Art & Photography

Why I Love: Hampstead Heath

Betty Wood explains the unusual way London’s ancient park earned its place in her affections
Hampstead Heath pond. Image Betty WoodI might be wrong, but generally speaking, affection for something doesn’t usually grow from it nearly killing you. Last summer, a group of friends made plans to go swimming at Hampstead Heath ponds, and my girlfriend and I decided to join them. A trip to the Heath never went unplanned; it was circled on the calendar in red pen, and, as I’m a nervous swimmer, the week or two before, we’d gone to our local lido to practice. At 25 metres, I was a pro: 50 metres, a buoyant tortoise. Above that, I was cautiously optimistic, and nothing if not enthusiastic. I was confident in distance.

As a kid, my dad had taken us swimming every day through our summer holidays, and aged four I’d been an adept tadpole, breaking into breaststroke and front crawl with confidence. That changed with one ill timed ‘dive-bomb’ when I was six: bobbing slowly across the ‘deep end’, a man propelled himself into the water next to me, sending a cascade of water rushing around me. It spun me into a tailspin beneath the surface, disorientating me completely as I was engulfed in a steam of white water bubbles. I flailed for the surface, calling out in panic for my dad, swallowing a slug of water in the process.

What happened next remains something of a blur, though I can still remember the burn of the chlorine stinging the back of my throat. My dad, his back turned for a second as he watched my brother and sister, missed me going under. Thankfully, the lifeguard didn’t: he jumped in, dragging me to the side of the pool, and a spectator lifted me out to flop on the tiled side like a landed-fish. The “tosspot” – Dad’s word – that accidentally caused the calamity swam on, oblivious. And that was that. All’s well that ends well, and it ended just fine, except that since then, I’ve been a cautious swimmer.

“A spectator lifted me out to flop on the tiled side like a landed-fish”

Into the woods, Hampstead Health. Image Betty Wood

Fast forward 20 years, and I was queuing for the ladies’ pond at Hampstead Heath. It was a beautiful summer day – maybe the hottest of the year – and my friends were in the water already, milling around its murky depths confidently, laughing and lounging around one of the buoys floating out on the pond. The swans had vacated for the day, given it over to the sun-revellers, but only temporarily. At its shallowest, the pond is around three metres deep, with a fringe of long green grass around its edges – there’s no ledge to rest up on, just a deep basin in which to thrash and float.

It was well over a decade since I last ‘swam’ in fresh water, and in that time, I’d clearly forgotten how cold it could be. As I hit the water, I gasped in shock at the temperature, which sucked the air from my lungs as I inhaled a mouthful of water at the same time.

My lizard brain went into overdrive as I felt myself begin to panic.

As I raised my hand in alarm, I made eye contact with one of the lifeguards on the side who threw me a float – a children’s foam board, slightly chewed, though perfectly usable – and pulled me to the ladder. With leaden limbs, I climbed out, spluttering and retching up mouthfuls of foul tasting pond water. Aside from turning blue from the temperature, I’d also gone a meaty shade of pink in my embarrassment.

The whole humiliation had taken approximately a minute.

“With leaden limbs, I climbed out, spluttering and retching up mouthfuls of foul tasting pond water”

A view from Parliament Hill. Image Betty Wood
That was the end of my attempts to swim down Hampstead Heath. But it also marked the beginning of my affection for its woodlands: when my friends went off swimming in its chilly pools, I would go off walking through its magical woods.

Like the pond, it stirred up familiar memories, albeit a different kind. Walking its muddy paths, my senses flooded with the smell of wild garlic: instantly, I was eight years old again, bug-catching at Bolam Lake. Or nine and bird watching with my dad in Dumfries. Hampstead Heath’s woodlands took be back to a childish sense of wonderment, but with added joy: an awareness of the incredible way in which light falls through the fingers of the tall cedar trees; the sound of birdsong, so rarely heard from my East London garden, ringing, an organic cacophony of jays, woodpigeons, jackdaws and woodpeckers.Recently, on a press trip to the Heath with photographer Joe Cornish, I was handed a camera. I’m not a natural photographer, but in their essence, the woodlands are an easy subject matter. I walked and snapped away, and gazing out from my view on Parliament Hill, I photographed the city, peaking through the haze of pollution in the distance.

Parliament Hill has a view that inspired Sylvia Plath’s 1961 poem of the same name, and Hampstead Heath was a lightening rod that dissipated some of her anxiety through her walks there. Like Plath and the thousands of other visitors who’ve traversed the Heath over the course of history, in that instance, I felt grounded. It opened a connection to my open, and brought me a little bit of peace amidst the foreignness of London.

Click to listen to Sylvia Plath reading ‘Parliament Hill Fields’ (1961) on Poetry Archive