London Clay

On Wednesday 8th March I did a kind of broken loop from Kensal Rise to Willesden Junction. As if I hadn’t had enough of mortality on Saturday (Highgate West Cemetery in spring sunshine), my first point of call was Kensal Green Cemetery in the rain. It seemed as though the whole world had just come to London to die – it is a very different vibe to Highgate. More of a working cemetery and still in private ownership. Burials everyday, according to the company website. The foreignness is in the landscape as much as the name’s on the graves – the layout was inspired by Père-Lachaise in Paris, apparently.

It felt like a film set when I was there in the March rain, Wormwood Scrubs and Acton beckoning. I had the place to myself – though there was some landscaping going on near the canal which follows the cemetery’s southern border.

On the Friends website there is a long list of notable personalities buried here.

One name I noticed in the rain was Blondin who turns out to be a funambulist. Which to my shame I had to look up.

Dickens saw Blondin perform – he was scathing. But anybody that can cross Niagara Falls on a 3 1/4 inch dia. rope isn’t a duffer. He died of diabetes in Ealing on 22nd February 1897.

At Ladbroke Grove I left the cemetery and joined the canal heading west past Sainsbury’s and gas holders and the heroically named rail depot: North Pole International. This was the Eurostar depot before St Pancras opened and the operation moved east. The sidings in Willesden are so brightly lit that they can be seen from the Mir space station.

The depot was named after a local road and I wondered if there was an echo in the name of an old farm or field. Quite often places at a distance from a village or farm would be given “miles from nowhere” names – like Botany Bay – of which there are a fair few around London and one of which I mentioned in my last blog.

HS2 should reach the arctic circle by about 2050 – and might or might not level the railway cottages in Old Oak Lane for good measure. The cottages were built for railway workers by the LNWR in the mid nineteenth century. The case for fast travel north of Willesden hasn’t really been made convincingly to me – even to Harrow.

After cutting along the northern edge of Wormwood Scrubs – where meadow pipits nest – I negotiated various railways and roads, and crossed North Acton Playing Fields to enter Park Royal business park next to the Western Ave.

This was once the site of Acton Aerodrome which operated before the first world war. I suspected Walter Wilkinson – one of the subjects of my “book” – might have learned to fly here – just over a mile away from his home in Ealing. I doubt I’ll ever prove it. Later I climbed up Hanger Hill and imagined his family looking out across the Middlesex plain as Walter dipped a wing in salute above the Royal Mail depot and Acton Megabowl.

Chasing lost causes and hidings to nothing is a speciality here at Woden’s Weekly. Vapour trails. Walter, arguably, took a greater risk than Blondin when he enlisted as an infantry officer in 1915. Not for him the portland tubs of Kensal Green or even the unassuming family plot in St Mary’s Perivale where his parents are buried – now a weatherboard and wild oasis enfolded in a meander of the Brent before it winds through dull golf courses and urban parks, back gardens and allotments to the Thames and the sea.

Wednesday (14th) walked from Brookmans Park to High Barnet mostly along the Mimmshall Brook.

Near Brookmans Park the dry stream has been cleared of debris and fenced off which to me seems a shame – the fence that is, not the clearing of rubbish – it contributes to the feeling of a prison camp that walking the green belt so often provokes. It was never actually clear whether the rubbish had been carried down on a flood or dumped in situ. This stream only flows when the water table is high and the swallow holes are blocked.

Later in the walk I enjoyed the sandy banked meanders of the Mimmshall Brook – especially the section from Mimms Hall to Cecil Road. The A1M is intrusive obviously but it is possible to blank it out.

On Wash Lane Common (adjacent to South Mimms service station) the footpath and bridle way follows the line of the old coach road from London to Holyhead. Two highwaymen are buried in the churchyard at South Mimms.

Crossing under the M25 alongside the brook I continue up the orphaned lane to reach gated houses where I turned right down a narrow path which quickly becomes a sunken green lane. At the end of the lane the ornate gatehouse of Dyrham Park hoves into view across a busy roundabout.

In 1810 Captain Trotter hosted a Grand Tee-Total Gala here.

“Barnet, the town of inns, and the elysium of postboys,” was crowded – the papers reported – with cockney pledgers. Capt. Trotter “mounted on a splendid charger” oversaw the arrangements in the park.

Archery, oyster repasts, and donkey riding were among the highlights. As well as plenty of coffee and tea and “bulwarks of beef.”

There were over 500 vehicles in the cavalcade which was led by the Barnet Total Abstinence Society.

One banner read: “Inflaming wine pernicious to mankind/ Unnerves the limbs and dulls the noble mind.”

I once found an oyster shell in the green lane just outside the park. Perhaps its contents were eaten at the party. But speculation like this made me thirsty. I hurried up Galley Hill to Barnet and home and a couple of pints of large.

On Wednesday (21st) I walked from the Elysium of Postboys to Finchley Central in the sunshine.

At Totteridge, where the road bends left around another weatherboard church – St Andrew’s – I dived down a cart-wide footpath between two expensive houses whose long gardens backed on to fields.

The house on the right is built on the site of Copped Hall – once the heart of a park and lake which are thought to have been set out by Humphrey Reptile and are now managed as the Darlands nature reserve. To the right farmland with bad tempered signage of the “rat poison in tree” variety. To the left a defunct farm on land which had been part of a landscaped park in a previous incarnation and is now part of the nature reserve. I wondered if there was some kind of gentleman’s agreement not to advertise this fantastic green space from any of the possible entry points. The first couple of years I walked here I thought I was trespassing.

Today I lingered in the old barns, read some of the graffiti and wondered about the burnt mattresses. Where was the farm house? A field gate lay abandoned and rusting on a concrete floor colonized by nettles.

“The end is fucking nigh” read one piece of graffiti. But the end had been and gone.

Decorating the old farm track through the pasture field were the gold eyes on white stalks of pussy willow. An owl hooted from the woods around the lake. The ghost of Lord Lytton – who lived at the Hall – rang the bell for his tea. And I took blurry photos of bluebells and celandines, wild garlic leaves and wind flowers and the strange snake’s head fritillary that once earned the site an SSSI. It lost its listing because the flowers were deemed not wild enough. Ever since they have exhibited a kind of hang dog expression, as though reserving their inner world for creatures that really understand them.

Wednesday (28th) from Potters Bar to Cockfosters in the sunshine.

This was partly to revisit the museum in the Wyllyotts Centre. I didn’t take any notes when I was there last year. They have some Zeppelin bric a brac including a piece of Kaptlt. Mathy’s flying trousers. Trousers worn for flying, that is – if the trousers could fly the Zeppelin ace might have escaped death when he jumped from the burning Super Zeppelin which crashed in Potters Bar in October 1916, killing Mathy and all his crew.

Buzzards were circling above Dancers Hill Road when I reached the hamlet of Bentley Heath with its disused? chapel (built 1866) and fine 17th/18th century brick farmhouse.

Instead of heading for Barnet via Wrotham I turned east, soon going through the carpark of a small industrial estate to join Wagon Road which has fantastic views across the Lea Valley to Epping Forest on the scarp.

But no pavement. Although it does have a grass verge where you can escape oncoming traffic.
From Hadley Wood‘s (LB Enfield) expensive detached houses I joined a footpath through green belt fields never free of traffic noise from several roads. But green and open-feeling & pleasantly undulating with small streams – one or both of which may have been the Salmon Brook.

Reaching the Ridgeway I turned right on a pavement and struck out for Botany Bay passing a water tower in the process of renovation with a transparent viewing shelter on the castellated roof.

Through a layby I noticed a section of the old road had been preserved as a footpath so I relaxed along this for a while before rejoining the dieseled throng past working farms and derelict farms and a school. Views across Enfiled Chase to Edmonton and Lea Valley and later on misty Canary Wharf rising above the tree line.

Just after passing a footpath off left – which I bookmarked mentally – I turned right heading south and downhill to join the Loop by the Salmon Brook and so through Enfield Chase & Trent Park to Cockfosters & home.

Where the loop turned 90 degrees left away from the brook I stopped to look at the map and was approached by a weasel which didn’t see me until it was a couple of metres away. That makes … not very many. I’ve seen probably only half a dozen in fifty years – and only one in my north London rambles. That too was near a stream – the Folly Brook near Barnet.

I was half wondering whether there was a nearer train station but Hadley Wood wasn’t that much nearer and I was full of suburbia from earlier in the walk. I was glad I didn’t alter course: Enfield Chase and Trent Park are a good note to end on and peaceful too – not blighted by the road noise which accompanies pedestrianism in the south Hertfordshire borderlands.

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