The ladies’ bathing pond, a precious resource and one of many magical places at Hampstead Heath.
I was born and grew up on a farm in rural South Africa. However, the childhood books I read were things like the Famous Five, Beatrix Potter and Paddington bear, and my dad was born in London. So growing up with these stories – personal and fictional – the UK was a place I wanted to go to, and London in particular had a strong pull on my imagination.
I studied architecture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and in the mid-1980s I spent my year-out in London. The city got under my skin; I loved it then, and I love it even more now. My husband Jon and I came back in 1990, intending to stay for a year or two, and here we are over 30 years later.
London is an exciting, diverse metropolis with world-class theatre, concerts and exhibitions, not to mention architectural gems. I love the fact that I can step out of my front door and have all of this culture accessible. But in the last 15 months things have shifted.
I’ve been thinking back to a lecture I went to soon after I arrived in London. The speaker was a Japanese architect, and an audience member asked him what it was like living in Tokyo. In his answer, he spoke about visiting a few specific, favourite places in the city over and over so that they created the pattern of “his” Tokyo. I’ve been reflecting on this recently.
What are “my” places in London? I’ve been going to exhibitions, concerts and plays online, but I crave the outdoors and, since March 2020, I have been to a number of local outdoor spaces again and again. I realised that I have created a new pattern of my London. It’s much smaller than it used to be, but wonderful at the same time.
Last spring, my running route took me alongside Regent’s Canal and, within a couple of weeks of lockdown, the water became crystal clear and you could see all kinds of wildlife. This was a real “wow” moment, a reconnection with nature. Without aeroplanes and traffic, the birdsong was our new soundscape – out and about but also just opening the door to our small courtyard garden.
I went to Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill several times a week and developed a new relationship with the wild places and the formal gardens. I followed the change of the seasons – blossoms and bulbs that would take your breath away – narrowing my focus to specific areas, specific trees even; appreciating the changes at nature’s pace.
We are also lucky to have Hampstead Heath nearby, a magical place with such variety and intrigue – after all these years, I can still stumble upon places I feel I’ve never found before. The bathing ponds are very special and swimming in the ladies’ pond is a highlight. Our practice designed one of the buildings and it’s lovely to see the sunlight on the deck, and to know that people are enjoying this precious resource.
We have a whippet and when we’ve been allowed to meet other people outside, it has been a simple pleasure to watch our pets run around, sharing the beautiful open space below Kenwood House.
This has been a year of noticing things that might have passed us by. Jon is a keen birder and, last year, spotted a kestrel nesting with her chicks, the first we’d ever seen in the area. We came back frequently to monitor their progress until the chicks fledged. I’m not sure we would have had that privilege at any other time.
I can’t talk about open-air London without mentioning the food markets. We are regular visitors to the markets at Primrose Hill and the bottom of Hampstead Heath and I have enjoyed these places even more in the last year. I’ve struck up relationships with the people growing the food and making the things they’re selling. Again, this is an intimacy that has come out of an extreme, shared experience; I couldn’t spend my weekends rushing around London as I might have done in previous years so I’ve become invested in my local patch. I am very content and hugely appreciative of what I have right now.
London is the city that I chose – or maybe it chose me. But the love of open space is deep in my bones, and it’s the wonderful outdoor spaces near my home that make this my kind of town.
Michál Cohen is a director of Walters & Cohen Architects