Hampstead Heath shows the value of urban parklands

It was a lovely evening when we landed at Cork Airport, home from our family reunion, this year in the Czech Republic, writes Damien Enright.

The air had a nostalgic stillness to it as we drove west, a sense of timelessness despite the 21st century cars and houses. The roads were very quiet, the cars were few.

I was surprised to meet so few. Sometimes, for a mile at a time, it might have been 40 years ago. It re-opened my eyes to Ireland. That Ireland is not like elsewhere was reaffirmed, and that we are immensely fortunate to live in a country where a slow peace can blanket the land of a summer evening. Gray’s Elegy says what I mean: “And all the air a solemn stillness holds...”

In the deep Czech countryside, as dusk gathers at the forest edges of huge fenceless fields and over lakes, it is nostalgic, too, but not the same as dusk under low trees in the crowded hedgerows that cross small fields in Ireland, not the same texture or density, not the same “solemn stillness” Gray describes.

On Hampstead Heath in north London, alongside which we lived for many years and where we visited old friends on our journey home, one might experience that same evening stillness, even as the city bustles past, distant — the Heath is 390 hectares, 790 acres, of green space —and in another world.

Its grassy fields and low hills overlooking London, punctuated by parkland trees and copses, were largely mowed up to a few years ago but are now being left to nature, more and more. Selected acres are kept cut for ball players and picnickers, but alongside these are now meadows with all the wildflowers and ‘weeds’ one could hope for. Day-flying moths and butterflies rise before one and grasshoppers leap out of the way.

It is marvellous to see. The health of the Heath (with its famous Vale of Health) is a joy to witness. The city folk who walk there might be in the heart of the country: there are many vistas where but, for a distant spire (and that, often, 18th century), one would not know that one was in the England of now, rather than the England of Thomas Hardy. On the heath, you can now pick blackberries by the bushel (indeed, we encountered a dozen enthusiasts with already half filled bowls or jerrycans). One can, in season, pick sloes off the blackthorns, gather elderberries for wine or suck the meat from fat haws as one rambles.

One can swim in one of three natural ponds or, simply, stroll alone far from the madding crowd, for so extensive is the Heath that one can follow countless paths through meadows or under ancient trees without encountering a soul. A circuit measures six miles.

Hampstead Heath shows the value of urban parklands

Enchanter’s nightshade is, now, the flower of the woods. Birds sing or squawk to left and right, warblers, blackbirds, wrens, jays, crows, magpies, nuthatches, woodpeckers, tree creepers and escapee parakeets. In winter, flocks of Scandinavian fieldfares and redwings arrive. We watched a kestrel hover in the wind, and dip to seize a prey and rise with it clutched in its talons. A frog, a mouse, a vole, a sun-bathing lizard? So wildlife-rich is the Heath, now, that it could have been any one of these.

The hedgerows and meadows of Hampstead, in the Borough of Camden, are a credit to the local authority. Allowing nature a major role as an amenity (there are tennis courts, too, and bowling greens, running tracks, playgrounds, a Lido for swimming) has brought the countryside into town. Local children can see and identify nature’s fruits, hear its sounds, experience the world that stands in danger of obliteration. Having seen it, it is likely they will protect it.

Only in environments where the natural world is rare is it properly respected. I was appalled when, walking bohreens of flowering hedgerows in north Cork in early July, I came upon a dead straight 200 yard-long stretch of no-longer-maintained, trafficless byroad that have been strimmed both sides close as a lawn. The road’s only dwelling, a farmhouse, lay just beyond.

Husbandry? Nearby farmers husbanded their land, but the man who slaughtered those once verdant hedges was clearly without sympathy for the natural world that sustains him, the creatures that populate it and pollinate his crops, or the birds that sing. I was disgusted.

At home again, after our reunion journey, we found it’s a good year for apples, so good that our small apple tree had fallen over under the weight of the crop.

Reinstated, it will survive, and we’ll have blackberry and apple jam. But if farmers like the above prevail, we’ll have to go to Hampstead Heath for our blackberries.


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