Bellmoor House Plaque

Above: A hard plaque to read. This image has already been enhanced in an attempt to make the lettering stand out.

Beside East Heath Road, at its highest point in Hampstead, near the junction with Heath Street is a large apartment block that was built in 1929. It stands on the site of a house called Bell Moor where the historian of Hampstead – Thomas J Barratt – lived from 1877 to 1914. The original house was of no particular architectural merit and was demolished. The block now standing on the site is not of any real interest either. However, on the side of the present building are two plaques made of slate. They are incised and one bears a drawing of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

The other plaque bears an unusual inscription. The letters are incised and were originally gilded. With time the gilding has worn away, making reading almost impossible. The plaque explains that the ground at St Paul’s Cathedral is 54 feet above sea level and the top of the cross is 365 feet above the ground. The level of soil at this spot where Bell Moor once stood is 435 feet 7 inches above sea level. The plaque reads –

‘Bellmoor, Hampstead Heath. The surface of the soil is here 435′ 7″ above sea level or 16′ 7″ higher than the top of St Paul’s Cross.’

The plaques presumably were on the side of the old house called Bell Moor and it was probably the historian living there who took an interest in the relative heights of the cross on St Paul’s Cathedral and the height of the land on which his house stood. The land, in fact, is one of the highest points anywhere in Hampstead. Hampstead Heath, west of Spaniards Road is the highest point in Hampstead at 449 feet (137 m). This summit on Hampstead Heath is the highest point in Inner London and was the highest point of the former County of London.


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Constable, John at Hampstead

Above: A painting of Hampstead, c1820, Heath by John Constable.

People often comment on a famous person in history and say ‘It would be fascinating to see what the place looked like when he was alive.’ In the case of John Constable, that is exactly what we can do because he painted nearly all the places that he visited or lived in. The above painting shows Hampstead Heath, a location near where he lived for 17 years of his life. However, although you may know the heath well, you probably do not recognise this portrayal of it.

John Constable (1776-1837) was an English landscape painter. His father was a wealthy corn merchant who owned Flatford Mill at East Bergholt, in Suffolk – where Constable was born. His father later also owned Dedham Mill, in Essex. After attending a boarding school at Lavenham, in Suffolk, Constable enrolled in a day school in Dedham. On leaving school, he began work in the flourishing family business, trading and transporting corn and coal on and around the River Stour. His younger brother Abram eventually took over the running of the mills.

Constable first took up painting and drawing as a gentlemanly pursuit under the guidance of a local amateur artist, John Dunthorne. This led to him meeting other artists and he started studying the world of painting. In 1799, Constable persuaded his father to let him pursue a career in art and was granted a small allowance. He entered the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer where he studied a variety of art. By 1803, he was exhibiting paintings at the Royal Academy. In April he spent almost a month aboard the East Indiaman ‘Coutts’ as it visited south-east ports while sailing from London to Deal before leaving for China. In 1806 Constable undertook a two-month tour of the Lake District but he felt that the solitude of the mountains oppressed his spirits.

To earn some money, Constable took up portraiture, which he found dull and uninteresting even though his work was in demand and greatly admired. He adopted an annual routine of spending winter in London and painting at East Bergholt during the summer.

In 1811 he first visited Salisbury, in Wiltshire, as the guest of the Bishop. While there he met and became close friends with the Bishop’s nephew, the Reverend (later to be Archdeacon) John Fisher. After that visit, Constable and Fisher wrote regularly to each other sharing their thoughts and concerns about life, politics and religion in lively correspondence. Constable visited his friend in Salisbury several times in the 1820s and their close friendship was especially valuable when his wife Maria died in 1828. When staying in Salisbury, Constable made many sketches and paintings of the cathedral and the surrounding landscape which inspired some of his greatest works.

From 1809, Constable’s childhood friendship with Maria Elizabeth Bicknell developed into a deep, mutual love. Her parents opposed the marriage and Constable’s parents felt that his chances of success were limited with so little money. His parents died within a short time of each other and he inherited a fifth share in the family business which gave him the financial security to get married. John and Maria’s wedding, in October 1816, was at St Martin in the Fields – with his friend John Fisher officiating, followed by a time at Fisher’s vicarage and a honeymoon tour of the south coast. Visits to the sea at Weymouth and Brighton stimulated Constable to develop new techniques of brilliant colour and vivacious brushwork.

After their marriage, Constable lived with his wife Maria at a house (now demolished) at Charlotte Street, near Fitzroy Square, which he maintained for several years. Constable needed a house in London to meet clients in connection with his work in painting. He first moved to Hampstead in 1819 when he and his wife rented Albion Cottage, near Whitestone Pond, to escape the centre of London for the summer. They were there between 1819 and 1827. In 1827 he took up a more permanent residence, leasing a house at No 40 Well Walk where he lived from 1829 until his death in 1837.

Although his earnings from paintings were meagre, in 1819 Constable sold his first important canvas – The White Horse – which led to a series of ‘six-footers’, as he called his large-scale paintings. That year he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy. In 1821 he showed ‘The Hay Wain (A view from Flatford Mill)’ – painted in 1821 – at the Academy’s exhibition. The painting was bought by a dealer who exhibited it at the Paris Salon of 1824, winning a gold medal. This led to further commissions and offers of work abroad. However, Constable confessed that ‘I would rather be a poor man [in England] than a rich man abroad.’

After the birth of their seventh child in January 1828, Maria fell ill and died on 23 November at the age of 41. She had been suffering from tuberculosis. Intensely saddened by his loss, Constable dressed in black for years and continued having melancholy and anxious thoughts. Maria was buried in the churchyard of St John, Hampstead. He cared for his seven children alone for the rest of his life. John Fisher invited his heartbroken friend to stay in Salisbury, and it was Fisher who encouraged Constable to paint the cathedral calling it ‘the best subject you can take’. Fisher perhaps felt that such an immersive project might be a distraction for Constable and help him to deal with his grief. In many ways, the painting was a homage to their friendship. John Fisher died just a few days after ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ was exhibited. Constable never visited Salisbury again.

Constable was elected to the Royal Academy in February 1829, at the age of 52. In 1831 he was appointed Visitor at the Royal Academy, where he seems to have been popular with the students. He began to deliver public lectures on the history of landscape painting, attended by distinguished audiences. Among these was a series of lectures at the Royal Institution. In 1835, Constable delivered his last lecture to students of the Royal Academy, in which he praised Raphael and called the Academy the ‘cradle of British art’ and was ‘cheered most heartily’. He died on the night of 31 March 1837, apparently from heart failure. He was buried with Maria in the same grave in the churchyard of St John, Hampstead.


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Jack Straw’s Castle

Above: The view was taken when the building was in use as a pub.

Jack Straw’s Castle is not a castle. It used to be a large pub which has, unfortunately, long since closed down for serving drinks. It is a Grade II listed building and stands beside North End Way, near the fork formed by Spaniard’s Road and Heath Street.

The building was named after the rebel leader Jack Straw, who led the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 and who is said to have taken refuge on the site until he was caught and executed. A pub existed on the site from at least the early 18th century which was altered in the early 19th century. It was badly damaged in the Blitz during the Second World War.

The present building was designed by the architect Raymond Erith and was erected in 1964. Speaking at Raymond Erith’s memorial service in 1974, the poet laureate Sir John Betjeman called the building ‘true Middlesex’ and ‘a delight’. The pub closed in 2002 and was then converted to a number of luxury apartments and a gymnasium. It stands empty at the moment and the present owner is seeking a new buyer.

Charles Dickens was a visitor to the pub, describing it as a place where he could get ‘a red-hot chop for dinner, and a glass of good wine’. William Makepeace Thackeray and Wilkie Collins are also known to have visited the establishment. It is mentioned in Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’, where Professor Van Helsing and Doctor Jack Seward stop to dine.

As can be seen from the picture, the present structure is very elegant and is also very large. It is much larger than the pre-War building on the site. It stands on very high ground and, therefore, splendid views can be gained from the location. It is to be hoped that, before long, a new user can be found for the building that will be approved by the community who live nearby.


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Fleet, River at Hampstead

Above: One of the many ponds at Hampstead.

There is no shortage of water at Hampstead. There were, of course, the Hampstead Wells which derived from springs in the ground. If you look at a map of Hampstead Heath and the land further east you will also notice several lakes – both large and small – which all derive from further springs in the ground. Some of the lakes have traditionally been used for swimming and continue to be used in that way. All this talk of water is leading up to explaining the source of the River Fleet.

There are, in fact, several sources for the Fleet which arise on the high ground of Hampstead and of Highgate and merge into one by the time they reach the lower part of the River Fleet. The most well-known part of the Fleet is the area of West Hampstead – near Hampstead Heath Station, on the Overground line. Somewhere around that spot, the river flowed along the course now laid out as Fleet Road. The course is now under the ground, passing under Kentish Town and then flowing past Camden Town from whence it flows south – towards St Pancras Old Church. That church was built on the banks of the river. From that point, London is so built up that it is hard to imagine a river in the area. Its course went near King’s Cross station. The curve of the Great Northern Hotel follows that of the Fleet, which now passes underground.

To complete the story, the course of the Fleet follows the line of King’s Cross Road towards Clerkenwell. The river then flows under the line of Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street, where the valley broadens out and straightens, to join the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge. There is an outfall which can be seen in the bank of the river at that point at low tide.


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Church Row, Hampstead

Above: Looking along Church Row towards the parish church of St John.

There are certain streets in Inner London that just do not seem to change. One of them is Church Row in Hampstead. It is the charming street that leads to the parish church of St John. Someone else who made the same observation – in a rather more florid style – was Walter Thornbury in his ‘Old and New London, published in 1878. It seems clear that those who have a fascination with London are particularly attracted to things that don’t change. It is as true today as it was in the late 19th century and, if we could find the quote, it can probably be found in writings at an even earlier time.

Above: A print of Church Row from ‘Old and New London’.

Wheatley does go on a bit so, we will only quote part of what he had to say about Church Row – ‘the projecting hooded doorways of the days of Queen Anne still frown over the entrances of the red-bricked houses on our right and left, just as they did in the days ‘when George III. was king;’ and the whole street has an air of quiet, homely, and venerable respectability which we can scarcely see elsewhere. Long may it remain’. Wheatley continues – Like Flask Walk and Well Walk, and some other thoroughfares which we have mentioned, Church Row — and, indeed, the High Street also — could in former times boast of its row of lime-trees growing down the centre of the roadway. Those in the High Street, save one, disappeared long ago; and of those in Church Row one solitary lime remains as a memento of the past.’

Houses started to be built from about 1710 onwards and construction continued throughout most of the 18th century. They are of interest today because there are so few terraces of such houses to be seen in Inner London. Similar houses can be seen elsewhere in Hampstead, also in Westminster and even in Deptford. They are a joy to see, especially if they are in good condition.


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Fenton House

Above: The front of Fenton House.

The house was built in 1693, designed by William Eades. It is a fine example of William and Mary architecture. It is a detached house with a walled garden, which is large by London standards. It features a sunken garden, an orchard and a kitchen garden. The orchard is 300 years old, with around 30 different types of apple trees.

The house was bought in 1793 by Philip Fenton, a Riga merchant, who was responsible for much of the remodelling in the 19th century. There were alterations to the roof, the ornate portico (door frame), the addition of the pediment, new window frames, glazing and interiors. The sides of the building have later than 17th century balustraded flat areas (parapets) above the standard decorative ledge (cornice) which also dates from after the 17th century. The building has original staircases with twisted balusters. The main rooms have original panelling, corner cupboards and decoratively carved marble fireplaces.

The interior contains the Benton Fletcher collection of early keyboard instruments, some of which are often played for visitors during the times when the house is open. There are collections of paintings (including the collection of Peter Barkworth and loans of Sir William Nicholson paintings). In addition, there are Meissen, English and Chinese porcelain, 17th-century needlework pictures and Georgian furniture. There are fine portraits of King William IV (when he was Duke of Clarence) and his mistress Dorothea Jordan, as well as portraits of two of their illegitimate sons, Frederick FitzClarence and Adolphus FitzClarence, and one of William IV’s brother George IV.

Fenton House stands on the west side of Hampstead Grove and is National Trust Property. It was bequeathed to them in 1952 by Lady Binning, its last owner and resident. Inside is a fine collection of 1century8th  paintings and furniture, also a unique collection of musical instruments.


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Hampstead Wells

Above: Site of the original well. The plaque reads ‘To the memory of the Honourable Susanna Noel who with her son Baptist, third Earl of Gainsborough, gave this well together with six acres of land to the use and benefit of the Poor of Hampstead, 20 December 1698.’

The chalybeate springs of Hampstead, known as Hampstead Wells, are generally agreed to have started in 1698. The Wells charity was founded in that year. Chalybeate means that the water was impregnated with iron which was in the ground from which the water rose. The water would have tasted awful but those who sold it probably said that the worse it tasted the more good it was doing the recipient.

It was due to the pure air which had been acknowledged from the 16th century and mineral waters which were known from the mid-17th century that Hampstead started to develop. Commercial exploitation of the waters was well advanced by about 1700 when both the Flask public houses existed – the fashionable Upper Flask (originally called the Upper Bowling Green House) at the northern part of Heath Street and the Lower Flask in Flask Walk near the High Street.

The Long Room was erected on the south side of Well Walk. This comprised a Pump Room where the chalybeate water could be drunk by those visiting the wells and an Assembly Room for dancing, concerts and other forms of entertainment.

The expansion after the Long Room opened was rapid. In Well Walk, social activities pushed settlement farther eastward. Inns, shops, and lodging houses sprang up throughout Hampstead to cater for invalids taking the waters and for more active visitors. According to one account in 1724, Hampstead had grown ‘from a little country village to a city’ where the popularity of both the place and the diversions had ‘raised the rate of lodgings and that increased buildings’.

The eastern extremity of Hampstead was on the Wells charity estate on either side of Well Walk, where 100 trees had been planted by 1700 and there were two houses, a dancing room, shops, and stables by 1704. The dancing room was presumably the Great Room or first Long Room, on the south side. Wells House was built next to it probably before 1722 – for gambling. The height of the popularity was short-lived. The wells had lost their fashionable cachet by 1725 and the ‘in-crowd’ had moved on to other locations.

It should be mentioned in passing that the ‘in-crowd’, who consisted of a large number of wealthy gentlemen and ladies who had nothing better to do with their time than find ways to amuse themselves by day and to gamble by night, often were to be seen at the wells in Hampstead. When they became bored, after a few weeks, they often took coaches to another favoured location – Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, about 60 miles away. As its name suggests, the town was also famous for its wells. Unlike those at Hampstead, whose waters cannot be seen today, the waters at Tunbridge Wells are still visible.

In the 1730s a new Long Room and Ballroom were built in Well Walk adjacent to Burgh House. Attempts were made through subscriptions and higher-priced tickets for balls, concerts and other events to attract a more ‘discerning clientele’ than the previous long room. When the Second Long Room closed down at the end of the 18th century, Hampstead’s days as a spa were over. However, the Wells period had encouraged substantial development in Hampstead and bolstered the area’s reputation.

The wells remained famous until the 1880s. Crowds flocked to drink at the wells and those who could not travel so far were offered flasks of the water at inns in the City of London. Flask Walk, just off Hampstead High Street, is named from the water sold for drinking elsewhere. The Flask pub, at 14 Flask Walk, also derives its name from spring water being sold in a flask.

A short distance from the site of the spring is the Wells Tavern, at 30 Well Walk, on the corner with Christchurch Hill. There is a panel on the wall giving its history. Such panels often carry some dubious details in the text but, nevertheless, its makes for an interesting read –

‘The story of the Wells Tavern reflects the history of Hampstead Spa. The Chalybeate waters which began to be exploited in 1701 by John Duffield. On May 10 of that year, the ‘Postboy’ announced that the Wells at Hampstead will be opened on Monday next with good music and dancing all day long with accommodation for water drinkers of both sexes. The society which frequented the place included Court ladies – all air and no dress – at one extreme and an endless number of Fleet Street sempstresses at the other. The Wells Tavern stood within a stone’s throw of the springs and was known by various titles, including the Green Man and, in 1721, the White Stone.

‘As the reputation of the area grew worse, a local tavern, assumed to be the Wells Tavern, provided all the facilities for celebrating unpremeditated clandestine marriages. The Tavern was rebuilt and enlarged to include an adjacent house. Its later name of Wells Tavern remains to this day.’

Well Side, in Well Walk, was the side of the old Hampstead Pump Room.

As has already been mentioned, the development of Hampstead Wells was the main cause of the village’s rapid growth. The position of Hampstead beside the heath meant that it would be a popular location anyway. The days of the wells are long gone but echoes of their presence still linger between Hampstead High Street and Hampstead Heath.


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