Escape The Heat: Head To London’s Crow’s Nests

Ignore the advice of the freesheets handed out on the Tube. Why visit the hot spots in a city full of cool panoramic sanctuaries?   

Environment Features Modern Life Natural World Urbanism
Still as halcyon as ever:  The view from Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath (photo: Garry Knight)

On the last day of the summer term, every year in the later 1990s, a fleet of coaches drove from my primary school in Camden to a car park above Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath. Ninety-two children in grey shorts, white shirts and navy-grey-stripe ties — the boys — and white socks and navy-white-stripe dresses — the girls — were dropped off on the pavement on Hampstead Lane. At teatime, the bus drivers appeared after lunch at the Spaniard’s Inn and drove 92 sunburnt children with grass-stained socks, lolly-marked shirts and lost ties back to Camden and the start of the summer holidays.

I cannot think of a last day of term when the sun did not shine over Kenwood. It must have rained at least one year (sports day was certainly once rained off — rapture!) but I remember those Kenwood days as halcyon, cloudless, ecstatic. The sun on the lake, a serpentine special from the red notebooks of garden designer Humphry Repton. The temple front of the Robert Adam house, icing-sugar white in bright light. The steep lawn, so suited to rolling down. Grass-stains on uniforms we’d have grown out of by September. Cheddar cheese sandwiches, Panda Pop lemonade and ice-lollies from a coolbox.

The last last-day-of-term was in 1999. After that I went up to secondary school where there were no trips to Kenwood and no picnics and where I was not happy. There was a gap of ten years before I went to Kenwood again, during a university long vacation with a special subject in 18th-century architecture to prepare for. The sun shone.

The view has changed since 1999. Then there was no Gherkin, no Walkie-Talkie, no Shard, no Cheesegrater. The London Eye was still in sections in offsite warehouses. The BT (formerly Post Office) tower and Centre Point were there. Big Ben, of course, and Guy’s Hospital. And the immutable St Paul’s Cathedral.

The city panorama on a clear, fine summer afternoon is — if you do not mind the odd kitchen-utensil skyscraper — as fine as in Repton and Adam’s day. We have the London View Management Framework to thank for that. This stolid-sounding committee, whose offices are in City Hall (the Armadillo), is responsible for the protection of sightlines across the city from 13 crow’s nests.

Stand on the terrace of Alexandra Palace in north London and you must have an uninterrupted view of St Paul’s. No developer is allowed to build a glass tower of improbable shape or nickname in front of Wren’s dome. From the summits of Parliament and Primrose Hills, an out-of-breath walker must be able see St Paul’s and the Palace of Westminster. From Greenwich, Blackheath and Westminster pier you still see St Paul’s and from the centre of the bridge over the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the Palace of Westminster. At Kenwood the London View Management Framework is particular. From the Kenwood gazebo — not the bridge, not the gravel walk, not the library windows, specifically the gazebo — you must have an uninterrupted view of St Paul’s. And what a view.

London in the summer is best from one of these crow’s nests, above the teeming decks of pavements and zebra crossings, above the sails and rigging of traffic lights and buildings. You need not confine yourself to one of the 13 designated by the London View Management Framework. There are plenty of other breezy crow’s nest baskets, some folded into courtyards and squares, others repaying a train ticket.

On a hot day, I start to eye keenly the last stations on the Tube and London Overground maps. Richmond, Osterley, Hampton Court and Greenwich beckon. Cobham & Stoke d’Abernon — a Surrey stockbroker station — acquires an appeal it never has in November. The park behind William Morris’s house in Walthamstow will do at a pinch.

London has a population of 8.6 million and is visited by nearly 19 million tourists a year. Where, when the city steams, can you find somewhere cool and secluded?

If I were to dutifully follow the What’s Hot London guides printed in the free magazines handed out on the Tube each morning and evening I would find myself drinking Aperol Spritz on the roof of Frank’s Café in Peckham, queueing for blood-orange sorbet at the Gelupo gelateria in Soho, drinking craft-brewed pale ale at the Brockwell Park Lido, or eating wood-fired pizzas in a narrowboat on a Hackney canal, discarded beer cans bobbing in the water. I would be in the company of several thousand other hot twentysomethings, hot off the hot Tube, having read about the hot destination restaurant, hot off the press.

But I do not want a hot city summer.

There was an architecture professor attached to my university history of art department who lectured on “coolth”. She argued that we all understood what was meant by warmth, that when considering a house, particularly in northern Europe, we sought cosy, cabin-like rooms, gingery colours, curtains to pull against a rainy evening. But why was there no equivalent, commonly-used word “coolth” to describe tiles and terraces, loggias and half-shutters? Her students had T-shirts made up with “COOLTH” printed on the front.

Her campaign for coolth came back to me on a visit to Strawberry Hill in Twickenham on the first Saturday in June. This is the “little play-thing-house” built by Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert, in irreverent and anachronistic cod-gothic style. An ogee window here, a turret there, battlements to keep out marauding Twickenham highwaymen, a crinkle of crenellation above the eaves, and a quatrefoil window or candy-cane chimney wherever the elevation is in danger of looking even half sensible. It was at Strawberry Hill that Walpole dreamt of a giant disembodied hand in armour hovering above the bannisters of a great staircase, an apparition which inspired his 1764 novel of sensation The Castle of Otranto.

He wished, he wrote in one letter, to imprint the “gloomth” of abbeys and cathedrals on his summer cottage. The word, like coolth, has not been widely taken up. “Application peculiar to Walpole,” says the OED.

One could have too much gloomth, though. “One’s garden,” Walpole continued in the same letter, “on the contrary is to be nothing but ‘riant’, and the gaiety of nature.”

It was riant when we visited with a picnic and a Pevsner. Riant enough to have sunburnt forearms and cheeks from an afternoon sitting on the lawn below Walpole’s oriel windows. (“Fanciful and unarchaeological,” says my 1951 Pevsner’s Buildings of Britain: Middlesex.)

We had the garden, which to borrow from Walpole was “in the height of its greenth, blueth . . . honeysuckle and seringahood”, almost to ourselves. A group of children were peaceably bug-hunting in the long grass. I would not have been at the Brockwell Park Lido for all the craft ale in London.

The gloomth of Walpole’s entrance hall after the wedding-cake white of the house takes a moment’s getting used to. Not since the days of Abelard, Walpole wrote, had a room been so venerably gloomy. It is just the place on a hot afternoon.

It need not be the gloomth of Strawberry Hill. On a hot, dusty Saturday, when the pubs are spilling onto the pavements and every bus is a greenhouse, abandon Soho and Marylebone for Kew Gardens. There is a richly silly scene in Stella Gibbons’s novel Westwood when the serially adulterous playwright Gerard Challis takes the blonde he hopes to seduce to Kew intending to make love to her among the chrysanthemums. As he leads Hilda off the path towards a shady hollow, he is greeted by an ego-deflating cry of “Grandpa!” and the sight of his small grandchildren enjoying a picnic with their frumpy nanny. All romantic hope is lost.

You quite see, though, why he chose Kew. The pagoda and cherry blossoms lend it exotic, heady appeal. Unlike London’s other parks and gardens it is walled, rather than ringed by railings, and there is nothing so romantic, courtly, chivalric as a walled garden. Walking through Kew with my university boyfriend, one peerless July day between second and final years, I felt, halfway along the cedar avenue, I might be falling in love with him and was convinced of it by the time we reached the duck pond.

I have since been dazed by the glare of sun on Canary Wharf seen from Greenwich Park and climbed the branches of an oak on Parliament Hill with two boyfriends I admired but did not love — and sat sketching opposite the stucco and stalactite grotto of Painshill Park with one I do.

A crow’s nest is a good test of a summer fling. Away from hot pavements, the distractions of restaurant queues, theatre bars, the South Bank, is the object of a summer romance likely to last after the departure of the swallows and the wiping down of the Pimms Jug pub boards?

As you cannot spend every day of a London summer in a waking dream in a park at the end of the District Line, where can you find ten minutes of coolth, gloomth, greenth and blueth in the city?

You need courtyards — Pickering Place in St James’s, half-timbered, half-shaded, behind the Lock & Co shop which sells the smartest straw hats; fountains — the Ottoman confection at Leighton House, Kensington, is pleasingly camp; and galleries with garden terraces — the Fan Museum in Greenwich, the Estorick Collection in Islington. And you need the early mornings.

I am through the gates of Kensington Gardens at six each morning in the summer. Any later and I have to share the park with runners training for the October half-marathon in show-off sweatshirts: “Yale”, “Morgan Stanley”, “McKinsey”, “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not trying.”

From the Serpentine Bridge I can test the London View Management Framework. There is the Palace of Westminster, there too is the Shard with its lizard-tongue point and the London Eye. Walk the Serpentine’s south bank and you see the Post Office tower to the north-east, a Smash Robot made to Alberto Giacometti’s specifications. From the north bank the pinnacle of the Albert Memorial is a gold Midas finger pointing the way to Albertopolis: the Albert Hall, the Natural History Museum, the V&A.

If you were inclined, and I confess I am not, you could jump from the lido jetty. I have it from the doughty lido swimmers that the water is a brisk 16 degrees even when it is hot enough to fry eggs in the reflected glare from the Walkie-Talkie on Fenchurch Street.

Take a picnic, take Pevsner, take a Lock & Co hat. Think kindly from your crow’s nest of the hot young things jostling at bars for their Aperol Spritz.