Today (February 23) in London History – Saving the Northern Heights

A red-letter day for London, February 23rd. The day the Northern Heights were saved. Arguably the most important conservation win in London’s history. This episode of the Today in London History podcast tells the story. It’s one of the key moments on David’s Hampstead walk.


This one’s near and dear to my heart.

42 years I’ve been a London Walks guide. Realised with a bit of a shock a year or two ago I’m now the doyen of London walking tour guides. Nobody’s been doing this longer than I have.

My personal repertory now runs to a vast assortment of London Walks – 58 in total.

My favourite of the 58 is Old Hampstead – the Village and the Heath. 

And what you need to take on board is how the Heath is the key to the whole thing. Without Hampstead Heath, Hampstead would be nothing all that special – just another very nice north London suburb. Canonbury, for example. Or Barnsbury. 

Hampstead Heath is the difference-maker. Hampstead Heath is what makes Hampstead the most desirable neighbourhood in London. And arguably the most desirable neighbourhood in the world. Certainly no other city in the world has anything like it. No other world city has a huge expanse of countryside right in the centre of the city. And by countryside I mean countryside. Hampstead Heath is not a park. A park is something manicured. Hampstead Heath – it’s in the name – is countryside. It’s an uncanny sensation. There are plenty of places on Hampstead Heath where you can get lost. It’s disorienting. You know you’re in the middle of a great metropolis. But it feels as though you’re lost somewhere deep in the countryside. No other city in the world can hit that note, can do that to you.

If you’re attuned to these things you can catch it in the name of the Heath and Hampstead Society. I’m a member, of course. It’s a very fine organisation. They produce a wonderful quarterly magazine. But the key to it is the sequence of the name. It’s not the Hampstead & Heath Society. It’s the Heath and Hampstead Society. The Heath comes first. It’s all-important. Without the Heath, Hampstead isn’t Hampstead. 

And that brings us to our anniversary: this day – February 23rd – in 1925.

I’ll walk you through it. Every Sunday morning I walk my walkers there. The terrain – if you know how to read – tells the tale. First, the battlefield. Yes, that’s right, a battlefield. My walkers don’t realise it – until I point out the telltale signs – and show them two, very rare 155-year-old photographs – but they’re moving across a battlefield there. It wasn’t dead soldiers – it was ground chewed up as if it had been groined by repeated artillery barrages – That in itself is a good measure of how titanic the struggle was to save Hampstead Heath. Anyway, across the battlefield and then we’re onto the Northern Heights. The missing piece to the puzzle. The piece that had to be saved if the mighty struggle – the 95-year-battle to save Hampstead Heath wasn’t going to be for nought. 

After a 40 year struggle they’d saved the first 200 acres in 1871. Then over the course of the rest of the nineteenth century they saved two other big chunks of the Heath.

The missing piece, though, was the Northern Heights. They had to get it. Not to get it would have been to fail at the last hurdle. And it was a close-run thing.

It’s such a special place up there. You’re up on roof of London. It’s London’s best panoramic. You can see for miles. On a clear day you can see the supports of the Dartford Bridge, the most downstream of the Thames bridges. It’s way down in Kent. Miles from London. You can see the Olympic Park. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. Manhattan on Thames – Docklands in other words. The Gherkin and the rest of the City of London skyline. The Dome – it looks like an albino tortoise undergoing a serious acupuncture treatment. And to the right, Westminster of course. And miles and miles in the distance the southern rim of the bowl of hills London nestles. It’s a fantastic spot. Thrilling spot. So exhilarating to be up there – in American football terms it’s London Skybox – and see all of London spread out before you. 

Just a little bit further along on the Northern Heights in Kenwood. The crown jewel of the Northern Heights. In the middle of the 18th century, William Murray, the Lord Chief Justice, bought Kenwood. He recognised immediately that the vast panoramic view was the key to the whole thing. And he took every necessary step to protect the view. Including buying Parliament Hill Fields so it couldn’t be developed. So in the 18th century the vitally important thing was to protect the view from the Northern Heights down to London and beyond. Come the 1920s that critically important axis was reversed. What had to be protected was the view up to and including the Northern Heights. They’d saved the rest of Hampstead Heath – but if the Northern Heights was developed, if the property piranhas had got their way, spaffed another Camden Town all over the Northern Heights – well, that would have been a disaster. 

And as I said, it was a close-run thing. In 1914 Lord Mansfield decided he was going to part with Kenwood and the Northern Heights. Sell it all off for development. It amounted to about 200 acres. It included two lakes and three of the Highgate ponds. Mansfield was finally prevailed upon to postpone the sale to speculators if £550,000 could be found to purchase it for the public. 

The public response wasn’t great. It looked to be too tall a mountain. But the war provided a stay of execution. 

And then it was do or die after the war. The people battling to save the Heath had to swallow what at the time they thought was a bitter pill – they just weren’t equal to getting the funds to save Kenwood AND the Northern Heights. The saving of Kenwood is another great story – I tell that every Sunday out there on the Northern Heights. And one day I’ll tell it here. But in the event Arthur Crosfield – I’m on my knees every night thanking the good Lord for sending that Warrington soap magnate to London – and his people were able to do it. Raise the money for the meadows and woodland south of Kenwood House. The purchases were completed on this day, February 23rd, 1925. They’d done it. They’d saved the Northern Heights. That’s worth raising a glass to every February 23rd. 

I do.

I hope you’ll join me. Wherever you are.

Good night from London on the day the Northern Heights were saved.

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