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Hampstead Heath comprises 792 acres of varied, irregular groupings of heathland, woodland, fields and formal grounds. The Heath, which is London’s highest open space, is a survivor of the once great Middlesex Forest. Mainly south of it spreads the hill-town of Hampstead with its steep streets. More than two centuries ago it was a favourite refuge from London for wealthy lawyers, politicians and businessmen. By the early 1800s its fans included artists and literary men such as Gainsborough, Romney, Constable, Keats, Coleridge and Leigh Hunt.
Responsibility for the Heath, which has large tracts of ecological importance including a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) (so designated by English Nature because of its outstanding geological and natural history importance), has rested with The Corporation of London since 1989.
For more information about the management of the Heath, please see the Corporation of London Hampstead Heath website.
- Constable's Heath
The English painter, John Constable, chose Hampstead as the main focus of his later work. He first bought a house there in 1819 but didn’t move in permanently until 1827.
In his painting, Constable familiarised himself with Hampstead Heath by making innumerable studies of the same scenes under different conditions. The views westward from the heath, looking towards Harrow, for example, were tried again and again.
At Hampstead, Constable became more acutely conscious of weather as a continuous phenomenon, forever altering the appearance of the landscape; he became, indeed, more aware of the changefulness of nature as a whole.
- Historical Summary Of Hampstead Heath
Early 18th century Hampstead becomes a spa and a township arises South of the Heath.
Early 19th century Spa days are only short lived and it becomes an increasingly popular place for residence.
From 1829 Lord of the Manor (Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson) attempts to sell or build on parts of the Heath much to public disapproval. His efforts, which were intermittent over 40 years mostly failed.
1850s Sir Thomas tried in vain to turn the Heath into parkland. He also built a brickworks and increased extraction of sand and gravel from the Heath, an old, lucrative but environmentally unfriendly practice.
1860 Hampstead Heath station opens and the Heath becomes more accessible to the London population.
1869 Sir Thomas dies.
1871 Sir Thomas’ brother, Sir John, having inherited the estate, agrees to sell his rights over the Heath in the Hampstead Heath Act.
1888 The Heath finally becomes public property when the Metropolitan Board of Works (MBW) takes possession of 240 acres of land and stops sand extraction on the Heath.
1886-88 Thanks largely to the efforts of the philanthropic Baroness Burdett-Coutts, founder of the National Trust, the MBW is able to acquire a further 261 acres of the Heath.
1888 London County Council (LCC) is formed and takes over responsibility for the Heath, reviving fears that it might be turned into a municipal park.
1907 There is a major addition to the Heath with the purchase of the Hampstead Heath Extension with both public and private funding, to counter the threat of building which had arisen due to the planning of a new tube station at Golders Green.
1925 LCC acquires Paddock.
Mid/Late 1920s The house and estate of Kenwood, for generations the London seat of the Earl of Mansfield, becomes public property.
1939-45 During World War II, sand is extracted from the Heath to fill sand bags and the pits later filled with rubble from bombed sites in London. Oil from a lorry part kills many trees and bren gun carriers kill the last heather plants on Sandy Heath (now reinstated).
1948 LCC adds the gardens of war-destroyed houses to the Heath.
1954 LCC and Hampstead Council acquire part of Pitt House grounds.
1959 LCC acquires Hill Garden.
1986 Greater London Council (GLR), LCC’s successor, is abolished. A New London Residnary Body takes temporary control of the Heath, excluding the Kenwood Estate, which is transferred to English Heritage.
1989 Corporation of London assumes responsibility for the Heath and maintenance of Kenwood.
- Kenwood Estate
For three centuries or more, the estate of Kenwood has been a designed landscape combining formal gardens, parkland and woods.
A house of 1616 and lands passed to the third Earl of Bute around 1747, but he sold them in 1754 to William Murray, later the first Earl of Mansfield. Mansfield landscaped part of the farmland, created earlier by felling woods and expanded the estate from about 90 to 232 acres.
In 1914 the sixth Earl planned to sell Kenwood for building but then decided to sell it to the public. World War I halted his plans but a preservation council formed in 1921 bought 132 acres, designated Kenwood Fields and South Kenwood and it was opened to the public informally in 1925 and formally in 1928.
The first Lord Iveagh bought the house and grounds in 1925, mainly to own a suitable period house for his collection of pictures. When he died in 1927 the house, with the paintings and the surrounding park, became public by his bequest. Private trustees took over the house and the LCC the grounds.
Kenwood House passed to the LCC in 1949. When the GLC was abolished in 1986, the house, listed Grade I and grounds, listed Grade II in the Register of Parks and Garden of Special Historic Interest in England were taken over by English Heritage. Finally, in 1989 it was taken over by the Corporation of London along with the rest of the heath on behalf of English Heritage.
- Natural History
The higher parts of Hampstead town and all of Sandy Heath and West Heath are an outcrop, up to 25m thick, of Bagshot Sands, rare so near London. Much of East Heath and all of Parliament Hill Fields are on the clay of the Claygate Beds. In some places the sand appears coarse yellow, while in others it is finer and light in colour, mixed with loam and sandy clay. Below it lies at least 90m of London Clay, which is rich in fossils. Beneath that, lie the Woolwich and Reading Beds, Thanet Sands, Upper and Lower Chalk, Chalk Marl and Gault. In places the sand and gravel rest on spongy ground from which issue Hampstead’s many springs.
The cessation of grazing and the removal of sand and gravel during the war years has allowed trees and shrubs to take hold on former open heath. The effect has been to turn much of what was originally traditional heath into woodland. The Heath today contains areas of ancient woodland, bog, ponds, acidic grassland and other habitat types.
One of the Hampstead Heath Conservation Unit’s main tasks has been to restore the West Field Bog, a S.S.S.I. Encroaching birches have been removed, dams made to increase the saturated area and the site fenced to help re-establishment, protect the sphagnum moss and encourage bog plants to grow again.
Other important conservation projects include hedgerows and coppicing. Hedgerows are renewed and strengthened while new ones are established. Coppicing is an ancient method of woodland scrub management that involves cutting certain species to the ground to allow multi-stem regeneration and gives greater diversity of habitats.
The large number of visitors to the Heath causes erosion on some patches of land. These patches are reinstated by planting native species and keeping the areas fenced until the planting has become established.
New conservation projects, such as experiments to create wildflower meadows, have taken place and over-intrusive sycamores have been removed to allow new grass, flowers and other trees to grow.
Hampstead Heath offers a diverse range of habitats attractive to many birds such as sparrows, starlings, kestrels, nuthatches, tawny owls and woodpeckers, and small mammals, including voles, water rats, weasels, grass snakes, slow worms, badgers and hares.
- Hampstead Heath: its geology and natural history /prepared under the auspices of the Hampstead Scientific Society, 1913, T. Fisher Unwin, 328pp.
- City of London. The official guide to Hampstead Heath: Corporation of London, 1993, London History Pamphlets, 37pp.