Pond life

WE MADE THE MOST of the shortest day of the year, 21st December 2020, by leaving our house before sunrise, which was supposed to happen at 8.05 am but did not do so visibly because of the grey skies and incessant rain. We drove to South End Green (Hampstead) and parked just above the largest of the Hampstead Ponds (Pond number 1).

Despite the sheets of rain and the sombre sky, the houses across the pond were reflected in the water  where swans and other waterfowl were taking a swim. We splashed along a waterlogged path to the next pond, Pond number 2, which is also overlooked by a few houses, whose inhabitants have an enviable view over the water and the slopes of Hampstead Heath beyond. We stood on a wooden viewing platform and heard a ‘splosh’ near us. It was a cormorant taking a dive. It emerged a few moments later further out in the pond. Several other cormorants could just about be seen through the rain, resting on a tiny island in the pond.

The Hampstead Ponds, three in number, are fed by streams that rise near the Vale of Health, which is about 440 yards northwest of the uppermost pond (number 3), which flows into the second pond and then into the first. These streams, along with those that flow into the Highgate Ponds, are sources of the water that flows in the now subterranean River Fleet, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.  

The idea of damming the streams to make the ponds might have been conceived as early as 1589 (https://guildhallhistoricalassociation.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/the-history-of-the-hampstead-heath-ponds/) but it was only in 1692 that the  Hampstead Water Company  leased the springs that now feed the ponds. The latter, which were used as freshwater reservoirs, were created by damming the streams in the early 18th century. The pond at the Vale of Health was created later, in 1777. Water from these ponds/reservoirs was supplied to users in north London via wooden pipes created by boring holes in elm tree trunks. The Highgate Ponds, which also supply water to the Fleet, were also created by the Hampstead Water Company.

In 1856, the New River Company acquired Hampstead Pond number 1 and the Vale of Health pond, which were by that time becoming less savoury as far as water quality was concerned. Four years later, the Hampstead Junction Railway Company opened what is now Hampstead Heath Overground Station. This was just south of a fourth pond, which was filled in in 1892. In addition, there was another pond in South End Green where a disused 19th century drinking fountain now stands. The pond was filled in in 1835.

Enough of the distant past. Let me tell you how South End Green fits in with my life so far. My mother’s brother, Felix, lived at number 130 Fleet Road. He bought it at an extremely reasonable price because it had a ‘sitting tenant’. Eventually, after the tenant died, my uncle lived on one of the building’s three floors and rented the other two to a couple of Nigerians, who became his close friends. He regarded them as if they were his sons and they looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father.  For a long time, Felix occupied the top flat. He used to visit our flat for dinner regularly and we used to drive him home at the end of the evening. On one occasion, we arrived at his house, and after fumbling in his pockets, he announced that he had left his house keys locked in his home. We asked him what he was going to do. He answered in his South African accent:

“Ag, I do this often. All I need to do is ring my neighbour’s doorbell and they will let me onto their roof. Then, I cross over on to my roof. I keep a stick there so that I can break open my window and climb into my house. So, you don’t need to worry.”

Felix was always creative and inventive. When he grew older and infirm, he moved into the ground floor flat. He began using a stick when out walking. Once, when I was visiting him in a ward in the Royal Free Hospital, which is across the road from his former home, I was present when a physiotherapist visited him. She asked him whether he had a walking stick. He said:

“It’s lying beneath my bed.”

The physiotherapist looked at the stick, and said:

“Well, I have never seen one quite like this before.”

“Ag,” said Felix, “I took a bleddy broomstick and glued an umbrella handle on to it.”

Felix died a few months ago. We miss him greatly.

Sadly, South End Green was  associated with other personal losses. Both my mother, and then many years later, her sister, ended their lives in the Royal Free Hospital.

The rear of Felix’s home once overlooked the LCC Tramway Depot. This was surrounded by the terraced houses on Fleet, Constantine, Agincourt, and Cressy Roads. The entrance to the depot was from the latter. This depot opened for horse-drawn trams in about 1887 and then the system was electrified in 1909. In 1938, trolley buses replaced trams travelling to South End Green and these were replaced by motor buses in about 1960 (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp3-8). Currently the route 24 bus terminates at South End Green, a route which I used when I was younger.

I used the 24, which passed near University College London where I studied between 1970 and 1982, for two main reasons. One was to visit my uncle Felix and the other to visit some friends, who lived in Constantine Road and others who lived in South Hill Park, part of which was built over the pond that was covered over in 1892.

Today, my wife and I enjoyed our visit to South End Green despite the relentless rain. After buying vegetables at a lovely open-air stall close to the station, we paid a visit to the Matchbox Café next to the cobbled area where the route 24 buses rest before setting off. As we waited for the barrista to prepare our hot drinks, we chatted with him through the hatch through which he serves the take-away drinks and snacks. Mirko was delighted to discover that we had visited his hometown Ptuj in Slovenia, which was once a part of the former Yugoslavia. He told us many things about his native place including that a castle north of the town, Borl (Ankenstein in German), was associated with Parsifal, one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table (more information: https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2018/01/an-arthurian-castle-in-slovenia.html). Incidentally, Mirko prepares good quality coffee and richly flavoured hot chocolate. His café is one of many reasons for visiting South End Green, even on a rainy December day.

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