Another Girl in the Silk Stream

A beat-up walk yesterday (Wednesday 1st August) from Mill Hill Broadway to K-Town,  mostly on the foot-shredding Edgeware Road – Roman Watling Street.

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I followed the Barnet Millennium Walk signs through Lyndhurst Park alongside the old railway which is managed by the London Wildlife Trust. There were raspberries growing in the unkempt fringes and some ripe blackberries – I don’t remember ever eating them on the same walk but there we are.

Met the Silk Stream at the top of the park – the Dollis’s “little sister” Nick Papadimitriou calls it and you won’t find a better topographical study of the river than his. You won’t find another topographical study of the river period, as they say in America. Riverrunning will never be an Olympic sport. Their loss.

My tribute to Team GB – by the way – has been to turn off the TV for the duration. I haven’t missed it yet apart from a yearning for Scandi-crime on Sunday night which – as it happened – wasn’t even on.

The stream was mad with Himalayan balsam which the bees were loving.
I followed it past roads with watery names and one that implied water by its absence: Dryfield Road. Past allotments with a scarecrow that I didn’t photograph because everybody photographs allotment scarecrows. Instead I took a picture of an oak tree which was boring but also – in its own way – spectral. A reminder of the rural nature of this part of NW London well in to the twentieth century.

I followed the river through Watling Park all the way to Burnt Oak where I left the park to walk up a busy shopping street with the feel of an eastern bazaar – three fish shops sold glistening tributes to the water goddess. Fruit and veg was arranged beautifully on altar after altar. Even the rows of trolley bags somehow managed to look attractive. They spoke of the sacredness of short journeys in a world where all journeys are short.

I’d come here a fortnight ago looking for a lost girl and found quite by accident an old lady on the ornamental bridge looking distraught.

She told me she had a ticket to go to Sicily to put flowers on the grave of her husband. Now she had dropped the envelope containing the ticket in to the river. I went and peered under the bridge while she told me her story.

She had been born in The Bald Faced Stag where her father was landlord. Just after the war she met and fell in love with an Italian POW who had stayed and set up in business as a freelance kitchen utensil salesman. His name was Saturninus.

“Sounds Roman,” I said. But no, he was from Taormina, high above the blue Mediterranean – where the fish on the market stalls are so fresh they twitch, the piles of fruit and chestnuts and baked onions and artichokes reach the sky and the shopping trolleys take it to a whole new level as well.

Her parents were decent people and broad minded mostly – you have to be in the pub trade – but her brother had been killed in action and they disapproved strongly of  her prospective husband.

So she and Saturninus eloped to start a new life in Sicily.

However, it turned out he was “a bit of a cunt.” When they got there she was locked in the house and not allowed to see anyone except him and sometimes his parents if there were any jobs they needed doing in the next village. This was quite often because they had only one good eye between them.

For months she could only dream of lemon and orange groves and the wind rustling the leaves of the chestnut trees on Mount Etna – things she’d glimpsed in the happy times when the whole of life lay before them like spring and her desire felt like something that welled up from the bowels of the earth.

I wondered why she wanted to go back if he had treated her so meanly. Perhaps she guessed my train of thought. “He couldn’t help it,” she said. He was a depressive.

I remembered that  those born under the sign of Saturn are often characterized by coldness.  I handed her the soggy envelope.

“Strange thing was,” she smiled reflectively “he was a Scorpio.”

Today I didn’t speak to anybody and my walk just a fortnight ago seemed unreal to me, the water streaming down Watling Avenue had vanished taking its stories with it to the Welsh Harp or perhaps further.

Three miles north along the high street I could see the wooded rise of Brockley Hill  thought to be the site of  Sulloniacae – the lost Roman town. Roman remains have frequently been uncovered where Watling Street, which has kept a more or less dead straight line from Marble Arch, climbs the clay ridge. The antiquarian, William Stukeley, claimed that “the whole of the hill is covered with foundations,” though no clear understanding of the settlement has been drawn from the piecemeal investigations over the years. A bronze dog was found at one site and an extensive pottery manufactory of kitchenware, especially mortaria, has been investigated. Amphorae may have been being produced for wine. We even know the names of the potters that worked there: stamped on pots that misfired and were discarded at the site: Doinus, Matugenus, Bruccius, Doccas, Lallans, Marinus, Melus and Saturninus.

Harvey Sheldon suggested that there may be an echo of the Roman name in the stream which runs parallel to Watling Street south of Brockley Hill before flowing in to the Brent.

An old English derivation of “Silk” had been speculated from “sulh” or “sulc” meaning plough or furrow. But Harvey Sheldon wondered whether “Sulis” and “Sulloniacis” were the real roots of the strange name. Perhaps the river and the town were named after the Romano-British goddess of healing springs who gave her name to Roman Bath, Aquae Sulis.

Harvey Sheldon also speculated that the town – which was probably just a service station for travellers along the road –  was more likely to be on lower ground close to a good supply of water where horses could be changed before the steep climb up Brockley Hill.

He suggested that the vicinity of The Bald Faced Stag, an old coaching inn, in  Burnt Oak might be a more likely place to stick a trowel in to a lost Roman road station.

It would certainly make for a better dig than the Orthopaedic Hospital. Few archaeologists would turn down the chance to dig in a pub garden. Somewhere to raise a glass to Saturninus and his friends and perhaps leave an offering in the river – a shopping trolley or a bronze dog.


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