Posted in Travel on Monday 8th January 2018 at 11:01pm


The last few weeks of the year felt like a bit of an epic slog, and only the prospect of the long break we'd planned over the festive season kept things on an even keel. In recent times, we've fallen into a very pleasant pattern at this time of year - a quiet Christmas, a small gathering at home for New Year, then away on a road trip on the first day of the new year - a week when everyone else is unwillingly slogging back to work. It has worked remarkably well - hotels offer up rooms at ridiculously low rates in the post-festive slump, and if you don't mind short days and sometimes unpredictable weather, then it's a good time to be away - a brave attempt to stave off reality for another week perhaps?

Our trips also have a familiar pattern - up the west coast, the long straight arm of the M6 stretching into northern regions which still feel oddly exciting and wild to me, just like my earliest rail journeys along the remote and sometimes otherworldy main line. We pause on the journey north for a night - often somewhere in Lancashire - to maximise daylight driving, and to rest on what sometimes feels like an epic northern journey. This time our staging post was Liverpool - a city we've visited before, but this time we headed north out of the city in a sudden downpour, towards Stanley Dock. The grid of streets here hasn't seen much redevelopment - the sounds of the much diminished but still busy docks at Bootle shudder through the high walls which surround former smaller basins along the Mersey shore. The landscape is predominantly decaying industry with the occasional tile warehouse or shabby dockers' pub crumbling into the stones. Amidst all this is the Titanic Hotel - a vast, converted warehouse which squats on the northern edge of Stanley Dock. Inside the warm and spacious building a beautiful refurbishment built around the maritime history of the City had transformed the huge space into a comfortable and welcoming hotel. We were almost sorry to just be spending one night in the huge room with a view north across the docks to the mouth of the Mersey.

Warehouses, Stanley Dock
Warehouses, Stanley Dock

We set off in the morning and headed back onto the M6 for the journey north to Glasgow, breaking our trip at Abington where the flock of crows which has stalked the service area on two prior visits wasn't to be seen. We were staying for two nights - testament to the success of my gradual reintroduction to Glasgow following a despair-filled visit two years ago. Cruising into the city on the elevated carriageway of the M74 as it curved towards the Clyde, it was impossible not to feel lifted by a return to this place which has long served as a second, northern home to me. The glass towers sparkled in the damp afternoon and the trains shuttled along the bridge high above the river. It was good to be back, and after some confusing changes of room - handled impeccably by the hotel - we found ourselves in a wonderful spot overlooking the roof of Central Station, which reminded me of a visit long ago when the hotel was still a creaking, tired and menacing place with its long corridors stretching endlessly along the wings of the station. A return to Glasgow meant a chance to become tourists again, and we visited the People's Palace - a grave omission from my previous trips when I'd only stepped into the building to use the public facilities. The museum remains in the ownership of the city - an honest and frank appraisal of the rapid rise of the city and the problems that brought, and a celebration of the language, culture and political activism which are never far from any discussion of Glasgow. Afterwards we stepped into an old haunt, The 13th Note - but our quiet drink was disrupted by an ultimately harmless but persistent local who had turned up and seemed to be working the bar for a chat. His prodigious drunkeness though, lost it's charm and shortly after he was moved on - so did we. It was tough to leave the place again, especially in such strange circumstances.

The People
The People's Palace, Glasgow Green

Still repeating our itinerary from previous trips, we next headed through to Edinburgh using the finally completed M8 to swiftly cross from city to city. We'd changed our routine a little for this visit by staying in the New Town opposite North Bridge, with views over Waverley Station and the Castle to the south. It seemed a little strange to abandon the Grassmarket and not to experience the bracing climb up to the Royal Mile each morning, but the new location was a surprising win - affordable and decent accommodation which looked directly into the unattainable windows of The Balmoral across the street! A persistent rain set in a little after we arrived and stuck around for much of our stay - but it was still good to be back in Edinburgh. We headed out to our favourite restaurants and wandered Princes Street, along with a trip to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery housed in a remarkable building and home to a surprisingly varied collection. Edinburgh once again proved to be a relaxing and interesting spot, my old prejudices challenged once again by the city as it sparkled in a light dusting of snow spied from our window over Princes Street. It wasn't easy to leave at all.

River Fosse, York
River Fosse, York

Our final destination, after a long haul down the coast on the A1, was York - and again while a favourite location, a new prospect for our accomodation. However, it was to prove an odd and frustrating place. It's fair to say that Hotel Indigo's rooms were beautiful, but getting into the room was a painful process. A parking set-up that defied logic and seemed to require quantum physics to obtain a spot, followed by a check-in process operated by a corporate robot which had less charm and more inflexibility than an automatic check-in terminal was our introduction. The restaurant was even more of a challenge - the concept of Yorkshire Tapas essentially meaning that it was impossible to tell what was a main course, what was a starter and when the dishes would arrive. The staff, young and inexperienced, dashed from one calamity to the next - finally presenting me with a blank sheet of paper to sign when the till crashed.

And so our trip ended on something of an odd note - a fine week of travel, of old haunts revisited and new ones discovered - but with something of a flat last day dealing with the hotel. At the very least we came away with a stock of anecdotes, and the room was truly very comfortable. We've been exceptionally lucky on our trips so this is to be perhaps marked up as a minor irritation and an opportunity to vent on Tripadvisor. We head into the new year, and hopefully new travels, thankful for this all too brief interlude. For a few days at least, when I close my eyes to sleep I see the white lines of the road stretching ahead. I always dreamed of road trips as a child, imagining cruising the idiosyncrasies of the British Motorway System. I'm finally getting to do just that.

There are a few pictures from the trip here.

 


Posted in Railways on Friday 29th December 2017 at 6:12pm


It's a long time since I've set off aimlessly on a train, just for the hell of it. These odd days between Christmas and New Year have, traditionally, been an ideal time for this however - peak fares relaxed, trains quiet, and little else to do has meant I've often disappeared around the network on some sort of largely unplanned excursion. On a few occasions I've picked up one of the more local Rover tickets and spent a few days zipping around the local lines which I'd generally neglected in favour of more exotic trips during the year. In short, until I curtailed my rail-borne activities a few years back, this had been a time to escape from the sense of ennui and restriction which the festive season often brought with it.

Times change, and life here certainly has - but this year I found myself with three days off between Christmas and our new year trip. The house was empty save for me and two very sleepy cats, and so somewhere during the first day or so I realised I'd very swiftly finished the run of little jobs I'd assigned for myself and was twiddling my thumbs. Too restless to read, I began to think about a trip - and one immediately suggested itself. I'd wander up to Bristol to have a look at the stock move bringing a short rake of former Virgin 'pretendolino' carriages north to Crewe in preparation for a contractual-obligation run on New Year's Eve, then I'd try to get a first ride on one of the new Class 800 trains operating on the Great Western Main Line. If I could squeeze in a trip on one of the not-even-nearly-new Class 166s which have now been handed down to be used in the West, that would mean I hadn't completed the year without experiencing the changes on the network in my local area at least... I was slipping - my wife had already had one of her commutes on a Class 800 - but maybe I could catch up?

800018 rests at Bristol Temple Meads
800018 rests at Bristol Temple Meads

I didn't decide I was definitely heading out until this morning, and I did so in such haste that I set off earlier than needed. My journey to Bristol was on tidy and freshly green-vinyled 150244, which was also rather well refurbished inside with wifi, sockets and USB points throughout. It was a bright, cold morning - a good time to be out and about - and so I settled in for a long, chilly wait at Temple Meads with coffee. It was, in some ways just like the old days. My over-eager start meant quite a considerable fester on the platform, and I began to feel conspicuous as I wandered around to keep warm and see what was happening. There was a time I'd have been confident enough that I was well-known to not care too much, or would at least have felt like I was acting less furtively. I also realised that I'd not brought a proper camera, so the passage of the convoy from Laira to Crewe wouldn't get recorded. As it happened, low winter sun from the south west filled the cutting just before the moment of arrival, and any picture would have been a challenge. A few moments early, 57303 led 37059 rather ponderously through the station with four gleaming silver coaches in tow. I understand that these coaches have yet to be converted electrically for use with the Class 68 locos which will haul them - so anyone who does brave the short 'unadvertised' working between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly on New Years Eve will be very cold indeed!

During my wait, a pair of Class 800s had silently crept into Platform 13 and waited to form the 13:30 departure. The various published diagrams for these new trains have gone to pot due to the holidays, slow progress in driver training and initial teething troubles - so I hoped this cycle would repeat on the 14:30, which I planned to catch as far as Swindon. I was curious to try the Class 800 for a number of reasons - not least because the Great Western Main Line is one of the few routes I use regularly, and my comfortable and relaxing trips to London have become an essential part of keeping me on the straight and narrow in recent years. I wanted to know how the trip would feel in future, and how to navigate the new trains. I also wanted to acknowledge the beginning of an important transition - the High Speed Train has been such a feature of my travels over the last few decades that I almost can't believe we'll see the end of it here sooner than elsewhere. The Class 800s have earned derision for the Department for Transport, for GWR and for Hitachi due to teething troubles - but how often has any new stock arrived which hasn't struggled at first? I wanted to make my own mind up - from the point of view of a traveller as well as an enthusiast - which is sometimes a challenging shift to achieve.

But, it wasn't to be... I was relieved to get off the wedged HST I took out to Swindon, stepping over students lurking in the vestibule rather than taking seats which meant sitting next to other punters. Perhaps they did this in some sort of tribute to Jeremy Corbyn's own vestibular antics? Swindon station hadn't changed - a long windy platform with a tired and sleepy buffet on the platform and a deserted WH Smiths concession. I crossed to the newer Platform 4 and lurked in the warm of the long waiting room, popping out for each westbound train as it was due. Each one was a HST - with the parade of Class 800s which had passed towards Bristol regularly passing the other platform. I had one more opportunity before I needed to be back at Bristol - and yet again, it was a HST. I settled into the warm seat, put on my headphones and relaxed into the journey - it was good to be out and about as the sun sank behind the rolling Wiltshire scenery. It had been a good day - a reminder that even when I'd meticulously planned things in the past, they'd sometimes not worked out. I reminded myself that it was all a little like fishing - and sometimes you didn't get a bite...

Back at Bristol, I headed for the Taunton-bound train my wife was catching home from work, shuffling along with the trickle of unfortunate commuters working in these strange days between the holidays. I thought of the trip we were taking in a few days and of the excursions to London I'd already planned - the adventures have changed a little, and now they're ours rather than just mine. When the time comes, I'll be interested to try out the new trains - but I know I'll miss the smell of hot brake pads and the slamming doors of the HSTs...

...and the train home wasn't a Class 166 either!

Movebook Link
 


Posted in London on Saturday 2nd December 2017 at 11:12pm


When I wrote a somewhat belated introduction to my series of London's Other Orbital walks, I perhaps played down just how obsessively fascinated with roads I was as a child. For a chubby, shy and relentlessly bullied boy from the Midlands, getting home from school and being able to pore over maps of blue, red and green lines snaking over the country was my escape. The journey home itself was a fantasy world of civil engineering projects and complex interchanges, as I imagined each side-path into a housing estate as a motorway junction along my walk. I drew endless networks - sometimes imaginary, sometimes improvements to the tangled and congested junctions on the maps. I internalised an intimate understanding of the complex and sometimes apparently arbitrary numbering system which had landed on the maps in 1922 and had almost immediately been littered with exceptions and compromises. In short, I was a strange and introverted boy who preferred the company of maps to other people. To some extent, I'm just a slightly better socially-adjusted version of that same youngster nowadays. The gift of a map is always a delight as friends and family know - but they can then expect to lose me for hours. When I finally moved the last of my possessions out of my parents home in preparation for its sale, I uncovered a stash of ageing maps: huge single-sheet Bartholomew road maps were tucked into the queasy golden-brown cover of an early 1970s AA Book of the Road, with its magical strip-maps of motorways, some represented by thick dashed lines and still yet to be built. Indeed, some never were built. Growing up to be a non-driver isn't, as many who offer me unwanted advice seem to assume, a great source of regret - I truly haven't the right skills to do it safely or without undue stress - but it does mean that my experience of the road network is a little different. Writing about the routes which slink across London, between the mighty arterials which pulse traffic into the city's core, has been revelatory: I've simultaneously discovered how well I know the suburbs and how little I know of them. When arriving at a familiar junction from a new direction, the world fits together a little better, but new arms on the sign become fresh mysteries.

Why the introspection? This is likely the last of these proto-orbitals north of the Thames. There are other roads to walk, and I hope to get to those on future trips, but none of them conform to the admittedly loose brief I set myself with this project. Indeed this walk was a little contrived in itself - the A5109 and the A109 have never really been one route - but there is some evidence that this arc of tarmac which starts at Mill Hill and manages to break out of the gravity of urban London before descending from the heights into the Lea Valley at Edmonton has been used to skirt the northern suburbs for time immemorial. It has the well-worn feel of a country lane for much of its length - a road which has always been there perhaps? It certainly begins its journey on an ancient trackway - and I began my walk there too, under threatening grey skies at the crossroads where Edgware straddles the venerable course of Watling Street on its journey from Dover to Anglesey. The modern junction is a textbook London suburban centre - a vast mid-century pub, The Masons Arms, takes up an entire corner while a range of red-brick shopfronts and a run of mock-tudor cottages heads north. The businesses on this busy intersection are low-key, unloved and apparently not well-patronised on Saturday mornings. I turned south on the A5, enjoying the surprisingly long view offered by the altitude and the straight carriageway. Modern Edgware, away from the bustle of its small urban centre at least, is a little grey and down-at-heel. The road is flanked by uninhabited office blocks, business centres and building suppliers, a landscape without people - which makes those walking beside the road strange and threatening. It's not hard to fit this into the narrative of Dick Turpin, the celebrated highwayman who was perhaps not the heroic character which has been passed through the purifying flame of nostalgia - his gang's raid on Earlsbury Farm in Edgware in February 1735 saw Joseph Lawrence, a man of seventy, tortured, stripped and burned while his servant girl was raped. Edgware still feels like the place where a blind eye would be turned, where people would thank their lucky stars it wasn't them and hurry away. This may be uncharitable - but trudging along the lonely and brooding dark channel of the A5 did not inspire much faith in humanity today.

Edgware Brook, from Watling Street
Edgware Brook, from Watling Street

This short stretch of Watling Street did however take me over the Edgware Brook, a filthy and rather noisome stream which curved under the road in a concrete culvert near to the junction where the A5109 turned east - and where my walk began in earnest. The rise of the road as I headed into the suburbs indicated that I was heading for the higher ground where the headwaters of the River Brent rise, and that I'd be crossing numerous tributaries which snaked together to form the Silk Stream and the Dollis Brook, converging at a point I'd passed on a previous walk. It was hard to read this suburban climb as an A-road at all as it slowly ambled between pleasant inter-war semi-detached homes. Deansbrook Road rose gently towards the bridge which carries it above the Northern Line on its final stretch towards Edgware and the watercourse for which it is named. The Deans Brook rises on the high ground of Scratch Wood, taking in the waters of the Edgwarebury Brook, the Edgware Brook and the Burnt Oak Brook before becoming the Silk Stream near Burnt Oak Station. A footpath descended to snake briefly alongside the brook before passing between the houses below, but it wouldn't have taken me further along my route. Instead I followed the road to its first junction, an unremarkable suburban roundabout where it turned illogically north to skirt the edge of Mill Hill. The road climbed again and began to curve towards the east, with the impressive hulk of John Keble Church gradually revealed ahead - first the golden brick of the tower, then the stepping bulk of its nave. Designed by D.F.Martin-Smith, the church was consecrated in 1936 and Grade II listed in 1989, the slender louvred tower dominated the view uphill with Keble's name inscribed in stone above a stylised eagle - emblematic of a poem in his Christian Year. Reportedly, this is the only church dedicated to Keble, the humble but influential poet-vicar who formed part of the Oxford Movement. It sits on this rather inconsequential spot, a formative step in modern church building. In 1958, Martin-Smith, then in partnership with Henry Braddock went on to build the swooping brick and concrete St. Mary's in Crawley - a more ambitious and challenging building, but perhaps one that sits less comfortably in its surroundings than this arresting hilltop structure?

The road continued to head northeast, passing through the rather drab shopping zone at The Hale - one of the several knots of urban life which make up Mill Hill. There is no real centre to this suburb, in part due to the haphazard railway development which saw a single track line from Finsbury Park to Edgware opening in 1867 with the plan to expand when traffic grew. In the event, the High Barnet branch was much more profitable and the second track was never laid. The line languished on with a shuttle service to Finchley until 1935 when the London Passenger Transport Board's New Works Programme proposed to link the suburban lines from Finsbury Park into the Northern Line, and to use a long-established right to build rails beyond Edgware to Bushey Heath. The complex web of Northern Heights lines would thus feed into the branches of the Northern Line, and would link the suburbs to the city - but the war intervened, and little was achieved beyond electrification to Mill Hill East. The line beyond this was abandoned and now provides a TfL supplies depot, a nature reserve and an intermittent and somewhat forlorn greenway between Edgware and Mill Hill. Beyond The Hale the road climbed steadily to another of Mill Hill's scattered urban loci at Apex Corner. The origin of the curious name for this spot appears lost in history, but likely refers to its relative elevation and the meeting of the roads to Watford and Barnet. The modern incarnation of the junction sees the A1 and A41 sweep in from the south as a single, wide road before dividing at the roundabout and heading in their respective directions. Meanwhile, just feet from the roundabout and entirely disconnected from this earlier incarnation of the trunk road network, the M1 thunders in a cutting alongside the Midland Mainline to St. Pancras. By the early 1960s the junction had acquired its current configuration, swirling around a sunken pedestrian area with a tiled bank of chequerboard stone raking up to the road and solid stone portals providing access to the radiating footways. At some point Apex Corner must have been a busier spot for walkers, but now the junction is a bleak prospect on foot. While one corner retains a typical suburban retail parade now operating the ubiquitous mix of betting, tanning and eating establishments, housing has largely encroached elsewhere. But on the northern flank, between the arms of the roundabout which stretch out to Watford and points north, a drive-thru KFC and a Shell filling station provide necessary services to those who are sticking to the old routes. Apex Corner is the ghost of a staging post on the road north, and while traffic rumbles north on the nearby motorway, this oddly bleak circus sits on its hilltop looking beyond London.

Under Apex Corner
Under Apex Corner

My route was briefly with the A1, before the A5109 turned northeast at an awkward afterthought of a divergence, necessitating traffic skittling across the central reservation after being freed of the gravity of Apex Corner. The main road continued north, a silvery ribbon of tarmac heading out of the suburbs and rising into the greenbelt which curtailed London, allowing the green spaces of Scratch Wood and Moat Mount to remain undeveloped. The scene reminded me of the vintage 1980s logo adopted by the London Borough of Barnet, featuring a sweep of dual-carriageway snaking around oversized trees. The woods here were once threatened by the semi-mythical Stirling Corner Link - a road joining the M1 and the A1, and the first chance for northbound traffic to leave the motorway at Junction 3. This junction was never completed, with three-quarters of a roundabout forming an awkward access to London Gateway Services instead. The road, if built, would have carved through the top of Scratch Wood, sending sliproads arcing over the A1 and descending into Thistle Wood in at least one version of the scheme. The planned Junction 3 was part of the 1961 plan for the M1 which had it ploughing on to Marble Arch, unhindered by anything in its path. The more modest Hendon Urban Motorway opened in 1967 without Junction 3 and sputtered to a premature halt near Fiveways Corner rather than relentlessly progressing into the West End. Various references in the National Archives to soil slippage at Scratchwood and expensive remedies needed for shifting concrete walls along this section of route may give a clue to why this was the case. However, the plans remained resolutely part of the future development of the motorway until being quietly shelved in the straightened public spending round of 1976. The link road concept has resurfaced at times, not least in 1989 as part of the Roads for Prosperity plans - getting as far as an invitation for prospective builders to tender on that occasion. But in 1994, the plan was finally killed for good, and the services continue to delight in the most bizarre and confusing access routes in the land. The green spaces remain, quiet and undisturbed - at least for now...and I was soon to find myself practically out in the country, despite being firmly within the confines of Greater London.

There was a distinct shift as the road climbed Highwood Hill - suburban semis became large villas and gated dwellings of impressive scale, and the cars outside properties were newer and far fancier. At the peak of this first climb, the pavement switched sides, the first of a number of times I'd need to cross the A5109 as it became essentially a country lane. This rural byway however saw traffic at North London speeds and densities, and even had a regular service of red double-decker buses. This was an indication that my sloppy categorisation had been accurate - this was an orbital route in the same way that some of its more impressively proportioned relatives further south were being used - the most direct route from somewhere to somewhere-else, even if not the officially sanctioned means of crossing London. Satellite navigation has changed behaviour here, and the most direct route is suddenly open to even those who don't know the terrain. You can detect them - barrelling into corners and shifting gears erratically to scale hills, but utterly unaware of what lies beyond. They trust the instincts of the machine, and mostly it works out for them - and so they continue until they're let down by the technology in some dead-end. Even then, they'll usually allow the algorithm to re-route them out of trouble. Highwood Hill was an exclusive address as early as 1825 when Sir Stamford Raffles, fresh from his colonial exploits in Singapore and the Far East returned to live out his last days here. While Raffles was a proponent of colonial reform, his ideas were perhaps not entirely in tune with the great reformer and supporter of emancipation William Wilberforce, who retired to his own property nearby just a year later. In declining health and having retired from Parliament, he survived long enough to see his campaigning result in the final Commons reading of the Abolition of Slavery Act in 1833. At the crest of the hill, between the sites of these two gentlemen of the Regency era, Nan Clark's Lane leads north into the fields - marking a final retreat of an entirely other nature. Nan Clark was a barmaid in The Rising Sun with many admirers, but wed to an exceptionally jealous husband. When rumours of an affair reached him, he is reputed to have dragged her by the hair along the lane to a lake where he drowned her in front of a horrified audience who had followed them from Highwood Hill. The legend has spawned a range of stories of supernatural goings on which are sadly the only record of Nan Clark now. Fuelled by the presence of the lane and with The Rising Sun still trading nearby the legend is a popular local ghost tale which adds a slight frisson of the rural English gothic to the estate agents patter when they're flogging property on the overheated market in NW7.

Totteridge Fields Nature Reserve
Totteridge Fields Nature Reserve

Shortly after reaching the peak of the hill both pavements gave up completely, the road narrowing and curving menacingly into the next rise. Relying on my map, I headed through a gate and into Totteridge Fields. This local nature reserve is perhaps not at its best in December, but the faint sunshine and the glorious sweep of ungoverned green was a welcome relief from the road. I squelched diagonally across the former hay-fields, which narrowly escaped conversion into a cemetery in the early 1990s and which are now leased by Barnet Council to the London Wildlife Trust. Aside from a well-kept information board and some sturdy kissing gates, they've left the land to run wild and the desire-line I followed was ghosted by the skeletons of autumnal weeds and wildflowers bending in the breeze. At the edge of the field I crossed a tiny brook by way of a wooden bridge, realising that this was one of the barely trickling sources of the River Brent which had seemed such a broad and mighty presence on my last walk. Here I could press onwards to find the London Loop which meandered along with the nascent Dollis Brook nearby, or I could double back towards Totteridge and the road. I felt duty bound to do the latter, and after scrambling over a muddy stile worked my way up an indistinct footpath lined with frequent dire warnings not to stray. The waterlogged scramble eventually brought me to a drive between two impressive farmhouses, and then back to the road. This was Totteridge - a long, straggling village set in former Manorial lands now in trust to a private association. Each house, set back and discreetly screened from the road, bore its name on a curved, white painted stake on the road. A footpath was tolerated but often ill-kept and ruptured by ancient roots. No-one walked this stretch - it was too important to be seen in right kind of motor car, cruising by the long ponds which lined the southern flank of the road. Nothing interesting was happening here, and everything was just so - the Manor's groundskeepers ensuring that the carefully preserved and jealously guarded lack of event was undisturbed. The scenery was green and pleasant, but I must confess utterly dull and surprisingly charmless. The road curved and descended a little towards the Dollis Valley and a few fellow walkers appeared, surveying my muddy and leaf-caked boots with disdain and alarm. They headed for The Orange Tree, a vast rural pub with a well-stocked car park and an enviable menu of gastropub delights near the edge of Totteridge. Eventually, at the foot of the hill I found the anonymous parapet where the Dollis Brook headed under the road on route to Welsh Harp. The footpath into Whetstone Stray, alongside the churning waters which had already gathered some surprising pace and width since I'd seen their tiny tributary a mile or so back, was tempting - but the road needed to be walked to its conclusion. Up ahead, the A5109 shuddered to a halt at a staggered crossroads not far from Totteridge and Whetstone station. This little knot of urban normality felt like a relief after the forced conservation of Totteridge. As I navigated around an angrily accelerating driver who was hot on my heels as I completed my crossing of the road, I didn't spot the the Whetstone until I had passed by. This stone of unknown origin appears to have been used as a mounting block beside the tollgate which controlled access to the Whetstone and Highgate Turnpike here until 1863.

Eveready House, Barnet
Eveready House, Barnet

On the corner where the A5109 meets the former Great North Road stood Eveready House - now known as Barnet House, a strikingly modern block built in 1966 by Richard Seifert for the British arm of the Eveready battery company. Gravity-defyingly bulky, the building stands on pleasingly solid looking stilts above the ground. Seifert's almost impossibly prolific output in London alone produced such a mix of wonderful, terrible and downright ordinary buildings that it is hard to approach preservation of his heritage - however, as the building was adopted by Barnet Council in 1986 its recent fortunes have remained fairly assured. It is difficult to image how such a substantial block this far out of the city could survive for long without this public patronage however. My next stretch of road departed the former A1 route directly opposite the building, the surprising suburban bulk glowering over the rather innocuous beginning of the A109. This road has always been numbered thus, unlike the A5109 which was until the 1940s a lowly B-road - but it has a sort of deferential air, giving way to other roads and allowing them precedence at junctions. The A109 comes into its own for just the kind of local in-the-know traveller I've talked about before - for whom the journey across and within the city is more important than simply getting to or from London. The village centre of Whetstone clung to the road for a spell, allowing me to find some much needed sustenance - it had been quite a hike up from Edgware and I was wondering if I'd set myself a challenging walk in the time available today. I rested briefly on a damp bench among a disarmingly constant stream of pedestrians - it felt like I'd been largely alone for much of the morning, and needing to weave around people was an odd new feeling. I set off again, heading downhill now with surprisingly good views to the east. This was the largely unremarked suburb of Oakleigh Park, lining the route with pleasant, suburban homes which for a decade from 1941 housed a secret listening station for the Soviet news agency, TASS. The plug appeared to be pulled by the Security Services in 1951, but only after Barnet Council had unsuccessfully tried to close the station on planning grounds. The road continued south, bridging the railway at an awkward angle before running alongside it towards the city. The sliver of land to the west of the road was hemmed in by the tracks, and when it finally became broad enough to be useful hosted a string of industrial units and building suppliers. The road was quiet here - there are lots of better ways of getting across town nearby and the A109 is left to its rather forlorn own devices. Only buses and the occasional white van heading for one of the local businesses passed me as I trudged on into a purple, brooding sky. It felt like night was already encroaching and I fell into a reflective frame of mind as I walked south, thinking about how this route was now converging with other walks: the valley of Pymmes Brook ran parallel close by to the east, and I was once again converging with the North Circular on its relentless arc. These northern zones which once seemed so unreadably vast and dull were becoming strikingly familiar in parts, but still maintained a capacity to surprise me with a sudden view or diversion.

The A109 began to climb again near New Southgate Recreation Ground, part of a swathe of green space which stretched north to the Pymmes Brook valley and Brunswick Park, crossing the spoked wheel arrangement of the cemetery. This site - then known as the Great Northern Cemetery - would have been the first to offer cremation in the UK in 1861 had the Bishop of Rochester in whose diocese large parts of suburban North London still sat, not replied that he had neither the will "nor the power to allow such a mode of disposal of the bodies of the dead". The Cremation Society persisted in its efforts, and finally the first cremation of the modern era took place in 1885. The Cremation Act followed, passed in 1902 to authorise burial authorities to establish crematoria but also to outlaw open pyres like that used by the self-ordained Druid Dr. William Price to dispose of the body of a child fathered to his housekeeper. At the peak of the rise the A109 again deferred to other roads at the oddly named Betstyle Circus. This little urban cluster in the suburbs seems confused - either masquerading as Friern Barnet or New Southgate, and with the boroughs of Barnet and Enfield erratically switching territory around the spokes of the roundabout. My route unexpectedly took the easterly exit here, before swiftly turning south again to pass by New Southgate station. Across the rails and above the trees the impressive buildings of Friern Hospital could be seen, formerly the Middlesex County Asylum and now an exclusive housing complex. The boundary of the boroughs edged along the railway here, with the road falling into step beside both until it dog-legged to the east to skirt the site of the former New Southgate Gasworks, now given over to a vast builders trade supply business which sat atop the arches of the railway siding which once served the site. The single remaining gasholder reminded me I was approaching the North Circular once again, and encountering a familiar view from a different direction. A new development of apartments was slowly rising beside the pavement here, wedged into the corner created by the A109 and the Bounds Green Brook. The hiss and shudder of the busiest road I'd encountered since leaving Edgware was evident before I could even see it stretching along the valley floor, bisecting my onward route which climbed the valley ahead of me. I had no business with the A406 today, but I did need to cross the six lanes of traffic here. The crossing had an entirely different impact approaching from the north, and the road felt more like an imposition on the landscape from this aspect. As I waited for the lights to change, the sole pedestrian in sight I supposed, I noted a small group huddled on the central island. Occasionally when a stream of traffic braked hard for a red light, they would groan and rise, tottering at first on uncertain legs, before working the stream of cars. Some, the most downtrodden and disabled among them, would beg in the most direct sense. Meanwhile a more enterprising younger man in a hi-vis vest he'd probably retrieved from the verge of the road sold multipack cans of Diet Coke and bottles of water from a shopping basket. This probably worked well in a summer traffic jam, but on a grim December afternoon when snow threatened, drivers seemed less inclined to buy. As the lights changed and I crossed, the forlorn group repositioned to ply the next queue of traffic. I hadn't noticed these people when I made my way along the North Circular. Had they been there, and my onward focus too unwavering to miss them? Or had they been obscured by others using the crossing that day? For all that's said about my introversion and self-absorption - especially when I'm walking - I'd hope that I wouldn't have overlooked such a sorry scene taking place on the midst of this unsheltered tarmac plain? I completed my crossing and began walking up the hill which climbed out of the valley of the Bounds Green Brook. Looking back, the figures were only barely visible, scuttling and hobbling towards cars in a display of surprising optimism each time the lights changed.

Gasholder, New Southgate
Gasholder, New Southgate

It was possible to walk along a surprisingly broad area of green space beside Bounds Green Road, which rather reminded me of its appearance on early maps of Middlesex as a country lane in a wooded channel between the fields. Suburbia had encroached by the late 19th century, with Wood Green sprawling inexorably towards Southgate as Londoners moved out of the city along the railways. Bounds Green however seems to have stayed surprisingly upmarket, with many fine old houses ranged along the terraces beside the road. Not all remains of course, and around the twin brick towers of Newbury House and Finsbury House is a small estate of modern, low-rise housing which feels a little unloved and in need of refurbishment. Nearby, in surprising contrast is the red-brick and white stone Braemar Avenue Baptist Church, an unusually decorative approach to a non-conformist chapel and a reminder that Wood Green and Tottenham were hotbeds of religious dissent. The congregation relocated to this fine building in 1907, having previously assembled in a range of homes and halls across the area. I'd encountered the church during my walk along the New River Path, and I soon crossed the route of the river's tunnel which meant I was closing in on Wood Green. One last surprise before I plunged into the urban maelstrom of 'The Mall' was the obelisk dedicated to Mrs Catherine Smithies which sits on a patch of ground outside a rather gentrified run of shops and pubs. Smithies was responsible for the formation of the Band of Mercy - an organisation which aimed to teach children kindness and humanity to animals in the hope of creating a future world peopled by peaceful adults. Smithies modelled her new organisation on the Band of Hope temperance movement initiated by the Baptist minister Reverend Jabez Tuncliffe in Leeds. By the end of the century, the RSPCA assumed responsibility for the Band of Mercy movement, though it continued to grow in strength in the United States through the work of George T. Angell who restated the organisations aims to:

[...] teach and lead every child and older person to seize every opportunity to say a kind word or do a kind act that will make some other human being or some dumb creature happier.
It felt rather odd to see Wood Green as a cradle of kindness and religious diligence as I approached a crossing the High Road. The flank of Haringey Civic Centre with its pleasing brick and stone lines betraying its origins in the late 1950s. From the rear, a dramatic wing of the building strode out across the car park on stilts with metal stairs elbowing into view, partially obscured by St. Michael's Church. A little further along the street the Fishmongers Arms was a reminder of the Fishmongers and Poulterers Almshouses which occupied this site before it was a seat of Local Government. I crossed the street near the rather drab little scrap of park dedicated to King George VI which had been occupied by a dedicated drinking school on my last visit. Today it was empty, the cold weather and the stream of pedestrians heading for their festive retail destinations driving out the locals. I turned towards Wood Green with some trepidation...

Wood Green Crown Court
Wood Green Crown Court

I wasn't sorry to make the turning into Lordship Lane near Wood Green Underground Station. The pavements were impassably busy, with people darting between streams of travellers emerging from the tunnels and some testy exchanges as they cannoned into each other in their haste. Pedestrians were laden with bags or staring into electronic devices, always too occupied to focus on their surroundings - and it struck me that I was the only person in this strange little urban swirl who was walking for the sake of the act. No wonder I was regarded oddly, my boots and trousers marked by dried-on Middlesex earth and my face masked by a scarf against the cold and fumes. A little south of here, somewhere under the massive brick ziggurat of Wood Green's mall, was the site of Alderman's Bridge where the River Moselle passed under Green Lanes and formed the edge of the building plots on the southern side of Lordship Lane. The road quickly reverted to suburbia, leaving the chaos of the shopping centre behind. However, the rather uniform buildings suddenly gave way to the somewhat bizarre Wood Green Crown Court building. Originally built as the Royal Masonic School for Boys, supporting the children of deceased and poor Freemasons, the building remained as a place of education until the 1930s when it was acquired by the Tottenham and District Gas Company and renamed Woodall House in honour of Sir Corbet Woodall, former chairman of the Imperial Gas Light and Coke company who is commemorated by a statue now at Twelvetrees Crescent in Bow. After nationalisation in 1948 the building found use as the headquarters of the Eastern Gas Board. In 1974 it was acquired by the Borough of Haringey and modernised to become Wood Green Crown Court and Remand Centre. The building's current appearance, with a dramatic and somewhat strangely mountainous roof filling the gap between the tower on each flank dates from rebuilding after an arson attack in 1989. The Court continues to find new ways of remaining in the public consciousness too - seeing Britain's first juror jailed for using the internet in contempt of court in 2013. Today, all was quiet outside the building except for a group of drinkers loudly discoursing in the garden - I couldn't help but wonder if they were the displaced group from King George VI Gardens, relocated to a more exclusive spot to avoid the crowds. Perhaps they are part of the civic fabric of Haringey?

Bruce Castle
Bruce Castle

I continued to head east, aware of the Moselle's hidden course nearby, recalled in the street names if nowhere else. I remembered my walk to find the remains of the river in a heady, turbulent summer five years ago. I hadn't quite imagined the turn my walks, or indeed my life, would take after that. As the pale and stark towers of Broadwater Farm rose above the terraced houses lining Lordship Lane appeared, almost fading into the purple-grey sky, I spotted a housing development much more more modest and human in scale as the Tower Gardens Estate edged against the road. This was the London County Council's well-intentioned but somewhat half-hearted attempt to bring a little of the Garden Suburb approach to deepest Tottenham. Built between 1904 and 1913, the semi-circular estate of cheaply but attractively built cottages is encircled by The Roundway, a diverted arm of the A10 which takes it away from its old course through Edmonton and onto a menacingly busy urban dual-carriageway. This means that Lordship Lane becomes a somewhat quiet backwater near Bruce Castle, the grand manor house built and modified over a long period of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. An early occupation by Sir William Compton, one of Henry VIII's most prominent courtiers is recorded, with the building variously changing hands through seizure, debt and sale across the centuries before falling into the ownership of John Eardley Wilmot who as a Member of Parliament was charged with leading a 1783 commission investigating the events of the American Revolution. He also presided over the rather lesser known effort to provide housing and alms to 60,000 loyalist refugees who returned to Britain after Independence was declared. By 1827, Bruce Castle had become a branch of the Birmingham radical school operated by Sir Rowland Hill and his brother. Hill moved to Tottenham to become the headmaster of the new school, and his later career would take in planning the colonisation of South Australia and reform of the Postal System. Meanwhile, Bruce Castle found its final incarnation as a museum and garden in the ownership of Tottenham Council by 1906. It remains a similar facility today, under the stewardship of the post-1965 London Borough of Haringey, a rather odd intrusion of history into the heavily and relatively recently developed hinterlands of Tottenham and Edmonton. Incidentally, no castle has in fact, ever stood on the land here - though large tracts of the area were owned until his accession to the Scottish throne in 1306 by Robert the Bruce. The manor here is recalled the the rural setting which Bruce would have known in John Abraham Heraud's 1820 epic poem 'Tottenham':

Silent and lone, and on the greensward dies —
But when on ye her heavenly slumber lies,
TOWERS OF BRUS! 'tis more than lovely then. —
For such sublime associations rise,
That to young fancy's visionary ken,
'Tis like a maniac's dream—fitful and still again.

Outside Bruce Castle I faced a choice. Technically, the A109 continued for a few hundred yards towards Edmonton where it came to an end on the old High Road. However, I'd walked that last stretch before and had found it a rather gloomy stretch of route somehow. Beside me, Bruce Grove cut the corner, heading directly south east towards the station with which it shared a name, and taking this turn could save me from ending my last walk of the year at a drab, inconsequential crossroads. I paused for some time, deciding whether to break my self-imposed rules here? It's true that this was perhaps the last of these 'orbital' walks in the North, and it felt odd to be changing the plan at this late stage. But I'd walked for miles, the light was beginning to fail, and the chill damp of the afternoon was finding its way to my bones as I tired. I reasoned that it had been a long, challenging year of walks - and it should at least end by covering new ground - and so I broke my rule and struck out along the previously unwalked line of Bruce Grove. The station beckoned, the railway bridging the junction ahead, declaring the location in bold white letters on the blue ironwork. The sky had turned a pinkish-grey as the weak winter sun fell and the streetlights were developing halos in the frosty air. It was the perfect way to head back towards civilisation. I had almost walked the length of the A5109 and the A109, an arc across the northern reaches of the old County of Middlesex - a deleted administrative unit which had come to figure largely in my travels this year. Descending into the Lea Valley from the Northern Heights felt like a perfect way to enter the seasonal pause in my walks. My decision not to cover those last few yards niggled at me - but as I boarded the train for Liverpool Street, I found myself sitting across from a young, smiling woman who was devouring an artisanal doughnut with enviable guilt-free glee and happiness. It was impossible not to get caught up in the sense of contentment: my feet ached from a walk completed, I had a host of surprising finds to unravel and research, and as ever new twists and turns had suggested future exploration on the way. Perhaps rules were meant for breaking after all?

You can find a gallery with more pictures from the walk here.


Movebook Link
 


Posted in London on Saturday 4th November 2017 at 11:11pm


Heading west out of Paddington, minutes after arriving, felt very strange indeed. A few minutes later, as I waited in a steady downpour outside Ealing Broadway station for the bus to Hanger Lane, I tried to rationalise my persistence with today's endeavour. I needed to walk... It had felt like a tough few weeks, and I knew I had an equally challenging month ahead. I also felt like I had unfinished business out here - and despite feeling like a trudge along some damp eastern pavements might have been a far more sensible idea given the promised poor weather, I'd been drawn back to the River Brent which had proved so elusive and wayward on my last walk here. When I'd left the river last time, it had been a reluctant parting - I'd figured that Brentford and the Thames were mere miles away, and ought to have been easily reached had I stepped up the pace and not been confounded by diversions. Thus today's walk felt like it might be worryingly short and on the way into London I'd been concocting possible additions and extensions to fill the day. As it was, the Brent more than occupied my time today, and the walk was not as short as I'd feared...

Sheltering in a shop doorway, just out of reach of the spray from cars hurtling around the Hanger Lane Gyratory, I deployed the hood of my coat and tried to secure it in a spot which didn't wholly deprive me of my senses. Prepared, and steeled for the rain, I set off - much to the amusement of some of the passengers on my bus who had watched me preparing to get going. I realised from my reflection that the look of grim determination I was wearing must have seemed oddly out of place as I strode off along the slip-road down to the A40. I was starting my walk on another typical arterial road. The slick river of tar stretched ahead, red tail lamps winking into the dark distance and neon signs on the nearby buildings appearing weirdly over-bright in the gloom. I woudn't be spending long walking this road, thankfully, but the more pressing issue was that I didn't fully know how far to go. My research for this walk had focused on what seemed like tricky pathless sections further ahead, and I was striking out into the unknown a little here. As I walked, the hulk of the Vanguard warehouse near which I'd abandoned my last Brent excursion dominated the view west. Ahead of it, the river passed under the A40 via an unremarked bridge. I'd been so close to the water before, but tantalisingly it lay just out of sight, between the road and the railway. Near the bridge a wooden kissing gate led into a grassy space beyond and I'd have probably ignored this save for the 'Brent River Park' direction indicator on the post. Beneath, the river was a grey rush - swollen with rainwater from the heights of Middlesex, its course was more urgent and turbulent than when I'd last been beside it. I was reluctant to head into the field given how wet things were, but it couldn't hurt could it? I swung through the gate and left the road behind. The river curved to meet the flattened path, a carpet of fallen leaves providing me with traction underfoot. This was already beginning to feel like the right direction to head in...

Finding the Brent, near Perivale
Finding the Brent, near Perivale

The river wound around the edge of a golf course, providing a boundary between the primped greens and fairways and the much more democratic municipality of Pitshanger Park. I followed its course as closely as I could here, remembering how tricky it had been to walk alongside the river further upstream. The scrubby fields between the road and the park were deserted except for a lone dog walker who patrolled the perimeter, eyeing me with a little suspicion as I trudged carefully around some of the wetter spots on the path. The river turned west, and I needed to retreat to the roads to find it again, doing so via an inelegant clamber over a stile and into the attractive and quiet streets of Brentham Garden Suburb. This rather sleepy and at first unremarkable estate is in fact an early example of a cooperative housing development built to incorporate Ebeneezer Howard's principles as outlined in 'To-morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform'. Published in 1898, this work kickstarted the Garden City movement which suggested the possibility of enjoying the conveniences of city life in almost rural settings. With construction beginning in 1901, Brentham pre-dates its better known and now rather exclusive cousin at Hampstead by some years but being a little further out of the city, isn't perhaps well positioned to become the haunt of the well-to-do and famous. Walking west, towards an entrance to Pitshanger Park, I watched the estate waking up - supermarket delivery vans puttered between streets, families wandered outdoors, wrapped in winter clothes. The rain had almost stopped as I turned into the park entrance which was guarded by a gang of gossiping dog walkers, their bored hounds grunting and sniffing at the floor in anticipation of their excursion recommencing. I set off across the park to its northern boundary where the river was hidden behind a line of trees. There were few others in this part of the park away from the sports club and café, and while still a little damp my walk was quiet and pleasant. At the edge of the park I turned north along a narrow hedge-lined alleyway cutting through the golf course. The river, after being joined by what appeared to be the stub of a forgotten tributary or former diversion, also turned north, and through the hedge I could see it winding between greens and fairways, providing a genuine challenge to errant golfers.

River Brent, near Pitshanger Park
River Brent, near Pitshanger Park

The path divided near a wooden bridge over the Brent, marking the point where I'd expected to enter the park had my excursion through the fields not proved viable. I turned west again, rejoining the river as it took a broad loop to the south and then north along Argyle Road. A detour here took me close to the riverbank as far as Perivale Lane where I feared I was trespassing on the grounds of St. Benedict's School. I tramped back to Argyle Lane, retracing my steps rather than following an arc around the playing fields of a leisure centre which, while closer to the river were clearly muddy and very wet and offered no clue about how I'd escape at the other end. I began to fear that perhaps the Brent was to be as elusive today as it had been on the first part of my walk in from Finchley. I headed west along Ruislip Road East, a long straight route running directly from Ealing to Greenford which the borough had recently improved to favour walkers and cyclists. Frequent banners hung from the fence behind which the river ran, informing me how this five-mile long route was safe, well provided with frequent crossings and speed controls and could enhance my health and wellbeing. Indeed there did seem to be a fair number of people wandering back and forth as I passed under the railway line from Greenford with the Brent churning darkly under the adjacent arch of the bridge. The road began to rise towards a junction with Greenford Broadway, crossing the river by way of an ornate bridge. Beside the bridge a gap in the fence provided a surprisingly anonymous entrance to the continuation of the Capital Ring walking route. I'm still asked fairly often if I'm 'doing' this walk - and equally often I'm told how unattractive and borderline dangerous my questioners found the walk. At this point I'm forced to grit my teeth and suggest that I'm not walking the route but inevitably I'm encountering parts of it on my travels. I'd love to add that circling a vast, complex city like London is bound to take a walker through a variety of landscapes which make up the edgelands, but I suspect they're already busily ticking off their next sanctioned and sanitised walk somewhere. After a brief pause to buy lunch I returned to the inconsequential gap in the fence and plunged into the cool, quiet tunnel between the trees which lined the river here. Near the road there was the usual evidence of temporary occupation: blue carrier bags, Polish lager cans, the marks of extinguished fires and discarded clothing - but soon these petered out too, and it was just me and the river. The Brent was wide and fast-flowing here, swirling with rainwater from the numerous streams and gullies which joined it on its suburban journey. This wedge of parkland, hemmed in by a recycling centre and a large development of inter-war housing was almost entirely deserted. The sky churned overhead, but promised brighter conditions might be coming later, and I happily trudged south, the river tumbling and twisting beside me. The way was marked by infrequent wayfinding posts, and one of these sent me down a flight of wooden steps cut into the steep valley side and onto a rarely walked diversion on the bank of the river. Unsure if this path would safely return me to my route without a muddy scramble, I was a little uneasy about heading onwards - but the lure of the water was strong and I'm glad I continued. This was the closest I'd managed to get to the Brent so far, and it felt good to be walking beside it more directly for a short spell as it cascaded over a weir and swirled around hanging boughs of trees which leaned down into its surface. Returning safely to the path further ahead, I crossed a bridge and found myself on a comparatively well-made stony path passing directly through another golf course, marked by signs warning me that by passing them I accepted the risk of encountering low-flying balls. There were few golfers braving the unpredictable November weather today, so I gladly took the chance and continued. The river was to the east now, denoted by a snaking line of trees beyond the flags and bunkers, and I once again wondered how much more of it I'd manage to see? Above the trees, the steeple of St. Mary's Church in Hanwell was a black silhouette on a turbulent and dramatic sky which seemed to shift to dominate the view from every direction as the path turned with the river. There has been a place of worship here for well over a thousand years, and it struck me that the development of parks and golf courses around it meant that it still provided a landmark from some distance away with little encroachment by other tall buildings. The path rejoined the Brent, crossing it by way of a solid but scruffy metal bridge, and then divided again - the more formal sandy track leading up to the church while a series of wooden flets sunk into the muddy bank took the path into a broad meadow and towards the curve of the river again. I chose the muddier path and stayed with the Brent.

Near Hanwell Zoo
Near Hanwell Zoo

At the top of the steps I found an expansive park, surrounding the fences of Hanwell Zoo and allowing me to take a wet but relatively mud-free excursion along the riverbank as it wandered east around the edge of the Millennium Maze and into Churchfields Recreation Ground. The thunder of trains could be heard over the chatter of children and braying of goats, apparently the only animals braving the wet weekend morning in a compound at the back of the zoo. It occurred to me that I'd soon be passing under the Great Western Railway which had brought me into Paddington a few hours ago, the twists and recursions of today's journey echoing the contortions of the Brent. Now though, the river slunk quietly in a low gully at the foot of the park, screened by high trees and hedges which hid the graceful arches of Wharncliffe Viaduct from view until at the foot of the sloping parkland one of the great arches leapt into view, gracefully crossing the path and the river. This awe-inspiring structure was one of the earliest projects attributed to Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and also one of the first completed along the route west from Paddington to Bristol with trains running above from 1838. The viaduct also has the honour of being one of the first buildings 'listed' for preservation in 1949, and such forms a key part of the bid to have the whole original GWR route named a World Heritage Site. While it remains unclear if Queen Victoria really did insist the Royal Train pause on the viaduct to let her enjoy the view along the Brent Valley, there are now others who linger here - namely a vast colony of bats which live within the hollow archways. The river turns south again here, initially in a brick culvert which neatly brings it alongside the path and under one of the easternmost arches of the viaduct. Looking along the structure, its grace and scale are overwhelming, and perhaps not fully appreciated until viewed from the hay meadow to the south of the line where Lord Wharncliffe's family arms are visible on the central span - recognition of his support for the parliamentary bill authorising the Great Western Railway. I paused here, trying to get a picture which would truly show the sweep of the arches over the valley, an amused dog walker letting his charge scamper in the long grass while he watched me struggling to frame the shot against a dull grey sky. Behind me as I faced the wonder of Victorian engineering, another impressive bulk of a different era loomed: the huge Ealing Hospital - a solid grey block raised above a wide pediment, with ramps leaping and curving from the ground to deliver ambulances direct to the entrances. I'd passed this way countless times, spotting the rather grim building from trains speeding west from Paddington, but up close the building felt impressive, dour and overbearing. Before reaching the Hospital, the river needed to pass under the Uxbridge Road via a low stone bridge. There was a choice of routes here - the path ascended to cross the busy road at grade, or I could stay beside the river and pass under an arch in the bridge built to accommodate the footpath. This passage dipped low, close to the river's edge and appeared worryingly waterlogged. I weighed up the alternative route up to the road, but decided that I was brave enough to attempt the slither down the stone slope and under the bridge. In the edge of the river beside me, a forlorn and slowly moulding office chair was marooned in a shallow pool of greenish water. The roof was close to my head, stippled with drips of calcification and dangling here and there with more ambitious stalactites, but the passage was uneventful save for paddling through an inch or so of water - either rainfall or overspill from the Brent which felt perilously close. The path climbed again, rising to pass close to the eastern perimeter of the Hospital, revealing the inner workings and complexities of the building, rather spoiling the illusion of the futuristic swooping concrete ramps and the rather inhuman face of the tall concrete blocks. Built in 1979, the site fills the nook between the River Brent and the mainline of the Grand Junction - latterly the Grand Union - Canal. To the west of the current hospital the former Middlesex County Asylum, opened in 1831 remains in use as a modern psychiatric unit, still sequestered behind a solid red-brick wall. Known for some time as St. Bernard's Hospital, the facility pioneered early forms of occupational therapy under Dr William Ellis its first superintendent, and was later instrumental in the removal of restraints in favour of less invasive means of protecting patients, including the padded room. The relative humanity of the regime at Hanwell under Ellis is evident in his principled resignation upon learning that the Commissioners and Justices wished to cram more patients than he felt could be properly be cared for.

Heading under Uxbridge Road...
Heading under Uxbridge Road...

This corner of Hanwell also holds a significant place in the nation's industrial history. Beyond the hospital the path divided, with a spur leading up to the towpath of the canal at the bottom of the Hanwell Flight - a series of six locks with associated balancing ponds built in 1794 to bring the Grand Junction to the level of the Brent, with which it merges nearby. As I emerged beside the bottom of the flight, two young couples were beginning the ascent of the flight, enjoying the sunshine which had finally escaped weakly from the cover of low cloud and not yet tired from, or perhaps fully cognisant of, the effort required in operating the six locks to raise their boat through fifty-three feet. I was tempted to follow the canal but I stuck with the river path as long as I could, taking the path which shadowed its last sluggish twists between the cottages on Green Lane and the canal, before finally reaching the junction under a brick bridge. From here I would be walking the southern part of a route which was navigable to Birmingham and beyond, and which had revolutionised transport in the 18th century. The River Brent, for a time at least, was subsumed into the wide, businesslike line of the canal - but it wasn't entirely absent. The river's meanders and twists as it approached the Thames largely dictated the course of the canal. Where the meanders were too tight and wide the river branched from the canal into foliage-choked and litter strewn loops which tumbled busily over weirs while the canal took a more sedate route through the wide green spaces of Osterley Park. The grand house here has its origins in an Elizabethan Manor which, at a respectable distance from London attracted the Child's, a well-connected banking family who in 1761 engaged Robert Adam to rebuild the house which was by then in considerable disrepair. Osterley House was once set in open countryside, and while its immediate grounds remain a park in National Trust management, a surprisingly large area of apparently unmanaged open land which would once have been part of its substantial grounds shadows the Brent here. To the east of the river this has become a managed wildlife area, part of the chain of spaces which make up Brent River Park. To the west the former Great Western Railway branch to Brentford runs broadly in parallel, passing the curiously named Trumpers' Crossing nearby. On the towpath, a large sign notes the location of the prize-winning length of pile in the 1959 Kerr Cup Pile Driving Competition. This contest, apparently organised by British Waterways, appears lost to history - even Google largely drawing a blank except for references to the sign itself. Both canal and railway pass under a more modern transport innovation here too, with the M4 sweeping above on a curving route into West London via a practical and unadorned concrete and iron overbridge. The traffic shuddered and screeched above, the notoriously bottlenecked road seemingly flowing freely for a welcome change.

The Brent meets the Grand Junction Canal
The Brent meets the Grand Junction Canal

For a while, the motorway, railway and canal ran in parallel along the broad lower Brent valley. The river meandered to the east here, passing around large wooded islands under the road, traffic above seeing a carpet of treetops below and largely unaware of the presence of the waterways. The towpath climbed over the river by way of an elegant iron bridge spanning solid, brick piers. Beyond the fence the silent machinery of a waste transfer station waited restlessly for the next load of detritus from the suburbs. This was once Brentford Town station on the somewhat unloved Brentford Dock branch, Brunel's final railway project before his death. The aim was to secure a GWR connection to the tidal Thames at Brentford - but the line struggled from the start with objections to its construction raised by the Grand Junction Canal Company and the Duke of Northumberland, owner of nearby Syon House. When eventually opened to goods in 1859, and then to passengers in 1860, the initially single track, broad gauge line failed to deliver on its promise in attracting commuters. The anticipated passenger flows to the Dock for ferries to Kew Gardens didn't ever begin operation, but freight traffic grew steadily with cargoes transferred to barges at the busy docks beside the Thames. By the time services were suspended as an economy measure during the First World War the branch was operating as a more conventional double track spur from Southall - but passenger traffic was never strong, in part because the connection to the mainline faced west making through-trains from Paddington unworkable. The London & South Western Railway had arrived in Brentford in 1849 with swift services direct to Waterloo - and the GWR simply couldn't compete. Despite restoration after hostilities ceased, the service was reduced to a peak time shuttle in 1929 and ceased entirely in 1942. Perhaps surprisingly, freight traffic continued to the goods depot at the Town Station site until 1970, with private sidings serving Firestone and other factories along the 'Golden Mile' of the Great West Road - the great mid-century sprawl of industry out to the west of London. Now the line stops short of its former crossing of the A4 while the collected waste of Hounslow, Ealing and Richmond is sifted and containerised at the railhead. Soon after passing under the road near the vast mirror of the Glaxo Smithkline global HQ, the river is bridged by the L&SWR's 'Hounslow Loop' - and with electric trains passing frequently above it's perhaps easy to see why the Great Western's branch never quite made its mark as a passenger railway. I emerged from beneath the Great West Road to find the hulking remains of an overhanging warehouse leering out into the waterway. It appeared that boats awaiting repair were now stored here, somewhat sheltered by the structure which seemed to be in the midst of a long process of overhaul. The path edged around the skeletal building, feeling oddly unofficial - this area was in the throes of redevelopment with the walkway temporarily transferred onto an unnerving floating pontoon in the canal. I trudged carefully along the queasily oscillating plastic walkway, noting the modern apartments which had encroached on the broad canal as it approached Brentford Gauging Lock. Walking here felt like trespass, and I wasn't sorry to emerge on Brentford High Street which felt down-to-earth in comparison to the eerily quiet developments along the canal.

Brentford High Street was surprisingly quiet too, with the Great West Road now taking the strain of much of the through traffic. At this, western end of town things were starting to feel the effort of gentrification - pubs were smartening up and a few specialist stores opening opposite a modern hotel building on the edge of the Canal basin. The towpath continued, descending via a slick, steep flight of stairs onto a narrow ledge which turned east along the Brent's final meander towards the Thames. This part of the walk had looked straightforward from the maps - a last trudge along the path to the confluence - but it was a surprisingly complicated endeavour. Firstly, the path was confusingly discontinuous and was often thrown aside from the water by private stretches of mooring. At one point following the path necessitated clambering up onto a concrete ledge to cross the river frontage of a timber merchant's warehouse which would formerly have received deliveries by barge. There were few people around and sparse signage to indicate I wasn't way off track - making the narrow and unclear right-of-way feel strangely menacing. The afternoon was becoming warm too, with the morning's mist and rain now a memory as the sun beat down on the water, reflecting dizzily back at me. I crossed the river again near a muddy inlet which reminded me that the River had now taken precedence again, and that this was Brentford Creek rather than the managed route of the canal. Immediately after crossing the bridge the route descended a steep staircase down to the grassy riverbank, as the more solid walkway through the Brentford Dock Estate remained private. Design of this development of homes by GLC architect Sir Roger Walters began on the closure of the docks in 1964, and building was finally complete by 1978 - the year of his retirement. Originally proposed for social letting, only around one fifth of the units were rented with leases for the rest sold by the GLC, resulting in the privately managed estate of today. In 1980 the associated Marina development was opened by the flamboyant GLC leader Sir Horace Cutler arriving by boat from County Hall. Cutler was by all accounts very keen on such showmanship, and although his administration is regarded as largely unsuccessful, he raised ideas which later found more general acceptance - not least the extension of the Jubilee Line into Docklands to spark regeneration, the promotion of the London Marathon and an audacious scheme to bid for the 1988 Olympic Games - which failed to find Government support. Cutler also correctly predicted that if elected, the Labour leader Andrew McIntosh would be ousted by the left of the party and that Ken Livingstone would become GLC leader. However, fighting the election on this negative basis seems to have assured Labour of the very victory which Cutler feared. Six years after Cutler's triumphant arrival stunt at Brentford Marina, the GLC which he had himself described as "too big, remote and shadowy" was finally abolished by the Thatcher government, nominally for those same reasons.

Brentford Dock
Brentford Dock

I crossed the Brent for the final time at Thames Lock - the tidal gates which controlled entry to the docks until their closure, and which still allow experienced boaters to access the Thames at designated times. The area around the lock was a pleasantly haphazard zone of chandler's yards and crumbling warehouses which transported me with a jolt to the unreconstructed reaches of the Lower Lea Valley more than a decade ago. Boats of all kinds were visible, some floating queasily askance, others hoisted from the water and in various states of repair or decay, but no-one seemed in a hurry to do much this sunny, Saturday afternoon. Here too, regeneration was slowly encroaching - and the people who I met crossing the bridge over the last loop of the river were upwardly mobile, young and optimistic looking types. Dock Road led down towards Brentford High Street which was a confusing and somewhat downbeat mix of buildings awaiting demolition, new developments and tired looking blocks from the late 20th century. A little further east I found the signposts marking the route to the Thames Path. Here, like some of the places I'd encountered the path in the east of the city, there were discontinuities and complex diversions where the riverfront rights of way hadn't yet been resolved. A short way ahead I found an alleyway which returned me to the final few metres of the River Brent at Point Wharf Lane beside some tidy and well-used residential moorings and some shiny newly built apartments stacked atop a trio of Turkish, Indian and Italian restaurants. The last mile of the Brent had been quiet and residential, and felt curiously private in nature. The river belonged to those who lived beside it and I felt like an intruder walking the path beside their homes. As the path turned east, I realised that I'd unexpectedly reached the point of confluence - and I tried to snap a picture inconspicuously over the heads a family working on their boat. I also calculated that the walk from Perivale to this spot had in fact been around ten miles in length - there was certainly no way I'd have finished this walk on my last outing, and perhaps I'd been too tough on myself for not pressing on to Brentford. after all? My estimate, minus the winding and curving of the river, had been dramatically off beam. Now I needed to head briefly back inland near the giant stainless steel swoop of Simon Packard's 'Liquidity' sculpture - a commission which had almost broken the spirit of the artist - standing resolutely on the quayside at Ferry Lane despite local homeowner's protests at its size.

The Thames Path meandered confusingly again, through a forbidding iron gateway and up a strange flight of outdoor stairs at the rear of Waterman's Park - an apparently abandoned 1970s office complex which felt like a set from a TV show. I expected to be chased along the raised brick gangway by Denis Waterman at any moment. Eventually though, I found my way through to the park proper - a sliver of green which runs along the Thames, the site of the former Brentford Gasworks which closed in 1963. A busy arts centre now occupies part of the cleansed and remediated land, and the river moorings are contested territory - longstanding residents forced out to accommodate luxury boats. Beside me the brown waters of London's river parted to sluggishly churn around Lot's Ait and Brentford Ait - a pair of wooded islets in the river. Up ahead, the tall tower of the former Grand Junction Waterworks Company loomed at Kew Bridge, marking the point where my South Circular walk had returned me to the north bank of the river. This dogged but doomed company had tried in vain to extract clean water from the Brent and the Colne, but resorted in the end to syphoning off the murk of the Thames and using the lofty standpipe tower as a means of filtering out the worst of the filth and detritus. Somehow, even when I least expected it, my walks formed connections and strengthened my sense of the city. My earlier walk along the northern reaches of the river had almost convinced me that these western tributaries would be frustrating to follow and wouldn't form substantial walks, but today had persuaded me otherwise. I waited for one of the trains which had passed over my head earlier to arrive at Kew Bridge and take me swiftly back to Waterloo while I pondered my eastern prejudices. It's true that having been engaged in other parts of the city had made me pine for points east, but if these western walks continued to produce these new and surprising insights into the fringes of the city, then I'd be back to walk more of them. At times during the previous month, the River Brent had felt like a millstone - unfinished work, an incomplete walk sitting on the ledger - but it had in fact been deceptive - a river much longer, swifter and deeper than I'd imagined, and a route surprisingly capable of capturing my imagination. I wasn't the first to be persuaded it seems, and it was interesting to ponder quite what our former Poet Laureate would have made of modern Brentford?

Gentle Brent, I used to know you
Wandering Wembley-wards at will,
Now what change your waters show you
In the meadowlands you fill!

Sir John Betjeman - Middlesex - 1954

You can find a gallery of pictures from the walk here.


Movebook Link
 


Lost::MikeGTN

I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.

I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.

Link to Instagram MikeGTN's Twitter SHOFT Facebook Page Lost::MikeGTN RSS Feed

Navigate Lost::MikeGTN

Find articles by category
Find articles by date

Search Lost::MikeGTN