I just now got back from a ramble on Hampstead Heath. If there is one good reason for staying in London, the Heath is it. There is no way I would have survived this long if it wasn't for that mind-bogglingly huge green space that takes up most of North London. Every time I walk through the gates and into that green paradise, I have to resist the urge to fall to my knees in thanks to the Powers That Be - whomever it was who decided, all those years ago, that Londoners needed a bit of country-side that wasn't too far a stroll from their urban pad.
The Heath is enormous. There is no park in Melbourne that can touch it for sheer scale. And it is a very different type of "park", in that it seems hardly landscaped at all. It is very natural, bucolic and lovely, with wide green, gently rolling fields of tall grass broken up by various woodland areas and the odd pond for swimming or fishing in. Compared to the wild areas at home, it seems terribly gentle and good-natured, meant for bare-foot walking and gourmet picnics - with not a bull ant or a huntsman spider in sight. The worst that could happen might be getting a wasp bite, or possibly being attacked by a feral squirrel.
And, bliss upon bliss, I managed to find a quiet spot where I must have sat for a good 20 minutes without seeing a soul. You have no idea what a freaking luxury this is in the urban hotspot that is London. During all that time, I had no one but a group of extremely cute squirrels for company, plus a few blue tits flitting prettily around the place, their wings whirring past my head every few minutes or so. The only sound was the cawing of crows in the distance, and the funny vibrating, kazoo-like noise squirrels make to threaten other squirrels with.
As I wandered past the Ladies Bathing Pond (oo-er!) on my way home, I decided I should definitely make better use of this free and gorgeous swimming venue this Summer. When I first arrived in London in 2003, I was totally unprepared for the Heat Wave! (as it was reported in every newspaper), and I would regularly stop off at the Heath on my way home and plunge gratefully into the muddy brown waters of the pond. Not as gross as it sounds, believe me - and your skin would feel wonderful afterwards. Oh my lord, I can hardly describe how good it felt to jump into that cool water after spending the previous 2 hours suffering in the hell that is the London public transport system in Summer, sandwiched between sweaty armpits and being broiled alive in my own juices.
I remember the pond as being a haven of olde-worlde civility, with ladies of every description breast-stroking their way unhurriedly through the weeds and ducks. It still ranks as my top London experience (besides meeting my boyfriend, of course).