Lit Major Abroad: Home on the Heath

IMG_0385.2A lot of people don’t like revisiting cities they’ve already seen. I’m the opposite; I feel that once you’ve visited the famous landmarks – all the things every tourist ‘has to see’ – you’re free to see some more out of the way, unexpected things. This is especially true in big European cities. I don’t think one visit is ever enough for places like London, Paris, or Rome. On my first full day in London, and I was eager to see something a little ‘off the beaten track’. So I decided to spend the day on Hampstead Heath. Luckily, the Heath has a great deal to offer in the literature way.

I started by making the trek to Highgate Cemetery, where quite a few notable people are buried. Karl Marx is probably the most famous name; his statue’s bulbous head (about three-quarters of which is just beard) is on the front of the map they gave me in the little shed-like entrance house. I, however, was most eager to see the grave of Mary Ann Evans, also known as Mary Ann Cross, also known as George Eliot, the famous nineteenth century novelist.

I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable visiting cemeteries and taking pictures of graves; as if my tourist’s nosiness is somehow least excusable when photographing monuments under which people are buried. But it was a beautiful, sunny day, and Eliot’s grave is in a nice little spot. I actually passed by it the first time; two women were lighting candles on one of the graves and I thought it would be rude to intrude on their private moment. When I returned ten minutes later, I found that the candles they had been lighting had, in fact, been for Eliot’s grave. It was a sweet gesture, and testament to her influence across the generations.

The cemetery is very different to those I remember seeing in other parts of continental Europe. It was established in 1839, so among more recent monuments are scattered several Victorian ones, covered with ivy, and displaying some beautiful stonework. It also looks less neat; tombstones have shifted, turned over, and crumbled with the passage of time and the wet climate. This doesn’t make it seem less peaceful, however. The cemetery is still beautiful. Trees are scattered throughout, giving the impression of privacy and casting subtle shades on the tombstones. Moss and ivy grow everywhere. And even though the ground is damp and muddy, you almost have the impression that you are somewhere in the country, especially as you move towards the centre of the cemetery.

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Eliot’s grave, complete with recently-added candle.

Afterwards I made my way to Hampstead Heath. A wide parkland filled with rolling hills and many unpaved tracks, the Heath was fairly quiet on a chilly Thursday morning, so I had several peaceful moments tramping through the mud before I arrived at Kenwood House. Readers from cold climates may be rather perplexed by my affinity for mud; the only way I can explain it is that there is so little rain in Australia that mud is a foreign concept on all but the bleakest of winter days. It’s been years since I even had a glimpse of the substance, so it was with a kind of childlike joy that I slipped and squelched my way across some of the paths on the Heath. My excitement may have decreased somewhat after I narrowly avoided landing flat on my back in front of a gaggle of amused locals and mothers with push-prams.

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Kenwood House – it’s advisable not to look directly at it.

Kenwood House looked glorious; the sunlight was shining on it, illuminating the façade so that the house glowed bight white in the distance. The house was open for viewing, and I couldn’t resist ducking in and having a look around (scraping the mud carefully off my shoes first, of course; a tedious task I hadn’t considered when I first stomped gleefully through the wet grass). The house is a lovely example of eighteenth-century architecture, and though most of its original furnishings are gone, there is an impressive art collection which includes work by Gainsborough, Raeburn, Rembrandt, and Reynolds. Ready for the literary connection? Here it comes…

It’s not much, but Kenwood is said to have a magnificent library. Robert Adam, who was responsible for remodelling the place in the 1760s, designed the elegant space. And the design is incredible; the ceiling is covered with elaborate plasterwork and beautiful paintings. The baby-pink-and-blue colours weren’t quite to my taste, but they complemented the rest of the room. And there was a pleasant nook for reading, which every library ought to have. The room also boasted a beautiful view over the Heath beyond. And, as always when I visit grand libraries, I tried to have a peek at the spines of the books on the shelves. The collection here was one I’d enjoy dipping into; I noted Scott, Dickens, and Byron, among others. I definitely wouldn’t have minded a few hours of undisturbed reading in this fascinating space.

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The colour scheme may be more suited to a child’s nursery, but Kenwood’s library is still pretty impressive.

After leaving Kenwood, I wandered across the Heath until I reached the other end of it and was once more returned to the world of roaring buses, honking cars, and screaming ambulances. Footsore and covered in mud, I staggered to the nearest café, where the French-speaking staff eyed me suspiciously as I sat slumped in a chair and consumed an entire bagel in about fifteen seconds (in my defence, I’d been so eager to get going in the morning I’d completely forgotten to eat breakfast). I’m not sure why, but people always seem to give single women sitting alone in cafes a weird look. It’s as if they’re unaccustomed to seeing women in that kind of environment unless they’re in packs. Luckily, due to some amazing foresight on my part I had remembered to take a book with me. So I sat and tried to look sophisticated and collected (the fact that the table in front of me was scattered with bagel crumbs probably didn’t help in that respect), reading my book and sipping tea from time to time.

After this quick breather I headed out again, trailing a few flakes of dried mud in my wake (if you’re reading this, French café owners, my sincerest apologies). While you’re walking across the Heath you almost begin to believe that you are in some other time or space; the imposing presence of Kenwood doesn’t hurt this illusion. So it’s strange to get back to paved streets and obeying the rules of pedestrian travel.

A few streets away from the Heath is Keats House, where the Romantic poet John Keats lived. This was my next destination. The house is situated on a pleasant and quiet little street and has a pretty little garden. Unfortunately, it was closed on Thursdays. If I hadn’t visited it a few years earlier, I would have been severely disappointed. I was glad to have a glance at the place, however, and wander the neighbourhood wondering just how different it would have looked in Keats’ day.

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Grecian urns and nightingales – Keats’ house near Hampstead Heath.

After another short walk I arrived at my final destination for the day: Maresfield Gardens, the London home of ‘the father of psychoanalysis’, Sigmund Freud. Number 20 was the house Freud lived in after he came to the UK, and it’s now the Freud Museum. Freud’s contribution to literature doesn’t really need to be explained; the influence of his idea of the unconscious mind on literature and literary criticism is profound. He was fascinated with the ancient world and with the myths and stories that originated there; he named some of his most famous theories after well-known myths and stories.

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Keep an eye on your unconscious and check your ego in at the door… it’s Freud’s house and consulting rooms.

Freud lived in this house after he fled Austria and the Nazi regime. He was already ill and survived only until the following year (1939). After Freud’s death his daughter Anna, who was an accomplished psychologist herself, continued to live in the house. When she died she requested that the place be turned into a museum to her father. Much of the house is exhibition space, but the lower floor is dedicated to a faithfully preserved consulting room. Interestingly, Freud had the contents of his entire office in Vienna painstakingly transported to London in order to recreate the effect of the original. All the antiquities he had collected were carefully packaged and then reassembled in London. The room is full to the seams with statuettes. Everything is done up just as it was in his day, including the famous couch where his patients lay during their sessions.

It’s fascinating to see the place where this famous doctor worked, and the environment he created for his patients. When you think of psychologists’ offices these days, you tend to think of sleek couches, minimalist décor, and a doctor in a swivelling chair. Freud’s office is nothing like this; he sat in a ragged green armchair next to the patient’s head so that they couldn’t see him during the session. It’s strange how truth and fiction often mix. Still, it was a fascinating place to visit and a good way to finish my first full day in London.

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The man himself.

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