Hampstead is somewhere I could easily live, were it not for the fact that the cycle home would always be uphill.
Its lush, leafy streets, lined with either the neat facades of Georgian houses, the slightly more smudged faces of Victorian villas or the new mega bling of 21st century mansions behind their steely electrified gates, feel like those of a village rather than an enclave a few miles from Central London.
On a separate note, I once said that when I retire I plan to take all the bus routes that run within a 10 minute walk of where I live and ride them to each end, discovering all the places along them. In Central London that will be quite a retirement hobby.
I had a free ‘sample’ ArtFund card (that I’ve since renewed) and it gives free entrance to Keats’ House, which I was certainly expecting to fit into same category as The Charles Dickens House and Handle House. Neither did I appreciate.
This house, called Wentworth House when Keats came to it in 1818 to lodge, was only home to Keats for 3 years of his too brief a life. Call me grumpy but I was quite expecting a misguided attempt to preserve something lost in a building that should really be someone’s home instead of a museum (but then I remind myself that Simon Jenkins arrived at as similar conclusion about Kew Palace, having himself visited it before the recent refurb, and I couldn’t disagree with him more).
I went regardless, on the last day before my ArtFund card was due to expire.
I took a bus to the end of its route and it dropped me a 5 minute walk from the house; and so with a hop, skip and a jump off I went, peeking over fences into the gardens of smart houses as I went (and spotting that there is the local library in a shed-like building next door to Keats House itself).
Unlike my experience with other ‘regular houses with famous occupants’, where I didn’t really feel inspired by a need to visit them, I had been to visit a similar Keats museum in Rome, just by the Spanish steps, which is where John Keats died in 1821 aged just 25. I had enjoyed my visit.
Perhaps, therefore, I thought to myself, the Keats House in Hampstead could similarly work its magic and make me feel one step closer to the pen of a poet that I much admire, especially given Keats’ relative youth when he wrote poems such as Ode to a Nightingale (allegedly in the garden of this house).
I cannot cuddle a cat without repeating the line “how many a maid hath mawled thy fur” in my mind; and I have often told a naughty cat “prythee, prick me not with thy latent talons”.
It was Keats’ poems that first taught me that without pain how can I expect to value pleasure? This was back as a school child and felt like quite a revelation. For a youth, on the same level as the morals learned from the teachings of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Yes, Keats has gotten into my mind so I felt a teeter of anticipation before this visit, in a not dissimilar but wholly different sense to when I go to somewhere like Holkham Hall, with all the hoo hah I’ve already heard about something.
So what did I get?
Well, not quite the real deal.
Save for one small room at the back of the property where Keats lived and would write, the house has been hacked about to form one property from what originally would have been two (next door lived Keats’ love, Fanny Brawne).
A Victorian (!) added an extra room across the width of the property to make a space for entertainment in what is otherwise quite a compact design.
In Keats’ time each of the two semis would have each been “2 up, 2 down”, with a shared kitchen in the cellar.
Go then; soak up the atmosphere in the one room where Keats would have worked and look at the pillow where he first coughed up blood, but take your looking glass goggles with you and a strong dose of imagination because that is what you’ll need if you truly want to appreciate where Keats lived, despite the occasional piece of period furniture and the few display cabinets containing trinkets including a lock of his hair.
Perhaps a video and some mock sets showing the original layout in the empty front room where there is also a small shop would help those visitors who make the trip slightly off the beaten track to this little enclave of sugar plums and candied cherries in North London worthy of a feast on the Eve of St Agnes.
Perhaps bask on a bench and take a gulp from the beaker of the warm sun from the South in the ample lawned garden and develop a squint to block out the later side extension while admiring the low pitch of the room that makes this house undeniably Regency. Perhaps if you listen closely you’ll hear a trill from a tree, sung in full-throated ease.
When visited: August 2012
House * out of 5: *
Garden * out of 5: *