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Spring 2011

posted 17 Jul 2011, 08:00 by Stephen Taylor   [ updated 25 Jul 2011, 16:00 ]

by Tony Ghilchik 

Flood defences on the Heath 
After what was probably the driest March since records began, and early glorious weather in April, it seems strange that one of the key concerns at the moment is the need to strengthen the dams on the Heath Ponds.

Our weather pattern is getting more variable and we do not want a local disaster. But we also remember the excessive fuss made about the ‘Millennium Bug’ which reminds me of the person on a train who kept jumping up and throwing bits of paper out of the window to keep the wild elephants away.  When told there were no wild elephants rampaging around the English countryside, his response was: “effective isn’t it?”.  

The City are under legal constraints to take action to improve Flood Risk Management on the Heath Ponds and Dams. It is important that we help probe the issues involved with an open mind. Unfortunately at the moment there is some uncertainty surrounding the proposed action.

Hedge management at Parliament Hill
The City has been steadily working away over the last year or two on hedge management around the Parliament Hill area.  They have laid a lot of scrub, particularly on the islands above the bandstand, and have staked some out as proper hedges.  Of particular note are those on the east side of the First Hedge, from halfway up Parliament Hill and running down to the Highgate ponds, and also at the eastern end of the Third Hedge, near the cycle path.  These are really thick now, bursting into blossom, and giving a real country feel.

Champion Wild Service Tree
Last year I reported on wild service trees on the Heath. We are delighted to hear that a Wild Service tree on the West Heath has been declared the Champion Wild Service Tree of the British Isles.

Budget problems and priorities
The cost of managing the Heath comes mostly from the charitable funds the City has accumulated over the centuries (the income from the original endowment now covers less than a quarter of the net cost) and which is used for many other public benefits including other open spaces, such as Epping Forest and Burnham Beeches, and the Barbican Centre.  Income from these funds has fallen over the past few years so the other key issue for the Heath is the need to achieve a 10% reduction in costs.  

Michael Welbank, Chairman of the City of London Corporation’s Hampstead Heath Management Committee (and a former member of our Heath Sub-Committee) and Simon Lee, Supervisor of Hampstead Heath, came to hear our priorities for managing the Heath and to listen to our views on where savings might best be achieved – we emphasised the importance of maintaining the wild and natural aspect of the Heath, and of increasing income where possible, e.g. by increasing the size of the East Heath Car Park.  

They have had similar meetings with many other local groups and ended up with four criteria for developing the proposals, namely: income generation; reversibility; the level of subsidy provided, and whether there was potential for self-help/shared services.  The City is also seeking external funding to cover the educational and biodiversity elements of their annual plans for the Heath.

Cycling and improving safety
The search for acceptable improvements to the Highgate Road entrance to the Heath is on hold due to the need for budget cuts and the higher priority of reinforcing the dams to prevent flooding, but the final elements of the Greenways funded work to improve safety on the existing pedestrian and cycling share routes has started.  This includes two chicanes on the route from the Viaduct Path across to the Highgate Ponds, and the design for a temporary trial speed hump/chicane, made from preformed rubber, has been agreed.  If this design proves effective, the trial hump will be replaced with a more rustic permanent version, a second hump built, plus another three on the Viaduct Path.

Camden has erected ‘no cycling’ signs on the south ramp of the Savernake Road Bridge, and the City are now designing a suitable cycle barrier for the north ramp so that the short path below it can safely become shared use, linking with the main shared use path between Nassington and Highgate Roads.  However, there is no funding for anything other than very minor future changes to the shared routes.

Northern Height Circuit Walks
On the Highgate Society’s website are the excellent Northern Height Circuit Walks which they have recently developed, with some input from us on the Heath sections, to encourage more people to visit Highgate and the Heath. 

The five walks make a circuit from Highgate Village to Parliament Hill Fields; on to South End Green; up to Golders Hill Park; on to Kenwood House, and back to Highgate Village.  The full circuit of all five walks cover nine miles with over 220 points of interest giving equal balance to distinguished people, distinctive buildings, the natural environment and social history. 

Many people know their own corner of the Heath and it is hoped that these walks will encourage them to visit parts of the Heath and its borders that they don’t normally go to, and would be a useful guide for new visitors.

The zoo at Golders Hill
The zoo at Golders Hill Park is especially well loved by young children and they can now adopt an animal, any one of six species from £20 for a White Faced Whistling Duck to £50 for a Ring Tailed Lemur or for a Donkey, and receive a thank-you pack and certificate, a photograph of their animal and a fact sheet about it – an ideal gift for a grandchild.  The Zoo was created in 1905 and today plays an educative role in the interpretation of the ecology.  It is registered with BIAZA (the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and is free for all visitors to enjoy.  Full details and an application are on the City website at: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/goldershillpark

Winter 2010

posted 17 Jul 2011, 07:57 by Stephen Taylor   [ updated 25 Jul 2011, 16:02 ]

by Tony Ghilchik 

With snow lying thick on the ground to highlight the prospect of a dreamed-about white Christmas, at least by children and Heath-lovers not trying to get away, it is hard to recall that the hot dry weather in early summer caused three of the Heath’s large veteran oaks, and many large branches, to fall.  At that time barbecues were being a menace – especially as thistle seeds love the bare patches burnt into the grass by them. 

Economic problems bite 
Since then the City has received its 12th annual Green Flag award, plus a Green Heritage award, for the way it manages our Heath – indeed this year the City won a total of 14 Green Flag awards for its various open spaces, with 7 of the sites also getting Green Heritage awards. This exemplary performance is, however, under threat from the universal need to reduce public expenditure, and although funding for the Heath comes not from the Public Purse but from the income on the City’s own funds built up since the Middle Ages, this too is under pressure.  There is a need to find a 10% saving in the already tight provisional 2011/12 budget and we, like other local groups, will be talking with the Heath management about how this can be achieved without jeopardising what we consider the essential elements of the Heath – set out a few years back in our Heath Vision and there on our website. 

I am pleased to report that the agreed programme of repairs to infrastructure of the Heath are excluded from this belt-tightening and we have already seen the benefit of the protected spend with the well-restored Hill Garden Shelter, which was formally re-opened on 15th September. 

Pedestrian safety 
The section of North End Way through the cutting from the Bull and Bush up to the Whitestone Pond is very dangerous for cyclists, and Camden proposed that the pavement above North End Way be widened, by taking land from the Heath, to allow shared use by pedestrian and cyclist.  We strongly opposed this proposal, especially as North End Avenue, the old road which runs past Pitts Garden parallel to North End Way up to Inverforth House, could be acceptable as a shared use path.  Camden is to undertake a detailed feasibility study of this alternative route and we would support the proposal, provided that it is not used as a precedent for more routes on the Heath and that the only work to the path is the removal of encroaching vegetation. 

At the other end of the Heath, the high risk to pedestrians from vehicles using the Highgate Road entrance to the Heath has still to be addressed and local resident groups have been asked for their ideas.  We can see no ideal solution, but our suggestion is that any solution should be based on first moving the Parliament Hill depot to the Kenwood Staff Yard to reduce traffic, and then the tennis courts should be moved to enable the existing pathway to be widened just enough to reduce the risk to an acceptable level.  A small working group, including Jeremy Wright and representatives from three other local groups, has been set up to discuss the options, and consultants will evaluate all the proposals before any decision is taken. 

Threat from invasive water plants 
Water Fern, Azolla filiculoides also known as Fairy Moss, Mosquito Fern or Red Water Fern, is a free-floating, perennial, aquatic fern.  Although native to North and Central America, it has been recorded in the UK for over 100 years and may well have once been native here as spores have been found in sediments from the last interglacial period.  As a floating fern, it can occur in any depth of still or sluggish water, spreads over a large area of water in the summer, and turns red as temperatures fall in autumn.  It can be a problem in the Heath’s ponds as it can build up into such a dense cover of floating weeds that it reduces the light level beneath the surface so much that submerged weeds and algae die off and result in serious deoxygenation. 

Last year Azolla was a problem on many of our ponds and a very thick layer virtually killed off the lovely water lilies on the Viaduct pond; since then a few leaves have re-appeared from time to time only to vanish again, probably gobbled up by water birds.  Azolla does not like very cold weather and winter’s last frosts seem to have pretty much killed it off as it has not been a problem in any of our ponds this year. 

Those of you who walk on the Heath Extension will have seen that two of the Seven Sisters Ponds (Nos. 2 and 4) have been de-silted – the bramble-covered area beside the pond No. 4 was flayed and covered with a foot or so of silt.  The area will remain fenced off whilst the silt dries out over the next few months, after which it is to be harrowed and seeded with a wild flower mix. 

Over in Kenwood, we are pleased that English Heritage has now demonstrated that it can restore the grass damaged by the summer concerts audience within a reasonable time – this year the repairs were done in October; fine for the re-turfing needed on the worst areas but rather too late where re-seeding sufficed.  In future years the re-seeding is, we are assured, to be done in September. 

English Heritage is about half way through its phased replacement of the roof of Kenwood House.  The 4th phase (of 7) was due to start in the autumn, with the front of the house to be done at the same time, but they have re-looked at both the length of time and the cost of these repairs and have decided to do the rest of the job, plus the south facade, as a single project.  This is much more cost-efficient and will enable the key south facade overlooking the terrace to be included within the original total cost. 

The full programme is now being planned in detail, but the expected timetable is for the service wing to be done over the 2011/12 winter and the exterior of the house from around April 2012.  When work starts on the house all the paintings and other valuables will need to be protected: from dust; from the increased security risks having scaffolding outside, and from builders erecting scaffolding inside the house to reach the skylights.  Some paintings will go off-site, so they can be on view somewhere, and others, too fragile to move, will be securely encased.   

We are very pleased that English Heritage is doing all this work, but the downside is that keeping even part of the house open during this time would be very difficult and expensive, and the house will need to close for most of 2012.  Our first reaction was surprise that closure was planned for the summer of the Olympics but English Heritage say that statistics from the Athens and Beijing Olympics show that the Games actually reduced general tourist numbers whilst the games were being held, as those not coming for the Games decided not to come in the Olympic year and those coming for the Games tended only to visit sites near where the Games were being held. However, over the longer term, those staying home and watching on TV end up wishing to visit the cities which got so much good exposure, so visitor numbers were very high the following year – when the house will be open again. 

English Heritage is also working on a proposal to take advantage of the closed period to redecorate those parts of the inside which have not been done recently, but have still to get approval. 

Large audience for Oliver Rackham 
Our distinguished guest speaker attracted by far the largest audience we have had in all the years of this series; an unprecedented 200 people came to Rosslyn Hill Chapel for the Heath and Hampstead Society’s fifteenth Annual Springett Lecture in October. Professor Rackham rarely speaks in London, and the audience came not only from the local area but from throughout London. 

The effect that changing land use and of becoming surrounded by an urban environment has had on the flora of the Heath is one of Professor Rackham’s research topics.  For those of you who could not make it, there is an outline of Professor Rackham’s talk later in this Newsletter (page 18)
The Society is most grateful to Allen Bordoley for providing and operating the projection equipment. His expertise contributed greatly to the success of the evening.

Autumn 2010

posted 13 Dec 2010, 22:23 by Stephen Taylor   [ updated 25 Jul 2011, 16:07 ]

by Tony Ghilchik

The very wet first months of the year, followed by dry sunny ones, has been a mixed blessing for the Heath. In early summer, the view from the Viaduct Bridge across the pond to the Bird Bridge was a particular delight after last year’s work, mentioned in my January Heath report. However the wet, then very hot, weather has delayed the resurfacing of many black tarmac paths with their final gravel surface until October. It has also been a seriously bad summer for the veteran oaks with the hot dry summer weather putting a lot of stress on these old trees, which have reacted by shedding many large branches, some substantial limbs and in a few cases, including one next to the Bird Bridge, falling completely.

The new London View Management Framework has now been approved – the Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) on Designated Views came into effect on 29 July 2010. The ten old Strategic Views included three from the Heath: 
  1. the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of Parliament Hill, 
  2. a view of the Palace of Westminster from beside the path going down Parliament Hill above the bandstand, and 
  3. the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the viewing gazebo in the stable field at Kenwood. 
In 2007 there was an outcry when the previous Mayor, Ken Livingstone, drastically narrowed the width of protection of the old strategic views. Mayor Boris Johnson promised to re-look at them. After a year’s consultation on the draft, the new SPG has widened them again and, although they are not fully back to their old width, and I am delighted that we now have a fourth Protected Vista, albeit a narrow one, of the Victoria Tower of the Palace of Westminster from the top of Parliament Hill.

These views are amongst the distinctive views that we highlighted in our Heath Vision booklet, published in 2004, as needing to be maintained or restored. The City have done a lot of work since then to restore the views from the top of Parliament Hill and I am pleased to say that they are now almost at the point, as simulated on the inside back cover of the booklet (if you no longer have your copy, you can find it on this website under Publications), where we will be honouring our pledge to fund an updated plaque at the top of Parliament Hill.

Heath avenue

Heath Management Plan progress
Work continues on the Topic Papers within Part 2 of the new Management Plan for the Heath with a report on Reptiles on the Heath. Grass snakes were re-introduced in the 1980s and the population seems to have maintained itself and spread its range since then with some twenty individual grass snakes recently found on the Heath, predominately in the fenced areas of the Highgate Valley and around Cohen’s Fields. 

It has been agreed that action to encourage reptiles should include creating more new small ponds to boost amphibian numbers (the snakes eat frogs & newts); providing vegetation piles to increase opportunities for egg laying; avoiding clearing longer grass until late October and, ideally, clear on very hot days, making open clearings by selected ponds so snakes can bask at the pond edges, and continue to restore heathland to provide the opportunity to re-introduce slowworms to the West Heath and other restored heathland areas.

Progress is also being made with the developing detailed area plans for Part 3 of the Management Plan. Management Work Plans have been developed for the Seven Sisters Ponds on the Extension; for the Third Hedge which runs east-west dividing the Tumulus and Mini Tumulus Fields, and for Springett’s Wood. Whilst broadly supporting all three plans, there are some aspects of the plans for the Seven Sisters Ponds which we are unhappy with. 

Up to 20 or so years ago I thought this area one of the most delightful on the Heath, with the grass meadow of the Pond Field sloping gently down between the Cart Path and the open water of the ponds. The unintended consequences of spreading silt dredged from the ponds on to the meadow, fencing in five of the ponds and then planting alongside the fence to hide it, has changed the area beyond recognition – most of the ponds are now invisible to walkers on the Cart Path. More recent work has greatly improved the conservation value of the ponds, but the draft plans would restrict physical access even further and do little to open up visual access to them. We are talking with the City to see what can be done to improve visual access to the water for walkers and to get a reasonable balance between the conflicting need for physical access to the water, so children can learn about and enjoy the life there and dogs can have somewhere to swim, and improving the essential conservation value of the ponds, which was highlighted recently by the sight of a pair of kingfishers by Pond No 7, the largest and most northerly of the Seven Sisters. 

Kenwood concert site 
Over in Kenwood, we will soon see if English Heritage are able to repair grass damaged by the concerts before the wet autumn weather sets in. Camden Planners accepted our argument that the grass repairs need to be completed within a reasonable time to prove the site suitable for concerts and their licence was restricted to just this one year. We very much hope that the damage repair goes to plan. 

The next phase of the roof repairs to the house (phase 4 of 7) is to start in autumn, for completion in spring 2011. The front of the house will be done at the same time, going back to mid C19 colours and finish, and entry to the house will be through a tunnel during this work.

Spring 2010

posted 13 Dec 2010, 09:57 by Stephen Taylor   [ updated 25 Jul 2011, 16:12 ]

by Tony Ghilchik 

A few days of glorious spring sunshine and the very muddy Heath, especially on the lower slopes that over lie London Clay, becomes just a memory. One of the results of all the winter rain has been a delay in remaking the path shared by pedestrians and cyclists going from the Viaduct Path across to the Highgate Ponds and Millfield Lane. Work was due to start in mid February; however, not only was the ground too wet then but also the contractor refused to guarantee that the proposed rolled aggregate surface, designed to discourage cycling at speed, would not be washed away by further heavy rainfalls. An alternative hoggin surface, more durable yet still avoiding the very artificial look of bonded gravel, has been chosen in its place.

Wild Service trees on the Heath 
The Wild Service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is one of our rarer native trees which arrived in Britain some 10,000 years ago and is now usually confined to pockets of ancient woodland, especially oak and ash woods, or growing in old hedgerows. It prefers clay and lime based soils. The fruits need open sunlight to ripen and our summer temperatures are often too low for the seeds to mature. This, combined with the seeds then needing several weeks of freezing temperatures to germinate, means that its principal method of propagation is by suckers. The fruits or ‘chequers’ are edible and, when over-ripe, taste rather like dates; they were an ancient remedy for colic (hence the torminalis, meaning ‘good for colic’, in its Latin name). Before the introduction of hops they were used to flavour beer.

A 1996 survey by the London Natural History Society recorded thirty-two Wild Service trees of various ages on the Heath. Although some of the older larger ones have been lost (one of a pair growing beside the Seven Sister Ponds on the Extension fell a few years ago) there are also some groups of developing young trees – including a group of young saplings growing beside the Cart Path on the Extension. 

 A recent survey by the Hampstead Heath Tree team came up with a total of eleven mature trees (those with a diameter of 30cms at 1.3 metres above ground level) on the Heath, and with another eight in Kenwood. Of the mature trees on the Heath, five are Veterans located within the historical field boundaries on the Heath and Heath Extension. Two of these Veterans have lost substantial main limbs within the past couple of years and individual management plans are being drawn up to extend the life of each of the five Veterans. The Tree team have made a start on the essential work needed on two of the magnificent Veterans beside the path between the Hollow Beech and the Bird Bridge, and plans are underway for transplanting some of the young saplings into suitable locations along the old hedge boundaries, where they will be able to produce their own suckered progeny.

Pond life 
You will also see work around the ponds to encourage amphibians. This will be aimed at increasing the amount of light to the edges of ponds by coppicing and lifting bank-side trees. The Men’s Pond has suffered the most serious decline in amphibian numbers and although it is particularly important to lift its bank side vegetation, the prolific plant growth on the Heath side of the pond is an unusual bird habitat so we have asked that the lifting is done in sections to retain some of the cover and that more ramps are formed along the bank to made it easier for waterfowl to leave the ponds. Other work will include planting emergent and floating vegetation, creating more new small ponds or pools, and removing vegetation from overgrown ponds to maintain some open water.

All this follows from surveys of the larger Heath ponds over the past ten years which, although showing an overall gradual increase in frogspawn and decrease in toad sprawn, the trend patterns of the different ponds vary enormously with reductions caused, it is thought, from a combination of a lack of emergent and aquatic vegetation, from shade from overhanging trees, by hungry fish or, at the other end of the scale, by the clogging up of a pond by too many plants.

Over in Kenwood the historic Inner Circuit Path in South Wood, going along the south of the Wood Pond, has been closed for some months for safety reasons because a veteran oak in the centre of the path was severely decayed. Kenwood is famed both for its ancient trees, which gave the South Wood its Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status, and for its historic walks. The options were to retain the tree and keep the path closed, or either to reduce the tree to a safe monolith or to fell it, leaving the dead wood in the wooded area. Ecologically, felling is thought to be better for beetles, though not so good for woodpeckers, and felling would allow the re-opening of the path with its continuous views of the House across the pond.  There were good arguments for either option and English Heritage staff were divided on the best course of action. 

This internal dilemma was apparent in the responses they received on consulting members of the Kenwood Landscape Forum, and members of the Heath Sub-Committee were also very divided on the issue. English Nature was consulted and considered there were sufficient other veterans in the wood for this one not to need to take precedence over the historic path. English Heritage, therefore, took the decision to re-open the path after doing the minimum work to the tree to make the path safe. The tree was too unsafe for the arboreal work to be done from the tree itself and it is hoped that the contractor will be able to use coronet cutting, a technique often now used by the Heath’s tree team, which leaves a monolith looking as if it is the result of storm damage rather than a chain saw. By the time you read this, you will be able to walk the re-opened path and see how successful the work is.

Springett Lecture October 7 
Finally, please make an advance note in your diary for this year’s Springett Lecture at Rosslyn Chapel on Thursday 7th October when we are delighted that Oliver Rackham will be the speaker. We expect him to attract an audience too big to fit into Burgh House so will be hosting his talk at Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel

Professor Rackham is a Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge and an authority on the British countryside, especially trees, woodlands and wood pasture. As usual, the doors will open at 7:30 for a glass of wine before the talk starts at 8pm. We are expecting a very full audience so please plan to arrive early.

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