Hampstead Virtual Tour Preamble

David here. My Hampstead Virtual Tour is just about ready to go. (It’s been five months in the making – that’s how rich the seam of ore I’ve been mining is.) In a few days I’m doing a trial run for a West Hampstead Community Group. In consequence, I’ve decided to open the Virtual Tour with a preamble about the Hampstead-West Hampstead dichotomy. This podcast is taken from that preamble.


London calling.

David here.

Next Tuesday I’ll be doing a trial run of my Hampstead – Hampstead Village & Hampstead Heath Virtual Tour.

I’ll be doing it for a local community group here in West Hampstead, where Mary and I live. The GHQ if you will of London Walks.

And because the audience will be made up entirely of West Hamsters I’m going to begin the Hampstead Virtual Tour with a little Preamble that’s about West Hampstead in relation to its bigger, richer, better known, in some ways more favoured brother: Hampstead.

To get the relationship in perspective you might think of Prince of William and his younger brother Prince Harry. The heir and the spare, so to speak. Before Harry and Meghan lit out for the territories (as Mark Twain puts it in Huckleberry Finn) they and their good ladies were both, when they were in London, living in Kensington Palace. The heir, Prince William, the older brother, the future King of England, has a 21 room, four storey apartment in Kensington Palace. The spare, Prince Harry, the younger brother, had to make do with Nottingham Cottage. All of two drawing rooms and two bedrooms. 

So, yes, at first blush you could think of Hampstead as Prince William and West Hampstead as Prince Harry.

I’ve been known to describe West Hampstead as “poor man’s Hampstead.” Ok, that’s really a bit of reverse snobbery on my part. The people who live in West Hampstead most certainly are not poor. But for the most part, they’re also not super wealthy the way a lot of people in Hampstead are. 

When I’m really on a riff with my reverse snobbery I sometimes say, “yeah, West Hampstead – or East Kilburn if you’re being down and dirty truthful about it.” 

Anyway, I’m going to open the Hampstead Virtual Tour for those frightfully nice, jolly West Hampsters by quoting that wonderful Niklaus Pevsner assessment of West Hampstead – of where we live. Niklaus Pevsner was that indefatigable Ukrainian who seemingly visited every single street and building of importance in this country and wrote them up in his invaluable Buildings of England series. The whole series runs to 46 hefty volumes, six of them on London alone. Anyway, in the Northwest London volume that West Hampstead figures in – Pevsner sniffily says, “West Hampstead need be visited only by those in search of Victorian churches. The houses and streets require no notice.”

That wonderful quote having lit the fuse I’ll go on to give them a short synopsis of our – Mary’s and my – personal history. That when we moved up here 45 years ago I – being an American – of course had my heart set on living in Hampstead. But being young newlyweds we of course couldn’t afford Hampstead and so had to settle for West Hampstead. 

All these years laters I still have vivid memories of Mary saying, “it’s going to be all right – West Hampstead has a lot going for it. In lots of ways it’s better than Hampstead.” She was right of course. Mary’s always right.

What she was on about was that, as she put it, “West Hampstead has useful shops – a hardware shop, a butcher’s, a greengrocer, etc. – whereas Hampstead just has snooty boutiques.” 

I have to say here, how things have changed. West Hampstead now seems to be nothing but coffee shops and trendy cafes and estate agents. The Boring Old Hardware Shop – yes, it really did call itself that – is now, alas, a fond but distant memory. 

And to that opening gambit – real shops, useful shops as opposed to snooty boutiques – Mary was always quick to add, “the transport in West Hampstead is SO much better. We’ve got the brand new Jubilee Line, Hampstead’s got ‘the Misery Line.’” Love it. The Misery Line, the sobriquet the decrepit Northern Line was damned with even half a century ago. And then she was off. Mary’d add, “with the C11 and 139 and 328 we’ve got much better bus services. And we’ve got those two great railway lines. If we want to go to Richmond we just hop on the train and go straight to Richmond. Everyone else in London has to vector in and then vector out. West Hampstead has the best transport service and links in London.” 

Curiously, there’s an exquisitely observed moment in a recent episode of The Crown that put me at any rate, however glancingly, in mind of the Hampstead-West Hampstead dichotomy. 

Princess Margaret calls on the Queen and when she arrives the Queen asks her if she’d like tea. Princess Margaret says, “yes, please.”

The Queen pours it. I was amused no end to see how fine their touch was. They’d got a minute particular exactly right. In short, the Queen pours the tea into the cup first. And then the milk. In days of yore, that sequence in “the tea ceremony” so to speak was a class indicator. The “one percent” – I think we can use that phrase here – always put the tea into the teacup first. Everybody else – well, the lower orders – put the milk into the tea cup first. Followed by the tea. What’s going on there in that tiny and seemingly trivial matter of sequencing is that the 1 percent are demonstrating their superiority – their wealth – because only expensive, high quality bone china was proof against the heat of boiling water. You pour boiling water into clumsy earthenware mugs the heat cracks them. That’s why the poor put the milk in first – to in effect protect the vessel from cracking. The rich are demonstrating that they can afford really expensive, high quality china by putting the tea in first. 

The kicker, though, is that the tea tastes better if the milk goes in first. You put milk into a teacup full of boiling tea the hot water singes the milk. It imparts a slightly bad taste to the infusion. Milk in first and then the tea in – in a comparatively fine stream – that singeing of the milk does not take place. It just tastes better. The working class way of doing it is better for the taste buds.

Well, can you see the connection? If you want to demonstrate your social superiority and deeper pockets you live in Hampstead. If you’re not drawn to that – if you set more store by practical matters – better transport links, better shops, etc. – that when you get right down to it make for a higher standard of urban living, well, West Hampstead will do you very nicely. And if truth be told, I suspect that West Hamsters from time to time even feel a little bit sorry for those poor benighted souls struggling on in Hampstead. 

And then, finally, there’s the matter of the compass point. West Hampstead really is part of Hampstead. It’s the western end of Hampstead. The West Hampstead High Street is West End Lane. The lane in the western part of Hampstead. And we all know that right across Europe the best neighbourhoods, the most desirable neighbourhoods, are in the western part of town. Has to do – believe it or not – with the direction in which the world turns. The earth rotates eastward. Which in turn means that the winds predominantly blow out of the west and southwest. And given the sanitary arrangements – prior to about 150 years ago – you did not want to live downwind, did not want to live to the east. By way of example, in Shakespeare’s day the stench was so overpowering that downwind you could smell London from twenty miles away. Which in essence is why poor districts were in the east and wealthy districts in the west. Well, West Hampstead is west of Hampstead. Ok, I’m being a little bit facetious here, but as Jake puts it right at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Not forgetting that “jakes” was an Elizabethan euphemism for – I’m not going to mince my words here – shit house.

So having got our West Hampstead house in order, let’s move on to Hampstead, take our Virtual Tour of Hampstead.

Well, that’s what I’ll be saying next Tuesday to close out the preamble. Here I’m saying it to close out this podcast. 

Been a good day for us here in London. We’ve been paroled. As of next Wednesday, December 3rd. We’ll be back out on the streets. Walking, exploring, guiding London. When the news came through that London’s in Tier 2, that we can guide again, I literally felt a lift, a surge of energy. E equals MC squared. Elation equals marvellous comfort squared.

C’est tout.

That’s it from us at London Walks  tonight.

All bestest to all of you. Stay well. Keep safe. Come back soon. You’re missed. You’re a big part of the London buzz. We want our city back. Which means we want you back…. 

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