I once twisted my ankle pretty bad. I was at a party in Oxford, and I think maybe I stepped into a gutter a bit, or into a flower bed. I remember thinking Ow, when it happened, and then someone bought me a drink and I forgot about it almost straight away. I remember falling asleep on a mattress on my friend Simon‚Äôs floor, and moving my foot around sort of tentatively going This hurts, but I am sure it‚Äôll be fine by the morning. I am very hardy. I woke up in the morning, and it was just emphatically not fine. It was a bad colour, and all swollen, and when I moved it even a bit it made a noise which I can only describe as creaking.
A twisted ankle is not a big deal in general, but it was not great news for me, at the time. I was so, so, so, so, so broke, and could not, of course, even contemplate going to the doctor or the physio or whatever you are supposed to do when your whole one foot is making a creaking noise. I didn‚Äôt even have enough airtime to look up what you were supposed to do with yourself when something like that happened.
I got back on the train to London later that day, hopped on one leg to the bus stop, hopped on one leg to my house, hopped up the stairs, and lay in bed contemplating the rest of my life as a person who would just have to hop everywhere. I spent like a week in that state, foot creaking away, getting more and more colourful, and then Simon came for a visit.
It was summer, and a seriously beautiful day, and we decided we should go and swim at the Mixed Pond on Hampstead Heath (there are three swimming ponds, and the Mixed is the one for men and women). So. I hopped onto the bus, hopped up Parliament Hill, for some reason, leaning on Simon‚Äôs arm, and hopped my way to the Mixed. We threw ourselves into the water immediately, because it was hot, and this is going to sound like a lie, but by the time I got out my foot was better. It was still a fucked up colour, but it had stopped creaking, and I could stand on it and move it just however. A MIRACLE. Healed by the muddy waters of the Mixed Pond, and by Hampstead Heath in general.
I have a lot of stories like this, where I was experiencing what I believed to be an unprecedented level of hardship, and Hampstead Heath fixed it for me. It is only a very very big park, really, with a lot of hills and woods etc, but it is also in my top three best places in the world, and I miss it all the time.
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Name: Hampstead Heath
Age: It is described on Wikipedia as ‚Äúancient‚Äù, which seems Rude at first, but then it turns out that it is actually old as hell. I will not go into details, because there is a lot of complicated stuff about kings and the Domesday Book and it‚Äôs too boring to describe, but basically Hampstead Heath is old. It has been going about its business since 986. OLD.
Family: Hampstead Heath has a habit of telling you about its family tree. Don‚Äôt listen. See above.
Star sign: Hampstead Heath of course does not believe in star signs. It is too old for that.
Walking at a brisk pace up a hill
Especially posh dogs (whippets, wolfhounds) with names like ‚ÄúAthena‚Äù and ‚ÄúHannibal‚Äù
Why are English people like this
The class system
Teenagers sitting around in groups and smoking weed that would incapacitate an ordinary person for days if not WEEKS
Sitting on a blanket for a long time drinking Prosecco and then standing up and realising you are much less sober than you had hoped
A basic refusal to acknowledge the realities of the weather
Tanning when it is not sunny
Walking in the rain
A sense of superiority that is in many ways unfounded but is also warranted at the most basic level
19th century novels where irritating governesses fall in love
Favourite Food: Melty ice-creams in summer, damp picnic food at all other times. My friend Mae and I used to eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches at Hampstead Heath, but that is because we had really no money to speak of. Rich people can eat whatever they want at Hampstead Heath, and I bet you it‚Äôs all fucking delicious.
Favourite Colour: Tree colours. All very much within a tasteful spectrum.
Trivia:¬†One time, I was on the Heath with Simon. We were sitting under this great tree, right near one of the ponds, and I was feeling uncharacteristically content. I remember actually thinking¬†Everything, for once, is fine. I am vaguely satisfied with my immediate surroundings, for ONCE. AND THEN. This oooooooooooooooooooooooooooold Rasta appeared out of one of the bushes and told me that I looked like I needed to relax. He also offered to give me a massage. This was like six years ago and I am still mad about it. I believed myself to be projecting this aura of deep and profound relaxation, but that old Rasta spotted me at once for the skittish worrier that I am.
Hampstead Heath was Karl Marx‚Äôs best place to go for a picnic, which seems wrong, somehow.
All sorts of animals that English people fondly imagine to be wild live on Hampstead Heath: bats, deers, bunnies, something called a ‚Äúslow worm‚Äù which I refuse to look up, foxes.
Favourite Movie: Any movie where an irritating governess falls in love with someone inappropriate, but it all works out ok in the end. Any movie about poets dying of consumption. Anything to do with the Pre-Raphaelites, or Karl Marx, or where a spy is murdered and his death is the necessary kick-off for an extremely confusing Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy¬≠-esque plot.
Smoking Y/N: Normal people can smoke whatever cigarettes they want, if they don‚Äôt mind an indignant old woman looking at them and rolling their eyes (I do not mind this at all). Old men in wax jackets can smoke pipes.
Drinking Y/N: Definitely yes.
Celebrity Crush: Karl Marx or Lizzie Siddal.
Most Memorable Holiday: Italy, maybe? The un-touristy bits of France? It goes without saying that Hampstead Heath voted Remain. It is obsessed with being English, but it is more obsessed with being sophisticated and well-read and it finds the whole recent decline of English politics to be incredibly depressing.
Favourite Season: I want to say summer, but really it‚Äôs autumn. Best colours on the trees etc.
Favourite Book: MANY. Whatever the London Review of Books says is boring but excellent, like a looooooooooooooong biography of Delius‚Äôs amanuensis, or a book about aqueducts in London, or an obscure and short-lived artistic movement at the beginning of the 20th century.
Perfect First Date: Hampstead Heath would love to date the kind of nerd who would put an ad in the London Review of Book‚Äôs classified section. Here are some classics of the genre:
‚ÄúMy therapist has given me such a good rate I can afford to indulge my bouts of infidelity and still deal elegantly with my guilt. Attached but unfaithful London male, 60, seeks female counterpart. I promise an intensity of sexual joy unexpected in the LRB.‚Äù
‚ÄúIf you think I‚Äôm going to love you‚Äîyou‚Äôre right. Clingy, over-emotional and socially draining woman, 36. Once you‚Äôve got me, you can never ever leave me. Not ever. Prone to maniacal bursts of crying, usually followed by excitable and uncontrollable laughter. Life is a roller coaster; you‚Äôve just got to ride it, as Ronan Keating once said. Buxton.‚Äù
‚ÄúList your ten favourite albums‚Ä¶I just want to know if there‚Äôs anything worth keeping when we finally break up. Practical, forward thinking man, 35.‚Äù
What is next for Hampstead Heath:¬†Barring nuclear war or epic natural disaster, there is no chance of it ever changing, ever.
Rosa Lyster is a writer living in Cape Town. She writes an essay a week at¬†rosalyster.com.
Photography by Romney Taylor.