Lovingly ignore your great aunt’s advice to attend the Changing of the Guard. Even put your friend’s suggestion of spending one full day at the National Gallery on the backburner. While those outings are distinctive for their historical spectacle and artistic value (and free of charge), a more unlikely, brassy way to dive into London awaits adventure-seeking travelers, and for cheap.
Instead, ramble off the beaten tourist path and head for the heath – Hampstead Heath that is. Situated in northern London, the 791-acre countryside offers a lush green atmosphere, unpaved footpaths, and vast open fields. A view of Hampstead Heath captures a touch of the English countryside that makes you wish you were a character in a Jane Austen novel. Looking back at the city from the heath’s highest point, Parliament Hill, gives you a full panorama of the London skyline from the Gherkin and St. Paul’s Cathedral to the London Eye and the BT Tower.
For only two quid (pounds sterling) and an even richer experience, tote along your bathing suit and towel and take a dip in the swimming ponds. There are three bathing ponds to choose from: the Men’s or Ladies’, which are located in the western section of the heath, or the mixed bathing pond toward the south. Two pounds gets you through the gate and off to your adventure paddling alongside the ducks and lily pads. The ponds are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer months, but it’s recommended you go during the heat of the day, as the pond water is quite chilly.
Hampstead Heath’s land was acquired through various acts of Parliament, starting in 1871. In earlier times, the grounds belonged to the surrounding residences, where Londoners have sought out fresh air since the early 1800s. This wonderland of green space is located just four miles from Trafalgar Square and is a short walk from the Hampstead tube stop on the Northern Line. On any given sunny day, the heath continues to attract families, cyclists, swimmers, and tourists, who stray off the page of their guidebooks into the woodlands, meadows and ponds that Hampstead Heath has to offer.
Best of all, along with getting great exercise in a beautiful, serene setting, you’ll also be able to tell all future London-goers, “You simply must spend a full afternoon in Hampstead Heath and go swimming with the ducks.”
© Mary Robbins