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Gay cruising on Hampstead Heath … 

What’s so bad about cruising? What’s so GOOD about cruising? Team QX ventures into the foliage on Hampstead Heath to see what all the fuss is about.


Cruising gets a bad rep. It had all that not-so-classy press when George Michael was caught with his pants down and since then it’s been booted down there with graffitiing, skateboarding and cottaging as ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR. Personally, I think graffiti is art, skateboarders are hot, and cottaging is retro.

In case you don’t know (though the fact that you’re reading this magazine means you probably do) cruising involves two or more gay men partaking in a sexual act in a public place. You meet at renowned cruising hotspots, make eye contact with a handsome stranger and then cruise on over to them (hence, ‘cruising’).

There are also cruising bars, but it most commonly takes place outside. It’s surprising how popular it is in the UK really. Apart from anything else, on our little windswept, godforsaken island, sex outside is impractical. Chapped bum. Sand in your jockstrap. A seagull stealing your lube.

“I felt like I couldn’t wax lyrical on the whole cruising experience until I’d had THE. WHOLE. CRUISING. EXPERIENCE.”

In terms of the law, it’s a grey area. Outdoor sex is not explicitly illegal. But there could be charges depending on context. For instance a quick fumble in the bushes after dark is a bit different to bumming someone doggystyle in broad daylight in the middle of Vauxhall Bus Station (which has probably actually happened before).

Still, many see it as risky. You’re putting yourself at the mercy of someone you don’t know, making yourself very vulnerable and exposed to someone you literally met two seconds ago. But then, that’s not THAT different to a one-night-stand is it? I bet some people who look down snootily at the laissez-faire attitude of cruising have a few one-night-stand horror stories.

It’s also a generational thing. My peers in their twenties mostly dismiss it as sleazy and unnecessary, and if they do want casual sex, turn to Grindr and even saunas. But 30 or 40 years ago, cruising may have been the only way for some gay men to meet each other.

Gay Cruising Hampstead Heath
Gay Cruising: Hampstead Heath

So I decided to go along and check it out, and see if it deserved all the bad press it got. I had a fresh perspective as someone who’d never been before, and plus, it was a nice day! So why not!

One of my friends, a rare breed of twentysomething homosexual who DOES enjoy cruising, gave me a bit of a briefing. “Usually people are respectful if you rebut them,” he said. “So you don’t need to worry about that. If you say ‘no’ to someone or give the impression you’re not into them, they’ll usually back down nicely. And even if they didn’t, there are always enough people around that you’d probably be safe if you screamed.”

This rather matter-of-fact summing up of gay cruising etiquette probably contradicts the no-holds-barred writhing wood orgies people imagine (sorry guys, that’s not how it goes down).

It was a sunny evening on Hampstead Heath and, fuelled by half a bottle of wine, I put on my sunglasses and sauntered towards the Heath, feeling very NAUGHTY, but in a gleeful, cheeky way, like a child who’d stolen a sweet.

The cruising area is an acre or so of bushes near the historic Pergola and Hill Gardens. I’d brought a book with me for armour, I was wearing tight-fitting shorts, and I was feeling good. I could already spot a couple of guys amongst the foliage in the near-distance. Not lurking exactly, but certainly hovering. A North London yummy mummy ushered her daughter hurriedly along the path, snatching furtive looks at me. “I’m not a murderer! I’m just going for a shag in the woods!” is what I SHOULD have said instead of looking down at my shoes.

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I sat on a log for a while, feeling faintly ridiculous. I smoked a cigarette. A couple of guys materialised and ambled by, stealing very obvious and very leading glances. Neither were my type so I concentrated very hard on my cigarette and didn’t return so much as a smile. Which seems mean, but I felt even decent everyday manners could have confused things and accidentally invited an advance where one wasn’t desired.

Eventually though, I found someone I liked. It all happened surprisingly quickly, and was surprisingly direct, though I shouldn’t have been surprised because that’s part of the point of gay cruising. He was a South African guy who we’ll call Brett. He had lovely tanned muscular legs, sandy brown hair, a reasonably fit physique…a little older than me, mid thirties at most to my 23. He was also a little shorter than me, but you can’t have it all can you? It wasn’t like we were at The Ivy. You don’t accidentally put out your cigarette on a woodlouse in The Ivy.

“We talked for approximately five minutes, long enough to exchange names and that “which area do you live in and oh isn’t the tube awful” conversation that is exclusive to London. Then he led me into the woods.”

His first words to me were, and I shit you not, “do you come here often?” But luckily there was an ironic glint in his eye, and I can’t resist ANYTHING said in a gruff South African accent, no matter how brainless. We talked for approximately five minutes, long enough to exchange names and that “which area do you live in and oh isn’t the tube awful” conversation that is exclusive to London. Then he led me into the woods.

Without going into massive detail, I just went for it. I felt like I couldn’t wax lyrical on the whole cruising experience until I’d had THE. WHOLE. CRUISING. EXPERIENCE. Twice. South Africans know their way around a tree trunk, let’s just put it that way. And I learned that kneeling on dry leaves gets a bit uncomfortable after the first five minutes.

We said our goodbyes and parted ways and that was that. Some people might find that a bit cold, but I thought it was refreshing in a way. No pissing about with drinks or whether Rihanna’s better than Nicki Minaj. Just straightforward physical contact, in nature, under the sky, as god intended it.

So there were are. Gay cruising is not as shady and sleazy and bestial as everyone thinks. At least not in my experience. I would go as far as to say my evening on the Heath was rather civilised. So don’t necessarily dismiss it, and certainly don’t shame people who do it. Give it a whirl, you never, know, you might have fun! That said, I shan’t be doing it again. It’s just not particularly my thing. Not for any moral or social reason, it’s just all a bit uncomfortable. I like a nice soft bed and a Keith Haring print or two.

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