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London Villages: Hampstead

Bet you didn’t know…
In the past, water was always abundant and unusually pure in the village, which is why the women of Hampstead set up cottage laundries. They used to hang their sheets out to dry on its many holly bushes, giving newcomers the impression that the village was always covered in snow. Today, its more famous watery draw comes in the form of the Heath’s three freshwater ponds, which cater to hardy swimmers all year round.

Likely characters
At the time of the Romantic Movement, when Hampstead was still rural, it was discovered by writers and artists, including John Keats and John Constable. Thanks to them, the village acquired a bohemian feel, but in the 20th century, at the time when Communism was fashionable, its reputation developed a radical, left-wing edge.

‘Today, things have changed, and we have residents who work in the financial sector as well as plenty of people from overseas,’ says Grant Alexson of Knight Frank’s Hampstead office (020-7317 7950). ‘There’s a strong Indian community as well as a Jewish one-in fact, the first synagogue opened in the village this year in the former New End Theatre, where Jerry Hall famously trod the boards in 2002.’

Blue plaques
The village reputedly has the highest concentration of blue plaques of anywhere in London, and poet Edith Sitwell, actor Richard Burton and architect Sir George Gilbert Scott are among its famous past residents. The man who popularised the practice of sending Christmas cards, the postal reformer Sir Henry Cole, lived on Elm Row.

Morning papers
After the recent demise of one local newsagent-which, according to Mr Alexson, is now a nail bar the best place to pick up the morning papers is the kiosk by the Tube station.

Parish church
St John-at-Hampstead on Church Row, where Constable is buried, was the original church for the village. Today, it has a lively congregation and a busy Sunday school, as well as a children’s choir.

Village pubs
Hampstead is somewhat lacking in spit-and-sawdust boozers, which have, one by one, been converted into gastropubs. However, The Holly Bush is full of atmosphere, and The Duke of Hamilton has a strong reputation for real ale.

For everything you need
The Hampstead Butcher & Providore on Rosslyn Hill is a treasure trove for foodies, and Melrose and Morgan is an upmarket grocer, which has a cafe on its mezzanine floor. It also holds tastings, including a cheese-and-wine Christmas tasting taking place this weekend (December 1). Greengrocer Pure Fruit survived Camden Council’s recent attempt to put up its rent, and Ritz Pharmacy on Heath Street stocks all the pills and potions you’ll need.

And for things you don’t
Slice of Ice on cobbled Flask Walk is a traditional ice-cream parlour beloved of rock stars and Heath strollers alike-its Knickerbocker Glory is a thing of beauty. A little farther down, Judy Green’s Garden Store has pretty seasonal blooms and presents for the horticulturally inclined. Fashionistas can spend hours in Cochinechine on Heath Street, a boutique selling quirky designer labels, and The Button Lady is crammed with buttons of every description, as well as velvet and silk scarves, bags and jewellery.

Morning coffee
Where to begin? Hampstead has historically been home to émigrés from all over Europe, so it’s no surprise that it’s the place to go in London for a proper coffee and a slice of something delicious. Louis on Heath Street is a Hungarian coffee-and-cake shop that’s been a local favourite for years, and Le Petit Nicola is a wonderfully old-fashioned pâtisserie.

The Coffee Cup on the High Street, which opened its doors in 1951, has served all manner of famous faces, from Peter Cook and Dudley Moore to visiting pin-up Betty Grable. Ginger and White in Perrins Court will do you a world-beating bacon sandwich to go with your Red Brick Espresso.

Village fêtes
The closest Hampstead comes to fêtes are two relatively new festivals, one in the winter and one in the summer. The winter one took place last weekend in the High Street, and the week-long summer festival is scheduled for June 24-30, 2013. Expect live music, food and games for all the family.

Out and about
The inaugural Hampstead Arts Festival is currently taking place in venues around the village, with recitals and literary talks until December 6 ( Residents get their culture fix locally at the Everyman Cinema in Holly Bush Vale and the Pentameters Theatre on Heath Street. Science loving youngsters will adore the Hampstead Scientific Society’s Observatory, which opens when the sky is clear. And the village is blessed with a number of historic properties, including Fenton House (owned by the National Trust) and Burgh House, a museum, gallery and classical-music concert venue.

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* Photo of Hampstead Heath by S Klinge for