Over the lockdown period, many of us are not just facing a 'new normal', but also trying to cope with the sometimes devastating life changes that the Pandemic has catalysed. From close ones falling ill (or sadly, worse) through to losing jobs and housing, there is no planning for the future at the moment when tomorrow feels so uncertain, and when the present moment can feel so tumultuous. Because of the circumstances lockdown has put me and my family under, I had to leave my long time family home in leafy Wanstead, and find a new, temporary home. In desperate need of escape and beauty, I found myself in arguably London's most photogenic borough: Hampstead. Although I miss the wild and rugged Epping Forest back at home, the sprawling and pond-ornamented Heath has provided a much needed tonic, restoring and soothing lockdown anxieties, and helping me dream up another, alternative future path.
During this pretty bleak period of my life, I've been fortunate to be able to seek solace in and create new friendships with local business owners and baristas, finding my way around the best coffee spots and hidden, local gems of this artistic and literary quarter. There are many a listicle posted on The Internet about things to do in Hampstead, circulating around the same points, but here are my alternative, personally hand-picked selection of gems that have brought me some joy over the past few difficult months, and I hope, if you are going through a tough time or simply need some respite, that you can find some joy in these too:
The Coffee Cup
Ironically - this establishment isn't just for coffee, though they do a grand cappuccino. This is my favourite Italian restaurant in Hampstead, a bold claim for a borough heaving with great Italian eateries. Why? It's authentic, the portions are generous, the menu is highly customisable, and it's brilliantly affordable - £6.95 for a pasta with sauce of choice. Come here for the food, stay for the ambiance and people watching. The best dish on the menu? For meat lovers: the Bolognese is a must (but ask for linguine, not the standard spaghetti), and for Vegetarians, the Mozarella, Tomato and Basil Penne is a win.
Address: 74 Hampstead High St, London NW3 1QX
A traipse down this cobbled knook and you feel transported to Dickens' vision of Olde London - albeit with a few fabulous modern conveniences.
Some of my favourites here are the Hampstead Antiques and Craft Emporium at the mews adjacent, where you can find everything from rings and bespoke furniture through to rare and exotic deli items!
Plus don't forget to visit the spectacular Villa Blanca restaurant nestled here if you have a date you want to impress (and have the money to splurge).
Address: 1 Perrin's Ct, London NW3 1QS
La Creperie De Hampstead
While you're in the area checking out Perrins Court, keep your hunger at bay with a taste of Parisienne life. The Creperie De Hampstead offers a sinful selection of fresh savory and sweet pancakes... just hope that you find it at a moment where there is no queue.
Address: 77 Hampstead High St, Hampstead, London NW3 1RE
The Chill Out Pond, Hampstead Heath
Next to the official Men's Swimming Ponds, towards the Highgate end of the Heath lies this beauty. Though it is not designated as a swimming zone, during the heights of Summer don't be surprised to see hot bodies chancing a dip for a relief. Add to this some background Balearic beats from a boombox and the odd cloud of mary jane, and this is the spot to kick back and soak in the vibes of the Heath from a local's perspective.
Church Row & Frognal Road
Described by Mavis Norris in her 'Book of Hampstead' as "the show piece of Hampstead", this is a heavenly little walk. Follow this path all the way around to see gorgeous townhouses, a host of modern and classic architecture, as well as a bit of Celebrity Spotting (Ricky Gervais famously lives here). With cul de sacs featuring stand-alone properties on their own plots, and lit by Narnian lamp posts, you'll quickly forget that you're even in London.
This boutique concept store is a hybrid of modern homewares and excellent coffee. The espresso is also some of my favourite in the area - a strong but well made Italian roast, which you can sip while you smell the divine candle selection. The home furnishes are pretty easy on the eye too, with a whiff of ethnic design. Also the staff are superbly loquacious if you're ever in need of a friendly chinwag.
Address: 65 S End Rd, Hampstead, London NW3 2QB
Though this Aladdin's Cave of literary wonders has been featured in many lists of must-see attractions in Hampstead, it is definitely worth visiting. Literature is organised by country, helping you escape into all corners of the globe through master storytellers - ideal when confined to your armchair during lockdown. Also check out readings and signings from authors - many of whom live locally, such as Colm Toibin and Alan Hollinghurst and can be spotted perusing the shelves. Lastly, don't overlook the books published under Daunt's Independent Print Press, you can find some beauts, like this memoir I picked up for my feline aficionado Mum, based around the author losing her cat.
And saving the best for last - here are my favourite pubs:
- For food and people watching: The Well Tavern
Set just at the end of the pretty Flask Walk, come here for the tasty modern European menu, and the excellent selection of beers. On a sunny day, sit on the steps and watch the parade of local characters, or if you're unlucky with the weather, curl up on the deep leather sofas by the crackling fire.
- For the wow, historical factor: The Spaniards Inn
Pitched on the North Side of the Heath, near the iconic Kenwood House and the most expensive street in England, The Bishops Avenue, The Spaniards Inn packs in a mighty big punch. Having been frequented by literary giants such as Keats and Charles Dickens, don't be surprised to see more modern icons like Harry Styles in here (he is apparently a regular).
- For cosy dates and intimate catch ups: The Holly Bush
Tucked away in an adorable mews between Hampstead Tube and the Heath, you could easily blink and miss this watering hole - but please don't. Full of nooks and crannies, this is the ideal spot to get cosy and comfortable with an old friend or a new flame, in the ambiance of the beautifully preserved Victorian drawing rooms.