On this my third visit to the Heath, I have decided to repurpose my first posting from 2017, as it still expresses the existential experiencce of it so well. The main difference is that it is harder to get lost now as GPS sketches its way through the copses, groves, and leafy turning corridors.
However, there is one walk that is more than just familiar. It is ritual. It is one I have taken every time I have visited London. I have walked it in snow and sleet, in rain and cold, in burning hot drought, and most often, on perfect sprint or autumn days. I have walked it fifty times … and I am not half through with it yet.
― Roger Ebert, 1985
As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast. There we stop; there we stand.
― Virginia Woolf
You will have a pleasant walk today. I shall see you pass. I shall follow you with my eyes over the Heath.
― John Keats
“I’ll see you at the movies,” or on the Heath. Hampstead Heath. My fellow Chicagoan and cinema traveler, Roger Elbert, first brought his love of all things London and particularly the vast Northern area of Hampstead Heath and Highgate to life for Americans in his 1986 book The Perfect London Walk. He walked the heath on each of his visits to London over the course of 40 some years, sometimes twice a year.
It was to him I appealed that first Saturday “stroll” when I made the common error in a new landscape of following fellow heath walkers in what I reasoned could only be the most advantageous way to get back close to my hotel. When those with lilting but obvious non-English accents answer when you ask ” Are we heading back toward the direction of the village?” ” I hope so,” and ‘you-are-here’ maps are thinly placed, it is time to call on a higher power. To me, glancing wistfully through the trees to where I hoped the Spaniards Road still flowed, that was Roger. His book in my knapsack and a lovely spring turn to the weather propelled me forward past numerous forking branches and tributaries of the sandy pebbled path cutting through the vale, as it is referred. I looked for those most gravitas of the hiking clans, knowing that they knew their turf, and that Roger could point the way to the best of these (“Always ask a dog walker” was one bit of wisdom). Did he appear to me there? … I certainly fell into his ancient footsteps at one point or another. Yes, I made it back and was glad of his company.