Hampstead: the Glebe on steroids?

by David and Jean Wright

Hampstead’s historic Burgh House dates from 1702.

Recent trips to London to visit our son and his wife have given us the opportunity to become acquainted with Hampstead, an area in north central London that bears many similarities to the Glebe.

Like the Glebe, it has preserved a village atmosphere in spite of being long since surrounded by the larger city. Its residents are highly educated, well-to-do, politically progressive professionals and it is home to many writers and artists. Like the Glebe it struggles to preserve its heritage, although with greater success since its new developments are modest in elevation and discreetly tucked away. A project such as Lansdowne would be unthinkable in Hampstead, and not a hydro wire in sight!

Just as in the Glebe, Hampstead is bisected by traffic. However, unlike the Glebe, it sits on the side of a steep hill. In fact, there isn’t a level street in the place; if Hampstead had winters such as ours, you would need crampons to negotiate its sidewalks. Hampstead has an excellent butcher, fine schools, an eclectic mix of restaurants and many up-market stores, like the Glebe, catering to the needs of its prosperous inhabitants – although at prices that would make any Glebite’s jaw drop. Hampstead is also well served by buses but, in contrast to the Glebe, it is also well connected to mass transit. Its tube station, the deepest in London, is almost 200 feet below ground level and is linked to the surface by an ancient, twisting flight of over 320 steps, and blessedly by a high-speed elevator!

La Gaffe restaurant and hotel, a local Hampstead institution

The Borough of Camden, its edgier neighbour to the south, swallowed Hampstead in 1965. This did not sit well with many Hampstonians. The Hampstead Village Voice, Hampstead’s satirical and opinionated version of the Glebe Report, habitually refers to the Borough as “Scamden.” The Voice is also a staunch defender of local businesses, reserving particular venom for outside interlopers such as Tesco, a large supermarket chain that it labels “Tesco-Stressco.” No potential slight is too insignificant to escape its eagle eye. The potential renaming of a local hardware store as “Lords of Notting Hill” drew the following comment: “This is Hampstead gawd damn it. Calling a shop ‘Such and Such of Somewhere Else’ is hardly respecting what’s left of the old Stead.” However, The Voice and its sister guidebook publication, The Hampstonian, do strongly support local institutions, such as La Gaffe, an excellent and somewhat eccentric Italian restaurant and hotel whose interior staircases, narrow passages and oddly-placed windows can make you feel that you have entered an Escher drawing.

Hampstead has had many famous residents (Wikipedia lists no fewer than 247), among them John Keats, John Constable, George Orwell, D.H. Lawrence, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, Katherine Mansfield, Rabindranath Tagore, Ian Fleming, Paul Robeson, Peter Cook and John le Carré. The town has a long history – first mentioned as “Hamstede” (homestead) way back in AD 972. As with the Glebe, it was originally church land, which in Hampstead’s case lasted around 500 years under the monks of Westminster until Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. Today it contains many fine historic buildings such as Fenton House (1693) and Burgh House (1702) as well as Church Row, a stately Georgian terrace, and Flask Walk, which is the most picturesque of its many quaint alleyways. A favourite destination for tourists is Keats House where the poet spent the last years of his short life and where he is said to have penned Ode to a Nightingale under a plum tree in his garden. Although the plum tree is gone, the garden itself is well preserved.

Viaduct in Hampstead Heath
Photos: David wright

Hampstead’s best known feature is the Heath: 800 acres of well-trodden, rolling quasi-wilderness presided over by stately Kenwood House, which was rebuilt by Robert Adam in the 1760s and which contains a fine art collection. Among its many masterpieces is a Rembrandt self-portrait in front of which we came across two women taking selfies, with the selfie. Hampstead Heath has its own Parliament Hill, its highest point, from which there is a magnificent view of London’s skyline. While you can just about make out the houses of Parliament 10 kilometres away, the Hill actually owes its name to the fact that it was defended by troops loyal to Parliament during the English Civil War.

Hampstead is well worth a visit. While it may be busier, more historic, more prosperous, more expensive, more traffic-snarled and certainly hillier than the Glebe, it has enough in common with us that no Glebite would feel out of place there. The Hampstead Village Voice is available online at www.hampsteadvillagevoice.com. The website also provides information on where to obtain copies of the The Hampstonian.

David and Jean Wright are retired public servants who have lived in the Glebe since 1983.

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