Escaping the lockdown to once again stroll on Blackheath, I was struck by the familiar, intense, almost fetid stench of strong skunk.
‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘Nature is healing.’
It was comforting to know the kids were back relaxing with their poison of choice in the way people have been doing here for years. And by people, I mean, me.
Seeing the place rejuvenated in the sunshine I wondered at the hundreds, if not thousands of years it’s been a place of recreation, of gatherings, of getting entirely off one’s biscuit.
By a pond, I pondered: If this soil could speak, what secrets would it spill of men mild or mighty? Of women humble or haughty? This earth that has felt the footsteps of Henry the Eighth and Half-Life the First (only one of whom would sell you an eighth).
How many ales had been downed here, how many kisses stolen? How many celebrations, how many betrayals? How many honorable souls had fallen, defeated by gravity and the aforementioned ale?
Our Deserter wanderings mostly take us through the streets of South London, subconsciously guided by the buildings around us, often in the direction of out of the way pubs. But could we be affected by what has taken place in the past, like a geographic palimpsest, writing new tales on top of the old? Because a plateau with barely a building on it, overlooking the greatest stage on earth can also cast a spell.
I’ve spent a few birthdays on the heath with mates, a keg of beer and a bag of green, but one year as I sat with the Raider, Spider, Osman, Mad Dog and a few others, a lovely au pair from Leipzig asked if she could join us, attracted by the scent of herb. It began a friendship that still endures today along with an unlikely summer affair. Half-life arrived just as Greta was leaving and as we were exchanging numbers.
‘Give us the sexy angel’s number, Dirts,’ he said, his eyes glued to her departing behind. ‘It’ll be wasted on you.’
My refusal to give him her number, despite threats, insults and sulks, was quite possibly the greatest service I’ve ever done womankind.
But I wasn’t the first ginger love machine to encounter a fair German on the heath. In 1540 King Henry VIII met Anne of Cleves here for an intimate first date – along with his household officers, gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, lords, knights, bishops, ambassadors, and liveried servants.
In fact they had met two days earlier when Henners, impatient to see his new bride on hearing she was on English soil at last, rode to Rochester Castle and popped into her chamber for a snog and a bit of up-the-corset. Anne wasn’t having any of it and Henry, in no way a childish reaction, soon decided he didn’t fancy her anyway.
He couldn’t get out of marrying her, unfortunately, as the alliance was too important. So three days after their meeting on Blackheath she became his fourth wife. The marriage was never consummated, but fond of Anne as he was, he allowed her to keep her head. Which was nice.
After their annulment she became known as the ‘King’s Beloved Sister’, as he ploughed on to wives five and six.
And yet another cherished frau has history on the heath. Princess Caroline of Brunswick was one of the most popular royals we have ever seen, adored by the people and the press alike. Frequently met with standing ovations and huzzahs wherever she went, Caroline was loved by everyone apart from her husband, the Prince Regent (later George IV), who, like Henry VIII, was keen to rid himself of inconvenient wives. He banished Caroline to Blackheath and restricted her access to their daughter, Princess Charlotte, among many cruelties. And he unsuccessfully sued her for adultery, despite his own mistresses, laying bare her private life to the public gaze.
George lived a lavish life of luxury, paid for by a devastatingly poor public who loathed his fat arse. Caroline was open, charming and playful, with none of the stiffness of the English court. A fashionable free-spirit, some might say she foreshadowed Diana, Princess of Wales.
At Montagu House, overlooking the now long-gone windmills of the heath, and at the Pagoda House on the opposite side of the common, she held boisterous parties and entertained society figures whilst sitting on the floor eating onions and drinking ale. When unwell she would drink a kind of milk of magnesia laced with laudanum. She knew how to have a good time, all the time. So it’s no surprise she has a pub named after her on the heath – the Princess of Wales.
The heath was a favourite spot for Lord Mayors of London to welcome their monarchs, from Richard II to Elizabeth I, and for royalty to meet distinguished guests.
In 1415, Henry V was greeted on Blackheath by 20,000 citizens on horseback congratulating him on his victory over France at the Battle of Agincourt. It was among the greatest military triumphs in our history. Like five-nil or something. Even better, his longbowmen invented flicking the Vs, to mock those enemies who would have chopped off the bowmen’s best archery fingers, thus allowing Britons from Harvey Smith to Liam Gallagher to express themselves more fully.
James I (or IV) brought golf down from Scotland, playing the very first (or fourth) game in England on Blackheath around 1603. While I appreciate that hitting a ball in a hole with a stick is as good an idea as any, the sport’s association with loud-trousered gentlemen of a conservative bent makes me less proud of its spread from South London soil than I otherwise would be.
In 1660, Charles II paused at Blackheath to inspect the New Model Army on his way to reclaim the throne and end republican rule. To some he was a despot, to others a lovable rogue. Certainly he was a randy old bugger. While Charles had no legitimate heirs he had at least 12 children by various mistresses. Diana is descended from two of them.
In the year 1400 Henry IV met the Byzantine Emperor, Manuel II here, the first leader of the Eastern Roman Empire to visit Britain since Constantine the Great in 305. I met a Constantine on Blackheath some years ago. He wasn’t great but he was very nice.
Constantine The Very Nice
I was a happily divorced man, in need of cheap accommodation. I’d scoured Greenwich unsuccessfully for digs and stopped off disconsolately at Blackheath, certain I could afford nothing there, when I came across an ad in a newsagent’s for a ‘Room With A View’.
The room in question had a triple vista over the heath. It belonged to Hannah, an eccentric Czech émigré with a huge, poetic heart. She was an actor, a storyteller, a puppeteer, a writer and painter. In her study hung her paintings of angels with enormous penises. Every inch of the flat’s walls were covered in art and puppets. She warned me that the fairies messed with the central heating. And we spent many evenings laughing into the night over Jameson’s and cigarettes.
During my happy stay at The Orchard, she wrote and directed a movie for Channel Four Films, A Pin For The Butterfly, starring Hugh Laurie, Joan Plowright and Ian Bannen. She was a wonder and an inspiration.
Her partner was a straightforward and gentle soul called Donnie, who worked on oil rigs for months at a time before returning to Hannah’s to fix stuff and tend his weed crop, which he was more than generous with. He would also take the odd pint at the pub on the heath he called ‘The Princess Di’.
Donnie wasn’t sure he really was a Donnie and applied to some mysterious authority to find out what he should have been called. They decided he was a Constantine and that settled matters. From that day on everyone called him Connie.
Many years later, I found myself living back in Blackheath, more by accident than design once again. And I often cross its expanse on the way back from a night out, pausing for that one last joint, alone with its history and my thoughts, such as they are.
I considered life’s circularity one night, staggering towards a bench for respite, reeling from a late one at the Pelton and a congratulatory zoot after conquering Mount Maze Hill. My swaying and righting myself plotted a looping path towards the rest stop. But the loops became tighter until progress was halted and the swell of the earth had me down. Facing the stars, I laughed at the heavens. For all the night sky’s glories, here is where the action is, where the stories are. I was back on the heath, on my back. On my heath. As happy as pie.
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Main image: By rjp used under this license. Aerial shot, by Martin Deutsch used under this license. Princess of Wales by Ewan Munro used under this license. Pond by boonkia used under this license. Henry IV, Henry VIII and Caroline of Brunswick: public domain.