The source of three rivers, Hampstead has long been a home to famous people and famous pubs.
Hampstead was once a farm or homestead (ham stede in Anglo-Saxon). On a high point overlooking London, with its famous heath, it’s built on a deposit of porous sand left by an ancient river forty-odd million years ago in the Bartonian Period. The sand sits on a non-porous layer of London clay, so that water percolating through it is forced out as springs, making Hampstead the source for three of London’s (now subterranean) rivers: the Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne.
[There's more on Hampstead’s three rivers here.]
Hampstead’s famous residents run the gamut from John Keats and Sigmund Freud to Anna Pavlova, Marianne Faithfull, Thierry Henry and Cesc Fàbregas. Its pubs are nearly as famous. The historical sixteenth-century Spaniards Inn is one of London’s most haunted hostelries. Its landlord was supposedly the father of highwayman Dick Turpin, who jumped his horse Black Bess over the toll-gate which once stood here to escape his pursuers on his ride to York. Unfortunately none of that story is true. For all that the pub used to display one of the bullets fired by the pursuers, and Black Bess is said to haunt its car park, Dick Turpin was in fact from Hempstead in Essex, and never frequented Hampstead at all. The episode in which Black Bess jumps the toll-gate is from a fictional account in a novel, and was at Hornsey anyway.
A short stroll away across a branch of the heath, the Old Bull and Bush was immortalized by Florrie Forde in a 1905 music hall song. Like the Spaniards, it counted the painter William Hogarth among its regulars. It was once due to get its own tube station, which was partly built but never opened, so the Spaniards may have its ghosts, but the Bull and Bush has a ghost station. Just up the road, at Hampstead’s highest point, by Whitestone Pond, Jack Straw’s Castle is currently closed. The Jack Straw in question was not Tony Blair’s Home Secretary of that name, but a legendary leader of the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt. He is said to have hidden out around here after Richard II tricked the peasants into laying down their arms and then had their leaders arrested and executed.
In Bram Stoker’s bloodsucking novel Dracula, the vampire hunter Van Helsing has supper at Jack Straw’s Castle before rescuing a child from a vampire on Hampstead Heath and then catching a cab home from the Spaniards Inn. Luckily the vampire hadn’t managed to sink its Hampsteads into the nipper’s neck. The Spaniards also has a Frankenstein connection, as the book’s author Mary Shelley is among the historical personages who liked a drink there (along with Byron and Keats, but apparently not her husband Percy).
Suburban though it may be, Hampstead is considered part of inner London, having been one of the LCC’s 28 original metropolitan boroughs. In 1965, it was merged with Holborn and St Pancras to form the Borough of Camden, but many of its street name signs are still in the old borough’s distinctive black-and-white ceramic tiling.