London: A River Runs Through It

Hampstead Heath has been a refuge for Londoners and an inspiration for artists. Homer Sykes/Network Photographers/Alamy

In economic terms as well as geographic, London’s black and beating heart has always been the River Thames, viscous with centuries of filth and secrets. Eventually, the Victorians laced the city with underground drains to spare Londoners the sight and stench of their own effluent, which had until then poured freely into the river; yet in my childhood it was, nonetheless, still famously dirty. The schools of used condoms that washed ashore on the litter-strewn, muddy banks were known as Thames Goldfish—a very London joke.

The river slices the city in half, dividing us, suspicious and unforgiving rivals, into South London and North, or “saaf” and “norf” in the local diction. To go to the other side is to venture into unfamiliar and potentially hostile territory. The river is cleaner these days, but an ancient collective memory of its poison remains. Perhaps this is what makes us so reluctant, now, to cross it. We breathe sighs of relief, lungs cleared by the fierce wind off the water, as we cross back over the bridges and return to our rightful places. And so in truth, for 21st-century Londoners, the Thames is no longer a center but a boundary. If we’re crossing the river, we think, it better be bloody worth it.

For me, a lifelong northwest London girl, the Thames is merely my southern border, and the heart of my city is Hampstead Heath: 790 acres of dense woodlands and open meadow, and the odd corner of manicured and rolling lawn, all presided over by the twin peaks of Parliament and Primrose hills. The view east from these heights sweeps all the way across the city to St Paul’s Cathedral, to the slow-turning Ferris wheel of the London Eye, and now to the angular monstrosity of the Shard. When I was little, someone once told me that Parliament Hill would remain above the water as an island even if all the polar ice caps melted, and this immediately made it the center of my imagined world. The Heath is a place for solitude or for communion. It is a place for picnicking, for stargazing, for mushrooming, for watching birds and for collecting whichever blackberries hang high enough to have evaded the casual urination of passing canines. The Heath is where north Londoners walk the dog or the baby and where, in darker corners on certain nights, men look to one another for fleeting love, or something like it.

I knew the Heath before I ever breathed—my mother walked here every day when she was pregnant with me. When I was a child, my father ran here at five every morning, a coal miner’s lamp strapped to his forehead, a source of light in the dull London mornings. It was to Hampstead Heath that I was frogmarched, frozen and complaining, to do cross-country running for school, until one of the girls saw a flasher on our circuit and after that we stayed on school grounds.

George Orwell puttered on the Heath when he worked in a nearby bookshop; Katherine Mansfield moved to Hampstead, hoping the healthy air would cure her tuberculosis. Keats, drawn by the same vain hope, heard his nightingale here. Shelley sailed paper boats on one of the ponds. John Constable painted the skies from almost every angle; the whole Dickens clan relocated to the edge of the Heath one summer, when cash was tight. John le Carré and his characters frequent the Hampstead Bathing Ponds. There are too many artists to name.

Several years ago the Italian sculptor Giancarlo Neri erected a huge sculpture called The Writer in the middle of one of the Heath’s meadows; it was a simple chair and table made of wood and steel looming 30 feet high as a monument “to the loneliness of writing.” I know of no better place in any city for a writer to claim that blissful solitude—to walk, to breathe, to contemplate. But that giant, looming desk, evoking the ghosts of a hundred Hampstead writers, was more than a little intimidating. It was a hugely affecting sculpture, and I was relieved when they took it down.

Not everyone shares my passion. In Samuel Richardson’s 18th-century novel Clarissa, the character Robert Lovelace is dismissive: “Now, I own that Hampstead Heath affords very pretty and very extensive prospects; but it is not the wide world neither.” Well, true, and it is good, sometimes, to be reminded of it, even by a scoundrel like Lovelace. From the top of Parliament Hill, that wide world opens up below you. Mist-shrouded even in summer, here lies the whole of London—its churches and skyscrapers; its slums and palaces; its stucco and concrete and glass. From here, the glittering curves of the river are hidden; north and south are unified by height and distance. Of course there is a bigger London, a wider world. But here is the highest point, for me.