Golders Hill Park and the Heath Extension

Magnolia tree at Golders Hill Park

Dear Readers, how much I took for granted before this year of Covid 19! In 2019 a bus ride and a walk to Golders Hill Park and through the Heath to Hampstead Garden Suburb would have been a perfectly normal, even mundane, thing to do at the weekend. But this week we decided to catch a bus and go for a walk in these previously well-known parts of North London, and it was a revelation.

In theory, we were going to look for the West Heath bog: as you might know from previous posts, bogs are extremely rare in London, and so this little area of sphagnum moss is a most unusual habitat. But first we had to pass through the more manicured area of Golders Hill Park, with its cafe (homemade icecream resulted in a queue a couple of hundred metres long), and its animal park. And, it turns out, its stumpery, which was new to me. How extraordinary these felled stumps are, and how imaginative of the park keepers to turn them into a whole new habitat rather than just carting them away. They look like modern sculpture to me, and they were much appreciated by the pigeons and squirrels, as well as providing a nice niche for wood anemones and hellebores.

Further along the path is an ornamental lake. This year it has a bit patch of crown imperial fritillaries – these lilies are so prone to rot that the bulbs are usually planted on their sides, which makes me wonder how they managed to grow so well in such a damp spot.

Crown imperials (Fritillaria imperialis)

And I was a little perturbed to see these western skunk cabbages. These are a member of the Arum family, and are become a problem in Scotland and in other damp parts of the UK. The RHS has recommended not growing them since 2018 as they are considered invasive, so I was surprised to see them here, especially next to a stream which will easily distribute the seeds along the whole length of the stream. There’s no doubt that it is an attractive plant, with its lemon-yellow ‘petals’ and pale-green spathe, though the ‘skunky’ odour, said to persist even after the plant has been picked and dried, would put a lot of people off.

So now we had the task of finding the bog. It’s outside the park itself, on the area known as West Heath, and as I know from previous bog-finding expeditions they can be surprisingly elusive, especially during a dry patch. We had a couple of false starts as we followed tributaries from the Leg of Mutton pond. I found myself wondering whether this was so named because of its shape, or because it was in some way related to the Mutton Brook which rises in my local park, Cherry Tree Wood. I had just started to voice my queries when we discovered the first glimpses of flag iris and, glory be, some sphagnum moss.

The big problem will be protecting the bog from too much trampling: this is a very delicate habitat, and with the current footfall it would be easy for it to turn into a muddy soakaway. But I know that various conservation groups have been involved in removing invasive grasses and suchlike so that the bog will at least have a fighting chance. There are little wooden bridges and boardwalks too to help keep big feet at a distance. The bog is  a bit off the beaten track as well, so hopefully that will help it to thrive. There is another tiny area of bog close to Kenwood, and that’s it for the whole of the Heath. There are plants that grow here, and invertebrates that use the area, that won’t be found anywhere else, so it’s important for biodiversity.

The bog. See how green it is!

And then we turn for home, planning to walk via the Heath Extension which borders Hampstead Garden Suburb. However, we get a little turned around, and I suddenly find myself catching a whiff of coconut. There is a small area of ‘proper’ heathland, with gorse in flower, pumping out that tropical scent. What a surprise! To find woodland, a bog and heathland within a minute’s walk of one another must be a true rarity.

Gorse heathland

I half expect to find a basking adder or spot a Dartford warbler. I wasn’t that lucky, but this little spot did make me very happy, and, in spite of it being Good Friday and very busy on other parts of the Heath, we had the gorse all to ourselves.

And then we head along North End and into another part of the Heath, and we found this gate to nowhere, next to the most magnificent tree.

It turns out that it was part of the gatehouse to the estate of William Pitt back in 1766. His house is round about here, too. It’s easy to forget that the Heath was once a series of great estates (such as Kenwood) and was also farmland, though sometimes you can be looking at something and realise that it was probably once a hedgerow.

Were those cherry plums once part of a hedgerow?

The final part of our walk takes us along the edge of the suburb. There is a fantastic wall here, full of strange manorial doors and antique brickwork.

In the distance you get a great view of Sir Edward Lutyen’s St Jude’s Church, sadly currently swathed in scaffolding.

And as we head back towards our bus, I notice the pinkest of pink magnolias, so that our walk has been bookended with such plants. It seems to be a stunning year for magnolias – I have never seen so many varieties in flower, or in such healthy profusion. What a treat, and how easy it is to let blossom time pass by without sufficient admiration time. Go out and admire a tree today, Readers! They always lift the spirits.

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