The hamlet of the Vale of Health ... probably the most isolated community in inner London, though it's cheek-by-jowl with the city's best known park, Hampstead Heath. It was originally known as Hatchett's Bottom, and seems to have been marshy and distinctly unhealthy, so the name was either ironic or a deliberate rebranding. It's now a collection of fifty or so houses along a small web of streets and alleyways, with a fairground workers' caravan park attached.
You reach the Vale of Health along what is basically a cul-de-sac from East Heath Road. It's surrounded by the Heath on all sides. There's a few hundred yards between the Vale and the nearest other houses. Legend has it that the romantic poets spent time here. Blue plaques reveal that D.H. Lawrence, Rabindranath Tagore and the historian Barbara Hammond once lived in the Vale of Health.
Thee's not much here though apart from some charming and well-appointed houses - no pub, cafe, place of worship ... nothing which serves as a focus for the community.
... and the source of the Fleet
The Vale of Health is sometimes cited as the source of the most renowned of London's lost rivers, the Fleet. Whitestone Pond stands at a higher altitude, near Jack Straw's Castle at the brow of the Heath. But that's the source not of the Fleet but of the Westbourne, which flows much more to the west. There were two main tributaries of the Fleet, rising either side of Parliament Hill - and their damming created both the Highgate and Hampstead ponds. So it reasonable to imagine that one of the sources of the Fleet lies close to here.
The river now flows underground - in culverts, pipes, and beyond the bounds of the Heath in Bazalgette's sewers, until it spills into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. But every ditch stream and rivulet round here - even the distinctly puny one featured in this photo which I came across this afternoon - once fed and nourished the river Fleet.
So where exactly did the Fleet once run? The most authoritative answer is given in a fold-out map at the back of Nicholas Barton's The Lost Rivers of London, first published in 1962. I came across a copy this weekend priced at a fiver at the excellent Walden Books in Harmood Street - here's a samizdat copy of part of that map:
You can still follow the Fleet in London's street names - Fleet Road in Gospel Oak, Anglers Lane in Kentish Town, Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell, Fleet Street near Blackfriars. And it all starts near the Vale of Health.
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