On Hampstead Heath and Thereabouts
My friend the writer Stephen Benatar lives in Hampstead, more or less, and we spent most of our time together on my visit walking. Up and down the streets, up on the Heath, to bookshops, to coffee houses–anywhere. Though it’s been a hideously wet summer in the UK so far, most of my time in London was sunny and warm enough to make our perambulations interesting.
I had never been to this part of London before. Stephen led the way from his flat down onto the Finchley Road, where we visited a bookstore run by his friend Danny. Here again I got to be Anne Britting Oleson, the poet from America (by now I was beginning to believe my own publicity); while Danny and I talked, I got to see, out of the corner of my eye, Stephen’s book-hustling acumen close up: spying a lady who looked indecisive about her choices, he suggested she try some of his novels. I had heard about it; I had read about it; finally, I was able to see the man in action. It was impressive. I can only say that, from the first time he worked the magic on me, 23 years ago when he was selling umbrellas and walking sticks at Smith’s on New Oxford Street, he has refined his approach.
After coffee–latté for me, caffé Americano for him–at a sidewalk café, we wandered off in search of Keats. Of course, once we found his house, we discovered that it wasn’t open; like a pair of cat burglars casing the joint, we peered in through the locked gates. We had a look in at a fairly impressive cemetery along the road, and Stephen pointed out the graves of famous people of whom I had never heard. (So ignorant, he called me; so insufferable, I countered–it’s a good thing we’re friends.) This is where I asked him to pose, looking writerly. Instead, he managed to look like he was attempting to break into the cemetery. Not for 25 more years, I had to remind him.
We continued up onto the Heath. According to the website HampsteadHeath.net, “THE HEATH is only a few miles north of central London! It is a glorious area of about 790 acres of sweeping meadows, magical glades, mysterious crannies, ancient woodlands, ponds <that the visitor can swim in or fish in>, valleys, hedgerows and ,of course, carefully preserved Heathland!” It is a storied place: I can’t remember all the books in which I’ve read about it, but again, it was an entirely new experience for me. The paths seemed labyrinthine, but Stephen seemed to know exactly where he was going. We passed by one of those ponds,
and, it being a warm day, there were in fact people swimming in it. We headed upwards, through groves of trees and out onto paths that skirted meadows. We passed, and were passed by, people walking dogs, pushing children in strollers, running, or, like us, just strolling. Birds–there were birds everywhere: many kinds with which I was unfamiliar. Trees, too, that I didn’t recognize: but when I admitted my absolute ignorance of them, Stephen demanded to know whether recognizing the species would increase my enjoyment of them. Well, yes, actually.
After we rested and sunned ourselves for a while on a bench, we continued up towards Kenwood House, which Stephen promised would be magnificent, and which, he informed me, is home to a lovely collection of Rembrandts.
But again, our bad luck held: once we made it up there, we found the entire front of the neo-classical house hidden by scaffolding. It being a National Trust property, however, the gift shop was still open; it was here that we learned that a) the house would be closed due to renovations and roof work until October 2013, and b) all the Rembrandts were in a travelling exhibition in the United States. Of course.
We walked downward again, coming out on the Spaniards Road, where the pub which gives the road its name was also shrouded in scaffolding. We pondered which
Spaniards might have given the place its name in 1585 as we squeezed past the tollhouse opposite, which reduces the road at that point to a single lane. Across the road, we entered the Heath once again, and continued until we eventually returned to the built-up areas of Hampstead. This time we were in some seriously upscale neighborhoods, and Stephen pointed out the homes of several famous people (of whom I was not ignorant this time), such as the actresses Emma Thompson and Joanna Lumley. Very nice houses indeed: gated, with intercoms, and, behind those gates, lovely lovely gardens. With flowers I could not identify, which reduced my enjoyment of them mildly.
We used up most of our morning and afternoon this way. I enjoyed it a great deal, primarily because I love looking at things I’ve never seen before, going to places I’ve never been. Of course, the conversation with my guide was by far the best part…even though he claims he can’t take me anywhere again, because somehow people figure out that I’m coming, and put up scaffolding. Besides: I’m terribly ignorant of so many things.
I did tell Stephen that I long ago learned the value of ignorance: because I recognize my own, I am able to go out and try to find out about the things which can fill up my knowledge gaps.
The following morning we walked again, making our way eventually to Belsize Park and Oliver’s Café for the morning coffee. Our waiter there, a handsome young man named Richard Jackson, told Stephen (in the way that everyone tells Stephen things) that he was an actor and playwright. At one point, when he’d stepped outside, I whispered to Stephen that Richard Jackson should be famous, because he was terribly good-looking and had nice teeth. Of course, Stephen being the kind of man he is, repeated that
word-for-word to the waiter once he’d returned. To his credit, Richard Jackson only laughed, then asked if I wanted to be his publicist. Poor man. If he only knew just how effective I’d be as a publicist, he never would have suggested such a thing.