London: Neighborhoods

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Regent's Park and Hampstead

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Even a destitute Romantic poet like John Keats could afford Hampstead in 1818 when he moved to what is now Keats House, a pretty Regency residence where he spent two years and wrote several of his most famous works. However, Hampstead’s bohemian days are long gone, although a few distinguished artists and musicians, plus television stars, still live here. Artisanal food shops and boutiques for the skinny of frame and fat of wallet cluster along Rosslyn Hill, while high-street chains start to proliferate the closer you get to Hampstead Tube station. Be sure to leave the beaten path to explore the numerous narrow charming roads, like Flask Walk, Well Walk, and New End Road. Also hidden among Hampstead’s winding streets are Fenton House, a Georgian town house with a lovely walled garden, and Burgh House, the oldest (1704) house in the village and a repository of local history. On the way to Highgate you’ll find Kenwood House, an 18th-century mansion designed by Robert Adam noted for its remarkable art collection and lovely grounds.

Hampstead’s crowning glory, however, is Hampstead Heath (known locally as "The Heath"), 790 acres of varied habitats including parkland, swimming ponds, and some of Europe’s oldest oaks. It’s also home to one of London’s highest (322 feet) vantage point, Parliament Hill.

Regent’s Park, Primrose Hill, Belsize Park, and Hampstead are four of London’s prettiest and most civilized neighborhoods. The city becomes noticeably calmer and greener as you head uphill from Marylebone Road through Regent's Park to the refreshing greenery of Primrose Hill and the handsome Georgian houses and Regency villas of Hampstead. To the west, the less bucolic but equally elegant St. John’s Wood and Little Venice also provide a taste of how moneyed London can be.

Leaving the park at the London Zoo, walk up adjoining Primrose Hill for one of the most picturesque views of London. Long a magnet for the creative (though these days within reach of only the most well-heeled creatives), this is the kind of neighborhood where the local library’s screening of The Madness of King George is introduced by its writer, longtime resident Alan Bennett. Peel off from the Hill to explore Regent’s Park Road and its attractive independent shops and cafés, as well as the surrounding streets with their pastel Victorian villas.

Alternatively, continue hugging the Hill heading north along Primrose Hill Road. This will take you to Belsize Park, itself a celebrity hot spot (Helena Bonham Carter, Tim Burton, and Cameron Diaz have houses here) with a mixture of Victorian, Arts and Crafts and art deco buildings. Turn right onto England’s Lane, another street full of independent shops and nice cafés, then left onto Haverstock Hill and head farther uphill. At the corner of Pond Street you will see two enormous Victorian Gothic buildings: one, St. Stephen’s Church, has been recently restored and is now a community arts center. The other, AIR Studios, founded by Beatles’ producer Sir George Martin, is where the scores from movies ranging from Iron Man 3 to Les Misérables and Brave have been recorded.

Turn right onto Pond Street and go downhill past the unlovely Royal Free hospital to South End Green and the entrance to Hampstead Heath. Or go straight to stay on Rosslyn Hill and then Hampstead High Street, the neighborhood’s main drag. Turn left onto Church Row, with its unspoiled early Georgian terraced houses leading to the St. John’s-at-Hampstead, where painter John Constable is buried. To the north of Hampstead Heath is Highgate, another upscale north London "village" with a large concentration of Georgian and early Victorian buildings, particularly around The Grove (home to Kate Moss, George Michael, and Sting).

To reach Little Venice, go to the west entrance of Regent’s Park by the gold-domed London Central Mosque and then north past Lord’s Cricket Ground to the St. John’s Wood Tube stop. Turn left onto Grove End Road, which will bring you to the famous Abbey Road crossroads featured on the Beatles’ album of the same name. Head southwest for Little Venice, known as the Belgravia of north London due to its stucco terraces (found on streets such as Randolph Avenue, Clifton Avenue, and Randolph Road) that are very similar to the other neighborhood’s. The "Venice" comes from its proximity to a picturesque stretch of the Grand Union Canal along Blomfield Road, where highly decorative houseboats are moored. If you can, visit on the second Sunday in May, when houseboats from all over London’s canals gather here in Paddington Basin for the Blessing of the Boats.

Commissioned by his patron the Prince Regent (later George IV) to create a master plan for this part of London, formerly a Royal hunting ground, London’s great urban planner and architect John Nash laid out the plans for the 410-acre Regent’s Park in 1812. Bordered by grand neoclassical terraces, the park is home to many attractions, including the London Zoo and the summer display of more than 400 varieties of roses in Queen Mary's Gardens.

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