ode to hampstead heath

words & images anastasia miari

It was love at first walk. Seven hundred and ninety acres of green within a twenty minute journey from central London. Strolling past fresh water ponds, walking deep into forested thickets and onto wide clearings perfect for a picnic, I was lulled into London in the gentlest of ways.

Oh, Hampstead Heath. My introduction to London did not begin with Big Ben, or Piccadilly Circus, or even the Houses of Parliament. It began with you. I wasn’t thrown into the deep end, given the tourist-trap tour of the English capital, much the opposite. There was no pushing or shoving at Oxford Circus for me. My induction began in the north via Kentish Town, up an ascending path leading to a hill.

As a fan of the poet John Keats, I could assimilate everything I saw on that first trip, and every Heath walk since. I imagined Keats lolling languidly under a tree with his lover, Fanny Brawne, in the summer, or on contemplative walks in the winter, thinking up his wistful words.

Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.
— Ode to a Nightingale, John Keats

In the winter, snow has fallen and I’ve watched hundreds of children and big kids alike sliding down Kite Hill on make-shift toboggans. Wellies on, I’ve trudged through the white stuff under the bare-branched trees and entered my own Narnia. I've fallen in love here.

Hampstead, you shine under the sun but on the dark days when there’s rain, you’re even more endearing. You’re a shelter and the most natural embrace. It’s you I run to when this grey and jaded city gets to be too much. It’s with you that I want to spend my days, just strolling.

On the nights that I couldn’t sleep, I would take to that well-known path and run up the steep hill. I took my anger out on that path, replaying the things that had been said and done, each strong word pushing me up. I’d reach my destination and look out onto the city, its lights fighting against the rising sun, and I’d finally breathe.

Ode to a Nightingale, perhaps one of Keats’ most famous poems, is said to have been written at The Spaniards pub just beyond the Heath. The imagery still resounds because, in many ways, this plot of land has remained unchanged. Keats may have sat against the same tree that I sit against, and written his Ode to a Nightingale right here. Even before the ever-rising skyline of tall towers and turrets, the traffic and the tourists, this place was a refuge. It remains so; an enduring patch of vibrant green against the grey.

Oh, Hampstead Heath. You’re a symbol of the need to escape and yet it’s you that wills me into staying.

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