This little-known section of the sprawling Hampstead Heath is a hidden treasure. Some call it the ‘secret garden’ as you can be very near without knowing it's there. (The first time I went looking for it I walked nearby for some time before discovering the garden so see the directions at the end of this article.)
The garden and pergola are not really secret as they have been open to the public since the 1960s and are a wonderful example of faded Edwardian grandeur.
Hill Garden History
The story starts in the early twentieth century. In 1904 a large townhouse on the edge of Hampstead Heath called ‘The Hill’ was bought by William H Lever who was the founder of Lever Brothers. This soap magnate, who later became Lord Leverhulme, was a wealthy philanthropist, and patron of the Arts, architecture and landscape gardening.
In 1905 Lever purchased the surrounding land and planned to build a magnificent pergola for garden parties and as a place to spend time with family and friends. He commissioned Thomas Mawson, a world famous landscape architect, to oversee the construction. Mawson was a leading exponent of the Arts and Crafts garden and took his lead from Humphrey Repton; both who proclaimed the importance of linking a garden to the wider landscape with gradually lessening degrees of formality. The Hill Garden and Pergola has become one of the best surviving examples of his work.
Coincidentally, when began on the Pergola in 1905, the Northern Line (Underground) Hampstead extension was being built. This tunneling meant a huge amount of excess soil to be disposed of and Lord Leverhulme incredibly received a fee for each wagon load of soil he received which gave him the ability to realize his dream and have his pergola raised high, as planned.
By 1906 the Pergola was finished but further extensions and additions continued for many more years.
In 1911 more surrounding land was acquired and a ‘public right of way’ concern was dealt with by the construction of a stone bridge over the public path.
World War One stopped progress so the next development wasn’t completed until 1925 with an extension to the Pergola - adding a Summer Pavilion - shortly before Lord Leverhulme died on 7 May 1925.
Hill House was bought by Baron Inverforth and renamed as Inverforth House. He stayed here until his death in 1955 and the property had a short life as a convalescent home for Manor House Hospital.
Sadly, the former opulence of Lord Leverhulme's Hill Garden wasn’t maintained and the dilapidation meant many of the original timbers of the Pergola were rotted away beyond repair. In 1960 the London County Council bought the Pergola and associated gardens and began conservation work.
Thankfully, the Council and its successor bodies (Greater London Council and City of London Corporation who now maintain the space) have worked to restore the gardens including adding the lily pond on the site of a tennis court. The area has been open to the public since 1963.
At nearly 800 foot long, the Pergola is a Grade II listed structure and is as long as Canary Wharf tower is tall. The majestic avenue of classical stone columns, with supporting wooden beams, provides a raised walkway with atmospheric overgrown vines and flowers.
There’s a unique atmosphere at Hill Garden as you can sense the faded grandeur but it is full of character. It’s a wonderfully peaceful location and a perfect spot for a romantic picnic.
It’s a dog-free zone – the gate sign declares “NO DOGS (not even yours)” – so you can enjoy the lawns and relax on the grass too.
Address: Inverforth Close, off North End Way, London NW3 7EX
Nearest Tube Station: Golder’s Green (Northern Line)
Come out of the station and turn left and walk up the hill along North End Road.
After about 10 minutes you’ll see the entrance to Hampstead Heath and Golders Hill Park on the right, opposite the turning for Hampstead Way on your left. There is a pedestrian crossing to cross to the park. Enter the park and there’s a cafe here and toilets. When ready, opposite the cafe is a signpost directing you towards the ‘Hill Garden & Pergola’. Take this path, go up the steps, and go straight across to the gate to enter the Hill Garden. You will enter near the lily pond. There are other gates but this should be the easiest to find when you first visit.
Official Website: www.cityoflondon.gov.uk