Main Walk: 15¼ km (9.5 miles). Three hours 50 minutes walking time. For the whole excursion including trains, sights and meals, allow at least 8 hours.
Short Walk, starting from East Finchley: 13 km (8.1 miles). Three hours 20 minutes walking time.
Extended Walk, starting from Finsbury Park: 19 km (11.8 miles). Four hours 50 minutes walking time.
Explorer 173. Highgate is in north London, 8 km NW of the City.
4 out of 10 (3 for the Short Walk, 5 for the Extended Walk).
This is an urban stroll through the green spaces of London's ‘Northern Heights’, starting with a succession of woods, parks and playing fields on the way to an early 20thC example of town planning, Hampstead Garden Suburb. A group of like-minded Hampstead residents led by Henrietta Barnett wanted to prevent development in their neighbourhood by extending Hampstead Heath northwards and the plan for a model ‘garden suburb for all classes’ grew out of this. The first houses were built in 1907 to an overall design by Raymond Unwin, but their broader social ambitions were never realised: there was too much incentive to build large houses for the rich and the humbler ‘artisan's dwellings’ soon attracted young professionals. Its Central Square is dominated by two imposing churches, both designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens: the interdenominational Free Church and the Anglican parish church of St Jude-on-the-Hill. The churches are often closed but St Jude's is open to visitors on summer Sunday afternoons.
The remainder of the walk is now almost entirely on Hampstead Heath, 800 acres of woods and parkland. In the late 19thC the Lord of the Manor (Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson) wanted to develop the land but was resisted by a fierce and ultimately successful campaign from local residents. There was piecemeal development in the Vale of Health and below Parliament Hill, but most of the land was eventually acquired for public ownership. Its many ponds are mostly former reservoirs constructed around 1700 to meet London's growing water needs; these are now famously used for swimming and other leisure activities.
At the time of writing there are major construction works taking place around the ponds on Hampstead Heath and some areas are closed to the public, so you may have to detour off the suggested route.
After a break for lunch (and a brief excursion into Golders Hill Park) the walk route takes you to a fascinating survival from one of the grand properties built around the edge of Hampstead Heath. The Pergola was part of an Italianate garden built in the early 20thC for Lord Leverhulme at his house called The Hill; it fell into disrepair but was restored by the Corporation of London and opened to the public in 1995.
The walk now heads north-east to the Kenwood Estate, where you have the opportunity to visit Kenwood House. The seat of the Earl of Mansfield, the house dates from 1767; it was designed by Robert Adam and the surrounding parkland landscaped by Humphry Repton. It was given to the nation in 1927 and contains a fine collection of paintings (including Vermeer's Guitar Player and a Rembrandt self-portrait). The house is managed by English Heritage and is open daily to around 5pm (earlier in winter; free entry).
The full walk ends with a short exploration of Hampstead's old streets, taking in some of its many historic buildings. Two which are open to the public are Burgh House (with the Hampstead Museum on its first floor), open Wed–Fri & Sun to 5pm (free entry); and Fenton House and Garden (NT), open Wed–Sun to 5pm from March to October; admission (2018) is £8. The parish church of St John-at-Hampstead is also worth visiting; its churchyard contains several famous tombs, notably those of John Constable and John Harrison.
Hampstead Heath is open at all times but the parks and gardens listed above all close around dusk.
The walk route goes through East Finchley station after 2¼ km so you can do a Short Walk by starting from there, the next station along from Highgate.
Conversely, you can do an Extended Walk by starting from Finsbury Park. Most of the additional 3¾ km to Highgate is along the Parkland Walk, a linear nature reserve created along the trackbed of a disused branch line off the East Coast main line. Parts of this line (which extended to Edgware, High Barnet and Alexandra Palace) were incorporated into the Underground network in the 1930s, but passenger services on this section ceased in 1954.
There are many other ways to shorten the walk. The afternoon leg is essentially a clockwise circuit around Hampstead Heath and several shorter routes are outlined in the directions, eg. omitting the loop through the Kenwood Estate. The most drastic short cut would be to continue southwards from Whitestone Pond, down Hampstead Grove directly to the underground station. You could also skip the final section through Hampstead's streets described above, or take an alternative ending to Hampstead Heath overground station.
There are plenty of local bus services if you want to abandon the walk at any stage.
Highgate and East Finchley (both in TfL Zone 3) are adjacent stations on the High Barnet branch of the Northern line. Finsbury Park (Zone 2) is on the suburban lines from Moorgate and King's Cross, plus the Victoria and Piccadilly lines.
Hampstead (Zones 2/3) is on the Edgware branch of the Northern line. For the alternative ending, Hampstead Heath (Zone 2) is on the London Overground line from Stratford to Richmond and Clapham Junction.
The suggested starting time for this walk is around 10.45am from Highgate, or 10am from Finsbury Park. In summer you could start up to an hour later and still have time for a brief visit to Kenwood House.
There are two possible lunch places after about 7 km on the Main Walk (11 km on the Extended Walk). If you want a pub lunch the Old Bull & Bush (020-8905 5456) is in North End Road, just off Sandy Heath; it has plenty of seating (including a large patio area) and serves a good selection of food all day. The alternative is 200m further on, the Refreshment House café inside Golders Hill Park.
Earlier in the morning there are several pubs in the Highgate area but none on the long stretch after East Finchley. You could get a mid-morning snack or an early lunch in the parks and gardens along the way (eg. at Cafe Toulous in Northway Gardens), but on fine days these cafés are likely to be popular with family groups.
There are many appealing tea places towards the end of the walk. In mid-afternoon you pass the Brew House Café at Kenwood House, which has a large outside terrace and seating area (if it is too busy, note that the walk route passes a refreshment kiosk a few minutes after the house). In Hampstead itself the Buttery Café (020-7794 3943) at Burgh House has an attractive garden terrace; it is open Wed–Sun to 5pm but (like the house) closed Mon & Tue.
There are many other cafés, coffee shops and pubs nearby. Just before reaching the station you could indulge yourself at Louis Patisserie and Tea Room (020-7435 9908) in Heath Street, which is open to 6pm daily and offers a rather different experience from the chain coffee shops in the High Street. The main walk route also passes by or close to five pubs: the Wells Tavern, the Duke of Hamilton, the Holly Bush, the Horseshoe and the Flask.
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The directions for this walk are also in a PDF (link above) which you can download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
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- Main Walk (15¼ km)
If you are doing the Main Walk (from Highgate), start at §B.
If you are doing the Short Walk (from East Finchley), start at §C.
- Finsbury Park Station to Highgate Station (3¾ km)
- Leave by the Station Place exit and turn left in front of the bus station. Cross the A1201 at the pedestrian lights and go along a pedestrian walkway into Finsbury Park.
- Go along the left-hand side of the park for 400m. After going through a grove of young trees turn left at a footpath signpost, joining the Capital Ring.
This circular walking route around inner London was completed in 2005. You will be (more or less) following its route for the next 7 km.
- Go across a long footbridge over the East Coast main line and then veer right onto the start of the Parkland Walk.
There are several information panels along the way showing your location, and others about the fauna and flora to be seen.
- Simply follow the railway trackbed for 2¾ km. You soon pass the site of Stroud Green station at Stapleton Hall Road bridge (where you also cross over the Gospel Oak–Barking line) and later the platforms of Crouch End station.
In the graffiti-covered arches just before these platforms you will see the figure of a spriggan (a kind of goblin) emerging from the brickwork.
- 150m after crossing over Northwood Road veer left in front of a vehicle-blocking barrier and go up a slope to Holmesdale Road. Continue uphill on this road and turn right at the top onto the A1 (Archway Road), coming to a junction with Shepherd's Hill.
The suggested route takes you off the A1 and through Highgate station (also convenient if meeting others starting from there), but you could simply continue up the main road and turn right at the next set of traffic lights into Muswell Hill Road. [Another option would be to follow the waymarked Capital Ring on its loop through Queen's Wood, but this extended route is not described here.]
- For the suggested route take the road off Shepherd's Hill signposted to Highgate station's car park. At the bottom go down steps into the station.
- Highgate Station to East Finchley Station (2¼ km)
- Go through the ticket hall and leave by Exit 2 (Priory Gardens).
- If starting from Highgate station you could lazily take the escalator up to Archway Road and then turn right into Muswell Hill Road, but the suggested meeting point for a group walk is Café Noir outside the Priory Gardens exit.
The station was rebuilt in Art Deco style when it became part of the Underground network in the mid-1930s. At the top of the building, Eric Aumonier's 3m-high statue of The Archer (1940) recalls the era when this land was the Bishop of London's deer park.
In the unlikely event that the station is closed, go under the railway bridge on the main road and then turn right onto a footpath, signposted as an alternative route for the Capital Ring.
- Go through the station to the exit on the other side.
- If starting from East Finchley station, turn right after coming down from the platforms.
The estate to the west of what is now Hampstead Garden Suburb was once assigned to the Knights Templar, a medieval Christian military order.
The interdenominational Free Church was built in 1911 to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens, shortly after the residents of Hampstead Garden Suburb had decided that there should be separate churches for the Anglican and Non-Conformist communities (previously they had all worshipped together).
Henrietta Barnett was an energetic social reformer who spent many years working to alleviate poverty in the East End before instigating her major project, to create a model garden suburb to the north of Hampstead Heath. She was a pioneer of female education and established the girl's grammar school which bears her name in 1912.
- Go up to and around the right-hand side of St Jude-on-the-Hill, the parish church of Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Like its counterpart on the other side of Central Square, St Jude's was designed by Lutyens and consecrated in 1911. It was decorated with murals and paintings by Walter Starmer in the 1920s and also contains an unusual memorial to the horses killed in WWⅠ. The novelist Evelyn Waugh described the sermons of its flamboyant first vicar (Basil Bourchier) as “dramatic, topical, irrational and quite without theological content”.
- On the far side of the church go straight across South Square into Heathgate. At the end of this attractive residential street go down steps and through the Great Wall onto the Hampstead Heath Extension (with a fine vista back along Heathgate to St Jude's).
Part of the garden suburb's design was a clear separation of town and country, in the manner of medieval Bavarian hilltop towns. However, the boundary wall's construction was interrupted by the start of WWⅠ and never completed.
- Bear left across the grass towards a gap in the hedge 100m away and go over a ditch into a large open space, Barn Field. Go uphill towards its far left-hand corner, not the obvious gap nearer the centre. In this corner go past some cricket nets (possibly summer only) into the trees, across a bridleway and into a long narrow meadow.
- Follow a grassy path along the left-hand side of this tree-lined meadow for 50m, then veer left through a wide gap to continue on a bridleway on the other side of the trees.
- Shortly after the bridleway goes into a wood fork right onto a narrow path running parallel to it. Behind the wire fence on your right is one of a series of reed-covered ponds.
The ponds are fed by one of the many springs on Hampstead Heath and the tree-lined stream you have been walking alongside eventually flows into Mutton Brook. Most of the Heath Extension was originally farmland and the ponds were dug out by labourers in the early 20thC.
- At a path crossing turn right to go across a wooden footbridge between two of these ponds. On the other side turn left briefly onto a surfaced path, then bear left onto a grassy path (almost straight ahead) where the main path curves right.
The fountain on the left is a memorial to a local artist, Walter Field. He lived on the other side of Hampstead Heath but his sister was instrumental in acquiring the Heath Extension and had the fountain erected in 1907 before anyone could object.
- Follow the path across the middle of a strip of grassland and out to a road (Wildwood Road). Cross over and go into the woodland opposite, Sandy Heath.
- Take any convenient path heading directly away from the road (or slightly to the right) for 200m, to come to a horse ride (Sandy Road) running along the top of a low ridge. Turn right onto this ride, passing a large pond on your left.
Most of the dips and hollows in Sandy Heath are the result of sand workings in the 1860s when the Lord of the Manor was being thwarted in his plans for development and resorted to despoilation.
- Follow the ride as it curves down to the right past some mature beech trees, then bends left and comes out onto the end of a cul-de-sac (North End).
- Follow this road down to a T-junction and turn right onto the A502 (North End Road). The first of the suggested lunch places is immediately on the right, the Old Bull and Bush.
- For the alternative place (or to resume the walk after a pub lunch) cross the main road at the pedestrian crossing. Turn right and go along the road for 100m, then turn left into Golders Hill Park; its Refreshment House café is ahead on the right.
Golders Hill Park was opened to the public in 1898 and is now managed by the City of London. The grounds contain some formal gardens, a deer enclosure and a free zoo.
- To skip the suggested route through the park you can take the path heading up the slope away from the café, signposted to Hill Garden and Pergola. Leave the park through a gate, go up a flight of steps and take any path straight ahead through the wooded West Heath for 150m to come to the garden entrance.
Suggested tour of the Park (+1¼ km)
- Take the main path past the café and bear right into the ornamental Walled Garden.
This has a Mediterranean flavour with clipped ‘cubes’ of evergreen oak trees on box platforms.
- Take any route through this garden. The most direct route is to keep to its left-hand side (alongside the pond) and exit through a brick archway, past the Butterfly House.
This is open daily on summer afternoons.
- Go over a humpback bridge onto a path through the Stumpery.
This artistically arranged area of tree stumps, ferns and woodland plants is a re-creation of a feature popular in Victorian gardens.
- At the far end turn right and take the path curving round to the left past the right-hand end of the open-air cages comprising the Zoo.
This contains lemurs, coatis and a selection of exotic birds.
- After passing the bottom end of the Zoo go through a wooden gate and make a brief circuit through the Water Garden before returning to this point.
- Take the path between the Zoo and the Water Garden and turn right in front of the Deer Enclosure.
This contains a rhea as well as a small herd of fallow deer.
- Leave the park through a gate into West Heath, with Leg of Mutton Pond ahead on the right.
- Turn left onto a broad track (Sandy Road). At the next exit from the park go past a maintenance area and keep ahead at a major path crossing, but immediately afterwards fork right onto a path climbing through the wooded heathland.
- After a level stretch the path goes through a small dip and merges with a broader path coming up from the right. Follow this round a bend to the left, in front of the boundary wall and railings of Hill Garden.
- At a path crossing (with the direct route from Golders Hill Park coming in from the left) turn right through a gate into the signposted Hill Garden and Pergola.
If this walkway is partially closed for a wedding or similar function, go through the lower garden instead (you might like to backtrack through it anyway before continuing the walk). The view from the Belvedere is towards Harrow-on-the-Hill (with its tall church spire), 10 km to the west.
This large house (originally called The Hill), its gardens and the 800-foot pergola were constructed between 1905 and 1925 for the soap magnate William Lever, later Lord Leverhulme. After his death the house was acquired by Lord Inverforth and renamed. It subsequently became a convalescent home before finally being converted into luxury apartments.
The flagstaff marks the site of one of the fire beacons erected to provide warning of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The pond gets its name from a milestone which can be found at the top of Hampstead Grove.
- If you want to curtail the walk by heading directly for Hampstead underground station, bear right across the grass to a junction of roads. Turn left onto West Heath Road (with the pond on your left), then just before the traffic lights turn right into Hampstead Grove. Either follow this quiet road downhill all the way into the centre of Hampstead, or pick up the directions in §H when you reach Fenton House.
This prominent building (a famous pub which closed in around 2000) is named after one of the leaders of the 1381 Peasants' Revolt, the story being that he addressed groups of rebels on the Heath from a hay wagon (his ‘castle’). At 135m, this is the highest point in the old County of London.
- At the road sign turn right down some steps onto another part of the Heath. In 50m fork left to come to a view of London over a cluster of houses in the Vale of Health.
The area below was originally a malarial swamp called Hatches Bottom. It acquired its more salubrious name after it was drained in the late 18thC and developed in the 19thC.
- Continue along the path and join a very wide sandy track heading NE, gradually moving away from Spaniards Road. In 100m keep ahead along the left-hand side of an open area, leaving the main track which veers down to the right. At the far end go down into the trees and follow the main path for about 400m.
- The next turning is slightly tricky to spot. After a while you should be able to see metal railings off to the left, the boundary of the Kenwood Estate. You need to veer left at some point onto a path going up to a gate in these railings; if unsure, simply climb the slope and walk closer to them.
- If you want to curtail the walk by skipping Kenwood House (which you would have to do if the gate is locked: the grounds close at dusk), continue around the estate's southern boundary for 750m, passing several more gates. At the last of these (where you emerge onto an open part of the Heath and the boundary turns sharp left), turn right and pick up the directions in §G. [Alternatively, make your own way across the Heath to Parliament Hill and finish the walk at §H.]
Continuing along the main path (heading north for 300m, then forking right to head north-east) would bring you to Kenwood House on a fairly level route, but the suggested route gives a better view of the house in its setting.
The direct route to Kenwood House crosses a seasonal stream and in wet conditions it is better to turn left and follow the path round to the house in a wide loop. This route goes past a large Henry Moore bronze sculpture “Two piece reclining figure No.5” (1963-64).
A short detour through the rhododendrons ahead on the left would take you to a Barbara Hepworth limestone sculpture “Monolith (Empyrean)” (1953).
Viewed from the house, the landscaping was designed to create the illusion of a broad river flowing towards London, an impression reinforced by the bridge on the far left-hand side of the lake (which you will discover is not what it seems).
- If you have been visiting the café, return to the terrace and turn left, away from the house. Follow the path round to the right, passing some fine old trees. Go past an exit onto the Heath (where there is a refreshment kiosk) and follow the path down the slope. As you go past the left-hand end of the lake, peek through the trees at the appropriately-named Sham Bridge.
This is just a painted wooden façade. It was not part of Repton's design and he considered it “a deception unworthy of Kenwood”.
- Follow the main path gently uphill, eventually coming to Highgate Gate. Go through this to return to the Heath.
If you took the short cut around the southern boundary of the estate, you would rejoin the main route from the right here.
- Continue in the same direction away from the Kenwood Estate, soon taking a well-defined grassy path straight ahead down the slope where the main path curves right. The chain of Highgate Ponds are in the valley on your left, with the Kenwood Ladies' Bathing Pond behind the tree boundary in this meadow.
- At the bottom of the slope cross a stream on a wide plank bridge and continue up to a T-junction. Turn left onto a broad path which later goes between the Bird Sanctuary Pond (on your left) and the large Model Boating Pond.
This deviation around the Boating Pond used to be necessary because a more direct route to Parliament Hill (straight ahead where you turned left) was blocked by a controversial restoration project, but this slightly longer route is in any case worth the detour.
- Follow the path round to the right to go alongside the Boating Pond. At the far end turn right again to go between it and the Highgate Men's Bathing Pond.
- On the far side go past some trees and turn half-left onto a path going uphill across the grass. In 200m you pass a clump of pine trees on a mound on the right called the Tumulus.
In 1725 the antiquarian William Stukeley speculated that this was an ancient burial ground dating from the Roman invasion of Britain, but no evidence of this was found and its purpose is still unknown. It might have been a feature to be seen from Kenwood House, but is probably something mundane like an 18thC rubbish tip.
- Go through a copse and follow the path as it bends slightly to the left. Go straight up the slope ahead for the famous view across London from Parliament Hill.
Guy Fawkes's fellow conspirators supposedly met here on the evening of November 5, 1605 to watch the blowing up of Parliament (one of the historic buildings now dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers).
- Take the surfaced path heading W from Parliament Hill, down the slope and into a wood.
- Keep ahead through the wood. Later the path bends left and passes between two of the Hampstead Ponds, with the Mixed Bathing Pond on the right.
- To skip the rest of the walk and finish at Hampstead Heath (overground) station keep left to go alongside the left-hand pond. Continue past another large pond and follow the main path round to the left in front of East Heath Road. At the end of an avenue of plane trees you come out onto South End Road, with the station ahead on the left.
Hampstead became a fashionable health spa in the early 18thC. Spa water was bottled in Flask Walk (on the site of the Flask tavern).
This Queen Anne house was built in 1704. After being unoccupied in WWⅡ it was restored by the local council and used as a community centre. It was taken over by a charitable trust in 1979 and now houses art exhibitions and a small museum of local history.
- If you want to skip the final 1 km past some more of Hampstead's interesting buildings, return to the junction below Burgh House and turn right onto the raised pavement to the right of Flask Walk. Where the road turns right by the Flask pub keep ahead along a walkway with quirky old shops. At the end turn right onto the High Street for the underground station.
This is a 17thC merchant's house with a large walled garden, bequeathed to the National Trust in 1952.
- Your final opportunity to curtail the walk is to keep ahead down Holly Hill, perhaps diverting into Holly Mount for the Holly Bush pub.
Many escapees from the French Revolution settled in this street and this church was built for them in 1816. The bell tower was added soon after an 1852 law allowed bells to be rung from Catholic churches for the first time since the Reformation.
The present church (dedicated to the Evangelist) dates from 1745; 19thC extensions westwards realigned the high altar from the usual east end to the west. Its churchyard contains some famous tombs, with signs directing you to those of the artist John Constable (alongside the wall at the bottom of the churchyard) and John Harrison, inventor of the marine chronometer (on the south side of the church).
» Last updated: October 4, 2018