These days Sandy Heath seems a total misnomer for the precipitous, shadowy woodland, scattered with giant trees, that runs from Spaniards Road down to the Heath Extension.
But this is the ridge of Bagshot Sands which runs east to west across the heath. ‘The Bagshot Sands’, says Helen Lawrence in How Hampstead Heath Was Saved, ‘are thought to have been deposited about 40 millions years ago by a giant river system in the Thames basin which extended over the greater part of Southern England, washing the sands along its length. The ‘Hampstead Outlier’ as it is called, is one of the best examples because it is so distinct from the surrounding bed. Bagshot Sands are sterile so of little agricultural value but the sand is of a high quality, useful to both builders and iron founders. The Bagshot layer is surrounded by Claygate Beds, a belt of sandy clay about 50 feet deep. Underlying it all and forming the great bulk of the hill is a lower bed, or ‘Formation’, an immense mass of London clay.’ (And thanks to Helen and David Sullivan for the map below.)
Thanks to the value of the sands for for building and iron work purposes, the ridge has been pretty ruthlessly plundered over the centuries, both by the lords of the manor who owned chunks of it, and by chancers who came in the night and took what they wanted. As a result Spaniards Road now runs like a causeway, perched above the heath while the hill to the north at least is quite steep. As you will see as we walk up through woods from the Extension, there is very little sign of sand now to be seen, apart from the one outcrop below.
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Because of the sandy nature of the ground there are several ponds on the way up – great for dog swimmers and for irises.
And a bit further up the hill is the living proof of how the sands were exploited. I am afraid that the 1866 photograph now shows very little but the two trees have hung in there and are still looking pretty healthy 150+ years later.
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