendy boutiques, gourmet food shops, and one of the best cinemas in London, Everyman Hampstead (think comfy couches with waiter service before the show). It also has Hampstead Heath, one of the largest parks in London, and a host of tiny museums, including one dedicated to Keats and another to Freud.
But the real charm of Hampstead lies outside of the frequented areas, away from the Heath, and out of the museums. The hidden parts of Hampstead are what I have come to love so much about the neighborhood.
For example, there is the Pergola Garden behind the stately Inverforth House. Situated on one of the highest points in London, the garden is bursting with bright yellow irises and creamy white roses. The high trellised walkways drip with wisteria as they lead to a reflecting pool encircled by manicured lawns. The fact that nobody but the locals seem to know about the garden makes it even more appealing on sunny days when all of London seems to be on Hampstead Heath.
Further up the road is Hampstead Garden Suburb, a planned community developed in the early 20th century as a social experiment for class harmony and peaceful living spaces. While uniform, the huge homes and hemmed hedges of the suburb are beautiful to behold, and one can lose track of the hours while exploring the area. On the edge of the suburb is the verdant Hampstead Heath Extension, another quiet park that is rarely frequented by anyone but those in the neighborhood.
Back in the village, there are more hidden Hampstead charms. Walking down any side street takes a visitor past historic red-brick homes. These are punctuated every so often by an impressive work of contemporary architecture or a house belonging to a famous literary figure (Robert Louis Stevenson, to name one). These small surprises render every neighborhood stroll an unintentional treasure hunt.
In the spring and summer the neighborhood’s gardens are brimming with color. Every few streets a cozy pub or a tiny church surprises with its ability to blend seamlessly into its surroundings. Streets are often so narrow that holding out one’s hands inevitably means touching the walls of the homes on either side. Mysterious and inviting staircases lead to picturesque mews and small gardens dotted with lavender and rosemary. Every once in a while an iconic red phone booth stands lonely in the background.
No, Hampstead is not Central London. It doesn’t have the world-class art of the Tate Britain or the pomp and circumstance of the changing the guard at Buckingham Palace. But as a place to live and breathe, to step away from the throngs of the city center, it is London’s paradise.