Blue Badge Guide Gavin Webb takes us around the bohemian village of Hampstead Tour de Force
There’s a guidebook to north London with a cartoon titled: ‘the only house in Hampstead that nobody famous had lived in’. A cheery satire that sums up this eccentric hamlet on a hill – an outpost for artists, architects and anarchists since it first touted itself as an escape from the city smog some three hundred years ago.“It was a generation of celebrity consumptives who sealed Hampstead’s reputation,” says Gavin Webb. “ Chief among them was the poet John Keats. Desperate for a cure, he took up residence in a Regency villa near the Vale of Health – one of the spring-water spas that had brought Hampstead to fame. Here he fell in love with local girl Fanny Brawne, praising her beauty, elegance and grace, but also noting that she was silly and strange. Not the most romantic of romantic poets.
“The ailing Keats cut a tragic figure; writing the melancholy Ode to a Nightingale under the plum tree in his garden, inspired by the singing bird nesting on the nearby heath. Today the garden and house are a museum to Keats’painfully short life. John Constable brought his sick spouse Maria Bicknell to Hampstead. Bewitched by the local skies, his swirling paintings of heath and heavens reflected a mournful mood as his wife’s condition worsened and she finally succumbed to tuberculosis.
“Maria was buried at St John’s Church. When Constable died in 1837 he was interred alongside her. The artist inscription reads simply ‘John Constable RA’. His now-forgotten wife, however, is eulogised as ‘daughter of Charles Bicknell Esq, Solicitor to His Majesty George IV and to the Admiralty’.
“The leafy graveyard at St John’s also holds the tomb of a Hampstead dynasty: the du Mauriers. Head of the family George du Maurier was a cartoonist for the satirical magazine Punch. His daughter Sylvie and her husband Arthur Llewelyn Davies are both buried at the church. The couple died relatively young and their orphaned children were cared for by the writer JM Barrie – inspiring him to write Peter Pan.
“Sylvia’s brother, the actor-manager Sir Gerald du Maurier, played Captain Hook in the first production of Peter Pan. But Sir Gerald’s fame was eclipsed by his daughter Daphne, who wrote a series of classic novels, including Rebecca and Jamaica Inn.
“Young Daphne du Maurier would play on the Hampstead streets. One place she remembered vividly is the old magistrates’ criminal lock up with ‘it’s blackened walls and barred slit windows, daunting to whichever of us (played) the part of the prisoner’.
You can still see it as you wend your way down the Georgian streets leading to the heath.“The Admiral’s House is home to another Hampstead dynasty. It took its name during the 1790s when an eccentric naval officer added a roof in the shape of a ship’s quarter-deck to the building. According to legend, the ‘Admiral’ would fire a cannon from the roof-deck to mark the kings birthday or a British naval victory. Some say that this was the inspiration for the character of Admiral Boom in local resident PL Travers’ Mary Poppins.“Sir George Gilbert Scott took up residence in the Admiral’s House in 1856. It’s odd that the great Victorian gothicist – architect of St Pancras Station’s Midland Grand Hotel and the Albert Memorial – chose to live in a wooden shipboard building. His architect grandson Giles, designer of the iconic red phone box, grew up nearby in the shadow of St John’s Church.“Grove Lodge adjoins the Admiral’s House. Dating back to 1700 it features in three paintings by Constable, including A Romantic House at Hampstead. In the 1900s it was home to Nobel Prize-winning author John Galsworthy, who penned his Forsyte Saga novels here.“Ian Fleming was another local author – growing up in the North end of Hampstead. There is a legendary story that Fleming was angered when a row of nearby cottages at Willow Road was controversially demolished in 1939 to make way for a modernist building designed by Erno Goldfinger. Twenty years later Fleming used Goldfinger’s name for the eponymous villain in his seventh James Bond novel – the architect was furious.
The doyen of Hampstead modernists was Sir Roger Penrose and his wife, Vogue photographer and model Lee Miller. Their house was a drop-in centre for a circle of writers that included Lucian Freud. After the outbreak of the Second World War, Penrose lent Freud Picasso’s weeping woman and the young artist took the masterpiece home on the Hampstead underground. Today it is safely ensconced in the Tate Modern.“Artists and writers and eccentrics continued colonising Hampstead in the 1960s. Among them was the brilliantly oddball satirist, actor and private Eyestalwart Peter Cook, who moved here in 1965.“As well as spoofing London radio stations with prank calls from his Hampstead garret – famously as ‘Svenfrom Swiss Cottage’, a Norwegian fisherman who’d come to London to find love and escape the fish-obsessed phone-ins of Norway – Cook devised a game of urban golf played with friends on the cobbles behind his house.“Cook’s ashes lie alongsideConstable and Co in St John’s Church. He is still remembered fondly in the iconic ‘village’ pubs he frequented, particularly The Flask and The HollyBush, which is my personal favourite.