Martin Humphery recalls four decades struggling to protect Hampstead’s crowning glory
HAMPSTEAD’S greatest defender Martin Humphery recently celebrated his 80th birthday on safari in Africa.
Now home again, he sits at his kitchen table and says quietly: “I bless the day I moved to Hampstead, I really do.”
That was back in 1954.
“Of course there are things wrong with Hampstead,” he admits. “There’s too much traffic, too many coffee shops, and there’s too much rubbish in the High Street.
“But it still remains so much better than anywhere else I know in central London. And so the battle goes on to save what we have and stave off the worst kind of developments.”
He pauses, and adds: “The Heath is what makes Hampstead. It’s fantastic. You walk down the end of the road and you’re in the country.
“People who come here are gobsmacked when they first see it. And as long as I can still walk, you will find me on the Heath for sure. It’s my kind of heaven.”
More than most people, Martin knows the story of Hampstead – of the fight to save the Heath from being swamped with houses and the campaign to ensure its future when the GLC disappeared.
And then there are the current campaigns he is involved in, such as saving Athlone House from demolition and the ongoing saga of development in the Vale of Health.
It was in 1993, when he retired after a highly successful career with the motor trade, that Martin embarked on his second career: Helen Marcus, then chairwoman of the Heath and Hampstead Society, asked him to join the its Town sub-committee.
From that he was quickly catapulted into the heart of the action, at first chairing the Town sub-committee, then taking over as chair of the society for five years, and now he remains a vice-president. He has also chaired the Hampstead Conservation Area Advisory Committee since 2004.
Few people realise how demanding these commitments are. The Conservation Area Advisory Committee alone investigates some 500 planning applications a year and the demands of the Heath Society involve ongoing meetings with Camden Council, the City of London Corporation, the police and local residents. This comes on top of raising £50,000 emergency funding for – and heading up – High Court legal clashes with persistent developers who refuse to take no for an answer.
One of Martin’s vital aims is to obtain Article Four direction under the planning legislation, to ensure that residents have to seek consent before altering the frontages of their properties, such as installing high security fences and digging out double-deep basements for swimming pools and the like.
“What is the point of a conservation area if you can’t actually see the Georgian and Victorian buildings?” he asks, pointing out the threat of instability caused by basements that alter the flow of Hampstead’s underground rivers and create flooding elsewhere.
These thoughts were far from his mind when celebrating his 80th birthday, which coincided with the 25th anniversary celebrations of the Born Free Foundation at Elsa’s Kopje, in Kenya, where the famed lioness was reared by George and Joy Adamson.
Virginia McKenna, the actress who launched the foundation with her late husband, provided a splendid birthday cake to match the moment.
Martin is now back to his native haunts.
“There’s nothing more enjoyable than walking up Hampstead High Street and stopping to talking to people who stop you,” he says.