I love my neighborhood. From Hampstead Heath to Hampstead High Street, Hampstead Butcher and Providore to Hampstead Antique Market, I am smitten.
But for as long as I’ve lived in Hampstead, there was still one area of the neighborhood that I hadn’t visited until the other day: Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Lying just north of Hampstead village next to a quiet extension of Hampstead Heath, the garden suburb is a historic planned community that came about in the early 20th century. It was a social experiment by a group of locals that wanted to allow citizens of all social classes to have a beautiful and healthy place to live in London.
And a beautiful and healthy place it is. I took a walk up to the Hampstead Garden Suburb over the weekend in an effort to explore this secluded part of my neighborhood. From the time I turned onto Hampstead Way, I felt like I had entered some kind of virtual world.
Like every pleasant thing in the UK, this community was based on an extensive set of rules. Rules for homes, rules for plot acreage, rules for road widths, even rules for the trees that lined the streets. Every building was made of the same uniform red brick, every road lined with the same thick green hedges, and every large house squeezed onto a much-too-small lot.
Add to that the eerie silence that was part of the original community plan (no church bells for this suburb) and the serenity of the verdant heath, and I almost felt like I was intruding on private property. Maybe it was because every single home and every single street had a large “Private Property” sign on it. (Rule #504: no unwanted foreigners).
Undeterred, I found a tiny shaded alley that ran along the back of a long row of houses. Walking down the mossy corridor, I found myself in one of the few un-manicured parts of the Hampstead Garden Suburb.
In the cool lane I was met with old rusty doors, green metal gates, and overgrown hedges. The wild weeds and lichen-covered fences were the foils of their counterparts on the too-clean streets, and I felt as if I had discovered a part of the neighborhood that the locals didn’t want anyone to know about.
Coming out on the other end, I found myself on the wrong side of a fence that enclosed a beautiful rose garden. Curious, I walked along a small flower-lined street called Wild Hatch and made my way to the large red brick building in front. It was a crematorium.
Trying to ignore the purpose of the building, I walked through the archway into the garden. It was massive. And gorgeous. Completely adhering to the suburb’s well-trimmed rule, the grounds featured expansive green lawns, neat rows of rose bushes, and even a Japanese garden with a pond and a small bridge. If it hadn’t been a crematorium, I would have wanted a picnic. In fact, I still did want a picnic.
I spent some time exploring the garden, taking a minute to say hello to a friendly duck and a beautiful gray heron that were as oblivious to the garden’s purpose as I was trying to be. I walked along rows of memorial plaques and stones, through quiet groves of rhododendrons, and along beds of flowers dedicated to the departed. When I finally emerged from the arch onto the street, I felt the small sense of relief and renewed appreciation for living that I always feel after visiting such places.
Moving on, I made my way up to a massive brick church on a freshly mowed lawn. Next to it was a beautiful school building and across the green lay another church-like building of equally megalithic proportions. The only thing that seemed out of place was the group of yellow-vested slavic-speaking workers on their lunch break. (Rule #722: no tradesmen in the gardens).
After walking by the church again, I started making my way back to Hampstead village. The massive overcrowded mansions gave way once again to normal homes, and the Heath Extension ceded to Golders Hill Park and the Pergola Garden. I could almost feel my ears popping as I walked back home, where, for the first time in hours, I heard more than the ringing in my own ears.
Hampstead Garden Suburb was a lovely place and may even be the beautiful and healthy place to live that the founders envisioned. But I’ll stick with Hamsptead village and leave the rules of the social experiment to the planned community.