The summit, so to speak

This protrusion at the north end of Hampstead Heath used to be the highest point in London, at a dizzying height of 137 metres (449 feet) above sea level.

It was, in fact, the highest point in the former County of London, which existed from 1889 to 1965.

But the County of London was abolished in 1965 and replaced by a much larger entity called Greater London, which includes seven places that are higher than this.

Sign at Whitestone Pond

This sign at Whitestone Pond at the “summit” of Hampstead Heath still describes this as the highest point in London. It rounds up the altitude to 135 metres “above the London basin”. Whitestone Pond itself is completely surrounded by a traffic circle and is so ugly that I didn’t even take a picture of it.

Different websites give slightly different figures for these altitudes — the London Basin is listed as 11 metres above sea level — but in any case it is considerably higher here than in the city centre. This explains why there are no bike-sharing stations in this part of London, because it would be quite a climb to get up here on a bicycle.

House where John Constable lived

Just a short ways downhill is this house where the painter John Constable (1776-1837) lived during the summers of 1821 and 1822.

John Constable plaque

This plaque about John Constable was erected by the Hampstead Plaque Fund. (At first glance I thought it said the ‘Hampstead Plague Fund’, which I found rather alarming.

Abernethy House

This rather mildewed building is Abernethy House, at the corner of Mount Vernon and Holly Place. According to a plaque on the building, the author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) “lived here”. But this turns out to be something of an exaggeration, because actually he was only here once for a short visit, from June 13 to July 11, 1874 — which is just about four weeks.

In a letter to his mother during this visit he wrote: “I wish somebody would explain to me the climate of Hampstead. To be so near London, and yet to be in an atmosphere more that of like Peebles [in Scotland] than any other I can think of, is surely a puzzle in meteorology. Hampstead is all my fancy painted it; it is so quiet, so healthful and beautiful; and yet one can go in and dine at the Club in three-quarters of an hour, or thereabout.”

The parish church St John-at-Hampstead

The parish church of St John-at-Hampstead is best known for its graveyards, where about seven thousand people were buried over several centuries.

Among other famous people, the painter John Constable is buried here along with his wife, two sons and various other descendants.

According to the church’s website, there “has been a church on the site for about 1,000 years. The present church was consecrated in 1747 and extended westwards in 1844 and again in 1878 to include a new chancel and sanctuary, the side chapel being consecrated in 1912.”

Thanks again to Colin for leading us on this informative VirtualTourist walking tour of Hampstead and Hampstead Heath. I later heard from Colin: “I don’t know if you knew, Don, but a man stopped me when we were on Christchurch Hill and accused me of taking away his customers. He initially would not believe I was taking a group of people I knew for free on a tour of the village. He was a professional tour guide and was worried I was taking his potential business away from him. It was only when I explained what VT was and he saw the tee shirts etc. he accepted my explanation.”

My photos in this post are from 2015. I revised the text in 2021.

See more posts on Hampstead, London, U.K.

See also: my posts on our VirtualTourist tours of Paris, led by Paul Smith, such as
A walking tour of Montmartre and The man who could walk through walls.

10 thoughts on “The summit, so to speak”

  1. I enjoyed reliving this lovely day out with you 🙂 Colin told me the same story – I think he was rather proud to have been mistaken for a professional tour guide! My husband recently cycled up to Hampstead from central London and certainly felt it afterwards 😉

  2. I laughed loud twice! First at something being so ugly that you didnt even take a picture of it and then at the plaque/plague confusion. 😊 i am ever so fond of Robert Lewis Stephenson’s children’s poetry, but four weeks is a bit of a stretch for the word “lived.” What awful stats on the plague in the comment above–21/2 people per house gone! Hope you are well and staying sane in this temporal no travel zone. No lockdown here but we seem to suffer from a distinct inability to follow instruction for any length of time. 🍸to when we get to travel without fear again!

  3. Don that a nice bit of information about Hampstead. Nice to know that Constable stayed there too for a while. Great post and so nice to be an armchair traveller while we are still under a very strict lockdown here.

  4. Constable is one of my favorite painters. Before we went to Salisbury, I went to the art museum to see his picture(s) of the cathedral. It doesn’t seem surprising that he would have lived here.

  5. There could just as well have been a Plague Fund ☺️. This, from Baker, Bolton, Croot. London 1989: “Hampstead: Settlement and Growth.”: “Hampstead, on high ground visible from London, may always have represented health to the overcrowded citizens. In 1349 the abbot of Westminster fled there to escape the Black Death, which he probably brought with him. In 1524 Londoners sought safety on Hampstead’s heights from a threatened flooding and in the late 16th century topographers remarked on the fine views and ‘very healthful air’. In the plague of 1603 Sir William Waad, who lived at Belsize, wrote of people coming from town and dying under hedges, ‘whereof we have experience weekly here at Hampstead’. During the great plague in 1665, trust in clear air on hills brought throngs from London to Hampstead town, where there were 260 deaths in 100 houses.”

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