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Considering the fact that we both took the trouble to obtain flu shots before we left Canada, it would seem only right that those responsible for the spread of such diseases would see that London got the same virus as North America. Such is not the case. Yours truly is sick as a proverbial dog and the sun is shining brilliantly for a change. I did hold off for a week longer than my better half, but I can no longer regard the effort as anything more than a foolhardy attempt to stave off the onset of the headache, sore throat, coughing, sneezing, wheezing and general misery. Better never than late, if you ask me, but I was not consulted.

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The snow is gone, which is absolutely astonishing considering the weekend before last, everyone in London seemed to be out on Parliament Hill. It was complete chaos, children and adults taking off on anything that would slide. While we were there one guy made his way into the melee on downhill skis, another arrived on a snowboard. They seem not to have heard that sledders are supposed to climb up the hill on the sides, leaving the middle section for those intent on coming down. It was a free-for-all. These are Londoners, after all, and they don’t get a lot of practice at this sledding (or sledging) business.

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Despite the freezing temps, the ponds were open for business. The water was just above freezing and the men’s swimming group, amusingly known as the East German Ladies Swim Team, was out in force. If I had known about it, I definitely would have gone over for pics. One local bather was quoted in the Hampstead and Highgate Express, “It was amazing, but so is every time you swim in the ponds. You think you’re in the middle of nowhere, but actually you’re in one of the biggest conurbations in the world.” Only a Hampsteader would think of dropping “conurbation” into a conversation.

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Hampstead Heath has witnessed some amazing sights over the years, from the hanging of highwaymen in the late 1500’s to horse racing in the 1730’s and 40’s. In the early 1800’s Byron, Keats and Shelly came often to visit fellow poet, Leigh Hunt, and sail paper boats on one of the ponds to amuse the children. Karl Marx used to take his children out for donkey rides when he wasn’t buried in books. Now, he’s buried in Highgate.

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In the late 1800’s the Heath became a place for working class entertainment and recreation, from family picnics to huge fairs which took their impetus from the ‘Bank Holiday Act of 1871.’ There was music and dancing, food vendors, stereoscopes and silhouette artists.

But the event that trumped them all arrived much later, in March, 1950– a downhill ski jump! It seems to have been triggered by the odd idea of increasing British tourism to Norway in winter. Twenty-five Norwegians came to London with 45 tons of snow packed in insulated wooden boxes with dry ice. The jump itself was supported by a tower of scaffolding 60ft (18.29m) high, giving skiers a 100ft (30.48m) run-up to the jumping point, 12ft (3.66m) above the ground. Modern ski jumpers reach 200ft – 300ft (60m – 90m), but skiers on Hampstead Heath only had enough room to jump about 90ft (27.43m).

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The London ski jumping competition, as it was known, held a trial contest the first day involving only the Norwegian skiers. This was followed by a contest between Oxford and Cambridge University, whose teams had trained for two weeks in Norway. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the sunshine to watch the University Challenge Cup. A broadcast commentary on the competition kept everyone informed of the quality of each jump, but the spectators seemed to be more interested in how deep each skier disappeared into the straw at the bottom of the run.

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In the end, the Oxford team, captained by C. Huitfeldt, won the competition, while the London challenge cup – open to all competitors – was won by Arne Hoel of Oslo. It was estimated that 52,000 visitors came to the event, hosted together by the Ski Club of Great Britain and the Oslo Ski Association. The plan was for another event in 1951, but it seems fairly clear that it never came about. Perhaps the costs were too high for the revenue, or everyone came down with the London flu.

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Hampstead has never seen its like, but the urge to get out and enjoy the Heath in winter has never gone away. Only the snow.

Check out the Pathe footage at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VKZ3yzPZer0


New Year’s Day took us to Halifax airport, once again, for a flight to London. The wintry weather in Nova Scotia had cancelled a number of flights that week, so we considered ourselves lucky that our particular flight was still on the board when we arrived at the airport. Unfortunately, a two plus hour delay put us into the early hours of January 2. It was going to be a long day’s journey into the new year.

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It has been only two years since our last stay in London during the dark months of winter, but my previous absence from the City had stretched to 43 long years, so I do have some catching up to do. My peripatetic professor spouse had found us a new place in Hampstead for this visit. Not quite as convenient as Kensington, perhaps, but far less congested with tourists and frenetic shoppers. Once again, we have been blessed with a charming flat, a good heating system, and a fine place for long walks. This time in the “lungs” of London, Hampstead Heath.

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Despite our nomadic natures, it always seems to take forever to settle in. Yesterday, I finally had the feeling that we had made the transition at last to the new city in the new year. Imagine my surprise when I looked out the window this morning. Snow! It may have snowed on parts of London in 2011, but I’m fairly certain it didn’t snow in Kensington.

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The enticement of Hampstead began with its mineral springs. Their alleged medicinal quality, combined with with the clean air from the heath, attracted Londoners north from the unhealthy, smoke-filled city. According to the Wikepedeans who make it their business to know such things, the word “chalybeate” is derived from the Latin word for steel, “chalybs” coming from the Greek word “khalups.” Chalybes were mythical people living on Mount Ida in north Asia Minor who invented iron working.

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Early in the 17th century, chalybeate water was said to have health-giving properties and many people promoted its qualities. Dudley North, 3rd Baron North discovered the chalybeate spring at Tunbridge Wells in 1606. Dudley North’s physician claimed that the waters contained ‘vitriol’ and the waters of Tunbridge Wells could cure:

“the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain.”

He also apparently said, in verse:

“These waters youth in age renew
Strength to the weak and sickly add
Give the pale cheek a rosy hue
And cheerful spirits to the sad.”

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Hampstead’s chalybeate springs were originally managed by trustees, but an attractive piece of land was leased to a man named John Duffield in 1701. Duffield laid out the amenities of a spa, along the southern side of a promenade, Well Walk. The chief building was the Great Room, for assemblies, with its east end partitioned off as a pump room, where a basin held the waters. Concerts and dances were advertised.

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Soon afterwards there were a row of raffling shops for bets, a tavern, and Well Walk chapel. To the south were gardens, with an ornamental pond and a bowling green. Duffield’s enterprise allowed the world of fashion to combine the quests for health and pleasure. So successful was he that in 1705, the year of Beau Nash’s first visit to Bath, a comedy called Hampstead Heath was played at Drury Lane. London was shown as deserted in favour of Hampstead, where ‘the cards fly, the bowl runs, the dice rattle.’
The entertainments soon began to deteriorate, however, perhaps because rough crowds could easily make the journey from London. The music was interspersed with popular entertainments, including acrobatics and comic turns, and by 1709 there were complaints about swindlers and prostitutes.

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Needless to say, the ebb and tide of Hampstead’s fortunes have changed considerably over three centuries. Fortunately, perhaps, it has not always been as prosperous as it is now. The village has been home to important writers and artists at various stages in their careers; some never became wealthy enough to live here in its current incarnation.

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John Constable, John Keats, H.G. Wells, D.H. Lawrence, John Galsworthy, Agatha Christie and Ian Flemming all called Hampstead home. John Harrison, the clockmaker who solved the seemingly intractable problem of longitude, and Laszlo Biro, the inventor of the ball-point pen are buried here.

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We are in a little hamlet rich in history and the attractions of London are only a few tube stops away. We could hardly ask for more.

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Appearances to the contrary, your author/photographer has not been in Australia for the last two months. He has been back at the old family house in Nova Scotia, Canada. I have written most of the posts about the central Australia adventure during our sojourn here. While I escaped the heat of an Australian summer, I have not been so lucky with the cold. Fall and winter in the Maritime provinces of Canada offer every kind of weather under the sun, warm and balmy one day, chilly the next, snow followed by rain followed by snow followed by freeing rain. It is the wind that matters most.

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The night before last a storm came through from the Northeast that triggered a memory of the one day while we were living in Montreal when traffic actually came to a halt. It was called the storm of the century, but that was back in the nineties before the weather gods turned into terrorists. The city was over budget for snow removal, so they simply left in the streets until Monday morning. On that memorable Sunday, traffic came to a halt. We could have cross-country skied or snow-shooed to the city centre.

The doorbell rang and we looked at each other, astonished. It was our friend, Eric. He had skied from his home, a few kilometres to the west of us, up the mountain for which the city is named. He did a tour around the top and was stopping off for a visit on his way home. He put down a backpack and we heard a little yelp. It was his new Golden Retriever puppy, along for the ride. He popped his head out, ready to melt hearts.

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A more recent memory of a vicious winter wind takes me to the Alpine region of Australia, in between Melbourne and Sydney. I will never forget heading out for a snow camping adventure in a blistering blizzard. I have written it up in this blog. It is another four parter, if memory serves me well.

“Even with goggles, I could barely see the person in front of me. When it looked like I might get left behind and disappear in the storm, the friend who roped me into this adventure suggested I lead the group for awhile. I promptly put my foot wrong, plunging my ski through a snow drift and into water. We had just crossed a bridge over a reservoir, and I had missed the path.”

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The snowplow had not yet made an appearance and it was already past nine when we started out on our morning walk in a bellowing wind yesterday. It was a Sunday and the storm had arrived around midnight. Our daily walk here in Grand Pre usually takes us about forty-five minutes. We head out the door and turn left, usually, but it depends on the wind direction. If we have the time we’ll head up Mitchell Hill and down again, turn right at the Sangster property and head down to the dyke road. That leads us behind the Grand Pre Historic Site, with its recreation of a church dedicated to telling the story of the Acadian expulsion.

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There are often a number of bald eagles perched in a towering line of trees extending out from the Park. A few of them take flight when we pass, either spooked by our presence or checking us out as possible snacks. They make a high-pitched chatter, sounding like smaller birds. Occasionally, we’ll flush a pheasant from the underbrush. They can fly right past you, making a heart-stopping racket.

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After we cross Grand Pre Road we’re really out on the dyke land, fully exposed to the wind. When it comes from the Northeast, there is nothing to stop it but our bodies. Sometimes it does the psyche good to throw your body out there, get a sense of the elements that never quite reach you in the city the way they do here. To really see the bright winter stars, to shovel great buckets of snow, to feel frozen and grateful for the sacrificial geese whose feathers made your coat. That is what winter is all about.

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