• Tiger Lily Raphael

Sanctuary in the City #2: Hampstead Heath, An Old Friend

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

In a new monthly column for Balance Garden, Sanctuary in the city, I'm exploring urban oases and wellbeing. The belated February edition is about an old friend...

Portrait of me in a tree by an old friend, Belynda Rose

From birthday parties and picnics to strolling solo, silent discos, swimming in the sun, rain and snow, or on a naughty night-time jaunt to sneak a boy into the ladies’ pond under the cover of dark (who, me? Never!), many of us have a myriad of happy memories from London’s ancient Heath. One of the city’s highest points and the largest single area of common land, spanning 790 acres, to think what tales it could tell from since before ‘the hides of Hemstede’ even entered the history books in 986…

It doesn’t seem to matter how many times I return to the Heath, there’s always something new to discover, never a need to take the same turning twice. Forever changing with the years, seasons and hours, our old green friend is reliably and reassuringly inconsistent.

So far this year I’ve visited the Heath twice, both times with my oldest friend from primary school, Bee. I wonder if maybe we’re only as close as we are now because I moved out of London when we were BFFs aged 9, so with the distance between us we had to make the effort, and we still do (even if carefully crafted love letters have been replaced by a clumsily impulsive WhatsApp).

For 20 years and counting, our relationship has seen many twists and turns; old leaves lost, new buds blossom, branches reaching for the light - living, breathing and continuing to grow into a form of its own. Like the Heath, each time we return to discover a new treasure or hidden secret, as we navigate our ever-changing lives.

During our last walk, Bee asked me: ‘why is love so scary?’… and I probably came up with a complicated answer about chemical reactions in the brain - how sexual pleasure lights up the cortex in the same way as pain does, and fight-or-flight response (if you want to get into that, see my blog ‘What are you scared of?’).

But, on reflection, I think it’s much simpler than that.

Real love is a result of accepting all that we are, the beautiful and the not so beautiful, the constants and the constant changes. And in that wholeness is a safe space to be vulnerable and honest, where connection can be made and love thrives.

Love is a result of time spent growing a relationship because you’re both willing and have chosen to. That is reciprocation, and that is love… and it is not scary.

Friendship is the greatest romance’, said Phoebe Waller-Bridge in a recent Woman’s Hour interview – writer of the brave, vulnerable and agonisingly honest ‘Fleabag’. The kind of love that friendship offers doesn’t feel like pain. It is tolerant, patient, forgiving and loyal. We don’t expect it to be effortless, overwhelming or perfect. We bring all of ourselves, wearing boots made for walking, ready to embrace the weather.

Romance might learn a thing or two from friendship if it aspires to grow into something more sustainable, a little kinder, more compassionate, and perhaps a little less consuming. I return to the Heath whenever I can take the time, for some space to breathe, to be held by one of its trees and wrapped in its bountiful supply of green blankets. Like an old friend, it’s always there, offering a sanctuary.

Visit Hampstead Heath for free anytime at all, it never closes.

“In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will only love what we understand, we will understand only what is made known to us. — Baba Dioum

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