The need to get some fresh air and stretch ones legs is overwhelming after the pleasures of over eating and drinking on Christmas Day and there is no more glorious place to ”take the air” than on Hampstead Heath. Boxing day 2011, like Christmas Day has been unseasonably mild-temperatures nudging fifteen degrees c.-about nine above the average and fifteen degrees more than last years dramatically cold and white Christmas.
We parked at the bottom of Merton Lane with some difficulty, just above Highgate ponds where a cormorant was spreading its jet black wings perched on one of the orange buoys which marks the boundary for the swimmers. One man was braving the December temperatures, as a balding pate of a sixty something man bobbed up and down rhythmatically to an unflustered breast stroke. Not so cold today my daughter commented.
No wonder I had difficulty in parking. The paths up the field opposite and around the ponds were as congested as Oxford Street would be today-the first day of the Januray Sales. Families with young children in tow with their newly delivered Christmas bikes and scooters, dogs of every possible shape and breed (but of course no Stafford Bull Terriers-this is Hampstead after all) couples, holding hands tenderly, talking intently and hardly noticing the other walkers and runners.
Looking back, Highgate tumbles down West Hill with the TV and radio mast and the gold dome St. Joseph’s at the top of the hill and St. Annes spire at the foot with the black glass box of Archway Tower as a backdrop. We tramp up the hill crossing busy lines of dogs and people and haul ourselves up that last steep slope from the Hampstead side emerging triumphant at the top of Parliament Hill to join the kite fliers and the other voyeurs.
I never tire of this view of London. On a day like today with cloud cover high, virtually the whole city is on view. To the east the light purple grey line of the ridge of Epping Forest and then behind the Emirates Stadium the flatness of the Lee Valley punctuated by tower blocks and Kapoor’s red steel structure, the latter clearly visible and marking the site of the Olympic Park. In the far distance and to the south east the white sails of the two giant wind turbines alongside the Ford factory in Dagenham some 18 miles away. I have seen the towers of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge seven miles further east but can’t quite see them today. The bright yellow supports of the Dome and the towers of Canary Wharf are clear with Shooters Hill in South London rising behind.
Disappointingly the Shard now stands directly behind St. Pauls from this viewpoint. Only last year Wren’s masterpiece had stood dominant on the London skyline despite the City office towers and Canary Wharf. Standing alone and without competition to the right of the Barbican Towers St. Paul’s had retained its supreme spot on London’s skyline confident and unperturbed by its’ brash new neighbours. Now St. Pauls squats directly in front of the Shard . The dome an insignificant feature smothered and subsumed by this 21st century edifice. Mighty St. Paul’s overpowered by and dwarfed by a shard of glass and steel. Sir Christopher would have turned in his grave.
Further west (to the right of the Shard) the London Eye and the Euston Tower remain visible and easily spotted, unaffected by the Shard. Looking due south, the masts of Crystal Palace and the chimney stacks of Battersea Power station are clearly visible and in the far background some twenty odd miles away the grey purple line of the North Downs. Below the great metropolitan mass of London, so deceptively quiet from this 300 foot vantage point spreads out before you. Down there every conceivable human activity (together with plenty of activities that only those with the most vivid of imaginations might conceive) is going on, undertaken by representatives from every nationality on earth.! Not too many places on the planet where you can say that.
We wander down the paths back to the cafes and restaurants at the foot of West Hill and reward ourselves with some pizzas and coffee before taking a short after lunch walk in my favourite north London park. Waterlow Park with its steep hills, winding paths and range of ponds has a rare and unique topography and with the London skyline as a backdrop its easy for me to justify this park as a favourite. Here St. Paul’s retains its unique outline free from the distraction of the Shard which mysteriously appears to have moved to a site immediately behind the London Eye.
We take a brisk walk around an eliptical path , passing Lauderdale House at the top of the Park and Highgate cemetery on its southern boundary. Hampstead Heath and Waterlow Park. Two glorious green spaces and all within 15 minutes by car from home. The perfect antidote to the stuffed turkey and mince pies!