A for horses

Wednesday (25th January) short stroll from Elstree over the south Hertfordshire escarpment which is the border of the former county of Middlesex. I joined the London Loop footpath out of Elstree station and climbed through suburbia to the ridgeway. Noted brick air shafts in field on Deacon’s Hill and also noted that I just can’t help myself noting bits of useless information. No sign at all of Grim’s Ditch – but I wasn’t looking very hard and after a while forgot I was looking for it.

At a gap in the hedge on my left I walked through to see if there was a view and discovered from an information board that I was on Woodcock Hill – the site of a shutter or optical telegraph station circa 1800 which communicated with Hampstead to the south and St Albans to the north. I think I could just make out the tower of St Alban’s Abbey but global warming and the “springboard” effect of subsidence – or something – have caused Hampstead to sink below the horizon, scuppering sight lines and spilling St Albans’ latest in a pile of alphabetti spaghetti on the Barnet bypass.

Still following the Loop signs Scratchwood – once part of Middlesex Forest – looked worth an explore and a bit bigger than I remembered it – I think it is only the south east corner next to the A1 that is slightly scuzzy. My friend calls the low scrub – former hay fields between the golf course and the lay-by – Dogger Bank. The Dogger too was once a wooded ridge rising above marshy low lands. Everything changes. I liked the feel in the wood of the deep (for round here) clefts made by the streams. It occurred to me that the topography could actually be reflecting some thinly disguised sexually repressed desires on my part. But I quickly put the idea to the back of my mind.

The hay fields, the sign told me, once supplied the capital’s horses with food as well as supplying the first letter of the cockney alphabet.

Nick Papadimitriou has studied the topography of Middlesex – the ghost county whose borders once stretched from here in the Barnet hills to the Thames and from the Lea to the Colne.

He writes about the streams in Riverrun on the Middlesex County Council website. He is a kind of modern Richard Jefferies without the mysticism, a friend of Will Self, and the man who coined the phrase deep topography.

He is also the author of Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in Barnet, Finchley & Hendon which does what it says on the tin for people who like their true crime through a sepia lens. That’s not a criticism. He also manages to sneak a not inconsiderable amount of topography below the editorial radar. The streams were telling stories long before Cain lost his temper with his sister.

I crossed the murderous A1 at Stirling corner (the loop sensibly takes a short detour to cross via a subway) before heading down a footpath to a view point across the London basin towards Harrow on the Hill. Police tape fluttered on a gate post in a field above Moat Mount where the Dollis Brook rises.

Nick Papadimitriou describes a particularly grisly murder at the ornamental lake here, Leg of Mutton pond – which reminds me I also had views of Clay Lane on the outskirts of Edgeware (another murder site – and fine walking) in the distance later in the walk. I hope reading his book doesn’t befug every walk I take in Barnet with thoughts of death and destruction. Then again if you’re contemplating the narrative of someone else’s grisly murder you’re not worretting about your own mortality – it reminds you if nothing else that you are alive under the sun, in the rhododendron after-glow of the temporarily arrested decline that is metropolitan wild.

On Wednesday (1 February) I walked from Hendon to Mill Hill East via Church End – Hendon’s old quarter – through Sunnyhill Park: which was not sunny enough to melt all the ice in the puddles and I was grateful for the wall which sheltered me from the east wind. Then I crossed the Great North Way via a footbridge and cut across Copthall Sports Centre playing fields heading for a path through the allotments, some long-abandoned old railway sidings (I think) and a green lane through a patch of unexpectedly delightful woodland squeezed between the sports fields and a golf course. Today the orange willows were fantastically gaudy against the wintry blue sunshine. Then down old railway to Mill Hill East. This branch line – to Edgeware – was opened by the G.N.R. in 1867. Plans to electrify it were abandoned with the start of the second world war when it was closed to passenger traffic. It closed completely in 1964 and parts of it are now a nature reserve.

On Wednesday (8th February) I walked from Hendon to home-don following a fancyfreewalks.org route from Hendon to Hampstead – 5 1/2 miles – except that I started at the railway rather than the tube station and finished at Kentish Town. The walk took me through Hendon Park past a holocaust memorial garden and a Japanese Maple to a very snowy Brent Park.

The River Brent rises near Arkley, Barnet and flows for nearly twenty miles to join the Thames at Brentford.

The lake here may have been built as a duck decoy by the Abbots of Westminster. Decoy Avenue, nearby, is another reminder of the survival of the rural nature of this part of the world in to the twentieth century. The lake is fed by the river Brent just after the confluence of the Mutton and Dollis brooks. Decoy Farm was one of many to disappear in the 1930s as new roads – the North Circular (1925) runs down the eastern edge of the park – opened the area up to housing.

Today the Abbot’s ducks had to drink from the river – the lake was mostly ice. With interesting patterns of bird walks, it looked like an art installation. Also there were interesting “eyes” where the ice had begun to thaw and refrozen.

An oil painting of Decoy Farm painted it in 1908 by Charles Paget Wade is in the National Trust’s collection at Snowshill Manor in the Cotswolds. Wade was employed at the time as an architect by the firm Parker and Unwin, who were working on the Hampstead Garden Suburb. On the death of his father in 2011 he inherited an estate on St Kitts, and devoted the rest of his life to collecting. He filled Snowshill Manor with antiques (so many that he had to live in a cottage in the grounds) and entertained many celebrity guests including Graham Greene who described his host as “Bow-legged in knickerbockers and bedroom slippers … the thought of his thin walnut face and his open mouth laughing made my flesh creep.”

On the night of 8/9th September 1915 a bomb from a Zeppelin – possibly intended for the nearby airfield – landed in a field at Decoy Farm. It caused little damage. The airship’s commander, Heinrich Mathy, would later come to grief in a field in Potters Bar – an event witnessed by a 12 year old Graham Greene from the window of the school house in Berkhamsted.

Too much information. Probably. But I’m looking forward to visiting Snowshill Manor in the summer. Not specially to see the painting but to honour the unexpected inspiration of a cold walk in an urban park.

The amount of background information provided by the anonymous walk writer was just about right e.g. the date of Hampstead Garden Suburb – early 1900s and the trees in Little and Big woods – from 1800, though the Big Wood may be of ancient origin and contains some wild service trees. I did mark the guide down for not mentioning the origin of the “observation platforms” on the Brent. Nick Papadimitriou’s Riverrun put me right though – they are all that remains of the Brent Bridge Hotel, a local beauty spot and scene of another watery murder.

An advert for the hotel in The Times in July 1922 describes a terrace overlooking a rock garden with a fountain, and a sylvan paradise “less than 30 minutes from Picadilly Circus.”

Sylvan Paradise is going it some today. But at the weir under Hendon Lane Bridge you are as likely to see a heron or a kingfisher as a human – almost.

On Wednesday (22nd February) I walked from Hendon to Kentish Town again. But not the pretty way. Although the first part had a wildish feel. I walked the eastern edge of Brent Reservoir – more popularly Welsh Harp. It was built in the 1830s at the confluence of the Brent and the Silk Stream to supply the Grand Union Canal. Here I disturbed a heron. Then, although there was a signed footpath in to the reservoir there didn’t seem to be one out of it – or rather there were several but they all lead to Staples Corner which perhaps surprisingly is negotiable for pedestrians though only at the cost of frayed nerves and lung fulls of diesel. It was a load of Ballards. I was bewildered, didn’t look at my map and ended up – instead of beating a path for Gladstone Park – the original plan – I found myself behind Tesco’s on the A41. So I set an unremarkable course via Golders Green and Childs Hill, Hampstead village and the bottom of the Heath to home. Too tired to write up a walk that was forgettable as well as useful for two reasons – it expanded in a small way my understanding of the place I call home and it made me appreciate fully the green corridors and open spaces that I often take for granted.


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