My late father-in-law who lived in London had occasionally mentioned a “secret garden” that he particularly liked to visit and which was not very far from his Hampstead home. So when he offered to show me his special spot I jumped at the chance.
As we marched into the thickets flanking West Heath Road I wondered if he knew that this particular neck of the woods was notorious as a gay sex haunt. But my learned, professorial father-in-law never did pay much attention to what was published in the tabloids.
This wall extended for some distance and was topped by grey columns and fanciful lattice work.
Beneath one of the arches steps led up to a new, higher vantage point amid the stone columns and from here I first set eyes on the slender pond at the heart of this beloved “secret garden”.
Of course none of it was actually secret. That was my father-in-law’s private joke. The Hill Garden and Pergola are simply a ‘hidden delight’ of Hampstead, one that’s well worth seeking out.
Beautiful, tranquil and secluded, the garden has lush lawns, splendid flower beds, the long but narrow pond and several secluded nooks with bench seats. This gentle oasis exists behind Inverforth House (once known as The Hill), a grand mansion dating from 1807 but which in the 1990s was converted into two houses and several luxury apartments.
The property is located on North End Way close to Jack Straw’s Castle, an iconic Hampstead pub that’s now also been refashioned into apartments (which sounds a lot more grand than simply saying “a bunch of flats”).
The Hill Garden, pergola and summer pavilion are open to the public and are a legacy of soap maker and philanthropist, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), 1st Viscount Leverhulme, who lived and died in The Hill House having purchased it in 1904.
Lever made extensive modifications and additions to the house, including a ballroom and art gallery. He also bought and demolished two neighbouring houses, then called in architect Thomas Mawson to design the grounds for his extended estate.
Earth from tunnels being excavated for the Northern Line was hauled by cart up to Hill House and used to raise the gardens and also infill the base of the colonnaded Pergola Walk that links the formal gardens beside the main house with the more private lower garden and pond. This grand project continued until Lever died in 1925, by which time the mansion had 60 rooms and the Hill Garden was well established.
Those benches in their various shady nooks are absolutely perfect for a sunny afternoon’s reading. Late spring into early summer is a fabulous time to visit as this is when the wisteria, rambling roses and jasmine adorning the Pergola and the elevated Walk are at their finest. Autumn offers other golden moments.
Whenever I’m in London, no matter what time of year, I always try to spend a few quiet hours here, both to relax and in memory of the marvellous man who shared his little secret. I invite you to do the same