A Late July Walk on Hampstead Heath

Dear Readers, there has been all sorts of shenanigans at the Bathing Ponds on Hampstead Heath during the past few years. Charges were introduced for swimmers at the Women’s Pond for in 2004 (though I note that over sixties can still swim for free before 9.30 a.m.), and were increased recently. Works have taken place to dam some areas around the men’s pond due to flood risk – there are a lot of flood mitigation works in the pipeline in several of the green spaces in North London, and with the recent flooding following storms during the past month it looks as if something will need to be done. Balancing the future needs of the area against present amenities is always tricky, especially as, with climate change, things look so uncertain. One thing is certain – Hampstead Heath will always provoke strong, passionate feelings from those who use the area regularly, and who want to protect it. Long may this continue.

It was very quiet in the woods today: on a summer weekend during lockdown the crowds were everywhere, but today seemed like a welcome return to some kind of normal. The ivy roots dangling from this horse chestnut put me in mind of those great trees of the Southern USA with the Spanish Moss dangling from their branches.

There are little patches of Small Balsam (Impatiens parviflora) – I haven’t noticed this elsewhere in North London. At least it isn’t as bold and invasive as the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) that’s popped up in other places, such as the Cemetery.

This very fine hoverfly was on the creeping thistle – I can’t pass a patch of thistle without stopping for a look, there’s always someone interesting popping in for a feed. This very handsome chap is the Great Pied Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens), a close relative of the Hornet Hoverfly(Volucella zonaria) that I mentioned in my post about Cherry Tree Wood earlier this week. The Great Pied Hoverfly has a most interesting lifecycle. The adult female walks into the nest of a common wasp, and somehow gets away without being stung to death. She lays her eggs, and when they develop into larvae they feed on detritus in the nest, and dead and dying wasps and their larvae. When they are ready to pupate, they leave the nest and burrow underground, reappearing the following spring in time for the whole cycle to begin again. Never underestimate a fly, that’s all I can say.

And here is some Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus),  a plant that I hadn’t noticed on the Heath before. I feel a Wednesday Weed coming on.

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

And here is some Musk Mallow (Malva moschata), a much more delicate plant than the Common Mallow that I’m usually finding all over the cemetery. Another Wednesday Weed, maybe?

Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)

I always love my first glimpse of Kenwood House through the trees. That way lies coffee and a brownie!

Now, have a look at this absolutely magnificent sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). I am clearly getting better at identifying things, because one factor in identification of mature sweet chestnuts (over 60 years old) is that the bark starts to spiral around the tree, usually in a clockwise direction, though I’m not convinced that this isn’t anti-clockwise (says she, scratching her head). I do love being able to put a name to things, it seems more respectful somehow. Also, I must remember to take a big sniff towards high summer, as the male catkins are said to smell of frying mushrooms.

When we finally get our coffee and brownie, we’re joined by this very fine pigeon. He is not at all deterred by the fact that my husband’s flapjack is vegan, and I swear he’d be sitting on our knees waiting for crumbs if he was allowed. He breaks off only briefly to huff and dance around a female he lands nearby before he’s back on flapjack watch.

A crow flies up onto the roof of the building opposite with what appears to be an entire scone – possibly someone wasn’t paying full attention in the tearoom gardens next door. The crow is soon joined by a fledgling. I can’t see for certain, but I suspect that the adult is dunking the cake into some water in the gutter to soften it up a bit for the youngster – I’ve seen them do this before. You are always being watched by some sort of avian beady eye when you sit here with a sandwich. Be warned.

The flowers outside the gift shop are all supersized, be they the white hydrangeas, the dahlias or the ten-foot-tall sunflowers.

And there was a brief moment on the path back to the ponds when there was no one around at all – not a jogger, not someone having a conversation on their mobile, not a gaggle of small children or a dog walker with various hounds. There was just us, and the sunshine, and the trees for about 90 seconds.

Long enough to notice how the Enchanter’s Nightshade, normally such a weedy little plant, can actually also be magical in the right light.

Back to the boating pond. Oh dear.

And just in case it isn’t clear….

No one told the ducks and the black-headed gulls though, and the swifts were skimming the surface for insects. I haven’t seen a single swallow or house martin yet this year though, I hope things are better where you are.

Tufted duck and black-headed gull having a rest

And how about this female/juvenile Mandarin duck (Aix galericulata)? I’ve never seen a male here, but I know that many of them have escaped from wildfowl collections. There are a lot more protected, reedy areas around the boating pond now, and the duck nests in tree holes, so it would be nice to think that they might have made a home here.

We head back, stepping carefully around a painted lady butterfly that’s picking up salts from the path.

I’m delighted to see the ragwort doing so well – this must be one of the UK’s most maligned plants, but it’s the foodplant of the cinnabar moth, and is much beloved by all sorts of pollinators.

We stop for a few minutes to watch the dogs swimming in the doggy part of the pond. Some dogs are clearly into it, and others can’t understand what all the fuss is about. Guess which heading this hound falls under.

And then it’s back to the 214 bus stop, with a brief pause to admire this sign on the side of what is now an Italian restaurant. How I’d love to stop for a Bean Feast!

5 thoughts on “A Late July Walk on Hampstead Heath

  1. Sarah

    Sometimes your blog makes me so homesick for my own North London stomping ground. I lived in Hampstead for a year when I first moved to London and walked on the Heath nearly every day. And sometimes had a coffee at Kenwood, though never a brownie as my dole wouldn’t stretch to that. I’m moving to Devon this month and though I’m looking forward to the rural delights, I have a terrible fear of never seeing London again!

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I’m sure you’ll be back, Sarah, and there is much to treasure in Devon as well – it’s the only place I’ve ever seen glowworms in the UK for one thing :-). And cirl buntings!

      Reply
  2. Liz Norbury

    On the day I was born, my dad gathered conkers from beneath the horse chestnuts on Hampstead Heath, and it became a family tradition to visit the Heath for a conker hunt on the nearest weekend to my birthday.

    Two years ago, I enjoyed an early morning birthday swim in the Ladies’ Pond with one of my oldest friends (we started school on the same day), and afterwards her lovely mum joined us for breakfast in the late summer sunshine outside Kenwood House. She has always come out with my friend and me on our days out in London, visiting exhibitions, gardens and tea shops and never tiring – even in her late 80s – as we walked for miles.

    On Tuesday, I went to London for her funeral, which was followed by a joyful celebration of a life lived to the full right up until she died, a few months short of her 90th birthday. When I read your post, I remembered my birthday breakfast in 2019, and found the photo I took of her standing in the doorway of the gift shop, which was surrounded by giant sunflowers and dahlias, just as it is in your photo.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      That’s lovely, Liz – I’m sorry about your friend’s Mum, but it sounds as if she had a full and interesting life, and kept her curiosity right up to the end. May we all be so fortunate!

      Reply

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