Walking tour of Hampstead

Hampstead is a former village (once a fashionable spa) which is now an affluent district of London. It used to be known for its intellectuals, artists and writers such as George Orwell, who lived there in the 1930s and wrote about it in his early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying — not a book to make you want to live in Hampstead, necessarily.

An aspidistra is a kind of flowering plant that British people apparently like to keep in pots in their houses or gardens. For Orwell in his early thirties (which were in the thirties of the twentieth century, since he was born in 1903), the aspidistra was a symbol of conformity, mediocrity and selling out to the lure of “the money-god” and the middle class. For him at that age, having a small house and a large aspidistra in Hampstead was equivalent to one of Marcel Aymé’s characters moving from unconventional Montmartre to the bourgeois district of Auteuil in Paris — it meant he had given up all pretense of being avant-garde and had sold out to the establishment.

In Hampstead, as in Auteuil, property prices have been steadily rising since the Second World War. Hampstead is now reputed to have more millionaires within its boundaries than any other area of Britain. But there are no millionaires in my photos, as far as I know.

VirtualTourist members on Hampstead High Street

In 2015 we had a pleasant walking tour of Hampstead as part of a London VirtualTourist meeting. Thanks again to Colin for leading the tour, and to Sarah for organizing the entire meeting.

Flask Walk in Hampstead

We went through Flask Walk twice, once in the morning to begin our walk in the east side of Hampstead, and again in the afternoon to get over to the west side.

One block of Flask Walk between Back Lane and Hampstead High Street has been pedestrianized and is now a pleasant place to stroll and have a look at the shops.

There is a venerable, traditional bookshop in Flask Walk, but it’s not the one where George Orwell worked in the 1930s. (His was in South End Road.)

Flask Walk Association

The Flask Walk Neighbourhood Association describes this street as “a microcosm of what makes Hampstead a good place to live and visit.” They say that Flask Walk is “a shopping street and the heart of a historic residential neighbourhood. It has long been a welcoming home for artists and artisans alike, Londoners and those born further afield. It has excellent places to eat and drink: to stay awhile or to linger before or after a visit to Hampstead Heath.”

VR pillar post box

Here a VirtualTourist member is pointing out the initials V.R. on this traditional red post box. They stand for Victoria Regina (pronunciation here) and mean that this letter box was manufactured and set up sometime between 1853 (when the first pillar post boxes were installed) and the death of Queen Victoria in 1901.

Later pillar post boxes are labeled:

  • ER VII for King Edward VII
  • GR for King George V
  • ER VIII for King Edward VIII
  • GR VI for King George VI, or
  • ER II for Queen Elizabeth II.

House of Marie Stopes

Numerous houses in Hampstead, as in the rest of London, have plaques on them telling of famous or once-famous people who used to live there. This one marks the house of Marie Stopes (1880-1958), described on the plaque as a “social reformer” and “pioneer of the family planning movement”. In her lifetime she was very controversial (and no doubt eccentric enough to put everyone off at one time or another) but did important work in establishing family planning clinics.

Her work is still being continued in thirty-eight countries by the non-governmental organization Marie Stopes International, which is “a charity providing a range of reproductive healthcare services” to “ensure the individual’s fundamental right to have children by choice not chance.” Their services include the safe “termination of pregnancies”, which is somewhat ironic since Marie Stopes herself was opposed to abortion but a supporter of contraception.

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

Next: Historic Houses in Hampstead.
See also: Auteuil and the bourgeoisie in Paris.

11 thoughts on “Walking tour of Hampstead”

  1. Gracie Fields sang a song entitled The Biggest Aspidistra in the World, about a family who had, well, precisely that. “The dogs line up for miles and miles a funny sight to see / They sniff around for hours on end and wag their tails with glee / So I’ve had to put a notice up to say it’s not a tree / It’s the biggest aspidistra in the world.” In WW2 Fields added sarcastic verses about Hitler into the song, which further strengthened the plant’s reputation as an emblem of stolid middle England. Even Orwell was unable to uproot it from the popular mind. By 1984 it featured in a games show, The Adventure Game, in which contestants journeyed to a distant planet in the company of a celebrity, there to suffer various indignities until skill or luck brought about their return. The planet was ruled by a giant and unpredictable Aspidistra, known as the Rangdo of Arg.

  2. The title seemed familiar to me with J. Hampstead – a fabric & fashion brand, but I didn’t knew that there is a place by such name and the brand has it’s origins or a connect with the elite target audience. Maybe the millionaire is the writer himself 😀💶

    1. Yes, I’m sure he could. It was one of Adam’s recent posts on Hampstead that reminded me to dig out these old photos from our tour in 2015.

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