Today (July 18) in London History – Saving the Northern Heights

Red letter day in London history. On July 18, 1925 King George V declared Ken Wood – the ancient woodland, not the house – open. The saving of the Northern Heights was the final piece to the puzzle in the century-long battle to save Hampstead Heath. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Way in the distance, a disorderly fringe of trees and then rolling hills and fields beyond. But before you get to the trees, a sea of humanity. It’s a moment from July 18th, 1925. A moment frozen in time because it’s a photograph. I have the same reaction every time I look at it: Woodstock. August 15th, 1969. Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in upstate New York. The most iconic music festival of all time.

Well,  Woodstock if the 97-year-old image – I show it on my Hampstead Walk – were high-resolution kodak-colour photography instead of sepia and if the sea of people that rolls on and on and on in the photograph were dressed differently.

But no, it’s not Woodstock. It’s not 1969. Those aren’t young Americans. They’re Londoners. Wall to wall Londoners on Hampstead Heath on July 18th, 1925. 

They’re there to celebrate the saving of the Northern Heights. The culmination of London’s longest – it lasted for nearly a century – its hardest fought and its noblest conservation battle – the saving of Hampstead Heath.

Hampstead Heath itself is a kind of miracle. It’s a huge tract of countryside – wild and unspoilt beauty – right in the centre of the greatest city on earth. Indeed, Hampstead Heath is an important reason why London is the greatest city on earth. No other city has anything comparable to Hampstead Heath. You say Central Park. I say, “give me a break.” The clue – it’s a pretty obvious clue – is in the name. Central Park is a park, for heaven’s sake. It’s manicured. Every square inch of it is designed. Hampstead Heath is countryside – countryside smack dab in the centre of London. The sensation is really quite uncanny. You’re walking on Hampstead Heath – you can get lost on it – and you feel like you’re in the countryside. But instinctively you know you’re in the middle of a great metropolis. Bears repeating: no other city in the world can perform that miracle.

So let’s walk you through the history. And that noun I just used bears repeating. In stereo. It’s not just that Hampstead Heath is a miracle. The saving of Hampstead Heath was a miracle. Miracles, by definition, are things that aren’t supposed to happen, that defy the laws of probability.

But this miracle – against all odds, against all laws of probability – did happen.

Like all miracles, it hung by some very fine, delicate threads. Four of them to be exact. Had any one of them not been present Hampstead Heath would not have been saved.

What were those threads? First of all, a group – stretching over four generations – of fearless, determined, remarkable men and women. They were the spearpunkt, to use that German word. Had they not fought the good fight – over nearly a century – we wouldn’t have Hampstead Heath today.

Secondly, the complex pattern of absentee land ownership. It was a kind of patchwork quilt. That worked to the advantage of the people trying to save the Heath. Had it had just one owner – had the whole thing been the estate of some nobleman – there would not have been any stopping him. It was his land, he wanted to comprehensively develop it at one fell swoop he would have been able to do so.

Thirdly, timing. The good guys caught a huge break in 1914. Timing was on their side.

Lastly, topography. 

The gradient of the hill leading up to Hampstead was a hugely important factor. 

Now all of these are in effect just chapter headings. They need to be explored – explained – in detail. I do that when we’re out in the field – on my Sunday morning Hampstead Walk. Similarly, I take people over the ground of those four critically important points when I do my Virtual Tour.  But here I’m just going to set those four points out as markers. Mainly out of considerations of time. This podcast is the July 18th episode in the Today in London History series – and that’s where we’re going, that’s what I want to get to without further ado.

Well, without much further ado.

Final preliminary point here.

The battle to save the Heath lasted for nearly a century. We know exactly what Hampstead Heath would look like had that battle been lost. You want to see that counterfactual history go to Google Earth, do a search for Finchley Road, London. What it brings up, that’s what Hampstead Heath would have been turned into if the Save the Heath Stalwarts had lost the battle.

It hardly bears thinking about. 

The first skirmishes in the battle were fought in 1830. London was pushing north. Outposts, acorns like Camden Town and Kentish Town had burst out of their shells and were growing rapidly. It was like a sea that was rising fast toward Hampstead. It had to be held off. 

There’s a famous cartoon – I show it early on in my walk – that depicts dramatically the battle lines, the coming battle, what was at stake. 

Anyway, battle was joined. And a pitched battle it was. It was fought over a forty-year period. And come 1871, the Save the Heath forces emerged victorious. That year they got a good-sized chunk of it, 200 acres of so. Two other good-sized chunks were then saved in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.

That left the Northern Heights. The crown jewel. Ken Wood. Not Kenwood the ancient and very beautiful Jacobean House but Ken Wood – the 121 acres the Kenwood House stood in. 

It’s fascinating how the compass needle of the battle swung round exactly 180 degrees. When the Earl of Mansfield bought Kenwood House in the middle of the 18th century, its sweeping view down to London and beyond was of paramount importance. And he did what he had to do to preserve that view. He bought Parliament Hill Fields, for example, so it couldn’t be developed. Come the 20th century, though, things had changed. The land and house had been in the hands of the family for six or seven generations. But they stopped coming down – they were Scots. And thanks to changing inheritance laws, the property which had been an asset became a liability. They decided to sell it. That was a hugely alarming development for the Preserve the Heath committee. You can see how the needle swings round exactly 180 degrees. In Lord Mansfield’s day the important thing was to protect the view south, down to London. In the early 20th century, the important thing – the last, had to be won battle – was to protect the view north. If those 121 acres – some of them the last surviving remnants of the ancient Middlesex Forest – if those 121 acres had been sold and developed everything that had happened before, that decades-long war, fought and won up to just over a hundred years ago, would have been for nought. The Northern Heights was the missing piece, the crown jewel. They had to get it, save it. And against all odds – and with a huge stroke of luck in the timing department – it somehow happened. The miracle was complete. Well, nearly complete. Let’s revise our terminology ever so slightly. The Northern Heights was the setting, the crown jewel was Kenwood, the ancient stately home. And against all odds, that too made its way into public ownership. That crowning victory – yet another miracle – was two years in the future. 

But now let’s get a front-row seat for the July 18th, 1925 ceremony. Doing so, we’re joining those tens of thousands of Londoners – those Londoners who I said if you didn’t know better you might think that photograph of them was a photograph of Woodstock – and we’re joining the 2,500 specially invited guests. And King George V, accompanied by the Queen, is there to open the 32-acre woodland and the larger 121-acre estate of which it’s a part. The King, who was in splendid voice, has this to say: “It is a great pleasure to the Queen and myself to come here today and to open the Ken Wood to the public. Anything which increases the health and happiness of the people of London always has our warmest sympathy. The acquisition of Ken Wood is the happy conclusion of more than a century’s efforts to preserve this line of heights so that their beauty of form and vegetation may refresh eyes and minds wearied by continuous streets and houses, and their wide expanse serve as a recreation ground for a crowded city population. The topography of Hampstead Heath and its neighbouring open spaces, dominating as they do London on the north-west, makes their preservation of exceptional importance, and the crowning glory is the beautiful woodland under the shade of which we are met today. This fragment of the ancient forest of Middlesex retains a wild and unspoilt beauty, in vivid contrast to the populous streets below it, and will give to town-bred children a glimpse of the magic of primaeval woods and meadowland. Until recent years we were accustomed to regard the expansion of London as an inevitable and uncontrollable force, and could only regret the loss of so much natural beauty. Experience has now shown that while the growth of towns cannot be retarded, it can be so guided by enlightened public spirit that the development of new areas need not destroy the present amenities of the district. I have much pleasure in dedicating Ken Wood for all time for the use and enjoyment of the public…”

Wonderful words. Wonderful words uttered 97 years ago today. And they were spot on. Our Hampstead walkers this morning – we were the public, well, part of the public – and there on the northern heights – and indeed on the other tracts of the Heath that we walked across – we, members of the public, took much pleasure in the use and enjoyment of the wild and unspoilt beauty we walked into and across. 

And a Today in London recommendation? I think it has to be a visit to Kenwood House. 

And let us not go all random here. Let’s get specific. To be specific, August 14th. The Heath and Hampstead Walk in the morning. Starts at 10.30 from Hampstead Tube. Then lunch at maybe the Holly Bush or the Flask or the Horseshoe. And then whatever takes your fancy for the rest of the afternoon. You’re spoiled for choice. See the blog piece I did for a few weeks ago. It’s titled 52 Things to Do in Hampstead.

And then in the evening, at 7 pm, at Kenwood, Shakespeare’s great play, As You Like It, performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. You’ll see it performed as Shakespeare and his contemporaries first saw it – in the open air, by an all-male cast, with Elizabethan costumes, music and dance. Bring a picnic. And a lightweight portable, if you want.

How’s that for a perfect summer day.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

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