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.
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.