Monday 13 April 2009

Travelogue: Culture and Nature

In the Victorian era, Hampstead Heath was thought of as a place where shop-girls could go to have fun. Now, in more straitened times, it is thought of as a place of general recreation, the city being unpromising if one wants to recreate oneself. The Heath is not really a heath. Rather, it's a hilly, tree-ish expanse, criss-crossed by paths, with many ponds and occasional views across London from some of its big grassy areas. It's about two and a half miles from east to west, and maybe a mile and a half from where we are living at South End Green (in the south) to Kenwood House on the Heath's northern edge. Many people find the exterior of Kenwood House, set amid luxuriant trees, to be magnificent. Pevsner (1952) describes it as "a plain house of seven bays." He concedes, however, that the additions by Robert Adam around 1770, of an orangery and a library on either side of the main house, did much to improve it. He particularly likes the interior of the library: "a large apartment with a segmental tunnel vault and apses at both ends, screened off in the typical Adam manner by giant columns supporting a beam-like entablature" (p. 365).

The counterpoint between culture and nature here has taken many forms. Around 1844, it is said, Sir Thomas Marion Wilson, Lord of the Manor of Hampstead, planned to build 28 villas, slap bang in the middle of the Heath (click here for more details). To give access to them he did build over a swampy valley a viaduct in red brick with five rounded stone arches. The roadway it carries is easily wide enough to accommodate pedestrian pavements flanked by iron railings, while leaving plenty of room for carriages to pass each other. The housing development was prevented by Parliament, but the viaduct remains, and the valley was drained to make a pond, which flows into a little stream. With its reflection on the surface of the pond, the view of the viaduct is probably the most painted, most photographed, scene in the whole of the Heath: a perfect synthesis of culture and nature.

And as you stroll on the Heath you see others strolling, many in the company of a dog, another perfect synthesis of culture and nature. Last week this was heard between a woman in a navy-blue overcoat and her Labrador:

"Come here, William. Immediately ... William, you're embarrassing me. Are you trying to show me up? Do you want people to think I'm not a good mummy?"

Nikolaus Pevsner (1952) The buildings of England: London except the Cities of London and Westminster. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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