Hampstead Heath: Background information when reading I Saw a Man

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I Saw a Man

by Owen Sheers

I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers X
I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2015, 272 pages

    Jul 2016, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Darcie R.J. Abbene
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Hampstead Heath

This article relates to I Saw a Man

Print Review

Hampstead HeathAfter his wife's death in Owen Sheers novel I Saw a Man, Michael Turner moves from their home in Coed y Bryn in Wales to a flat in London owned by the very friend that informed him of Caroline's death. While he is reluctant to do much of anything after her death, he knows he must inch himself forward and the noncommittal renting of an apartment seems appropriate. Often folks are advised to spend time in nature to heal, and that is a benefit of this particular flat which is located on the edge of Hampstead Heath, an almost 800-acre public park in London.

The Heath and Hampstead Society of London calls the park the "Green lung of London" and wastes no time citing it as the magical inspiration for author C. S. Lewis's The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. And it is perhaps that sort of magical presence that inspired Londoners to adopt such careful management of what is locally known as "the Heath."

Hampstead Heath PondCurrently managed by the City of London, the Heath found its beginnings as a land grant from Ethlred the Unready (King of England for most of the period from 978 to 1016) to one of his servants. The Heath has a long history of growing and shrinking in its acreage, but now it is roughly set at 800 acres. It is a popular countryside area, a celebrated green space in an urban landscape. Visitors can visit the Heath for its recreational facilities, which include an athletic track and three swimming pools, or simply to try to discover species protected under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, such as woodpeckers, bullfinches, stag beetles or grass snakes. The Heath hosts 55 historical features, monuments and archeological sites. It is also a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation.

The geography of the Heath does indeed seem to be a magical setting that combines rolling hills with fields that used to be open grazing lands. The Heath and Hampstead Society report 500-year-old trees that firmly establish parts of the green space as an ancient forest. This enchanting setting finds itself in many works of art, literature and film, which include the home of the main character in Stephen King's It and where Julia Robert's character in Notting Hill shoots a film scene.

Hampstead Heath ValeAnd perhaps it is Owen Sheers' own love for the Heath that inspired it as his choice of setting and landscape for I Saw A Man. In his words: "For two years I was lucky enough to live within a few minutes' walk of the heath's borders. Over that time I learnt it was in bad weather I most wanted to be there. Bad weather makes sense on Hampstead Heath in a way it doesn't elsewhere in the city. Its bramble-choked woods and undulating meadows make a virtue of it in a manner only weakly echoed in the landscaping of the Royal Parks. Downpours sound through leaves, not against concrete; a gale is seen as well as felt, given wild body in the movement of trees, bushes and grasses. The Bagshot sand and London clay yields easily to mud. Even on overcast days, on those London mornings when it seems as if someone has forgotten to turn on the sky, this is when, for me, the essence of Hampstead Heath is most strongly felt."

Perhaps this comfort even in bad weather is what encouraged Sheers to find a home for a sad character who is also looking for comfort while amidst the bad weather of life.

Hampstead Heath Extension, courtesy of Dudley Miles
Pond at Hampstead Heath, courtesy of Magnus Manske
Vale of Health, Hampstead Heath, courtesy of Thegreenj~commonswiki

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

This "beyond the book article" relates to I Saw a Man. It originally ran in July 2015 and has been updated for the July 2016 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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