The heath first entered the history books in 986 when Ethelred the Unready granted one of his servants five hides of land at "Hemstede". This same land is later recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as held by the monastery of St. Peter's at Westminster Abbey, and by then is known as the "Manor of Hampstead". Westminster held the land until 1133 when control of part of the manor was released to one Richard de Balta; then during Henry II's reign the whole of the manor became privately owned by Alexander de Barentyn, the King's butler. Manorial rights to the land remained in private hands until the 1940s when they lapsed under Sir Spencer Pocklington Maryon Wilson, though the estate itself was passed on to Shane Gough, 5th Viscount Gough.
Over time, plots of land in the manor were sold off for building, particularly in the early 19th century, though the heath remained mainly common land. The main part of the heath was acquired for the people by the Metropolitan Board of Works. Parliament Hill was purchased for the public for £300,000 and added to the park in 1888. Golders Hill was added in 1898 and Kenwood House and grounds were added in 1928.
From 1808 to 1814 Hampstead Heath hosted a station in the shutter telegraph chain which connected the Admiralty in London to its naval ships in the port of Great Yarmouth.
The City of London Corporation has managed the heath since 1989. Before that it was managed by the GLC and before that by the London County Council (LCC).
In 2009, the City of London proposed to upgrade a footpath across the heath into a service-road. The proposal met with protests from local residents and celebrities, and did not proceed.
The heath sits astride a sandy ridge that rests on a band of London clay. It runs from east to west, its highest point being 134 metres (440 ft). As the sand was easily penetrated by rainwater which was then held by the clay, a landscape of swampy hollows, springs and man-made excavations was created. Hampstead Heath contains the largest single area of common land in Greater London, with 144.93 hectares (358.1 acres) of protected commons.
Public transport near the heath includes London Overground railway stations Hampstead Heath and Gospel Oak and London Underground stations at Hampstead and Belsize Park to the south, Golders Green to the north-west, and Highgate and Archway to the east. Buses serve several roads around the heath.
The heath's 320 hectares (790 acres) include a number of distinct areas.
Hampstead Heath is an important refuge for wildlife, including grass snakes, foxes, rabbits, slow worms, squirrels and frogs. Common kingfishers, jackdaws, pipistrelles and Daubenton's bats are seen over the ponds. Some introduced species have also thrived at the site, for example muntjac deer, terrapins and ring-necked parakeets.
Hampstead Heath has over 25 ponds; most of these are in two distinct areas: the Highgate Ponds and the Hampstead Ponds.
Whitestone Pond is a roughly triangular pond, centrally located on the heath's south side and north-northwest of the former Queen Mary's House care home (formerly a maternity hospital), across busy Heath Street (A502). This spring-fed pond is the source of the River Westbourne (an 1850s-encased Thames tributary).
It has an exposed location, closely surrounded by roads, which limits its recreational use. It is the heath's best known body of water, and many people's introduction to Hampstead Heath's ponds.
Highgate Ponds are a series of eight former reservoirs, on the heath's east (Highgate) side, and were originally dug in the 17th and 18th centuries. They include two single-sex swimming pools (the men's and ladies' bathing ponds), a model boating pond, and two ponds which serve as wildlife reserves: the Stock Pond and the Bird Sanctuary Pond. Fishing is allowed in some of the ponds, although this is threatened by proposals to modify the dams.
The Hampstead Ponds are three ponds in the heath's south-west corner, towards South End Green. One of these is the 'mixed pond', where both sexes may swim. They are the result of the 1777 damming of Hampstead Brook (one of the Fleet River's sources), by the Hampstead Water Company, which was formed in 1692 to meet London's growing water demands.
"Boudicca's Mound", near the present men's bathing pond, is a tumulus where, according to local legend, Queen Boudicca (Boadicea) was buried after she and 10,000 Iceni warriors were defeated at Battle Bridge. However earlier drawings and paintings of the area show no mound other than a 17th-century windmill.
In 2004 the City of London Corporation, which manages the heath, tried to close the ponds on the grounds that they were an unsustainable expense and posed a health risk to swimmers. The swimmers challenged this and won in the High Court. To defray costs, the Corporation introduced a charge for swimmers of £2 per session, £1 for concessions. There was some opposition to this and some of the ticket machines were vandalized.
In January 2011 the City of London announced a scheme which it says will improve the safety of the dams to guard against damage that might result from a very large, but rare storm hitting London. The proposed engineering modifications of the dams were aimed at ensuring that three dams complied with the 1975 Reservoir Act. With the passage of the 2010 Flood and Water Management Act the City of London was advised that all the dams on the heath would need to comply with the reservoir safety regulations. The proposed works in 2011 included recommendations to improve the water quality of the lake, which had suffered from algae blooms. The proposals for the pond dams were extensively modified in 2012-2014. The proposals are being challenged by a consortium of groups and societies collectively called "Dam Nonsense".
To the north east of the heath is a derelict site within the conservation area comprising the grounds and mansion of the former Caen Wood Towers (renamed Athlone House in 1972). This historic building, currently in disrepair, was built in 1872 for Edward Brooke, aniline dye manufacturer (architect, Edward Salomons). In 1942 the building was taken for war service by the Royal Air Force and was used to house the RAF Intelligence School, although the 'official' line was that it was a convalescence hospital. The Operational Record (Form 540) of RAF Station Highgate (currently in the National Archives, Kew) was declassified in the late 1990s and shows the true role of this building in wartime service. The building sustained 2 near misses from V-1 flying bombs in late 1944, causing damage and injuries to staff. The RAF Intelligence School remained in Caen Wood Towers until 1948, when the building was handed over to the Ministry of Health. It was then used as a hospital and finally a post-operative recovery lodge, before falling into disrepair in the 1980s. The NHS sold off this part of their estate in 2004 to a private businessman who is currently redeveloping much of the site; however the House and its gardens fall within the conservation area of Hampstead Heath.
Parliament Hill Fields lies on the south and east of the heath; it officially became part of the heath in 1888. It contains various sporting facilities including an athletics track, tennis courts and Parliament Hill Lido. Parliament Hill itself is considered by some to be the focal point of the heath, with the highest part of it known to some as "Kite Hill" due to its popularity with kite flyers. The hill is 98.1 metres (322 ft) high and is notable for its excellent views of the London skyline. The skyscrapers of Canary Wharf and the City of London can be seen, along with St Paul's Cathedral and other landmarks, all in one panorama, parts of which are protected views. The main staff yards for the management of the heath are located at Parliament Hill Fields.
In the south-east of the heath, on the southern slopes of Parliament Hill, is the Gospel Oak Lido open air swimming pool, with a running track and fitness area to its north.
The area to the north of the heath is the Kenwood Estate and House – a total area of 50 hectares (120 acres) which is maintained by English Heritage. This became part of the heath when it was bequeathed to the nation by Lord Iveagh on his death in 1927, and opened to the public in 1928. The original house dates from the early 17th century. The orangery was added in about 1700.
One third of the Kenwood estate (Ken Wood and North Wood) is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest, designated by Natural England.
The Vale of Health is a hamlet (named "Hatchett's Bottom" until 1801) accessed by a lane from East Heath Road; it is surrounded entirely by the heath.
The Extension is an open space to the north-west of the main heath. It does not share the history of common and heathland of the rest of the heath. Instead it was created out of farmland, largely due to the efforts of Henrietta Barnett who went on to found Hampstead Garden Suburb. Its farmland origins can still be seen in the form of old field boundaries, hedgerows and trees.
Golders Hill Park is a formal park adjoining the West Heath. It occupies the site of a large house that was bombed during World War II. It has an expanse of grass, with a formal flower garden, a duck pond and a separate water garden that leads to a separate area for deer, near a recently renovated small zoo. The zoo has donkeys, maras, ring-tailed lemurs, ring-tailed coatis, white-cheeked turacos and European eagle-owls among other animals.There are also tennis courts, a butterfly house and a putting green.
Unlike the rest of the heath, Golders Hill Park is fenced in, and is closed at night.
The Hampstead Heath Constabulary consists of 12 constables, two with trained General Purpose Police Dogs all licensed to NPCC/Home Office standards. They have been responsible for patrolling the Heath since 1992.
They are attested as constables under Article 18 of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government Provisional Order Confirmation (Greater London Parks and Open Spaces) Act 1967 before a City of London magistrate. The City of London is not a relevant local authority for the purposes of the 1967 Act. However, the power to attest officers is enabled by Section 5(1) of the London Government Reorganisation (Hampstead Heath) Order 1989, which allows the City of London to exercise the same functions that the former Greater London Council had in relation to Hampstead Heath. This creates a legal anomaly in that the constabulary powers afforded by their attestation only relate to Hampstead Heath and cannot be exercised in any other park or open space under the control of the City of London.
In addition, the officers are also appointed with all the powers and privileges of a police constable under Section 16 of the Corporation of London Open Spaces Act 1878, which gives them the powers within any open space under the control of the City of London Corporation; other than Epping Forest, which is specifically excluded from the legislation. This additional power differentiates them from other parks constabularies, as it gives Heath officers full police powers within their jurisdiction. They enjoy full powers of a constable in relation to the bylaws and regulations, general law and specific legislation for open spaces. They work in close partnership with the Metropolitan Police, the territorial police force for Greater London, to which all serious criminal offences are passed for further investigation. They also maintain a close relationship with the City of London Police who supply equipment and training to the service.
The constables are paid for out of charitable and private funds held by the City of London Corporation and, as such, their activity is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. This contrasts with the status of most other constables appointed within non-territorial police forces, such as port police.
The heath is home to a range of activities, including 16 different sports. It is used by walkers, runners, swimmers and kite-flyers, and is regarded as the home of cross-country running in Britain. Running events include the weekly parkrun and the annual Race for Life in aid of Cancer Research UK. Until February 2007 Kenwood held a series of popular lakeside concerts.
The West Heath is regarded as one of the safest night-time gay cruising grounds in London. George Michael revealed that he cruised on the heath, an activity he then parodied on the Extras Christmas Special.
Swimming takes place all year round in two of the three natural swimming ponds: the men's pond which opened in the 1890s, and the ladies' pond which opened in 1925. The mixed pond is only open from May to September, though it is the oldest, having been in use since the 1860s.
Facilities include an athletics track, a pétanque pitch, a volleyball court and eight separate children's play areas, including an adventure playground.
Whilst living in London, Karl Marx and his family went to the heath regularly, as their favourite outing.
John Atkinson Grimshaw, Victorian-era painter, painted an elaborate night-time scene of Hampstead Hill in oils. Hampstead Heath also provided the backdrop for the opening scene in Victorian writer Wilkie Collins' novel The Woman in White.
Hampstead Heath forms part of the location for Gilbert Keith Chesterton's fictional story The Blue Cross from The Innocence of Father Brown.
The radio story titled The Strange Case of the Murder in Wax written by Denis Green and Anthony Boucher and broadcast on January 7, 1946, featured a murderer who killed women on Hampstead Heath.
Mrs. Miniver, by Jan Struther, includes a chapter called "On Hampstead Heath", where actions take place.
The 1968 film "Les Bicyclettes de Belsize" was mainly filmed in Hampstead Village and Belsize Park.
The photo session used for the cover of The Kinks 'The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society' LP were taken on the heath in August 1968. In some photographs Kenwood House is visible in the background.
A crucial event at the beginning of the novel Smiley's People, by John LeCarre (1979), takes place on Hampstead Heath, which is also the site of subsequent investigations. These scenes are also depicted in the BBC mini-series of the same name (1982).
The 1990 film It, an adaptation of the book by Stephen King, featured a fictional American writer who takes up residence at Hampstead Heath.
Notting Hill (1999) featured scenes shot at the heath, located primarily around Kenwood House, where Julia Roberts' character was filming a movie.
In 2005, Giancarlo Neri's sculpture The Writer, a 9-metre-tall table and chair, was exhibited on Hampstead Heath.
The film Scenes of a Sexual Nature (2006) was shot entirely on Hampstead Heath.
Hampstead Heath was featured on the television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of the London area, with a focus on Parliament Hill to the south. The episode was presented by Bill Oddie, who lives in nearby Gospel Oak, and watches birds there regularly.
Hampstead Heath forms part of the main location for Will Self's 2006 novel The Book of Dave. Half of the book is set 500 years in the future, when all of London has been submerged by a catastrophic flood, leaving only the hilltops of Hampstead and the heath as a tiny island - The Island of Ham. The parts of the book set in the present-day also make references to the heath's high and dry location which would preserve the area in the event of sea level rises over 100m. Self writes, "... the heath ... this peculiar island, a couple of square miles of woodland and meadow set down in the lagoon of the city."
Colin Wilson slept rough (in a sleeping bag) on Hampstead Heath to save money when he was working on his first novel, Ritual In the Dark.
Hampstead Heath is also featured in Vercors's novel Les Animaux dénaturés (translated variously into English as You Shall Know Them, Borderline, and The Murder of the Missing Link).
The Vale Of Health is mentioned in the Pete Atkin/Clive James song Rain-Wheels on the 1974 album Secret Drinker.
The Pat Benatar video for her song " Anxiety" of the " Get Nervous" LP shows her walking into the DDS office of Thomas Pain of Hampstead Heath.
Bram Stoker's renowned novel "Dracula" is partly set on Hampstead heath, in scenes when the undead Lucy abducts children playing on the heath.