Tag: Austen Macauley

WHISPERS through TIME-Down the Rabbit hole in search of Hampstead Heath

WHISPERS through TIME-Down the Rabbit hole in search of Hampstead Heath

Down the Rabbit hole in search of the Heath.

Historical research can be likened to falling down a rabbit hole-Alice in Wonderland style. What may seem a curious but straight forward exploration becomes before long a ‘curiouser and curiouser’ foray, to borrow from Alice’s words. You pop down for a moment in time but emerge hours later, whirling from your discoveries. Charged with fascinating facts, the trajectory of your novel takes an unexpected detour which ultimately, on reflection, was a good outcome. I am now a firm believer that detours are not a nuisance but actually where you were meant to go anyway. Straight lines are after all just boring paths from point A to B, aren’t they? Life is what happens when you have other plans.

So that is how The Hardy Tree (see my first blog) entered my Whispers through Time novel. Family research led to the Parish Church of St Pancras which led to The Hardy Tree then to Thomas Hardy himself etc. Similarly, as the Reeseg family featured in the novel lived nearby in Hampstead, I learnt about beautiful Hampstead Heath and its long history as a common space for London’s people.

The heath entered the pages of history way back in 986 A.D when the seemingly unprepared king, Ethelred the Unready, granted the people land at ‘Hemstede, ’then owned by Westminster Abbey. Even in the 19th century, Hampstead was on the outskirts of London, so back then it really would have been in the boondocks.

Hampstead Heath occupies 790 acres on a sandy ridge that connects Hampstead to Highgate. As the largest area of common space in London, it has through the centuries offered the freedom and beauty of nature to all and a venue for runners, walkers and kite flyers. The heath features over 25 ponds that fill as rain falls due to the clay underneath. These ponds originated from damming a tributary of the River Fleet way back in 1777 with the purpose of supplementing the city’s water supply. In time some of these larger ponds functioned as ‘segregated by gender’ swimming pools and model boat sailing ponds.

The geography of this area makes it one of the higher parts of London. From Parliament Hill, visitors can survey the changing London skyline. Golder’s Hill Park on the western end occupies the site of an original grand house destroyed in World War II. Unlike the rest of the free to range heath, this area is fenced and closed at night. It features a duck pond, a deer sanctuary, butterfly garden and small zoo.

In Whispers through Time, Gustave, my great uncle, runs and cycles through the greater heath with his younger sisters, Winifred and Francesca. Reuben, Francesca’s love interest also frequents the heath to bemoan his fate as a star-crossed lover, torn between love and duty to his family and religion.

I am certainly not the only writer to use this beautiful public park as a setting for parts of a novel. The Heath provides the opening backdrop for Wilkie Collins’ Victorian novel, Woman in White. Bram Stoker also partly set his gothic tale, Dracula (1897) on the Heath. The undead character, Lucy now a vampire abducts children from the Heath. This book is a must-read for not only its dark tale but its classic vampire characters and Gothic setting in a Transylvanian castle. Written as a series of letters and diary entries, it is a riveting read, despite the passing of time since its writing. Another more modern novel, John le Carre’s, Smiley’s People, also uses the heath as the murder scene of General Vladimir.

To experience more of Hampstead Heath immerse yourself in the historical novel, Whispers through Time based on the real life story of my maternal grandparents who emigrated from London to Sydney in 1912, just months after the Titanic sinking, (see previous blog on The Titanic)

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