The Hill Garden and Pergola is probably the most interesting part of Hampstead Heath to visit, if you are heading to that vast expanse of woodland for a bit of an exploration. It’s located on the far western side of the heath, to the west of North End Way. If you travel north past Jack Straw’s Castle, you can walk down Inverforth Close and you’ll see the path to the pergola and garden to the left.
The main feature of the garden is the pergola, and it is certainly a curious thing to see, seemingly just plonked there in the middle of the heath, giving the feel that it is a bit of a frivolous folly. And in many respects it is. It’s essentially a raised walkway, with a timber frame sitting atop a plethora of Doric columns which all sit on an arched brick base. It has the feel of a frivolous construct by someone with far too much money. And indeed it was. It was commissioned by Lord Leverhulme, who made his fortune selling soap. He decided that his nearby mansion needed an extravagant terrace, to host garden parties and lazy summer nights. It linked the formal gardens of the main house (now demolished) and the more gentle lawns of the lower garden. It was completed in 1906, though it was extended in 1911 and again in 1925.
It has the feel of mellow classicism, though it’s a bit run down these days. Though still curiously attractive, the pergola suffered in the aftermath of Leverhulme’s death and the onset of World War 2. By the time the City of London took it over in 1989, the place was almost falling apart. Resurrection is still underway, but in the faded glory of the pillars and arches, you’ll find a serenely interesting spot which exemplifies the Italianate phase which was alive and well between 1010 and 1925.
Visiting it in winter as I did is probably not the best time to see the pergola and surrounding at its most beautiful; the garden itself was particularly dreary and devoid of colour and glamour. Visit in spring or summer when the gnarled old wisteria is in full bloom, and the plethora of flowering shrubs and exotic bedding plants are at their height of floral grandeur. However, seeing the pergola in its bare bones really highlighted its faded grandeur, and the dramatics of the construction. It was really quite desolate, quite moody, and almost a bit eerie. You can picture the opulence it once had, and how that grandeur has faded away.
To me it’s the most interesting feature in the wide and relatively dull expanse of Hampstead Heath, and it’s worth seeking out this particular spot for a visit. I talked there from Hampstead underground station, about a 20minute brisk walk (steep in parts). I didn't find the stairs up into the pergola particularly easy to find, so you may have to walk around a bit.