Trench Art, High Barnet – Sandwell School, Finchley
Invisible to drivers hurtling by on the A1, Water End retains the peace, if not the quiet, of a village. It has a small industrial area which until recently supported a workers’ cafe. There are some pretty cottages and, when I started walking here, two pubs whose names echoed a rural economy not quite disappeared a hundred years ago: The Woodman Inn and The Old Maypole. The latter built in c1520 and now a private house was boarded up and for sale in April 2010. A year later the bluebells and cuckoo flowers weren’t aware that May had been cancelled. The chestnuts were budding over the crystal water of the Mimmshall Brook as I beat up the bounds of the bitch in the spinning season.
Hertfordshire doesn’t have standing stones unless you count the dragons’ teeth anti-tank blocks that sometimes peep out from under brambles. But it does have a vanishing river. The Mimmshall Brook rises on the old Middlesex border near Stirling Corner on the Barnet Road. It meanders slowly northward under the ornamental bridges of the Dyrham Park golf course. It passes under the M25 near South Mimms services where it runs alongside Wash Lane, which was once the main coach road north. It picks up tributaries from Wrotham Park and Potters Bar before reaching, just behind a highway maintenance depot, a strange landscape of dry lake beds and scrubby vegetation where it disappears in a mass of bubbles and gurgles down a muddy hole. The water reappears sixteen miles away in the River Lea.
The depot used to be a platform hire yard and, daft as it may be, I miss the long yellow mechanical arms rising above the blackthorn. They too were part of the genius loci, reaching heavenward in unison whilst the water chawed its deep underground mysteries.
By heading underground the water is following a pre-ice age pattern of drainage before drift deposits blocked the valley and sent the streams tumbling south to the Colne (the route the water takes now in flood or when the swallow holes become blocked with debris). When the clock stopped here ten thousand years ago, you could walk from London to Berlin without getting your feet wet.
If Kapitänleutnant Mathy thought of our common ancestors making the first crossing of Doggerland, the landmass that once connected Britain to continental Europe, he didn’t mention it to the reporter from the New York World. Command of an airship probably left little time for unmilitary thoughts. Then again there were only four instruments to study: a liquid compass, which often froze at altitude, an altimeter, a thermometer and an airspeed meter. With his sixteen strong crew at their posts, he might have had a moment or two to reflect. Darker thoughts, if there were any, he kept to himself. For public consumption, he revealed a sense of heightened anticipation. This, on the 8th/9th September 1915, was his hundredth flight. Each time he had learned a little more. But he still had the sense that each time he was discovering a new country. From Cambridge he didn’t need the compass anyway, the glow of the capital was clearly visible sixty miles away. At Ware, he turned south-south-west intending to attack London from the north-west and a few minutes later passed over Potters Bar. It was 10:28.
It has always struck me as no coincidence that one of the most egregious archaeological frauds of all time took place in the run-up to the First World War. A gravel pit on Piltdown Common in Sussex had been the setting for the discovery in 1911 of what was said to be the missing link between modern humans and their ancient forbears. It would later, although not for nearly half a century, turn out to have been manufactured from a human skull and the jaw of an orangutan. In 1914 an ‘elephant bone spade’ was found under a hedge at the same site. It was said to have been used by our forbears to dig up roots for food. The press called it a cricket bat. Not only were the origins of humankind a purely British affair, but we were even playing cricket.
In fact our first human ancestors arrived, like Kapt Leut. Mathy, from the continent. Their remains sometimes fall out of the crumbling cliffs of the east coast.
At 10:30 a modified bone object was placed in a bag attached to a silk parachute and thrown from the airship as it flew between Potters Bar and High Barnet. It landed in the grounds of an eighteenth century mansion where it was found by a member of staff the following morning. Wrotham Park was built for the hapless Admiral Byng, executed by firing squad ‘pour encourager les autres’, after failing to relieve Minorca in May 1756. The house and grounds now turn a penny by hosting costume dramas – ‘The Shooting Party’ was filmed there – and corporate hospitality. When I visited in July 2008 a marquee was being dismantled on the back lawn.
The ham bone is today displayed in a glass cabinet in the entrance lobby among the oil portraits and precious things Byng. It is decorated with the German tricolour and a picture of a Zeppelin dropping a bomb on to an old man, next to which is written ‘Edwart Grej’ and ‘Was fang’ich, armer Teufel, an?’ – the first line of an eighteenth-century folk song.
Sparked by my interest the staff remembered a box labelled ‘Zeppelin bomb parts’ and kindly spread them out for me on a cloth on the billiard table. But they weren’t bomb parts but rather parts of the wreckage of Mathy’s last airship which would crash in Potters Bar on the 1st October 1916, killing Mathy and his crew. Trophy hunters were sometimes arrested at crash sites. But I guess that didn’t apply to the landed gentry. What were the authorities going to do – shoot them?
There were more Zeppelin relics in the town museum. A picture of the airship’s compass rescued by Captain Trotter who was later killed in France. A piece of the duralumin frame given to the museum in the 1960s and odd mementos fashioned from the wreckage like a tobacco tin and a replica hand grenade. Even a small piece of the Kapitänleutnant’s flying trousers. Trousers worn for flying, that is. If the trousers could fly he might have escaped. Many of the older families in the town still have, I was told, their own relics tucked away in boxes in attics or dusty drawers. The church at one time had an altarpiece made from metal recycled from the crashed ship.
Today I followed the course of the airship north across greening fields, and the M25, before joining a single track lane with views of isolated farmhouses over hedges footed with daffodil and celandine. Bentley Heath had the feel of a forgotten world – a hamlet orphaned by orbital concrete. It could have been abandoned in 1915. There was a fine red brick farmhouse, estate workers’ cottages – even a duck pond. The church gate was padlocked. I crossed the road by the back entrance to Wrotham Park and followed a footpath to the Barnet Road.
At 10:32 the airship was above High Barnet. At 10:34, although not recorded in the secret air ministry report it was directly above a fine Georgian villa with its own tennis court and orchards, surrounded by lawns and trees. The house, parts of which may have dated back to Tudor times, was home to a private girls’ school run by my ancestor, Cousin Addie.
At the turn of the twentieth century Finchley, like all of London’s green fringes, was experiencing rapid change. The opening of a railway line from Finsbury Park to Edgware and High Barnet encouraged suburban development. Farms were disappearing. Ancient footpaths were becoming modern roads. My ancestors felt the loss of the countryside keenly if perhaps a little hypocritically. After all, the attraction of the ‘picturesque’ hills which were now bringing the city men in their droves was the same that drew Cousin Addie from the Midlands. A school needs pupils after all. It also needs affordable accommodation. And Cousin Addie found both in the rapidly growing London suburb. First in Alexandra Grove, then at Court House Farm, Nether Street.
Today I made the most of Finchley’s surviving greenery. The footpaths around Darlands lake were full of snake’s head fritillaries, celandine and windflowers. Bluebells were in bud and there were masses of wild garlic leaves. I followed a path alongside the Folly Brook into suburban Finchley. I always feel a deep sense of rootedness here. Odd in the sense that I’ve never lived here, and never wanted to, mostly. I never knew Cousin Addie who died before I was born. And whilst my grandmother grew up here, and went to Cousin Addie’s school, my memories of her are from Berkhamsted, not London.
But, if I believed in dowsing, here is where the hazel rods would tremble. Suburban Finchley is where the dull monologue of historical enquiry becomes a conversation with the past. The home front, I suppose. Not bullets and shot-up bibles, medals or tunic buttons; not even books or poems, though these get me out of the door. It is the walked landscape that really feeds my imagination. The sense of discovering a new country. An orchard glimpsed between modern houses. Cedars old a century ago towering above numbered wheelie bins.
The Georgian frontage of Sandwell School had in fact been tacked on to a large brick farmhouse. The 1896 Ordnance Survey map shows Coathouse Farm, with gardens and fields on three sides. But the railway had already cut off the farm from its hinterland. The area east of the station at Woodside Park was being developed. Last Orders on the countryside had been called.
In the late 1880s the farm had been leased to its neighbour, Jersey Farm, then Finchley’s biggest milk producer:
‘Some Cows are fed upon distillery mash and meal, which produces a large quantity of Milk, but of very inferior quality. At the Court House Farm the Cows are fed as follows:- In Winter, from October to May, chaffed hay, crushed oats, pea and bean meal, linseed cake, grains and pulped roots, the whole being prepared and mixed by steam power. In the Summer, the Food consists of meadow grass, cake, grains, meal and hay, and the Milk will be found at all times to be very rich in cream.’
Now crushed oats and linseed cake had been replaced by Swedish Drill Remedial Work and Musical Appreciation.
Cousin Addie is making the evening round of her school. The bracket clock in the hall, a wedding present to her grandfather in 1817, echoes down the empty corridors and creeps into the cracks where the day’s youthful laughter has gone to ground. Tomorrow her cousin’s boy, Toby, is going for his interview. Jack had been killed in May. She hears the sound of a motor car approaching but is too lost in thought to think it unusual. Poor Jack. The nurse at the base hospital had said that he was bright and cheerful and looking forward to going home. And the operation itself was quite successful. He just had not got the strength to pull round after. ‘He did not suffer pain,’ the nurse wrote, ‘but just seemed to slip away. He gave me the kindest of looks just before he died, as much as to say “Don’t worry, I shall be alright.”’
Adriana Semple wouldn’t worry. She would just work harder.
But please, not Toby as well.
For some reason the school motto popped into her head ‘We fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, sleep to wake.’ But though she could apply Browning’s upbeat mantra to her own life, she was no longer quite so sure how it applied to those who had fallen and could not rise. At least not in this world. Suddenly she was aware of a draft. Mist was rising from the river. She closed the window and resumed her vigil.
I returned to the Dollis retracing Mathy’s route past a high barbed wire fence protecting neat rows of leaks, onions, and lettuces. The meandering banks were covered in wild garlic leaves. I left the stream to its own thoughts and struck uphill for Finchley Central and home. Tomorrow I would return and follow Mathy’s murderous run across the city.