Hampstead Heath has always been a holiday spot for Londoners. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries grander folk built large houses in rolling estates to which to retire in the summer months while poorer folk made the hour’s walk up from the city to picnic on the open heath. Entertainers abounded, as did complaints about riot, loose women and the distubance created by ‘day trippers’.
And, at the start of the 21st century, complaints about loose women and riots aside, not a lot has changed! Grand houses with large gardens still exist (although not as many as before) and visitors come from near and far to exercise, or walk or picnic – or swim – on the heath’s open spaces and in its ponds. And, at bank holiday weekends, there is still always a fair to be found somewhere on the heath.
For those interested in bygone times there are two short Pathe News films of fairs on Hampstead Heath from the early 20th century. I am thinking that the earlier one (dated, unhelpfully, 1920-1939) was shot sometime in the 1930s. The womans’ skirts are still quite long, the ‘rides’ are obviously still steam powered and boys are running donkey rides. The second, shot in 1946, was obviously huge and very well populated (not so many alternative entertainments on offer in 1946) with many of the men still in uniform. It is also noticeable that in both films, most of the fairgoers are adults, whereas at today’s fairs most adults are only there to accompany their children.
Certainly, at the fair this afternoon, the kids were having a great time. Here they are on one of the big slides – and climbing up the ‘steps’ seems to be providing as much of a challenge and heading down.
Most of the rides were designed for younger children – Thomas the Tank Engine and a very keen young engine driver below and then some enthusiastic ‘bouncers’.
Slightly older kids and some adults were to be found on the ‘swan necked chair ride’. You do rather wonder which is more fun – being on the ride or having the excuse to scream at the top of your voice.
The same certainly applied to the sort of swirling dodgems ride. There were a few adult couples but it was mainly children most of whom were having a ball, a few of whom were obviously scared witless.
Not necessarily scared, but certainly startled – the spotted dogs waiting to be won at a nearby stall…
Anyhow, a good time was being had by all, even if the ‘all’ was only a sad fraction of the all who were to be found enjoying themselves 70 years ago. Maybe the dreary weather was partly to blame. It was not as threatening as in this video of the ‘swan-necked chair ride’ would suggest, but it was scarely summery. But then, if the clothes in the Pathe film were anything to go by, the weather had not been that clement in 1946 either.