29/6/04 Gone West
There's a storm cloud to the westward over Kenton,
Five miles out of London on the Western Avenue
It's not a matter of life or death
A melancholy peregrination this week (unusually, for me) in the footsteps of Walter's father, Lightowler Wilkinson, sometime Chief Goods Manager of the Great Western Railway, who died a century (minus four years) ago this week, and is buried in Perivale churchyard.
In the GWR archive held at the Public Records Office there is a photographic portrait of L filed under "LW Maiden" (he changed his name whilst manager so as not to be confused with Sir Joseph Wilkinson, the then General Manager). In his smart black suit, high starched collar and neat black tie he looks every bit the Victorian Gentleman. His close-cropped hair lends a curiously modern counterpoint to the uniform whiskers and his affable countenance doesn't negate the impression that he would perhaps not have suffered fools gladly.
Leaving the Circle Line through well-trodden and rather narrow passages I emerge into L's former kingdom, a cathedral to Victorian technological innovation, built by its foremost prophet, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Paddington station was opened in 1854 with platforms housed in three huge bays built with wrought iron and glass, supported by cast iron columns (a fourth bay was added in 1916, when the iron columns were replaced with steel). Owing more than a nod to Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace, the supersize greenhouses were a fitting terminus for what was then the grandest railway in England, the Great Western Railway.
Waiting for my suburban connection I admire the rather stagey railway building fronting platform one, with a "dixhuitième" ground floor and a "vaguely Venetian" first floor (Pevsner's guide, again). It's not difficult, the guide says, to imagine the stationmaster appearing in one of the oriel windows, pocket watch in hand Actually, it's not difficult to imagine Rapunzle letting her hair down from the balcony or a tearstained note being dropped to a tight-clad Mediterranean Lothario. Though a gentleman in tights would probably soon be moved on by security today, which is a shame.
Ealing, "Queen of the suburbs", and L's former home, pretty much owes its success to the Great Western Railway, the arrival of which sparked off urban development in the middle of the 19th century. It is a place where, according to the official guide, 1912 "a man may find a dwelling in a suburb which combines all the necessaries and attractions of a town with the health and beauty of the country." I detrain at Castle Bar Park and after a couple of leafy enough avenues am cutting across parkland on a path flanked by horse chestnuts tumescing spikily, then on past allotments to a fenced and tarmacced path through Willow and Hawthorn, following the River Brent as it meanders unhurriedly through Ealing Golf Club.
I soon reach my destination: St Mary's, Perivale, L's final resting-place. Only six miles from Marble Arch, the tiny Norman church (now an arts centre but still consecrated) with its sixteenth century white weatherboard bell tower manages to retain an impression of rural isolation even though it is within earshot of the busy A40 Western Avenue (1927).
I'd missed the grave last time because the grass was too long so I was pleased to be able to pay my respects. I watch a squirrel nibbling at green closed blackberry heads and watch the bird feeder swinging in the ancient Yew tree. I make a couple of notes and head off across the noisome A40 to climb Horsenden Hill with views of Harrow and the Chilterns, Heathrow, Windsor and the North Downs and the new arch of Wembley Stadium framed above a sea of purple thistle.
As the sunsets over the Western Avenue I watch the harbour lights flicker on one-by- one. I join the suburban matelots heading for home, W. still a question mark, L, at least, "at ease", safe at anchor, in St Mary's, Perivale.
Shady is taking a page break throughout July but will return with
a fully searchable page in August.
"How different on every side from the present aspect is the prospect before us! Instead of the fresh verdant fields of Perivale, Alperton and Harrow Weald, the frozen waters are spread over all that country, extending far to the north towards the hills of Hertford shire, with stretches of land here and there; Horsington, Harrow and other hills appear as islands, clothed with firs and other hardy plants deep in snow. The country is mantled in snow; and thick ribbed ice has set fast the stream of the wide river at our very feet, or within a stone's throw of us to the south, and extends for miles in that direction. Herds of reindeer may be seen in the distance, seeking for the means of subsistence beneath the snow, by the aid of the special antler which kindly nature has provided them with for the purpose. The mammoth with its long upwardly curved tusks - is in the woodlands, and with him the companion whose remains are often found associated with his-the woolly rhinoceros; the hibernating marmot may be disturbed in its winter's sleep; the arctic lemming is about, and the river drift hunter is pursuing the musk sheep and reindeer. As the night comes on the discordant cries of bears, wolves and wolverines are heard as they sally forth from the thickets to seek their prey."
So Jno. Allen Brown, F.G.S., F.R.G.S., &c described the view from Castlebar Hill, Ealing to nascent "Middlesex Man" in 1887.
This week shady has been to many places and seen many things too many so he'd like to focus on just one. Accordingly he invites you travel with the gaze of Middlesex Man, northward and westward, across the wide river, to Harrow Weald Common.
While you're watching, the air gets warmer, the ice recedes, the river narrows and Britain has become an island. But up on the common, under foot, the occasional patch of small pebbles - rounded and polished by river action - are testimony to grander timescales than might be suggested by the homely silver birch and slightly unkempt Rhododendron of metropolitan wild.
This ancient earthwork once stretched through Harrow for some six miles from Cuckoo Hill, Pinner to Pear Wood, Stanmore, but only parts now remain. Named after Grim (Norse God Woden).
According to the brown plaque set on a low stone erected by the Harrow Heritage Trust.
Grímr means "masked person" in Old Norse. The Norse God, Odin (Anglo-Saxon: Woden) aka Grímr / Grima (Old English) had a penchant for appearing in disguise. And from the sixteenth century onwards, such earthworks were associated with the Devil.
According to Brewer's Dictionary.
So it is that in the Devil's footsteps I found myself searching for my ancestor who, as well as being one of "the devil's own", also appears to me only, as it were, "masked" by the accretion of Time and the conflicting claims of multiple histories.
On 20 November 1897, the year Allen Brown described the prehistoric view from Castlebar Hill, Ealing, John Graham "Jock" Goffey was born, a rounded pebble's throw from Harrow Weald Common, in the artist's colony of Bushey. In a statement submitted to Parliament (in protest against railway development) the same year it was estimated that there were more than 200 artists working in and around Bushey, attracted, like Jock's father (my G-Grandfather) by the art school and "the rural character of the District, the uninterrupted landscape, the quiet and other surrounding charms of the country".
Its most famous owner was W.S. Gilbert 1836-1911of Gilbert & Sullivan fame (he wrote the words).
Now a hotel, the London Loop takes you through W.S.'s beloved gardens. And past the lake - all but dry when I was there, though with sufficient moisture to maintain a fairly large crop of yellow flag irises - where he drowned "in mysterious circumstances" on a summer afternoon in 1911.
I sit on a log and eat my iron rations accompanied, if not by the dreamy lullaby of a wandering minstrel, then at least by the enthusiastic cooing of a wood pigeon. I enjoy the perfume rising from the warm carpet of pine needles: there are Sequoia (according to the Loop book, planted by W.S.), and Sweet chestnut among birch and oak. And violet rhododendrons under gathering, though not really threatening, clouds.
Looking at the cratered ground, I imagine it is what bits of the Somme battlefield look like today. Though here, not caused by high explosive, but shovel and spade: the result of innumerable, if small scale, gravel extractions before this part of Harrow Weald was emparked in the teenth (?) century.
Still on the trail of
Bisley is a Cotswold village "like a folk song" (The Cotswolds,
Hadfield). Its old stone houses huddled companionably at the head of a
sheltered valley. In the centre, seven stone heads, dressed with flowers
when we were there, disgorge water from a spring into a low trough and
from the bottom of the village, below Aubrey's former house, we joined
a public footpath following the flow of water, now a stream, through meadows
rich with orchids, crane's-bill, buttercups and mint, and woodland scented
with the warm, slightly fusty, garlic note of seeding Ramsons.
The Romans, or to be pedantic, "Romano-British" loved the West
Country. There are more than a dozen villas within 16km of Cirencester.
They cultivated vines, grew corn and vegetables, reared livestock and
traded in cloth. So I wasn't unduly surprised to spy a sherd of bright
orange Samianware in the rippling stream. When I picked it up - sad to
say - it turned into a piece of fragmented and earthdrawn clay pigeon.
But on that day we had the idyllic valley more or less to ourselves. The guns and the guns were silent. The only sound was the birds and bees, and the gurgling of the stream on its ancient journey down to the Severn: Roman Sabrina, and the sea.
Mill Hill / British Summer Time / A Touch of Harry
Henry V, iii.5
To the local studies centre at Mill Hill on the trail of...
I dropped off a copy of my Great Aunt Barbara's memoir and spent an hour-and-a-half flicking through (if you can "flick through" microfilm) the Finchley Press Muswell Hill Mercury and Highgate Post from June 1916.
My Great Uncle, Jock, was commissioned as a 2nd Lieut in the King's Royal Rifle Corps on the 1st of June 1916 and took up his commission at Wimbledon Common. The short periods of leave he had before crossing the channel were spent, according to Barbara, at the Court House in Finchley. Jock's mother, Elinor, was recovering from what Barbara calls "displacement" and we would call ... probably not unrelated to the stress of nurturing three billets for the Western Front.
Jock c.1914, front left
On 19th-century maps the building was described as "Coat House Farm", so presumably Cousin Addie opted for a little "rebranding" when she set up Sandwell School for young ladies in the Court House, Nether Street, Finchley at the turn-of-the-century and adopted as her motto Browning's words:
"We fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, sleep to wake"
The Court House was no stranger to tragedy. Addie's nephew, Jack Semple, a corporal in the 12th London Battalion "The Rangers", had been killed in Belgium in May 1915. Barbara quotes extensively and touchingly in her memoir from letters received from his platoon, and the nurse treating him at base hospital, at the time of his death.
One year on, the Court House residents were probably only too aware that history was repeating itself and not as a farce.
From Dawes Lane I lazily hopped on a bus up to the Ridgeway at Mill Hill. I walked past the entrance to Mill Hill School, closed for half term, a pond fringed with Yellow flag iris, and a small army of indolent terrapins. Just past St Paul's church, built, according to the plaque, by William Wilberforce I struck off left through woodland to open country, or at least as open as the country gets in NW7.
There is something about bad tempered farm signs that raise the hackles of all but the most laid-back ramblers. I always take such signs as an invitation to wander. They are so obviously provoked by years of custom and practice. My antennae immediately clicks into "on" mode, like antivirus software checking for updates on the www, as I begin to look for the broken fence or trampled patch of grass that denotes a "desire path" (planning speak for the footpaths humans use rather than the ones planners, or farmers, want them to use). Sure enough, after crossing a field, on a public footpath, clean through the middle of the nearest dairy herd to London, I notice a broken fence and through it a well worn path
British Summer Time was "a most welcome innovation" according to the editor of the Finchley Press Muswell Hill and Highgate Post, writing in June 1916, noting that far fewer accidents had been reported in the last week -- even with the large numbers of outsiders flocking to Finchley to enjoy the "free air of the heights".
Among those appealing to the Finchley Tribunal against recently introduced conscription was an abattoir boss who had only three slaughtermen left, seven having already joined up. The three were each given a three-month exemption.
A farm hand found living in a pigsty was charged with being an "absentee" under the new Military Service Act at the Highgate Police Court. Another more creative deserter had "SOUGHT SAFETY IN SKIRTS" posing as a woman to evade the draft.
An Austrian internee was on the run from Alexandra Palace. Stefan Petrovitch was, according to the paper, "an airman of repute said to be a dandy in appearance 5 ft 18 1/2 in. in height".
Whether Jock had any time for culture is not recorded but he may have read the review of a "curiously modern" King Henry V at Her Majesty's Theatre. "A little touch of Harry" wrote the patriotic reviewer was:
"a useful tonic for pessimists and grousers of all sorts".
In ASTRONOMY NOTES the correspondent noted that during the month of June twilight would last all night and that on the 30th of that month daylight would last 16 hours and 29 minutes at Finchley. He also noted, perhaps unneccessarily, that after the summer solstice (21st of June 6:24 PM) the days would be getting shorter.
For an eighteen year-old 2nd Lieutenant whose life expectancy was now reduced to about nine months -- or one major campaign -- the long June days may have seemed rather shorter.
In the French Revolutionary calendar the equivalent month to June was Prairial or "meadow month".
I finished my walk through meadows alive with buttercups and clover all the while mentally squirreling away good blackberry spots to return to in the autumn; only too aware that when my ancestor walked these fields he probably -- and as it turned out quite rightly -- wasn't planning that far ahead.
Stairway to Devon
River Brent at Perivale
Grim up North 19/6/04
Mill Hill 6/6/04
|© Richard Shepherd, 2004|