The Conduit Fields (or Shepherd’s Fields) surrounded the spring which flowed from a source which lies underneath what is now Fitzjohn’s Avenue. They were a gloriously rural spot in Hampstead before, as is common to the suburban story, becoming covered in roads, asphalt, houses and gardens.
Anna Mazwell wrote a delightful book, published in 1912 and called “Hampstead, its historic houses, its literary and artistic associations” in which she describes the Conduit Fields. The rest of this post quotes from that book.
Of the picturesque village and its verdant surroundings, which are doubly dear to us now that they are fast fading away, a few spots remain which serve as an assurance, and which help us to reconstruct the
scenes of the past.
There are residents, still, who once walked up the steep, narrow path, climbing over the stiles to the top of the Conduit Fields, where, at the spring of pure water, pails used to be filled for a penny each, and the public water-carrier wore a wooden yoke like a milk-maid.
What matter that vandalistic hands have broadened the footway, built big houses on each side of it, and named it Fitzjohn’s Avenue! This is an innovation which we must severely ignore, for our passion is now to put back the great clock of Time, and banish these things of the present.
We children who ascended that hill found ourselves amply compensated for our climb when, turning round at the top we ran pell-mell down the fields, scrambling over the fences (stiles were permitted methods, and therefore to be scorned) arriving so breathless that we all but rolled into the tadpole pond at the bottom ! Not for us the wicket-gate, but some secret holes in the hawthorn hedge, through which we
scrambled on hands and knees into Belsize Lane.
Here the tall elms clasped hands high overhead, and beneath their branches the farmhouse buildings and turnpike had once stood, where the tollkeeper’s little daughter, in her father’s absence, had staunchly defended her post by refusing to let Queen Victoria’s carriage pass without the customary payment of a penny ! The mother-monarch had driven out to Hampstead, as she frequently did during the infancy of her children, to view a house which might suit as a royal nursery for the summer months. It was Rosslyn House which was inspected on this occasion, but for some reason not chosen, though its fair grounds spread themselves over the north-eastern side of the meadows most breezy, most exhilarating ; soft waves of loose hay lay around, the hill toward the north rose higher and higher, until there appeared at length a mass of tall trees which half hid the quaint copper steeple of the old parish church. But higher still rose the hill, up and up to the glorious Heath, where the gale burst round the corner, and nearly blew us, shrieking with joy, into the Whitestone Pond. No massive red modern mansion stood then on the left to break the strong force of the westerly wind, for the ground now occupied by Tudor House had not then been taken from the heath, but remained an open space for the people. Here for generations, the villagers had sat, on summer evenings, after their work was done.
Church Row, and churchyard may give some slight idea of the summit of the Conduit Fields : but, descending from these old buildings southward to the foot of the hill, and again looking east over two hundred acres of the parklands of Belsize House, no buildings whatever could be seen until New College began to come into existence in the middle of the nineteenth century.