TAKE A BREAK FROM THE CITY AT HAMPSTEAD HEATH
WORDS BY TOMOÉ HILL AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY DIVYA SEHGAL
Hampstead Heath is the perfect place to find calm from the incessant noise of technology. It’s hard to remember to breathe in a city. Nothing stops in a place like London, not even in the small hours of the night. In the day, we move at fast-forward speed, and even when we shut the door behind us in the evenings we are switched on, tuned in to the world with our devices. It takes its toll without us realising; we lead a life where it is now instinct to wake up bleary-eyed in the middle of the night to check our phones. But if we pull ourselves away from our screens, there are green rewards to be had and a peace of mind that satisfies like no text or notification can. There are green places scattered all over London, but Hampstead Heath is a vast space of green and calm, woods and water. It is where I go when the stress gets too much, when I need to shut out the incessant noise of technology and a world that can’t agree on anything. I choose my paths according to stress, the most trying of days requiring the steepest routes, where I can concentrate on the aching pull of leg muscles and my breath coming out hard as I walk. I let myself think about the day or the week as I feel my body adjust to the walk, but as I go along, it all starts to slip away, and my mind fills instead with the scene around me: the trees and flowers, long grasses and the wind blowing across London. Have you ever stopped to think about the numerous and different shades of green in nature? The waxy green of ivy and holly, the silvered sage of the willow, the bright green of the Quercus robur (English oak) with its vast network of branches spreading into the sky like veins? Each variant of colour helps me breathe a bit easier. I let my mind drift as I follow dry or rain-soaked paths, half-listening to fragments of conversation from the people I pass.
It is where I go when the stress gets too much, when I need to shut out the incessant noise of technology and a world that can’t agree on anything.
Now, in the early summer, there are bursts of colour from the high bushes – almost walls – of rhododendrons near Kenwood House: fuchsia, peach, red and yellow. Clusters of white mock orange blossom waft a rich vanillic-citrus scent, virginal but carnal. All along the grounds, on the outskirts of the wooded areas, especially near the felled remnants of trees, grow foxglove – Digitalis purpurea – tall spikes of green, pinkish-purple and white. My favourite spot is where they cluster near a jagged chunk of wood, lying in the pale grasses. It looks like ancient bone or driftwood, bleached white by the sun and wind, and the coloured stalks that surround it give the appearance of holding a vigil for the dead. Walking through the woods, the sky is blocked out in vast swathes: only patches of light come through; and when it rains, the thick canopy of leaves and branches lessen the fall. Ferns, holly, and brambles weave together so tightly that it would be impossible to make your way through should you wish to attempt to stray from the uneven paths. The ferns curl delicately and the bramble flowers dot the tangles like little white and lilac-pink stars, and, come late summer, children and adults alike will risk the thorns for the abundance of its ripe fruit. But, for now, the bees move lazily from one blossom to another, and somewhere in London there are hives that will produce a dark and floral honey. At the peak points of the Heath you can see the City: the dome of St. Paul’s standing low next to the towering modern structures like the Shard. The sun gleams on the angled surfaces of Canary Wharf, but we are far from the glitter of Mammon here. Standing surrounded by the hay-like scent of drying wild grasses and the sweet green of clover, watching dogs chasing far-flung sticks, each other, or even themselves (as they are wont to do), we can breathe, and that world below us seems like one we will never have to return to. Hampstead Heath, London NW3 1TH