Free Weekend? Explore South End Green

Mention of the place can elicit quizzical looks from otherwise seasoned Londoners, yet you’ve almost certainly been here. We take an amble around the confusingly-named foothills of Hampstead

A festival in their backyard. A weekend afternoon at The Stag.
A festival in their backyard: busy weekend afternoon at The Stag. Photo: The Stag
Southend where? That’s a typical response. But there are many reasons why leafy South End Green – a 15 minute stroll for most Kentishtowners – doesn’t exactly ring a bell for most people, despite having a very distinct identity. The wrong-footed name of the overground station. Its proximity to the must-see guide book “village” destination up the hill. Yet the area is a magnet for visitors and locals alike, who enjoy the many food and drink options, the history, architecture and walks that are all in plentiful local supply.

The area first took shape along the rough edges of Hampstead Heath in 1835, when the small puddle at the bottom of aptly-named Pond Street was filled in. Much like Parliament Hill on the opposite side of the Heath, the arrival of a tram terminus brought people, shops, roads, homes and large public houses to this once sleepy hamlet by mid-century.

South End Green's monument
South End Green’s drinking fountain

Many of those grand Victorian drinking establishments remain today, and follow the general rule that pubs in and around Hampstead are well run, rather lovely places to laze about in. A fine one to start off with is the Roebuck, near the top of Pond Street: the pretty walled garden is a genuine oasis from the busy road out front, while the inside is all cosy little nooks, long favoured by gossiping medical staff tipping out from the Royal Free Hospital opposite for a fishbowl of vino.

Ah yes, the world-renowned hospital, that towering 70s concrete thing sure to have sent Prince Charles apoplectic. It was built on the site of the old Hampstead General Hospital, part of early local healthcare provision for poorer people with another site in Kentish Town Road.

Founded by a Dr Heath Strange – who made his name in the field of maladies of the rectum and anus – there is a small garden dedicated to him, perched on the top of the car park, visible from the Roebuck and next to pretty Hampstead Green.

But with grassy spots all around, which one is the actual South End Green? As you might expect with this locale’s oddly anonymous moniker, there’s little specific record of it. The Grade II listed central fountain marks the spot of the old pond, recently renovated with the addition of quotes from some of the literary great who’ve shacked up nearby over the years. We’d wager the original Green is the area dappled in the shadows of the huge trees leading to the historic travelling fairground site. Still regularly used for noisy funfairs today, you’ll also find it hosting the more genteel Affordable Art Fair, and the return of the Community Summer Fair and its large dog show along South End Road this year too.

The Garden Gate's new outdoor bar
The Garden Gate’s new outdoor bar

So let’s do beer gardens. Always humming with sun worshipping drinkers, the vast outdoor terrace at perfectly placed boozer The Garden Gate has just opened a new outdoor bar, and having draught Pimms within arm’s reach on a sunny afternoon is proving an understandable hit. Also worth exploring is the craft beer selection, a cheeky reward after all that exertion on the Heath. Ahem.

The White Horse, another Victorian boozer, is currently undergoing some work by enthusiastic new management. It lacks the seasonal lure of a big garden, however its petite backyard has all manner of potential.

But best of all is the mighty Stag, on the route back to Kentish Town, so pretty much unavoidable for a final drink. Spacious isn’t the word for this beer garden. It’s vast – and turns into a festival pretty much every summer weekend, with live music and a hipsterish crowd.

With so many options a stumble apart, South End Green is, in fact, a no-brainer. and there’s nothing confusing about that.

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Eating: The Stag, Fratelli or The Wells?

It can be hard to know where to start. Fratelli La Bufala is a good introduction, with its fine pizzas and a tiny, buzzy pavement terrace. The Stag? Legendary for a warm, runny Scotch egg and a medium rare onglet with chips; or try the weekend BBQ (and it’s lowered its prices now too), although a recent chicken and avocado salad was less wow-some. Indian restaurant Paradise and The Magdala pub are reliable, as was French restaurant La Cocotte, now a sleek new (untested) Thai. And the Garden Gate has relaunched its menu with fancier items like ox cheek and red wine pie, Devonshire crab, and mushrooms on rye toast.

A lunch plate at The Wells
A lunch plate at The Wells

But if you visit the fascinating Willow Road house then why not wander up to The Wells, a majestic Georgian building with sunny terrace overlooking Hampstead at its most, um, unaffordable?

While Hampstead is now much better on the food front than it was ten years ago, The Wells was oddly pioneering back in 2003. At weekends the smallish downstairs room can be overrun, but on a sunny day it’s unbeatable.

We grabbed the final outdoor table available (on a midweek lunch, no less) and shared a couple of the cheaper lunch specials with a large glass of pink. Regular mains are on a typically posh pub tip: duck leg, chateaubriand, cod with fennel. Our specials, at £7.50, were, however, both well-priced and tasty: cod and smoked haddock fishcake (something of a signature dish here) rich and velvety, was lifted by a tangy tartare sauce. Meanwhile calamari melted and combined with chorizo, tomato and basil into a holiday-like plate of colour. Stephen Emms

For our Top 5 cultural tips in South End Green head here.

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  • Richard Baldwin

    Shame the White Horse got nailed by short-sighted, nay utterly blind new management who, rather than play to it’s homely strenghts, tried to model it on …um…er…every other pub in the area. Thing is, this pub lacks a garden so in switching from it’s tried and true previous ‘friendly boozer’ incarnation to a wannabe Laura Ashley flavoured gastropub, has found itself at the bottom of the local heap, when it used to stand apart.