When visiting London, consider staying a little out of the centre in a pleasant residential area that is easily accessible to central London yet which offers its own unique attractions, wide open spaces, fabulous restaurants and pubs and chic shops. Base yourself in Hampstead, in London's northwest, and you can be in central London via underground in 15 minutes. Once, a friend and I left a pub patio in Hampstead, and were in our seats in a theatre close to Leicester square in less than half an hour!
Enjoy days in the city, yet return in the evening to stroll or relax on the famous Heath, and enjoy dinner in one of the 'village's' many trendy restaurants. Hampstead is an important destination for art lovers. Adjacent to the Heath, stands majestic Kenwood House, home to one of the finest collections of Old Masters given to the nation in the 20th century. Think I exaggerate? How about a rare Vermeer (he painted so few that it's always thrilling to see one), a Turner, works by Gainsborough, Hals, Van Dyck and Reynolds and a Rembrandt? If nothing else will lure you to Kenwood, surely the Rembrandt, considered one of the world's greatest masterpieces, will.
In 100 Best Paintings in London, art historian and author Geoffrey Smith states that if he were pressed to list his top ten out of the 100 works, Rembrandt's Self Portrait with Two Circles at Kenwood House, painted three years before Rembrandt's death, would top the list.
Apart from its important art collection, Kenwood House holds many other treasures, beautiful décor, fine gardens with views over the Heath to London, art in the gardens, including works by Henry Moore and, of course, as the origins of the house date back to 1616, an interesting history. One of the highlights is the Library or 'Great Room,' an exquisite saloon designed by master architect, Robert Adam, and quoting the guidebook, "considered by many to be Adam's masterpiece, and as such one of the finest interiors of 18th century Britain."
Kenwood House, an English Heritage property, is open daily, admission free, the ground floor home to the major treasures, wheelchair accessible, the Brew House Café (with terrace) serves home-made food throughout opening hours or you are welcome to take a picnic (you find lots of goodies on sale in Hampstead itself) to enjoy in the grounds. Speaking of picnics, during summer, there are outdoor popular and classical concerts held in the grounds of Kenwood.
The house is located a pleasant one-mile walk from Hampstead Underground station. It is hard to believe that Hampstead Heath is only four miles from Trafalgar Square. This 320 hectare wild place of woodland, grassland, ponds and gardens is a haven for Hampstead residents, visitors and wildlife. It is often home to interesting art installations and a variety of year-round activities. There are miles of paths and trails, some designated for cyclists and horses. There are also clean, natural swimming ponds here; you can choose the Ladies,' Gentlemen's or Mixed Bathing Ponds in which you will join locals, some who swim every day of the year, even breaking the occasional thin winter ice to do so!
Hampstead is also home to Keats' house, a gracious but modest abode after the splendour of Kenwood. The curators try hard with the small collection of artifacts at their disposal, but unless you are an ardent fan of Keats and yearn to sit in the garden where he heard that immortalized nightingale, a quick visit will suffice. The house stands in Keats Grove.
Freud was also a famous resident, his house more opulent than Keats,' testament to the fact that there is more money in psychoanalysis than poetry. It's open to the public and contains Freud's fine collection of antiquities, his library and furniture, including that world-famous couch. The property is located on Maresfield Gardens, with the nearest underground station Finchley Road, and follow the signposts.
At Hampstead Museum in Burgh House, I enjoyed following the walking directions past many gracious homes, but was disappointed when I reached my
destination to find that the house was closed for renovations. I hope to return to learn more of Hampstead's history, which includes a display on the artist John Constable, another of the area's famous residents.
Fenton House is described in its leaflet as "London's most enchanting country house" with its unique collections of early keyboard instruments, porcelain and rare examples of 17th century needlework pictures as well as its walled garden and orchard. For music lovers, there's a series of summer recitals with historic keyboard instruments of the house used. Fenton is a National Trust property.
Residents of Hampstead are a well-heeled lot (you may spot some celebrities), not given to opening their homes as B&Bs but, as well as a Holiday Inn, there are two centrally-located properties for visitors. The rooms aren't luxurious, but the location is fabulous and the welcome from Bernardo Stella warm indeed. This is at La Gaffe in the heart of Hampstead village, long a popular restaurant and wine bar housed in a 1734 property that was once a shepherd's home in the heart of the countryside! Today it promises "Italian hospitality in beautiful Hampstead" and the restaurant is very popular. There are 18 ensuite, "absolutely no smoking" rooms here in this higgledy-piggledy house, all with TV, telephone and tea- and coffee-making facilities. They are not luxurious but the location and the prices can't be beaten for such a lovely part of London.
For those with deeper pockets, the House Hotel is elegant and stylish with a "very English-style bar" and exotically decorated dining room. With a recording studio nearby, I was told this is often the hotel of choice for musicians and stars. The House Hotel is located at 2 Rosslyn Hill, a continuation of Hampstead High Street, London.
Both properties have restaurants, but while in Hampstead, you are not starved for choice. The Freemason's Arms on Downshire Hill is great and has a terrace while The Wells on Well Walk is oh-so trendy and offers set-menu dinners in its three gracious upstairs rooms. For Indian-food lovers, The Bombay Bicycle Club, also on Downshire Hill, has been popular for over 20 years and has great vegetarian selections, while newer choices include such offerings as Thai and Moroccan. Yes, you can eat well in England!
Insight Guides' London has a section entitled "London Villages" which explains that London grew to its great size by swallowing villages - Richmond, Dulwich, Greenwich, Notting Hill and others, each with distinctive characteristics. Of Hampstead the guide states, "[It] has long been regarded as one of the most desirable addresses in the city. Today's media, literary, film and music luminaries live in the same houses as the famous of previous centuries. Bishop's Avenue, between Highgate and Hampstead, has earned the sobriquet Millionaire's Row. Open spaces predominate ... [with] splendid views across London."
Consider making Hampstead your temporary home; I'm sure you will enjoy all it has to offer.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/