Sylvia Plath wrote the poem "Parliament Hill Fields" in February 1961, in London, very shortly after suffering the miscarriage which is the poem's subject. In the poem, the narrator walks in a wintry landscape and ponders the loss ("Already your doll grip lets go.") Towards the end of the poem, there is a sense of renewed life. At this time, Plath, Ted Hughes and their baby daughter Frieda were living in a small flat on Chalcot Square, maybe a mile away from Hampstead Heath of which Parliament Hill Fields are a part. Like many London dwellers, they would have enjoyed access to the Heath, sometimes referred to as "London's green lungs", a spacious place of grass and trees, birds and ponds, secluded glades overgrown with ivy, bramble and nettle, quiet meadows and, here and there, wonderful views of the city. Once marshy and very much outside London, part farmland, part private estate, by the mid nineteenth century the Heath was being transformed into a leisure space for the public. Several attempts to sell it off for "development" met with vigorous opposition and, ultimately, failure.
Parliament Hill Fields is the name given to the south-eastern portion of the Heath. It acquired its name during the English Civil War (1642-1649) when Parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell encamped there. Though it has another, earlier Parliamentary connection: in 1605, the Gunpowder Plotters came here to get a good view of the Houses of Parliament as they blew up. Unbeknownst to them, their co-conspirator Guy Fawkes, the man sent to actually prime the gunpowder in the cellars under Parliament, had already been arrested. They waited, almost certainly, right at the top of what later became known as Parliament Hill.
(Plath writes in the poem of how "Southward, over Kentish Town, an ashen smudge/Swaddles roof and tree. . ."; this is a view from a different angle.) Moving a short distance down this hill you come to the place known as the tumulus ("I circle the writhen trees. . .These faithful dark-boughed cypresses/Brood, rooted in their heaped losses."). One myth suggests that this tumulus was an Iron Age settlement of some kind, another that it is the burial-mound of Boadicea, queen of the Iceni tribe who raised a doomed revolt against the Romans. Archaeologists digging there several decades ago found tobacco pipes, broken bits of Delftware pottery and Chinese porcelain, all dating from the eighteenth century, but nothing earlier and certainly no bones or any signs of burial. In Plath's time, as now, the tumulus would have been simply a cluster of dark trees, a place of birdsong, with some benches.
|Photograph by Gail Crowther|
Bird-lovers make their way down the hill towards Highgate Pond No. 1 and Bird Sanctuary Pond, both home to swans, herons, moorhens, various species of duck. Swimmers aim north-westwards towards the Men's Bathing Pond or the Kenwood Ladies' Pond, as appropriate, or westwards to the Mixed Bathing Pond, or south-eastwards to the Lido, an open-air unheated pool opened in 1938. These three ponds and the Lido are popular throughout the year, with some people aiming to swim every day, rain or snow notwithstanding.
(One of these swimmers is A. Alvarez, Plath's friend and, in the early 60s, a prominent literary critic, one of the first people to recognise the importance of her work. Now in his 80s, Alvarez lives near the Heath and writes extensively of its joys in his recent book Pondlife, a selection of his journals.) I found it easy to imagine Plath strolling among these various groups of people. On that day in February 1961, her view of the ponds ( "the linked ponds") would have been clearer on account of bare trees than the one I got in September.
Hampstead Heath is a place rich in historical, artistic and literary associations. John Constable the English landscape painter lived nearby in the 1820s and 1830s, partly because the air of Hampstead was good for his consumptive wife and partly because he loved to paint the Heath in its many moods and weathers. John Keats, it is said, heard the nightingale to which he addressed his "Ode to a Nightingale" on Hampstead Heath if not on Parliament Hill Fields themselves. Several years earlier, as a medical student, he herborised here, observing and learning about many species of medicinal plant: bogbean, coltsfoot, lady's smock, sphagnum moss. (Later drainage projects sounded the death-knell for most of these species.) Anna Pavlova the Russian ballerina lived near here for twenty years before her death in 1931, almost certainly enjoying the sight of swans on the ponds as well as having several swans as pets. Religious and political gatherings often focussed on the Stone of Free Speech until maybe the middle of the nineteenth century.
In Plath's time, one of the recognisable walkers here and thereabouts was Hugh Gaitskell, the then Leader of the British Labour Party and probable future Prime Minister. Gaitskell died at the age of 56, of the complications of lupus, in January 1963, less than a month before Plath's own death. That month was the coldest month in England in the twentieth century; in fact, you would have to go back all the way to 1814 to find a colder one. Snow would have been lying thick on the grass on Parliament Hill Fields, there would have been ice on the ponds, and I assume, many struggling swans, ducks and other birds. Simultaneously, Plath was struggling in her flat on Fitzroy Road with frozen pipes, power-cuts, flu, depression. Winters like this kill, sometimes directly, more often indirectly, felling those already vulnerable.
Time brings changes. The Lido no longer has any diving-boards and it now has CCTV but it is still the much-loved destination of water-loving Londoners. The bowling-green, children's playground and cafe, here in Plath's time as far as I have been able to establish, are still here and much used. There is still a bandstand. Nowadays, a little further off, there is also an athletics track. The whole place, now as then, is wonderfully uncommercial for the most part. Walkers, both human and canine, continue to walk and enjoy. Though the emotional tone of "Parliament Hill Fields" is one of sadness, I have formed the strong impression that this place was in general a nurturing one for her, a mixture of haven, bolt-hole and gentle, unobtrusive therapy.
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs by Sheila Hamilton.