To live in Hampstead is to share cobbled streets and gourmet bakeries with the likes of Emma Thompson, Ricky Gervais, Peter O’Toole and Judy Dench. But the village’s place in the literary canon makes it one of the most historically evocative places in London. Keats lived next to South End Green, while an epic dinner party he, Charles Lamb and William Wordsworth attended in Hampstead became known as the “immortal dinner”. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray frequented opium dens here, while Bram Stoker’s Dracula features a famous description of the Heath. DH Lawrence’s 1916 poem Parliament Hill In The Evening is one of his loveliest. Kingsley Amis, Agatha Christie and poet John Betjeman were also residents.
The density of blue plaques in all fields astounds: Florence Nightingale, Sigmund Freud and Edward Elgar are a tiny smattering of the luminaries from all fields who lived here.
Hampstead was known for its health springs: in 1700, trustees of the spa-like and very fashionable Hampstead Wells began promoting the medicinal qualities of the chalybeate waters. Previously, the Vale of Health – a quiet area surrounding a pond – was thought to be an oasis from the Plague. The air certainly feels cleaner here.
To walk through central Hampstead is to be confronted with the most attractive main roads in London. Shops and cafes reside in imposing brick houses, many of which have ornate tracery and bear their history with quirky charm. Heath Street and Hampstead High Street, which becomes Rosslyn Hill as it spills down to Belsize Park, perfectly combine leafy beauty with fresh air and a sense of the past. Roads and passages like Keats Grove, Back End, Judge’s Walk, Holly Mount and Pilgrim’s Walk are adorable.
Hampstead has been known as a wasteland for food. Until recently. Now, the famous Hungarian cake shop Louis and old Coffee Cup café have been joined by super-lush delis including Ginger & Spice; Gail’s, Melrose & Morgan and patisseries Maison Blanc and the requisite Paul. There’s even a non-fat frozen yogurt place, Yogurtry, a favourite with the village’s yummy mummies and daddies (and their well-heeled tots).
The overground at Hampstead Heath will take you across London at speed (ten minutes’ walk from the centre of Hampstead Village), while the Northern Line zips to Bank in 25 minutes. The 46 bus takes you to Farringdon, while a 25 minute walk will have you in Chalk Farm and Camden.
You can have your Royal Parks – the Heath is a gorgeous wilderness that is like Eden in the summer (the ladies pond is a scene of Sapphic bliss on a July afternoon) and romantically blustery in winter. It’s the best place in London for family outings, kite-flying (the top of Parliament Hill is the kite epicentre); picnics; canoodling; jogging; swimming and views of the city.