An insider’s look at London
- Brixton Village indoor market: This covered market is one of London’s best foodie secrets – an array of independent cafés and restaurants mingling with fruit and veg stalls.
- Bermondsey Square Antiques market: Visitors browse for antiques on a Friday, some arriving at dawn to unearth the best treasures.
The hidden heath
“You don’t just stumble across this place,” says David Humphries, tree officer of Hampstead Heath and a man whose excitement at clambering up the nearest trunk puts even the keenest five-year-old to shame. “It’s a place for locals only, really. You’ll be lucky to see two dog walkers a day here, unlike the rest of the park.” Here on Sandy Heath – a serene wooded glen in the western section – there is a preternatural serenity. It’s difficult to believe that this peace can be found just a couple of miles from the frantic tumult of the City, nor in a park that attracts seven million visitors a year. “In spring, when it’s in full leaf,” says David, “you can’t hear anything except the rustle of leaves.”
David has worked at the heath for 26 years, first joining as a 16-year-old apprentice. Despite being London born-and-bred, he says that he was never a city type, and was always drawn to the rural lifestyle. The remarkable character of Hampstead Heath has allowed David to fulfil his dream.
Unlike London’s more sedate Royal parks, the true mark of the wild remains in the heath. Trees are allowed to grow in crooked angles or to fall to the floor, and dead stumps slowly rot (they are a vital habitat for insects and bats) while leaves are left to pile up and decompose. “Some other parks are more sanitised, like a Victorian pleasure park,” says David. “Every leaf is cleaned away so people don’t get their shoes dirty. On the heath, we’re more about leaving nature to its own devices.”
A short walk from Sandy Heath are the ruins of Pitt’s Garden, which once belonged to the 18thcentury prime minster, William Pitt the Elder. A red-brick arch is all that remains, incongruous amid the woodland. A huge beech has sprung up beside it, the roots pushing the wall of the arch over to such a crazy angle that David had to insert a support frame to stop it keeling over – a quick intervention to satisfy both the historians and the naturalists.
Across the road is Hill Garden, perhaps the greatest of all the heath’s hidden treasures. The huge stately home here has been turned into luxury flats, but the long, serpentine pergola walkway that winds its way above the grounds for a third of a mile is open to the public. Its stone path is lined with pillars that in spring are wound with wisteria and roses.
“Spring is a time of natural noise. You can actually hear the sap rising,” says David. “Summer is a time of buzz, the insects and crickets. And winter is a time of dormancy and silence. That’s my favourite time of the year, when the heath feels at complete peace.”
More ways to see wild London
- Highgate Wood: Buried in north London lies this of enclave of ancient wilderness. Great for bird watching.
- Nunhead Cemetery: A magnificent Victorian cemetary with looming monuments and crumbling gravestones.
Tales of the Tate
Imagine that in your hands lies an artwork worth millions of pounds. One accidental kick and you could go down in art history. “It does cross my mind from time to time” laughs Kyla McDonald, assistant curator at Tate Modern. “It can be a bit scary, but we have a huge team making sure that each painting or sculpture is transported and stored in exactly the right way.”