A Summer Stroll on The Heath - HAMPSTEAD HEATH - 2016***

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A Summer Stroll on The Heath


A Stroll

Wherever you live, you don't need to go far to stumble across all kinds of wonders, says Michele Hanson - if you keep your eyes and ears open.

The only good thing about having vile-tempered dogs is that I have to keep off the beaten track. A social pariah, isolated from the rest of dog world, I have been forced to find a few routes across Hampstead Heath where I need hardly meet another dog or person. But I do come across such a stunning profusion of wildlife, sights, perfumes and sounds that being an outcast becomes rewarding.

Starting at the entrance to the heath at the top of Millfield Lane, you walk down a path, the boating lake on your left, busy with mallard, tufted, pochard and the odd mandarin ducks; coots, dabchicks, moorhens, Canada and greylag geese, swans, great crested grebes and cormorants.

All lovely, but things can get tense here: will the grebes find a nest? Will the coots or moorhens grab the best sites? And will the cygnets survive? Every day another gripping development.

On your right, the stock pond - calmer, closed to the public, except that people will feed the water birds through the railing, so the rats rather fancy this area. The wildlife around here becomes fairly exotic. On some low branches reaching out over the water are terrapins, released here after the fad for Ninja turtles. People bought them, got bored with them, and dumped them here, where they're doing rather too well and now must be trapped and sent away - to Tuscany or Norfolk, I'm not sure which.

At the far edge of the pond, kingfishers often nest and rear chicks. Sometimes a heron stands elegantly, on a log or raft.

Walk past this pond and behind the railing is a tangle of blackberries, may, elder, hawthorn, maple; between them, brightly coloured flashes of bluebells, pink campions, fat yellow kingcups, brilliant lime green euphorbia; living up in the oak trees is a colony of brilliant green, ring-necked parakeets. You can hear them screeching, not very attractively, poking their heads out of holes in the trees.

Look on the South Meadow and see scores of different grasses, turning rusty and purply red through the summer, soon to be illuminated by a swath of white marguerites and yellow flags in the boggy bit in the middle.

In the ladies' pond you may see swimming ladies, even in mid-winter, but I saw only a mallard sitting on a floating lifebelt. And then the dog pounced on something in the brambles - a large rat. It escaped into the undergrowth.

Turn right at the end of the ladies' pond along a shady path, and on your left is the stock pond: empty today. Time to notice the heady spring perfumes of cowparsley, may, elderflower, which come at you from all sides until you're almost drunk on it. I find myself walking along, almost crying soppily, about the gobsmacking beauty of nature - here, only half an hour from central London.

I walk ahead, up to the peak of this field, then diagonally across it, and there, in the bottom left-hand corner, is - or was a couple of weeks ago - a huge tree full of fat pussy-willow, a luscious creamy-yellow against a bright blue sky.

A twiddly bit next: leave the field down a steep little pathway, the grey stone Goodison Fountain on your right, go left across a main path, come to a slatted bit of path, left up that, right fork across another field, then bear right, past the Highgate gate into the Kenwood Estate.

Do not enter. It will be chok-a-blok. Instead bear left and head diagonally across an open, lightly wooded area, the west side of the South Meadow.

The meadow opens out into a green slope; I go down that, then up the other side past a fallen tree, perfect for climbing, and a bank of bluebells.

This side of the stream is usually the most peaceful place to be, before you hit the main path, bordering the beginning of Parliament Hill Fields, where the hordes of walkers, visitors, cyclists and joggers start again, and I clamp my dogs on the lead and go left, back to the ponds and home again.

This walk is best and most deserted early on a weekday morning. So perhaps you could go one at a time, so as not to spoil things. Or not go at all, and just leave it to me.

Here you can usually hear green woodpeckers and see blue tits, tree-creepers and nuthatches, a sparrow hawk or kestrel drifting above, crows strutting about. This area is full of them, and they like to sit up on a branch and taunt the dogs.

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