Follow our Hampstead correspondents here.
I often think about death when out walking on the heath. Not because it's such a depressing place, but because of all the park benches dedicated to people who have passed away.
I think they are called memorial or commemorative benches. Most of them have inscriptions starting with "In Memory of...", followed by a name, maybe a quote and a short sentence about who they were and when they died. It's so moving to get this tiny glimpse into the life of a stranger, who by the way feels strangely close when you're having a little rest at their bench.
Some of the benches are placed right next to the busy main paths. Hoards of families, walkers, runners and countless dogs pass them by every single day. Other benches are placed in more secluded areas of the heath, in quiet contemplative surroundings.
I adore coming across one of these hidden benches. If the inscriptions have started to fade away,I run my fingers across each letter, trying to decipher the meaning. One word at a time, I learn who the bench is dedicated to, and when they died.
I secretly want to be remembered on one of these benches, so much better than being tucked away at a cemetery.
Having said that, some people are a bit concerned that our parks are being overcrowded with benches, plaques and inscriptions. It's a parkland after all, and should therefore be all about nature and the living. If people want to remember their beloved, they could plant a tree or something. I like that idea, but I think there should be room for different options. We should be able to choose how we remember our loved ones.
I was only three years old when my grandfather passes away. Death was such a confusing concept, and it didn't help that I was told that he was in heaven, and
that he was buried in the ground. The first time I went to his grave I knocked on this headstone, expecting him to answer. What did I know?
Looking back, having a bench out in nature dedicated to his memory, would perhaps have made more sense to me.
Last year the short film "Benches" was released. It's a really cute story about two park rangers who upkeep the benches on Hampstead Heath. One ranger gets lost in the inscriptions on each bench, the other ranger is more practical and just wants to get the work done.
I'm more like the first ranger, but I'm forever grateful for all the rangers who make sure the benches are cleaned and preserved for years to come.
Up against the wall there is a selection of picture frames and old paintings. Teapots, books, silver-spoons, Wedgwood china and an old fur collar are clumped together at a side table. Over at another table an antique doll-house has taken centre stage, surrounded by old records, a small pen selection and other nick knack.
At a first glance this little street market might look all higgledy piggledy, but at a second glance you realize you have stumbled upon a real goldmine.
I am of course talking about Jackie's street marked at Flaks walk, just around the corner from Paul's bakery.
There you can find anything and everything, and don't forget to look behind and underneath.
It all moves quickly, you have to act fast. Don't bother haggling, it's not that kind of place. Everything is more than fairly prices, almost too cheap, so trying to get a further discount will be pointless. Having said that, Jackie has been known to throw in this and that for an extra pound or two.
Jackie herself is what makes this street marked so unique. It is almost like she is from another time, another area.
Remember the shop-keeper who knew you by name? Who greeted you with a smile and always was helpful and fun? Jackie is all of that, and more.
When she helps me decide what picture to buy, I can tell she has my interest in mind, not her own. If what I'm buying is too big to carry, (like the mahogony desk with the secret compartments), she calls a friend of a friend with a van and arranges a delivery the next day. She always greets me with "Hello my love, how are you? That is a smart hat! Where is your husband? Did he like the cups, the one with the wild flowers?"
Some days are too busy for chit chat, she is bustling around with new customers who asks about the price of the antique dining chairs, or wants to know if they need to buy the entire set of table wear, or if they can buy just the forks.
One day last summer, underneath a table hidden inside a worn cardboard box, I found an amazing selection of scarves and gloves from the 50s and 60s. None of the gloves were matched up in pairs, so I sat down and found the pairs, one by one.
There were brown leather gloves with beige stitching, delicate white satin gloves with flowers embroidered on them, long silk gloves going past the elbow, black gloves, blue gloves, basically gloves for every occasion and dress code. Once I was done pairing them all up, I counted 25 gloves and 15 scarves. I brought the box over to Jackie and said : "How much for the whole box?" "All of them, why?" I had to explain that I actually don't need that many gloves, but the vintage girl inside me can't leave any of them behind. She peered inside the box and said "25 pounds". Deal!
I often bring my friends to Jackie, they are always just as impressed as I am. There are things there you never knew you needed, but upon finding it you question how you ever lived without. Like the tiny mustard spoon, the wooden music box, or the lion book-ends.
They are more than just things and objects. To me they represent a time when things were made to last. They tell a story, have personality and character.
Next time you need a new lamp, or don't know what you want but you want something, visit Jackie's marked and have a look. You never know what you might find.
That is what makes it so much fun.
When visiting another country, going to a new town, or even when I pop by Hampstead for some coffee on a Friday afternoon, I always seek out the local shops and restaurants. You know, instead of defaulting to Caffe Nero or Starbucks. Why not try a unique, locally owned place? When in Rome and so on.
I have to admit, in the fast-growing jungle of chain stores, it can be quite the challenge to find the quaint neighbourhood café.
Hampstead High Street is no exception. Flanked on both sides of the road you will find big brand names and world wide chains. I do get that it's easy to fall back on the you-always-know-what-you-get-mentality, but I also get that it's the same mentality that drives corner shops and on of a kind places out of business. I don't find it one bit reassuring that you can grab a bite at Pizza Hut, weather you are in Beijing or London. I find it quite disturbing.
I was recently in India. Our local guide wanted to take us to all the touristy places. We had to explain several times that we only wanted to go where the locals went. He finally gave in, and only then did I feel I got to experience a true slice of Indian culture. Witch was the whole point of going there in the first place.
If I had wanted McDonald's and fancy malls, I could have stayed at the airport.
The same mentality applies at home, right here in England. There are endless treasures in every town and city. You just have to search a bit and be willing to try new things.
A few weeks ago I went to Bath for the weekend. I practically sat up camp at this incredibly adorable coffee house called Same Same But Different. A part of me could almost wish it was a chain, but that's just the part of me that has grown accustomed to finding everything everywhere.
Hampstead Village is a fantastic and part of London. In between the relentless presence of chains you find small cafés, speciality shops, vegetable stands and street markets. There is a true feeling of community, not just a place to shop and order a skinny venti latte on the go.
There is no avoiding the big names, the glamorous conglomerate stores, but if we don't watch out, that's all we'll be left with.
Long live the differences, as the French would say. I couldn't agree more.
All the familiar sites flew by at fast forward. Parliament Hill, the lakes, the arched wooden bridge, the path snaking around the big tree and the grassy hills.
I was doing something I had never done before. I was running on the Heath.
I read somewhere that the Heath is the home of at least 16 different kinds of sports. Not sure if I can name that many sport related activities, I have often suspected the athletic part of my brain to be inactive.
However, last Saturday I was running on the Heath, actually running.
Not reading a book, not sipping tea and people watching, not having a picnic, not strolling along the gravel path clutching a croissant or petting all the cute dogs. All of this had been replaced by running shoes, a tank top and a pair of shorts that can only be described as ridiculous.
What was the reason behind this transformation, this mutation in personality and behaviour?
First of all, a few weeks back a friend sent me a text and asked if I wanted to run a 10K race with her. I love challenges, so I said yes right away. If you think about things for too long, you can end up talking yourself out if practically anything. I would have talked myself out of this thing faster than a pig can blink, so a super quick response was crucial.
Secondly, this particular race is a race for life, running for cancer. Which means that this is not at all about me, I’m doing something for past, present and future cancer victims. I can get behind that, even if it means suspending my normal Heath activities and stretching my cozy comfort zone.
Thirdly, during the race I get to wear pink.
All great reasons, wouldn’t you agree?
My friend and I met up outside the tube station and walked towards the Heath. I’m glad we chose the Heath as our training grounds. It’s just so gorgeous, so vast. However, in order not to get lost, we kept ourselves close to the area of the Heath that borders Belsize Park and Hampstead Village. That is the area I’m most familiar with, and this was not the day to end up in the middle of nowhere, out of breath, disoriented, and dehydrated
Don’t tell anyone, but I actually had a good time. I noticed a lot of other runners, a group of people that had never before entered my radar. They ran with such ease, elegance and assurance. Something to strive for.
After an hour of running, speed walking, jogging and stretching, we ended up at one of the couches at the Wells Tavern. Water! Food! Nothing had ever tasted better. Wells Tavern have a great cocktail menu, it would be a small crime to leave without ordering at least one. Besides, we felt like celebrating that we had survived this ordeal.
I’ll be back next weekend, in running shoes and all. Cheers!
One sunny day last spring I decided to take
a different route to the tube station. After walking for a while I found myself
in front of Keats House.
Keats lived here in Hampstead? I realised didn’t
know much about Keats, except that he was a romantic poet, friends with Byron
and Shelly. Died young I think, one of those. Abroad was it?
It is weird when you realise that what you
thought you knew about someone, is nothing but fragmented snippets and
I like to think I have a memory like an
elephant, but I’m quite useless with dates and years. I remember things like that
the Virgin Queen had a glass of dark ale for breakfast and owned over 3000
dresses. I also know that chairman Mao refused to brush his teeth, asking the
question “Does a tiger brush his teeth?”
In Keats’s case I didn’t remember much of anything, so I decided to pay Keats House a visit and re-acquaint myself with this beloved poet.
Keats House is really impressive. The rooms are decorated and recreated in order to look the way they would have during Keats’s time. Everything is carefully selected so you can get a glimpse into the life of a brilliant medicine student who gave it all up in pursuit of poetry. You are literally walking in the poet’s footsteps, within the rooms and walls of his life and home.
To make it even more interesting, the house contains a vast collection of his personal belongings, books, letters and photographs. I was mesmerized by his fiancé’s engagement ring, learning that she wore it in mourning for 6 years after his death.
As I was wandering through the rooms, making mental notes of this and that, I came across a beautiful mask. It was all white, peaceful looking, angelic almost. I was quite surprised to learn that this was a replica of Keats’s death mask.
I’ve seen a few death masks before. They can be a bit creepy. After all, they are masks of dead people, made only a few moments after the last breath of life.
During the French revolution young Marie Tussaud would hang around the guillotines, looking for decapitated victims to make death masks from. These particular masks would be paraded through the streets of Paris in support of liberté, égalité and fraternité
Not all death masks had such a violent destiny. Most of them were made as a way of preserving the face of greatness. Like the face of Beethoven, Isaac Newton and Goethe. This is a tradition that goes back to the time of Tutankhamen.
Death masks were also used as forensic evidence. Either proving that someone was dead (like in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte and Heinrich Himmler) or to identify missing people.
Death masks are becoming a ting of the past. Photographs are both easier, quicker and perhaps more accurate, but I still think that death masks capture something that a camera simply can’t compete with.
Standing there in Keats's bedroom, looking at the mask, made mere moments after his death, I felt a level of closeness and intimacy that I seriously doubt a photograph could have created. I recalled that when Keats got sick, he claimed that his real life was over and that he was leading a posthumous existence.
Poetic even in illness and death.
After I left the house I spent some time on a bench tucked away in the corner of the garden. Maybe Keats used to sit at that very spot, writing, daydreaming. I took out my book and read for a while before heading home.
I’m glad I took a different route to the tube station. I should remember to do that more often.
Mondays are lovely. I like to think of them as an extension of Sundays. Even though most of us don’t have Mondays off, Monday still can be spent doing some of the things we didn’t have time for during the weekend.
Last Monday I roamed through the West End in search of ghosts. I never knew there were so many theatre spirits amongst us, but then again I’m rarely out and about in the early hours of the morning.
This Monday I met up with my sister at The Rosslyn Arms. Have you been there? Not only is it a wonderful pub nestled up against an ancient chapel, it’s also where you get the best pizza in Hampstead. Baked in a wood fired oven, fresh topping, a true Italian experience. Here is a little secret: on Mondays and Tuesdays you get 2 for 1.
Shortly after the pizzas had arrived at our table, a fairy-like creature glided towards us. This young girl was unable to speak, simply stood right next to me and stared at the pizzas with Oliver Twist eyes. Her father shouted over the music “don’t touch anything!” but she didn’t seem to hear him. I had no choice but to give her a slice of the pesto and mozzarella kind. (I didn’t think she would like the one with carrots and courgettes). The dad seemed embarrassed yet pleased at this development. Later on, when they were leaving, the girl stopped by our table again and said in a load clear voice “Thank you for the pizza!” Children like that ought to be cloned.
Two pizzas, two cokes and two lattès later, my sister and I wandered down to the Hampstead Theatre. My sister had been in charge of buying the tickets, so I had no idea what we were seeing. It’s exciting not to know anything about a play, or what is playing for that matter. Simply sit there in the audience like a sponge–like tabula rasa and hope for the best.
I was not disappointed. The play was “Farewell to the Theatre” by Richard Nelson. It had me after the first few lines. Every word was brilliant; the actors superb, I even recognised a few of them. I don’t know who anyone is anymore, so I was quite pleased with myself.
When I got home I brewed a big cup of green tea and ate a healthy amount of chocolate.
All in all it had been another marvellous Monday.
Tall doors, heavy oak doors, painted doors, blue doors with brass ornaments and stained-glass windows.
If you walk down any street in Hampstead Village, you will discover an infinite selection of entranceways and front doors.
The houses might look the same, all in a row like little soldiers. The doors however, are as different as the people who live behind them.
My fascination with doors can be traced back to my uncle. With enthusiasm, and gestures worthy of a conductor, he would point out the woodwork, the hinges, admire the door-handles, and try to guess how old the door was.
I’m a huge fan of red doors with round windows, and there is something truly magical about doors hidden by overgrown plants and trees.
Next time you walk down Hampstead High Street, take a detour down one of the side streets and count how many different doors you see. Notice how big and imposing houses can have the most boring and plain doors. Or how a small cottage can surprise you with a spectacular door flanked by beautiful flowers.
It's the contrast that makes it interesting and alive.
Doors are storytellers. Is this the house of the lonely professor or a young yoga-instructor? Is this the home of a retired gardener, a musician perhaps, or a family with small children? Do they like regular doorbells or old fashioned door knockers? I love lion door knockers. They are so regal and noble.
What does your front door tell us about your life?
Since hearing the astonishing news that a bittern had been seen on the Heath, I'd been desperate to get back to Hampstead.
So as soon as I got back from the Peak District I raced down to the Sanctuary Pond hoping to get a brief glimpse of our new friend in the reeds.
From 4pm until 5.30 I stood peering into the reeds with an small group of equally keen and cold enthusiasts towards the now famous 'blue' ball' near to which it had been seen. But with the temperature descending with the sun, and bittern-shaped phantasms ghosting through my binoculars in the failing light, it looked like the brief glimpses of the reed-shrouded bittern I saw at Minsmere would have to sustain me for another year.
And then it happened, just like it had on the day before.
At 5.40 pm up out of the reeds it flew in full view of the naked eye, landed on the lower limb of a willow overhanging the pond, and before the beaming faces of the assembled, this exquisitely-marked, long-legged heron began a prehistoric slow-motion clamber up to its roosting perch. I could have cheered! What a view! And still in full view it fluffed up on its perch and settled down for the night. Quite something for our little corner of London to attract a bittern when you consider there are only 100 of these birds in the UK!
I don’t like doing things that are too wholesome. Or to put it in a different way, I don’t want to do something because it’s wholesome. I recently started knitting again, and one of my friends went into this whole thing about bamboo knitting needles, hand-dyed yarn, local knitting-clubs and the healing effect of working with your hands. Good God.
I’ll have you know that the only reason I’m currently knitting is so I can look like Sarah Lund from the Danish series The Killing. You can order her signature sweater online or you make it yourself. I like to knit, and by knitting it myself I can adjust the pattern so it fits me perfectly. Well OK, small draw-back. There is no real pattern, the design is patented, so you have to make it up and be willing to try and fail a little. On my third try I got it right and I’m already done with the main body and the left arm. I always think I’m knitting the left arm first, but of course both arms are exactly the same. Anyways, knitting is kitting, but for some people it is a sustainable life-choice activity, other people simply want a sexy Scandinavian sweater.
It’s not like I need a new sweater, but I do need something warm for my walks on Hampstead Heath. Today it feels like spring is finally here, but I know better than to put on anything less than three layers. The sun can be deceiving. At least I can finally wear my new sunglasses that I bought on EBay from China. Then all I need is a latte from Gail’s (that by the way costs more than my new sunglasses) and I am good to go for a long walk on the heath.
It’s a nice little ritual, these walks of mine. There is something quite Zen about the whole thing. Just walking for the sake of walking, no fixed destination, no time-frame, nothing to achieve. However, if I had to walk next to a nature-enthusiasts who would lecture me on the nurturing effect of our plants and trees and how we all need to feel hugged by the earth, I’d rather sign up for speed-dating.
I’m torn, should I stay inside and finish the sweater, or should I venture outside and fill up my lungs with some much needed fresh air? I think I’ll channel my inner Winnie the Pooh and say yes please to both options. The day is long, and I have countless hours ahead of me.