Watching stars where horses drink

FOUR MILES FROM ST GILES Pound and four and a half miles from ‘Holborn Bars’, there stands a white stone milepost close to a pond at one of the highest places in north London. This pond in Hampstead got its name Whitestone because of its proximity to this white milepost.  Originally known as ‘Horse Pond’, it was a place where horses could drink and wash their hooves. The pond was supplied with ramps to allow easier access for the horses. These were preserved when the pond’s surrounding banks were extensively renovated in 2010.

The pond used to be supplied by dew and rainfall but was later kept filled by water from the mains water supply, which is fortunate given how little rain falls during some periods of the year. Being a shallow pool in an exposed location so high above sea level (443 feet), it is often covered with ice in cold weather.

A tall flagstaff stands a few feet west of the pond. This marks the spot where there was once a beacon that formed part of a network of beacons that could be lit to communicate with each other during the 16th century when the threat of invasion by the Spanish armed fleet was feared. The beacon by the Pond was the most northerly of a series of beacons which originated on the cliffs at St Margarets near Dover. This network can be seen on old maps such as that drawn by William Lambarde (1536-1601) in 1570, several years before the arrival of the famous Spanish Armada. Currently, the only purpose of the tall white pole is to fly the red and white flag of the City of London high above the pond.

High as the pond is, it is not the highest point in Hampstead. That honour goes to the small observatory on the top of the reservoir just south of the pond. This point is 449 feet above sea level. The reservoir is a:

“… wonderful example of mid Victorian architecture … The reservoir and railings were constructed in 1856 for the New River Company to serve Hampstead with the water being delivered by pipes from Highgate. The company was absorbed into the Metropolitan Water Board in 1902.” (,_London_-_Thames_Water/).

This structure is inaccessible to the public, but the observatory perched on top of it is, in normal times, opened to the public occasionally.

The small observatory topped with a dome was established in 1910 by the Hampstead Scientific Society ( It can be seen best from Lower Terrace. The first secretaries of the Society were two keen astronomers, Patrick Hepburn and PE Vizard. The first telescope, a ten-and-a-half-inch reflecting telescope, was donated by Colonel Henry Heberden on condition that it be used by members of the public. In normal times, the observatory is still open to the public on clear nights. At the beginning of the 20th century, nights were much clearer than they became later and valuable observations could be made. As time passed, both dust and light pollution have rendered it far more difficult to make any observations at all. In addition to astronomical uses, the observatory is home to a collection of devices used in meteorology. The weather station at the observatory has the longest continuous record of climate measurements for any still extant meteorological site in Greater London, having begun in 1909 (

Returning to the Pond, I remember that during my childhood, the traffic around it was terrible, especially during rush-hours. It became even worse when police officers arrived to try to control it. While I was studying at Highgate School, there was an extremely bright boy in my year group, ‘B-W’ was his surname. During physics classes, he appeared not to pay attention to the teacher because he was too busy designing complicated electronic circuits. When we took our physics mock-O’Level examination, he was the only person in the class to pass it, exceeding the pass mark by a large margin. My result in this test was a miserable 15%, which was five times higher than the boy with the lowest mark. In case you are wondering, I did well during the actual examination a few months later.

One morning, B-W arrived at school and showed us a complicated diagram. It was his proposal for a scheme that should allow traffic to flow smoothly around Whitestone Pond (where five major roads meet). It is a long time since I saw the scheme that he designed, but I would not be surprised if it is much the same as the much-improved traffic flow system that exists today and was only instituted a few years ago.

The Pond has been part of my life intermittently since my earliest days. In the late 1950s, and early 1960s, my parents and I used to walk past it every Saturday morning on our way to the shops in the centre of Hampstead. During the ‘80s, and ‘90s, I used to drive past it on my way to see my father and other members of my family, who lived in the Hampstead Garden Suburb, which is north of the Pond. More recently, my wife and I have been finding that visiting Hampstead, which has a rich history and many attractive old buildings, is a lovely way to pass time and enjoy fresh air. Whitestone Pond and the carpark nearby make for a good starting point for a stroll through a part of London that has to a large extent resisted the ravages of time and so-called ‘progress’.

2 thoughts on “Watching stars where horses drink

  1. I’ve only been to Hampstead once, namely on a VirtualTourist walk in 2015. I later made a page on this for VirtualTourist, with ten ‘tips’: Home of Keats, VR post box, Burgh House, Back Lane, Flask Walk, The Holly Bush, Fenton House, The highest point in London, The parish church and
    The tube to Hampstead. Some day I hope to dig out my old texts and photos and, re-work them and post them on my current website.

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