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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