Stranger than fiction: the heath that inspired a film about sexual confessions

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Released next week, starring Ewan McGregor, Andrew Lincoln and Sophie Okonedo, Scenes of a Sexual Nature promises to do for Hampstead Heath what Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant did for Notting Hill.

In the film, couples discuss sex and love against the backdrop of the meadows, woods and ponds that are the lung of north-west London. But while the movie promises to be "erotically charged", a trip to the heath is just as likely to yield encounters with dog walkers and kite-flyers as gay cruisers or moonstruck lovers.

When they retired, Liz Houghton, 61, and Alex Skorecki, 54, decided they would walk on the heath every day. "The heath is very central to what living in London is about - people relate to it as part of their lives," Mrs Houghton said. "Living near the heath in the capital is a major advantage; you could go round the twist otherwise. It is a microcosm of the countryside." Almost two dozen rangers patrol the heath daily; cleaning graffiti, making people aware of where they can cycle and working with the Hampstead Heath constabulary, a dedicated nine-person police force. There are two people working on the heath whose core job it is to pick up sexual detritus. Paul McConville gave up a career in the City to be a ranger for a salary of £20,000. He says the pay cut was worth it for the chance to work outdoors.

Gabriel Mussinu, 35, and David Dorton, 44, good friends who met through their daily dog walks with Eros, a volatile dalmatian and Tess, a labrador-springer mix, have been coming up to the heath for seven years - taking different routes through the 791 acres of woodland and lawns.

Mr Dorton said the atmosphere changed throughout the day. "Between seven and nine in the morning, I say hello to everyone - there is quite a clique of dog walkers," he said. "Later in the day, people become less friendly. I like to lie by the ponds in the summer, when you get to meet lots of batty old ladies." Some of the self-confessed eccentric characters include the swimmers in the heath's ponds. In the 1930s, Olympic divers trained on a 10ft diving platform in the male bathing pond. It has been removed, but the pond still attractsregulars. John Allen, 60, has been swimming in the pond for 25 years. "I swim once a day unless there is a heatwave, when I will come for a dip three or four times a day," he said. "You get addicted to it."

Shane Khedool, a 55-year-old lifeguard, goes into the water at least three times a week to acclimatise himself to the temperature - 13C in October, dipping to 2C in January. "Christmas Day is the best, hundreds of people come down for swimming races, mince pies and mulled wine."

Up on Parliament Hill, Charlotte Pearl, 36, took her three children to launch their kites. "With children growing up in London, this is one of the nicest places to come to ride bikes and climb trees," she said. "Who can face the Science Museum with thousands of other people during half term?"

The west heath is a notorious area for gay cruising: used condoms litter the leaf-strewn floor. By the late afternoon, lone men traipse along the paths. One explained that many rely on the anonymity of the heath because they are married. He said the etiquette involved eye contact and coloured handkerchiefs and leather jackets that signified the type of sex of interest.

But for most, the appeal of the heath seems to be escape from the city. Brian Jones, 39, a police officer living in King's Cross, walks his labrador, Truffle, across the heath. "It is surprising how many people don't know about this space," he said. "There is water for Truffle to swim, trees and open fields - it has everything."

History and legend

* Parliament Hill: May be so named as it was the spot where Guy Fawkes and his co- conspirators settled down on 5 November 1605 to see the Houses of Parliament explode. More likelya mustering point for the troops loyal to Parliament. Also known as kite hill.

* Spaniards Inn: According to legend, Dick Turpin was born at the inn, where his father was landlord, in 1705.

* Kenwood House: Remodelled by Robert Adam and William Murray between 1764-73. Bought for the nation in 1922.

* Wildlife: Exotic lime green ring-necked parakeets can be seen nesting in trees in Hampstead Heath. It is believed the birds are descended from escaped pets. The Heath is also home to flamingos, kept in an enclosure and fed with crayfish caught in the men's ponds.