By Jamie Rich
Not far from London’s iconic double-decker buses and camera-toting tourists angling for the perfect shot of Big Ben, an eclectic village defies the chaos of the city. I fell in love with Hampstead’s Charles Dickens charm from the first moment I stepped out of the tube station this past spring. The village’s Georgian architecture, quaint antiques booths, inviting coffee shops, and high-end boutiques create a sophisticated-bohemian vibe.
I moved to London from Alexandria, Virginia, in April with my husband, Brian, and our 3-year-old daughter, Eloise. Unfortunately, Brian and I envisioned different lifestyles in our new British home. I wanted a big city experience. He wanted life in the country.
Lucky for me, the jewel of Hampstead is a blanket of woodlands, known as Hampstead Heath, a rugged 792-acre park, which surrounds the village. The “heath” as locals call it, is an outdoorsman’s dream, with walking and biking trails, and fishing and swimming ponds. Tucked within the thick green foliage, the historic Kenwood House offers a great destination for serious hikers or casual strollers. People love Kenwood House for its historic architecture, art gallery and cold ice cream. But, the best reason to visit Kenwood House is to rest and take in the beauty of the heath.
Not only people appreciate the lush oasis of Hampstead Heath. Some Hampstonians argue that dogs supersede people in the park. On our daily walks with our two Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, the leashesdisappear once their paws hit the dirt, and most any breed can be spotted running free on the greens and swimming in the ponds. For the most part, the terrain is completely natural, but for those who like to keep the mud to a minimum (London’s steady rain makes it thick), groomed paths crisscross the park. Throughout the summer our family of three explored the trails, picked wild blackberries, flew our kite, fed the ducks and played with our two hounds.
Dogs are also welcome on Hampstead High Street, the village’s main drag, but they need to be leashed to enjoy the international shopping and street-side cafes. The High Street hosts some busy American favorites like Starbucks and The Gap, but the real fun is in exploring the many antiques booths and international boutiques like Kurt Geiger, L.K. Bennett, Molton Brown, and my favorite women’s shop, locally-owned Charli.
After enjoying the rigors of the heath or the High Street shops, we love to refuel with a sweet or savory treat from the famous Crêperie de Hampstead. The small white kiosk serves hundreds of people, who line up along the High Street throughout the day for agolden, buttery crêpe. Eloise will throw a tantrum for an oozing ham and cheese creation, so I hate to think what will happen when she discovers that the French woman behind the counter makes a chocolate version too.
Aside from the crêperie, my favorite place in Hampstead is Flask Walk, a pedestrian-only lane tucked just off the busy High Street. Whether I “fancy” a cup of tea, a pint of ale or a milkshake, Flask Walk serves it up. With its stone-slab pavers, a canopy of colored lights strung between the storefronts, and inviting outdoor café tables, the tiny alcove feels like a village within a village. The local flower shop sells colorful rain boots and hats, and of course an array of British plants, displayed along the lane. The antiques store specializes in secondhand books and treasures from neighborhood houses. The adorable ice cream parlor overflows with children and moms everyday after school. And the famous (and rumored to be haunted) pub, The Flask, offers a cold beer and a warm respite from the often windy and rainy weather.
Brian and I still can’t decide which one of our neighborhood pubs we like best. Hampstead’s pubs combine old English charm with contemporary design and cuisine, befitting of the borough’s boho vibe. Many pubs like, The Old White Bear and The Wells Tavern, (two of our favorites) are now considered gastro pubs, with upscale menus that replace traditional fish and chips with grilled sea bass, guinea fowl and stuffed red peppers.
Stories of famous writers and historic figures who have whiled away their time drinking beer and pondering life inside Hampstead’s pubs intrigue locals and visitors alike. Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud are just two of Hampstead’s most famous residents, and the Freud museum offers another great outing.
Famous Hampstonian’s aside, it only takes one stroll through the village to fall in love with the rustic-urban retreat. From the High Street to the heath to its historic architecture and lore, Hampstead is one of London’s most romantic boroughs, and for now, it’s what we call home.
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Jamie Rich is a freelance writer living in London with her husband, Brian, and their 3-year-old daughter, Eloise. She writes feature stories about life, love and family, and her work has appeared online and in print publications including the Washington Post, Washingtonian Magazine, Northern Virginia Magazine, Babble.com and Nerve.com. She also works at The Times of London as part of its iPad team.