You’re not short of storied locals at the Bull & Last – a much-loved Hampstead inn so close to the Heath that you might catch the oohs and ahhs of people enjoying Parliament Hill’s London panorama. There’s Dido Belle, the slave daughter turned heiress of nearby Kenwood House, father of electricity Michael Faraday, and tragic murderess Ruth Ellis, all locals who’ve been paid gentle tribute in this 300-year-old coaching inn’s six beautifully conceived rooms. The nods are subtle (a framed book of Keats’ poetry here, drawings of the longhorn cattle Dido Belle would have seen on the Heath) but effectively draw you into their and the inn’s stories (work bequeathed by artist Dacre Punt, the original 1980s sign and the antique deeds all hang along the halls). And, there are more characters downstairs where food that rises well above the ‘gastro’ suffix is served, London-based brews are poured (be sure to try the signature So Solid Brew), and oenophiles agonise over the all-top-choices wine list.
Double rooms from £170.00, including tax at 20 per cent.
Rates do not include breakfast.
Nothing makes us want to belt out ‘food, glorious food’ like a musical urchin more than the menu at the Bull. Do we dare try such culinary wizardry ourselves? Well, armed with the Bull & Last’s trusty cookbook, we’ll give smoked-haddock macaroni, banana sticky-toffee pudding, pheasant schnitzel club sandwiches and even those gooey-in-the-middle Scotch eggs (don’t worry, if it goes wrong the book contains a voucher for one in the pub too). You can also buy a tote bag to show off on the Heath and the bespoke Woodsome toiletries, named for the road the inn sits on and created in much the same way they devise their dreamy menu.
The pub and hotel close from the 24 to 26 December.
At the hotel
Pub, dining room, seasonal outdoor seating, free-to-hire tennis rackets and pétanque kits, Brompton bikes to hire (plus a helmet and lock) for an extra charge, and free WiFi. In rooms: 32-inch LG TV, Roberts radio, Nespresso machine and Volcano coffee from Brixton, Tea Drop tea, minibar filled with gourmet treats from indie producers and pre-mixed cocktails from the pub, cocktail-making kit, free WiFi, air-conditioning and bespoke Woodsome skincare products.
Our favourite rooms
We love the way each room lets you in on a little local history in the subtlest of ways, say a certain Farrow & Ball colour, a visual clue in the artwork or a certain material. Keats’ lonely wanderings over Hampstead Heath may be well documented and the room dedicated to him has a framed book of poetry, but it’s some of the lesser-told stories that are all the more engaging. Say, that of slave daughter turned heiress Dido Belle who grew up in Kenwood House; or that of Ruth Ellis who was the last woman hanged in Britain for shooting her husband dead, which happened just down the road at the Magdala Tavern. And, there’s artwork with special meaning to the pub or from local creatives hanging in each, so, whichever you stay in you’ll experience some of Hampstead’s colour. Keats might be smaller, but it’s light and bright with a sense of the poet’s romantic nature. And, large attic rooms Faraday and Mansfield are among our favourites for their freestanding Catchpole & Rye bath tubs.
With London’s notoriously capricious weather, you might think that a swimsuit is simply a waste of suitcase space. But, there are a surprising number of swimmable areas close to the pub: the lido and the Heath’s bathing ponds (which poet Shelley once sailed paper boats over). Locals dip even when the weather’s brisk, so pack your Speedos and take the plunge. The rooms at the pub have ingenious ways of storing things, say hooks for coats and bags and a space under the bed for stashing suitcases – there’s room for those 270mm in height, so give yours a measure before you leave.
Leave your thoughts in the Bull & Last cookbook in your room, which acts as a guestbook.
In each room except Ellis and Keats, a baby cot can be added for an additional £15 a day. Faraday and Mansfield have the most space for families, and children are welcome in the downstairs pub (there’s a stash of highchairs if needed).
The owners have been heavily influenced by the nose-to-tail dining movement, so produce is local (often hyperlocal) and seasonal, and they’re familiar with local foragers. They’re huge champions of London’s independent suppliers, especially those with an eco ethos. The drinks list is littered with picks from native breweries, capsules from Brixton’s Volcano Coffee Works are vegan-friendly and fully compostable, their bespoke bath products are plant-based, handmade bathroom tiles come from Shoreditch, and their recyclable beds are made by the UK’s first carbon-neutral manufacturer. Also commendable is their commitment to showcasing the area’s rich history.
On a good day, there’s more people-watching opportunities at the bank of outdoor tables. When rain chases you indoors, sit by the fireplace.
Town and country: you’ll feel at home whether you’re wearing your most well-to-do looks or mud-flecked wellies after a knockabout the Heath.
The Bull & Last’s reputation is largely built on feeding its customers very well indeed (so, book ahead because the locals are very proactive when it comes to securing tables). There’s passion by the plate-load and nattering with the owners will fire you up for food: they have a beef farm in the family, work with local foragers and get charmingly excited about new dishes. As such, the menu changes frequently, depending on the whims of the chef (a Corrigan’s alumnus), fresh-that-day produce and season, but a mere ‘gastro’ tag would be doing the kitchen a disservice. Dishes such as London-cured lomo with truffled cream; smoked-eel and Alsace bacon tagliatelle with Berkswell cheese; and roast cod with pickled mussels, Cornish mids potatoes and samphire, give it the eloquent edge over pubs peddling slightly fancier burgers and such. Having said that, they also offer foods as comforting as a duvet hug on a rainy day: mustardy roast-pork sandwiches, beer-battered haddock, Béarnaise-slathered shorthorn prime rib to share. And, on Sundays the roast tradition is religiously followed, with Gloucester Old Spot pork belly or roast sirloin of shorthorn beef.
A lot of consideration has gone into the hotel’s drinks lists. Wines range from Kentish sparkling to Euro pet-nat roses to organic orange wines from Italy. Or just close your eyes and point to any one of the old and new world wines they have in stock – you can’t go wrong. It’s only polite to sip a pint of So Solid Brew, the hotel’s own pale ale, made in collaboration with Hackney’s Five Points brewery, or a G&T with the Bull’s own gin (crafted with Victory London Distillery). And it rubs shoulders with other high-risers in the Brit brewing scene: Tottenham’s Bohem, Dalston Sunrise, Gipsy Hill pale ale. The cocktail list is succinct yet seductive, with a gimlet, martinis, an old fashioned – but make ours the Yorkshire Rhubarb Collins. Prop yourself on a stool and pair with their beloved buttermilk-fried chicken or whichever sandwich the chef has dreamed up for the day.
Lunch from 12 noon to 3pm (from 12.30pm to 4pm on weekends) and dine from 6pm to 10pm (till 9pm on Sundays). Drinks run till 11pm Monday to Thursday, and drinks must be downed by midnight on Friday and Saturday.
Want to give the buttermilk chicken sandwich, triple-cooked chips or Ferrero Rocher ice-cream the wanton messy scoffing they deserve? During dining hours you can go to town on the menu in the privacy of your own room (a 12.5 % service charge applies).
The Bull & Last has sat on the ‘wrong’ – but oh-so right – side of Hampstead Heath (just north of Kentish Town) for 300 years and counting. It’s close to Parliament Hill lido and just downhill from one of London’s most spectacular viewpoints.
The pub is just an hour’s drive from three of London’s major airports: Heathrow (via the M25 and A40), Luton (via the M1) and Stansted (via the M11). Gatwick is the furthest, a two-hour drive away.
There are excellent public-transport links nearby, with Gospel Oak overground (your link to Hackney to the east and the likes of Kensington and Richmond to the west), and both Kentish Town and Tufnell Park tube stations, served by the Northern Line, on which you can easily ride into central London. If you take the Heathrow Express into town, you’ll arrive at Paddington; from there, take the Circle Line to King’s Cross and the Northern Line to Kentish Town. The Gatwick Express pulls in at Victoria, from which you can get the Tube straight up to Euston then switch to the Northern.
The pub’s outside the Congestion Charge zone, but there’s little need for a car with all the overground and Tube links you have close by – if you hire one (which you can from any airport), you’ll likely spend your time cursing at the M25 or playing ‘spot the parking space’.
Worth getting out of bed for
Historically, the east side of Hampstead Heath has been thought of as slightly more déclassé in comparison to the Dickensian whimsy (quite literally – he loved a pint in the Spaniards Inn) of Hampstead Village in the west. But, nowadays anyone within strolling distance of the Heath is living a Londoners’ dream. You see, our love for this – the largest of the capital’s green patches – has softened our stiff upper lips for centuries; whether we’re escaping plagues old and new on the Vale of Heath, splashing about in its bathing ponds in the rain (if you visit in summer be sure to book a ticket well in advance), stomping through its pin-drop-peaceful meadows or gazing out at the group portrait of London’s landmarks from atop the city’s most spectacular viewpoint: Parliament Hill. The Heath offers a pastoral fantasy less than five miles from Soho. And, the Bull & Last happens to be just across the street from it. A simple stroll through may prove fertile ground for inspiration. Countless creatives have chased the muse here: the frilly-bloused bunch of the 18th-century Kit Kat Club (Alexander Pope, John Keats, Percy Shelley et al) gathered close by; it allegedly sparked the idea for CS Lewis’s Narnia; and Karl Marx enjoyed flaunting his rakish revolutionary rep as he picknicked with his family there. The hotel can hook you up with a stylish Brompton bike if you’d like to explore on two wheels, and they have pétanque kits and tennis rackets to hand (courts need to be booked in advance). Or familiarise yourself with some of the characters the Bull’s rooms are named after at Kenwood House, the exceedingly grand home of the Earl of Mansfield and Dido Belle. Uphill from the pub is Highgate Cemetery; its famous interments will fascinate (from Henry Moore to Douglas Adams, from Christina Rosetti to Jeremy Beadle), but it’s also an immensely peaceful place to while away an afternoon. Marx’s head appears in a lot of selfies, but our favourite is artist Patrick Caulfield’s grave, which simply, eloquently has the word ‘dead’ carved into it. Waterlow Park is another lovely picnicking spot and in Golders Hill Park wild deer roam. Keats’ surprisingly modest house lies on the other side of the Heath on a road now named for the poet, and it’s been turned into a museum about his short, somewhat turbulent life. Hampstead Village is a cascade of designer and indie boutiques; we especially love rummaging in the Antique & Craft Emporium for vintage treasures. And to the south, the greenery and toytown villages give way to Camden and Kentish Town’s grungy gig scene. The O2 Forum, the Underworld, Electric Ballroom and Roundhouse all have legendary status, but it’s worth checking out smaller spaces such as folky Green Note or former Winehouse haunt the Dublin Castle.
For areas that are so well-heeled, Hampstead and Highgate haven’t been the best served for restaurants, so the Bull shines brightly in the dining scene and could feed you differently and decadently for days. For sustenance elsewhere, you're best off trying more drinking establishments. The Flask is famous for its flower-dappled beer garden and celeb sightings; its menu doesn’t take any sharp turns, but the tried-and-tested favourites there (roast chicken with hasselback potatoes, shepherd’s pie, confit salmon) are shored up with quality ingredients. St John’s Tavern on Archway Road (not affiliated with Fergus Henderson’s offal-y good empire) has some above-and-beyond plates: crab and romesco croquettes, spatchcock poussin with rose harissa, saffron-battered hake with pea shoots. Back-street eatery the Pineapple has wooed Kentish Town-ers with its unflagging friendliness and top Thai food, while Hampstead’s Mama’s Kubo offers authentic Filipino dishes (try the spicy longganisa sausage when it’s in stock). And Patron Cave à Manger makes Fortress Road feel like the Marais (well, almost), with its bistro-style menu of snails, saucisson, steak and more; visit from 4pm to 5pm any day to take advantage of its half-price happy hour.
Set down a ludicrously pretty side street in Hampstead village, Ginger & White’s all-day breakfasts and weekend brunches are a rare treat, largely because free tables are usually snapped up by well-organised locals as soon as they’re available. But, it’s worth joining the caff’s virtual queue for brews by Square Mile Coffee Roasters and eggy bits, toasties and more. Otherwise, head to Bear + Wolf for brioche breakfast rolls (including a next-level bacon roll with avo, cherry tomatoes and homemade aioli), smoothies and slightly more sinful shakes – plus a raspberry pastel de nata for good measure. And, Norman’s Café might look like your average greasy spoon, but it’s run by chefs with Michelin-starred backgrounds, so even a simple beans on toast or fish dinner is a cut above the competition. And, on the Heath, Kenwood House’s Brew House Café has all you could want for elevensies or foursies, or whenever you feel peckish: tea stands topped with wodges of freshly baked cakes, scones fat with cream, steaming tea urns, but with all the gentility of the Georgian manor it’s attached to. Keep your pinkies up and visit in summertime, when you can sit in the flower-bedecked garden.
You’ll very quickly bond with the Bull as your newly adopted local, but this part of London teems with fine boozers and cries out for a crawl. Brace yourself, line your stomach, and let gravity dictate your route, starting on-high at Highgate Village. The Prince of Wales is of the wood-clad, wonkily charming old-school sort, with board games, a blazing fire and a pub quiz the locals take very seriously. Then sway your way down North Hill to the Bull (there are a lot of them in this area), which has its own microbrewery, before swooping in for a swift half at 18th-century pub the Wrestlers. Close by is the Boogaloo – formerly the residence of one Shane McGowan (well, technically he lived in the flat above) – where you’re bound to hear at least one yarn about the Pogues’ hellraiser. Disco nights, live music and the odd drunk person having a go on the piano makes it a very fun late one. Tufnell Park Tavern at the bottom of Archway Road has a generously sized beer garden and at the cusp of Kentish Town are two discreet cocktail bars: basement drinkery Knowhere Special, and Ladies & Gentlemen, set in a former toilet block. The two-punch of spirited drinks may be a stumbling block, but keep going and things get musical at Tapping the Admiral, where local legend Whisky Mick often strums his mandolin and brings local talents together, and the Black Heart, a beloved rock venue channeling Camden’s grimy fun.
As the old saying goes: London is a collection of small villages. But in the north-west of London, Hampstead Heath – London’s Central Park – pulls together Kentish Town, Tufnell Park, Highgate, Archway, Golders Green and Hampstead itself, and creates its own mini-community.
The Heath, as it’s known locally, thrives with various sports, markets, festivals and open-air swimming. I should know, I lived next to the Heath for 15 years, and went to school next to it for 10 years before that. I found myself using it daily. After all, it’s a slice of the countryside in zone two London that’s big enough to get lost in.
Like most of London, I watched the area change. Hampstead and Highgate didn’t need much gentrifying in the first place, but Archway, Kentish Town and Tufnell Park systematically had their Irish pubs replaced with artisanal bakeries, for better or for worse.
The Bull & Last pub, on the Dartmouth Park side of the Heath, has a rich 300-year history, but it’s in keeping with the last 20 years of gentrification that it found its place as an upmarket ‘coaching inn’ and restaurant.
Owners Joe and Ollie opened this newest incarnation of the Bull & Last in 2008, and immediately established it as a refined gastro-pub – the location next to the Heath made it perfect for Sunday roasts, takeaway picnics and upmarket dinners for local celebrities and young families alike.
Now the pub has opened half a dozen bedrooms, which are frankly way nicer than you might expect. Perhaps it’s because there are no really decent hotels in the area. I suffered with this problem living in Dartmouth Park for so many years – if I had visitors, then it was either a tired, pokey B&B in Hampstead, a hotel in the centre of town, or the Premier Inn in Archway. Grim times.
Impressively, the pub has been renovated with a strong sense of local identity. The decor takes inspiration from Kenwood House, the Georgian style estate on the Heath. The rooms are each named after local historic personalities like Keats, Faraday and Mansfield. Products, from the shampoo in the bathrooms to the beer served at the bar, are noticeably locally-sourced.
And speaking of the bar, food and drink are probably your main reasons to stay at the Bull & Last. Food is so good here that it will probably be an effort for you to try other local options. (Which is a shame, because Swain’s Lane, round the corner, now hosts a disproportionate selection of good cafés. I recommend Roni’s for the Jewish-inspired breakfasts).
The vibe of the menu is sophisticated gastropub. Like the hotel itself, there’s a thoughtful emphasis on the local, seasonal and sustainable. That means for every oxtail ragu on the menu, there’s also a fish ‘n’ chips. But not just fish ‘n’ chips – beautifully beer-battered haddock with triple-cooked chips, obviously. There is nothing on the menu that I wouldn’t want. Desserts are insane. Black fig, almond water, stem ginger ice-cream sundae anyone?!
Drinks have been just as carefully curated, with a really thorough wine list, great beers and alcohol-free options (I loved the kombucha). And they do great coffee, too. All the rooms have cocktail-making facilities – and not naff ones, either: fresh citrus fruits, high-end shakers and crystal glasses.
Everything in the rooms is thought through with Soho House-style panache. I stay in different hotels every week, and it’s the tiny things that make a difference. You can tell a hotel where the owners have stayed in their own rooms from the ones where they haven’t.
There’s always limited space when you’re in London – but to have found a way to pack in stylish tote bags, digital radios, drinks trays for your bath, all the chargers you need in the right places, wooden boxes for chocolate cookies, all so elegantly executed, is really impressive.
I struggled to find anything to criticise about my stay. Some herbal tea in the room would have been nice. Annoyingly, Covid-related staff shortages mean that breakfast isn’t happening at the moment, and hopefully that will be rectified soon. But I know from past experiences that the full English is worth a trip on its own.
So much of the success of the Bull & Last as a hotel lies in the acute attention to detail. The cast-iron radiators. The golden floor threshold between the bedroom and bathroom. The incredible lighting. It’s a masterpiece of renovation. The effect is the kind of luxury where you feel completely looked after, which I guess harks back to its history as a coaching inn, exactly as it always intended.