|The river Brent in Brent Lodge Park.|
The landscape of this walk is impressively varied. It begins with an easy stroll through the Brent River Park in the wide, flat flood plain of the Brent valley, with plenty of waterside walking including two branches of the Grand Union Canal and a stretch of the river Brent itself. Then the terrain changes suddenly as the trail climbs steeply over two Middlesex hills of very different character. Horsenden Hill, a patchwork of woodland and old hay meadows, is a surprisingly rural oasis amid suburbia. Harrow on the Hill, in contrast, is largely built-up, with the historic buildings of Harrow School creating an unusual environment. The final stretch descends on ancient footpaths across the school playing fields and Northwick Park.
This post covers two consecutive official Ring sections combined to create a day walk. One ends and the other begins near Greenford station, but there are plenty of other transport options evenly spaced along the way. The trail passes the entrances to three additional stations and there are easy links to five more, before even mentioning bus stops.
Brent River Park
The river Brent is one of the longest Thames tributaries in London, longer still if you include its upper tributary which traditionally goes by a different name. This stream, the 13 km Dollis Brook, rises at Moat Mount between Barnet and Edgware: London Loop 16 passes one of its sources then follows the infant brook roughly east to Barnet. Here the brook turns south, leaving the Loop, although it remains tracked by another signed trail, the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. At Bridge Lane in Hendon on the next section of the Capital Ring, the Dollis Brook becomes the Brent at its confluence with the much shorter Mutton Brook, which rises in Cherry Tree Wood, East Finchley, about 3.5 km away.
From Hendon the combined flow runs southwest via Brent Cross and Wembley, joined by the Silk Stream and Wealdstone and Wembley Brooks, to Greenford, then south and southwest through Hanwell and into the Thames at Brentford, a distance of about 16 km. The stretch between Hanwell and Brentford was substantially remodelled in the early 19th century to create the southernmost part of what’s now the Grand Union Canal, although the natural course of the river survives in places, leaving then rejoining the artificial watercourse. The origin of the name isn’t clear and it’s not known whether Brentford or the river was named first: it may derive from an ancient Celtic term meaning a high place.
As often with urban rivers, the need for flood control has deterred housing development too close to the banks, and while the navigable lower section has inevitably attracted industry, the canal towpath has kept it accessible, creating a green ribbon along much of the river’s course. In 1973 a group of local people set up the Brent River and Canal Society (BRCS), which advocated to make the most of the lower part of the valley between Hanger Lane and Brentford through the creation of an integrated park. The result was today’s Brent River Park, around 400 ha of continuous green space on both sides of the river between the A4 and the A40, nearly all of it in the London Borough of Ealing and most of it publicly-accessible. BRCS is still active today in protecting the park, including from austerity-led threats like the recent proposal by the council to lease Warren Farm to Queens Park Rangers FC as a training ground. Meanwhile a loose collective of councils and organisations like the London Wildlife Trust collaborates over a wider area of the valley as the Brent Catchment Partnership, with a variety of projects to improve it for wildlife and public access.
The Ring entered the Brent River Park on the last section when it passed under the A4 by the GSK building in Brentford. Since Brentford Bridge, it’s been following the Brent River Park Walk, an 11 km riverside route through the park to Hanger Lane first promoted in the late 1980s. The Catchment Partnership has a long-term plan to improve and extend this trail, creating a continuous link on to Hendon and Barnet and incidentally providing a tempting corner-cutting alternative to the Ring. Both trails make use of the towpath of the Grand Union Canal, also the route of the Grand Union Canal Walk linking London and Birmingham. You can read more about the canal under London Loop 11, which follows a longer section of towpath.
Osterley Lock to Hanwell Locks
The western boundary of Hanwell followed the Brent, and as the towpath is on the east of the canal here, where the canal follows the original course of the river, the trail runs inside the old parish. But where the course has been straightened to leave loops of river to the east, the towpath ventures out of ancient Hanwell. This happens almost immediately you join it by the M4 motorway bridge, where a meander of the Brent runs over a weir at Osterley Lock, creating a semi-circular island and taking you briefly back into ancient Isleworth.
The lock is so-named as it’s on land that once formed part of the Osterley estate, first noted as a separate manor within Isleworth in 1274. In 1562 it was bought by Elizabethan statesman and financier Thomas Gresham, who also later acquired Boston Manor. Gresham had the old farmhouse rebuilt as a splendid mansion, which was remodelled by Robert Adam in 1760 and is now owned by the National Trust. Surrounded by parkland, it makes for a worthwhile visit, but it’s some way off our route to the west, now cut off by the canal and the M4.
The peaceful surroundings of the lock have received a boost recently thanks to the Hanwell & Norwood Green Orchard Trail, a community project to establish and maintain small orchards locally. As was standard practice, a lock keeper’s cottage was originally provided, and though this had been demolished by the 1980s, remains of its garden, complete with small orchard, survived on the island enclosed by canal and river. Between 2015 and 2017 the dense undergrowth on this site was cleared by volunteers and a dozen new fruit trees planted to join the two surviving pear trees from the original garden, along with bulbs and other plants. The history of this stretch of the Brent is rather less pleasant: the loop of river beyond the orchard was the site of Gallows Bridge, from where a track led to gallows used for public executions.
Beyond the lock, the towpath returns to ancient Hanwell by crossing the Brent again where it rejoins the canal by a weir. Just past here, a broad sandy path forks off uphill, taking the Brent River Park Walk and the unofficial Green London Way on a parallel route close by, along the top of the slope to the right, with more open views across the Elthorne Park Extension. This is a former landfill site, thus the change of level, but it’s been a public open space since the 1970s and was one of the original additions to the Brent River Park. The official Ring route, meanwhile, stays on the towpath, where you’ll pass a curiosity: a large plaque with an inscription recording a prize awarded to a British Waterways (predecessor of the Canal and River Trust) team for the length of its piling in a pile driving competition in 1959.
The two paths converge again at the ‘new’ Gallows Bridge, which takes Trumpers Way across the canal and into an industrial estate on the west side. Connoisseurs of new London breweries may be interested to know that Weird Beard, founded in 2013, occupies units here. After the bridge, several irregularly shaped informal green spaces separate the canal from the housing: the natural course of the Brent once meandered to the east here although it’s been long-since filled in. This means you’ve once again temporarily left ancient Hanwell, now entering the old parish of Hayes, which I’ve said more about under Loop 11.
The first little green space is known as the Piggeries, a reminder of one of its previous uses. It’s now another of the community orchards, planted with fruit trees in 2018. Here, at the base of a mature tree set back from the canal, is a Hanwell parish boundary stone. The canalside is the site of Hume’s Wharf, said to have been constructed in the first half of the 19th century by Thomas Hume, a former physician to the Duke of Wellington, and used for transporting gravel dug nearby. Beyond this, the canalside and many of the surrounding streets are part of the St Mark’s and Canal Conservation Area.
The Brent rejoins the canal, and the trail re-enters old Hanwell, where the waterway starts to bend left beside allotments. These are a recent addition, on formerly derelict land converted in 2011 into the William Hobayne Community Gardens, which also include nature areas and an apiary. Hobayne was a local man who in 1484 gave a house and a plot of land to fund a charity for the poor and needy of Hanwell. The charity still makes individual grants to people in distress, and maintains this site and others, including a local community centre.
Next along on the right is St Margarets Open Space, named after a nearby road. In 2016 this became the site of the third community orchard along this stretch of the trail, and the project is also helping manage other parts of the space to create hay and flower meadows. Just past this along Green Lane, a former drove route, is the Fox pub, built in 1848 and a now a much-loved local with a reputation for its cask beer. As its name suggests, this was the meeting place for the local hunt until the 1920s: the area to the east here, now entirely built up, was once the expanse of Hanwell Heath, a popular site for chasing foxes. Over on the west side of the canal here is the disputed site of Warren Farm.
Just past Green Lane, the Grand Union Canal finally parts company with the Brent, which forks off right. The lock immediately ahead here is the lowest of the six Hanwell Locks, one of the most remarkable engineering features of the entire canal, as well as a picturesque setting that caught the eye of painter J M W Turner among others. Completed as part of the original canal structure in 1796, the locks raise the water level 16.2 m over 500 m, lifting the canal out of the Brent valley and setting it on a westward course towards the Colne valley. Anyone who has ever had to work a boat through them, a process taking at least an hour, will understand why though as a mode of transport the canals were an improvement on the roads of the day, they were quickly eclipsed by the railways for speed and convenience.
The towpath and the signed Grand Union Canal Walk continue here towards Hayes, where they link with the London Loop, and more energetic walkers can continue all the way to Birmingham if they wish. But the Capital Ring sticks with the Brent River Park Walk, alongside the Brent towards Hanwell proper.
HanwellHanwell has a Saxon name meaning ‘cockerel’s spring’ and there’s archaeological evidence of settlement as early as the 6th century. The original village likely grew up around Cuckoo Hill, where the church stands today, further along our walk, overlooking the Brent and beside an ancient track leading southwards along the valley to Brentford. Today’s main east-west highway, the Uxbridge Road, is thought to be more recent, dating from the early middle ages. As mentioned previously, Hanwell evolved into a strip-shaped parish on the east bank of the Brent, between the bend of that river at Greenford and the Thames, though the development of the southernmost part, New Brentford, was more closely bound up with the emergence of neighbouring Old Brentford in Ealing parish. Until relatively recent times, much of the central part of the parish, to the east of our route, was an open waste known as Hanwell Heath: today it’s been entirely developed but even into the early 19th century there were few houses south of the Uxbridge Road.
Hanwell’s modern appearance was shaped not only by transport developments like the turnpiking of the Uxbridge Road in 1714, the canal in 1796, the Great Western Railway in 1838 and the tramline between Ealing and Southall in 1901, but by the establishment of large-scale amenities for London’s growing population that took advantage of those links. One of these was the Central London School, a combined school and workhouse for poor children which moved from Norwood to a purpose-built site on Cuckoo Hill accommodating 1,200 children in 1856. Its most famous inmate was Charles Chaplin who was here between 1896 and 1898 along with his brother Sydney. The school was closed in 1933 but some of the buildings are still in use as a community centre.
Another local site dedicated to managing the problems of a vast metropolis was the First Middlesex County Asylum, the first purpose-built institution of its kind in England, opened in 1831 on land immediately west of the Brent. In an era where the distinction between mental illness and mental disability still wasn’t entirely appreciated, the asylum was the expression of a new approach which recognised that some ‘lunatics’ at least might be cured and didn’t have to be restrained for life in appalling conditions. Its first superintendent Dr William Charles Ellis was firmly convinced of this, prescribing fresh air, physical activity and what we’d now call occupational therapy: the asylum was as self-sufficient as possible with its own carpentry, bakery and brewery worked by patients, though the last was closed in 1888 as it was considered inappropriate for the “habitual drunkards” then being sent to Hanwell. One of Ellis’ successors, John Connolly, who took over in 1839, abolished the use of mechanical restraints.
The regime at Hanwell was a major improvement on previous approaches to mental health and disability and achieved notable results. But there was an economic imperative too: locking up someone for life might ultimately cost the authorities more than rehabilitating them as a productive individual. The institution was renamed the London County Asylum in 1889 and again as St Bernard’s Hospital in 1937. During the 1960s it was the site of several advances in the treatment of alcohol dependency. In the 1970s the site was redeveloped as a general hospital, Ealing Hospital, though several original buildings still stand and remain in psychiatric use as the St Bernard’s Wing.
The pleasantly wooded footpath along the Brent from Hanwell Locks to Hanwell Bridge is known as FitzHerbert Walk after Luke FitzHerbert (1937-2007), a Dublin-born local teacher who was a prime mover in the creation of the Brent River Park, and later made a career switch to become an influential fundraising expert in the charities and voluntary sector, helping establish the Directory of Social Change. Across the river is Billets Hart, once a common meadow, now another larger area of allotments managed by the William Hobbayne charity; to the left, the hospital buildings can be glimpsed through the trees. Strictly speaking, as the path, the locks and the hospital are on the west side of the Brent, they’re not within the ancient boundary of Hanwell parish but in Southall, in what was once an ecclesiastically independent precinct of Hayes parish known as Norwood (not to be confused with the area of same name along Ring 4).
The Ring arrives at Brent Bridge, more commonly known as Hanwell Bridge, where the Uxbridge Road crosses the Brent. The date of the earliest crossing here isn’t known but there are references to repairs as far back as 1396 and the outer arches on the south side, facing you as you approach, remain from the mediaeval bridge. The bridge was rebuilt in stone in the late 15th or early 16th century, then in brick by 1675. The Uxbridge Turnpike Trust rebuilt and widened it in 1762, and the inner arches on the south side date from this period, though faced with Victorian stonework. In 1906 it was refaced again and widened on the north side, resulting in the current Grade II-listed structure. The riverside path continues under the bridge but this section is often wet and muddy so you may have to cross Uxbridge Road at street level.
Turning right along the road from the bridge takes you along the shopping street of Hanwell Broadway with its rather stumpy though oddly charming concrete art deco clock tower installed in 1937 to commemorate the coronation of George VI. This street flourished with the progress of the tram line along the Uxbridge Road in the early 20th century: much more affordable than trains, the trams completed the transformation of Hanwell and neighbouring Southall (see Hillingdon Trail 1) into working class and lower middle-class suburbs in the first half of the 20th century, with most of the remaining open land disappearing beneath streets.
Facing these development pressures, the old boroughs of Southall and Ealing made some efforts to preserve green spaces, many of which now form part of the Brent River Park. North of Uxbridge Road on the Southall side, the trail threads along the edge of Brent Meadow, a former hay meadow that’s now a mix of mowed and more natural grassland and has recently become the site of another community orchard. It provides a fine platform from which to appreciate one of the most important historic structures in the area: the magnificent Wharncliffe Viaduct.
|The Wharncliffe Viaduct, as recommended by all local bats.|
A good example of the 19th century engineer’s knack for designing infrastructure that could be both practical and attractive, this was the first major work of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) and the first large structure along the line of his celebrated Great Western Railway (GWR). Completed in 1837 and now Grade I-listed, it spans 270 m of the Brent valley on eight 5.3 m-high arches. It’s named after James Mackenzie, Lord Wharncliffe, who chaired the parliamentary committee which steered the bill for the line’s construction through parliament, and whose arms can be seen on the central pier as you approach. The supporting piers are hollow – one of Brunel’s innovations, which greatly reduced the cost – and have subsequently become home to colonies of bats.
The viaduct was part of the first section of the GWR to open to the public, from Paddington to Maidenhead in 1838. Originally it was laid with ‘broad gauge’ track, the rails spaced seven feet (2134 mm) apart, though later converted to standard gauge. When this section was electrified for the Heathrow Express service in the 1990s, the gantries supporting the overhead catenary were aligned with the viaduct piers to reduce their impact on the structure’s elegant lines.
Just before passing under the viaduct, the trail swaps to the east bank of the Brent and back into Hanwell proper. A Ring link route on the other side runs through small local parks and streets to Hanwell station. This opened in 1838 a few months after the railway itself, though it later moved sites: originally it was accessed from the first road you encounter along the link, still called Station Road, but was rebuilt in 1877 about 200 m to the east. The current Grade II-listed station, which is scheduled to become part of the Elizabeth Line in the next couple of years, preserves some historic buildings, canopies and wooden platform structures. It was known as Hanwell and Elthorne between 1896 and 1974, in response to the renaming campaign mentioned above, and historic GWR signs bearing this name remain on the platforms.
Incidentally, there’s another way of walking to the station on the south side of the viaduct which runs through the woodland of Half Acre Field, another area of land gifted to the poor of the parish by William Hobayne; and Connolly Dell, named after John Connolly (1794-1866), the superintendent of Hanwell Asylum who abolished the use of restraints: this pleasant hidden gem was once his private garden.
Brent Lodge Park
On the other side of the viaduct, the trail runs through Churchfields Recreation Ground and the adjoining Brent Lodge Park, now one of the most popular and attractive green spaces in Ealing but originally the private creation of an ill-fated property speculating clergyman. In the 1780s, when grand country homes for prosperous Londoners began to appear on parts of the old manorial estate of Hanwell Park, the rector, George Henry Glasse (1761-1809), started buying parcels of land close to his church, including a large house known as Brent End, later renamed Brent Lodge. It was Glasse who first landscaped the grounds into a park, and built a cottage orné, the Hermitage, which still stands on Church Road just off our route.
Glasse, who had succeeded his father as rector, enjoyed some recognition as a Classical scholar, novelist and author, translating Milton into Greek and contributing humorous Latin versions of popular songs to The Gentleman’s Magazine. He borrowed money to carry out the work at Brent Lodge, hoping to profit by selling it on to a wealthy owner. But he failed to find a buyer and had to take out a further loan from a City bank to cover his debts. Writer and diarist Hester Thrale, whom we encountered at Streatham Park on Ring 5, records that Glasse inadvertently left this money in a cab when he stopped off for a meal at a famous coaching inn of the day, the Bull and Mouth in St Martins Le Grand, and hanged himself in despair when he realised what he’d done. In a final twist, the honest cabbie returned the lost property to the pub the following day.
Ownership of the estate eventually passed through marriage back to Montague Sharpe, the heir of Hanwell Park, the manor from which it had been carved. Sharpe sold Churchfields to the Hanwell Urban District Council for use as a public park in 1898, then sold Brent Lodge to its successor Ealing Borough Council in 1931. Between them, Brent Lodge Park and Churchfields now total 16 ha of formal parkland, open grassland, historic gardens, woodland patches and riverside meadows.
After the viaduct, the Brent bends west and the Capital Ring follows it, with Churchfields stretching out to the right. Before Glasses’s alterations, this was glebe land originally allocated to provide a living for the parish priest, and you can still just about imagine it as water meadows. The Brent River Park Walk takes an alternative route here, on an old diagonal path northwest across Churchfields which once linked the church with the Uxbridge Road. Entering Brent Lodge Park past a hedge, the Ring continues to track the meandering Brent along the edge of the lawns and meadows, but you may prefer to follow the unofficial Green London Way by keeping left along the main surfaced path which takes you through the more formal garden areas and past several key features of interest.
First there’s the entrance to the Millennium Maze, also visible from the riverside route: constructed of exactly 2,000 yew trees, this was opened in May 2000 on the former site of a bowling green and tennis courts. Brent Lodge house itself once stood just northeast of here but was demolished after a serious fire in 1936. The site is now occupied by a park café and the park’s most celebrated feature, Hanwell Zoo, which explains local nickname Bunny Park. The zoo, formerly known as Brent Lodge Park Animal Centre, grew from aviaries established in the 1960s, became an official licensed zoo in 1975 and has expanded several times since, though it’s still one of the smallest zoos in the country. Admission was free for most of its history, but this was too good to be true in the age of austerity, so charges, still relatively modest, were introduced in 2017. The collection includes water birds, butterflies, exotic amphibians and small mammals like lemurs, mara, meerkats and pygmy goats and pigs.
To the north of the zoo is a yellow brick two-storey stable block originally built for Glasse in the late 18th or early 19th century and now Grade II-listed: this, and parts of a wall running between the block and the zoo, are the only substantial buildings surviving from the historic estate. Opposite are formal gardens with a more recent park shelter.
The main path out of the park leads to St Mary’s Church on its promontory above the river, likely the focus of the original village. This has changed its appearance dramatically since Glasse was the incumbent: the current Grade II*-listed building was designed by celebrated Gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott, of St Pancras fame, in 1841, with several subsequent additions. But the first record of a church on the site is from 958, and there was possibly a pre-Christian shrine here before then. Grade II-listed Rectory Cottage opposite was built for Glasse about 1800, while a further detour a little along Church Road will bring you to the Hermitage mentioned above, a deliberately quaint thatched stucco affair from 1809 which demonstrates that twee ‘olde worlde’ pastiche dates back much further than the early 20th century.
The official Ring route, the Brent River Park Walk and the Green London Way merge again at a footbridge at the foot of the footpath downhill from the church, which also marks the northern boundary of the park, with Boles Meadow on the other side. Here the trail crosses the Brent again onto what used to be the Norwood/Southall side, although as the river’s course has been straightened radically upstream of the footbridge, it’s difficult to work out where the old boundary ran. The land on the other side was farmland around 1910 when it became the Brent Valley Golf Club, originally a private initiative but bought by Ealing council in 1938 as part of its strategy to preserve green space along the valley: stretches of the old hedgerows still survive. Within the course to the left is the Hanwell Cricket Club ground, now part of Ealing Cricket Club and known as Ealing Hanwellians.
The path where the Ring turns back towards the river again once marked the boundary between Southall to the south and Greenford to the north, but you’re soon back on the Hanwell side of the river walking through more green spaces. A short but attractive stretch right alongside the river as it passes along the west edge of Mayfield can be avoided if too damp by sticking to the surfaced path that carries the Brent River Park Walk. Beyond this is a large former landfill site known as Bitterns Field: sadly there are no bitterns to be seen but it’s being managed to encourage other wildlife. The trail stays on an embankment above the river, passing school playing fields before a welcome patch of woodland brings you to the road by Greenford Bridge.
|Today's Greenford Bridge, looking towards Greenford Broadway.|
It’s hard to imagine, but until a hundred or so years ago Greenford was a rural backwater of Middlesex. A trade directory published in 1838 describes it as “very secluded”, and there were no main roads across it until the 1920s. It emerged from the mediaeval period a relatively large parish, its population scattered across several small and widely dispersed clusters of housing: Stickleton, along the Ruislip Road in the south; Brabsden Green on the edge of Horsenden Hill in the northeast; the church and manor house in the centre; and Greenford Green in the north (these last two are off our route). Even the opening of what’s now the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal in 1801 brought little building in its wake, and the first factory, the Perkins chemical works which pioneered the production of aniline dyes, didn’t appear until the 1850s. Then over a couple of decades between the two world wars, Greenford was transformed into the dense patchwork of suburban housing, industrial sites and mercifully preserved green spaces we see today.
The Anglo-Saxon origins of the name remain transparent to modern readers: the ‘green ford’ by which ancient lanes connecting Ruislip, Harrow and Hanwell crossed the Brent at the elbow where its course turned from west to south. Partly because of the former lack of a dominant population centre, the old parish name is still applied across what now appears to be a large and undifferentiated swathe of development, and it’s not entirely clear when locals say ‘Greenford’ precisely which bit they mean.
Greenford manor was held by Westminster Abbey since before the Norman conquest and became the property of the bishop of London in 1550. Most of it remained in church hands well into the 19th century, and the Church Commissioners maintained an interest in land here into the 1950s. Though the manor remained rural for so long, the metropolis exerted an influence on local agriculture: over the course of the 18th century, fields used for wheat and other arable crops for many centuries were progressively given over to the production of hay to help feed London’s growing horse population. The parish became an urban district in 1894 and was merged with Ealing in 1926.
The location of the original ford is not entirely clear but it was likely somewhere close to where the Ring enters the old parish across Greenford Bridge, parting company with the Brent River Park Walk which continues along the river. The river was bridged by the end of the 13th century: indeed there were then at least two bridges close to this point, one of which, Stickleton Bridge, was likely a little way further upriver. Stickleton itself was further west along Ruislip Road, although the name has all but disappeared, and the current busy high street of Greenford Broadway is almost entirely a 1920s phenomenon. A wooden bridge stood on the site of the current Greenford Bridge by 1614, and at some point in the 17th century it seems Stickleton Bridge was closed, with its approach from the north along Costons Lane diverted to Greenford Bridge. The current stone structure dates from 1922.
The Ring now follows Costons Lane, the bend of which is the legacy of that 17th century diversion: it once ran on a straighter course to connect on the Hanwell side with a road that still survives as a footpath to the east. The lane is named after a prominent landowning family in that century. There’s a folk tale retold in an 1890 local history book but probably apocryphal, of how a local orphan once enriched himself with a horde of money stolen from a miserly miller whom he stumbled upon dead in Perivale Mill, concocting a story about a ghost to cover his tracks before disappearing without trace. Twenty years later, when prosperous merchant Simon Coston turned up in Greenford to buy himself a country estate, locals with long memories noted his resemblance to the vanished orphan. So the story goes, Coston later committed suicide, leaving a confession among his papers which confirmed he was indeed the orphan who had disappeared with the miller’s fortune.
The family is also commemorated in the name of the short Brent tributary Costons Brook, which rises a little to the northwest. The trail crosses this in Perivale Park, the last Brent River Park site along the Ring, which was open fields until 1930 when it became public sports grounds and the nine-hole Perivale Park Golf Course. Much of the site is still given over to golf and dull expanses of mown grass pitches, but there are some old hedgerows, wildflower meadows and a community orchard planted in 2018. On the other side of the brook, a mature tree stands on a path corner and you can just about imagine it towering above hay meadows. Here the trail turns north, following the ancient line of Cowgate Lane, which likely once connected Greenford church with Hanwell across another now-vanished bridge: it still runs outside the park as a residential street now called Cowgate Road.
Perivale Park, incidentally, is historically in Greenford. Perivale itself was a separate parish to the east, although it originated as part of Greenford, becoming a distinct manor in the 12th century and a separate parish over the next two centuries. Until the 16th century it was more commonly known as Greenford Parva or Little Greenford and this has sometimes been suggested as the origin of its current name, though a more likely derivation is ‘pear tree valley’. Greenford itself was correspondingly sometimes called Great Greenford or Greenford Magna to avoid confusion.
There’s an opportunity to avoid Cow Lane and the dogleg around the park perimeter by cutting diagonally across the pitches when they’re not in use, but then you’ll miss one of the more unusual memorials on the trail: a bench designed to evoke a piano keyboard. Installed in 2018, it commemorates Nicky Hopkins (1944-94), the renowned session pianist who worked with some of the most prominent names in 1960s and 1970s rock music, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks and Jefferson Airplane. Hopkins was born nearby in Perivale and knew the park well: the memorial was crowdfunded alongside a scholarship scheme at the Royal Academy of Music and the contributors included Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Yoko Ono, Roger Daltrey and Jimmy Page.
South Greenford to Greenford
|Greenford branch line crossing Western Avenue.|
Rather busier and more intrusive is the dual carriageway road the trail now has to cross. This is Western Avenue, one of the new roads constructed to prepare Britain for the age of the motor car. Linking White City with Uxbridge as part of a new trunk route between London and Oxford, it opened in stages from the late 1920s: this stretch dates from 1934. Originally it was numbered A403 but was renumbered A40 after World War II. Like the ‘Golden Mile’ stretch of the A4 to the south, which dates from a similar period (see Ring 7), it’s known for its art deco industrial buildings, of which the most famous is the Hoover Building, now a supermarket, about 1.3 km east of here (right). But more ubiquitous are the 1930s semis which line it, set back as here along parallel service roads. When traffic was still relatively light, a house along a major trunk road would have been attractive enough: I wonder quite when their owners started to question whether they’d really made such a good buy.
Western Avenue still ran through meadows here in the mid-1930s, but by the outbreak of World War II these were largely filled by streets. One open space was preserved as playing fields, Cayton Green Park, which since the mid-1990s has been home to Northolt Rugby Football Club. This began in 1958 as a works team attached to the Lucas CAV fuel systems plant in Northolt, hence its name. When the area was developed, a convenient footpath was provided between the railway and the sports ground.
The trail briefly follows another main road, the Greenford Road (A4127), though it’s rather quieter than Western Avenue. This is the first modern highway constructed through Greenford, an early arterial road scheme opened in 1924 to link the Uxbridge Road between Southall and Hanwell with Harrow and the routes north. Under the Greenford Branch Line, you arrive at the crossing with Rockware Avenue with the Westway Cross retail park opposite, a glassy but rather soulless American-style mall with retail units behind a massive car park. Interestingly, this patch of ground wasn’t built up until the late 1990s, despite its proximity to one of the area’s largest industrial sites.
Rockware Avenue commemorates Rockware Glass, originally W A Bailey, a glass container factory just to the east (right), which was one of the earliest 20th century industrial arrivals in the area, opening in 1900. It expanded to take over a lead works next door and by 1959 occupied a 14 ha site employing over 1,200 people. The works closed in 1973 and was redeveloped as a distribution centre for the US-based computer giant IBM (International Business Machines), with a bold modern building designed by Norman Foster which is now Grade II listed. The open land to the west by the road junction was acquired by Rockware but was never built on: part of it was used as a golf course, and during the 1970s part of it was landscaped to provide a green setting for the IBM building. Sadly, this context has now been lost as the retail park now occupies the landscaped space, but the rest of the area has become a valuable ecological and recreational resource, as we’ll soon see. IBM still uses its building as a data centre.
This corner is the official end of Loop 8, with a station link west (left) along Rockware Avenue, following the branch line to Greenford station and another outcrop of 1920s-style retail along Oldfield Lane. As well as being the terminus of the branch line, the station stands on the New North Main Line, now officially known as the Acton-Northolt Line, which like the branch line opened in 1904. This was a joint project of the Great Western Railway (GWR) and Great Central Railway (GCR), linking Old Oak Common on the former’s main line with Denham on the latter’s, now the Chiltern line from Marylebone. Its main purpose was to give the GWR better access to Birmingham and the north of England, in competition with the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), and the GCR access to the GWR’s terminus at Paddington, though it was also prompted by the need to serve the Royal Agricultural Society’s showgrounds at Park Royal.
The original station entrance was on the north side of the line, where there’s still a street called Station Approach, but in 1947 London Underground’s Central Line was extended alongside the NNML tracks to West Ruislip and the current smart ‘moderne’ Underground station was built on the other side, designed by Frederick Francis Charles Curtis. Rail nationalisation removed the original rationale for the main line and the old station was closed in 1963. The remaining occasional services from Paddington to Birmingham and beyond via the NNML were withdrawn in the 1990s, and a token weekly service to High Wycombe ended in December 2018 when work on the Elizabeth Line broke the link to Paddington at Old Oak Common. But Network Rail still owns through tracks here which are used for freight, and a daily ‘ghost’ passenger service runs instead non-stop from West Ealing via the Greenford branch line and on to Wycombe. One unusual feature of the station is a lift on sloping rails beside a staircase, like a miniature funicular, which replaced the last wooden escalator on the Underground in 2015.
Along the Paddington Arm
|Wetlands at the aptly-named Paradise Fields|
A few paces from the retail park, the surroundings change abruptly for the better as the trail emerges from a subway into a peaceful oasis of ponds, reeds and scrubby secondary woodland. Paradise Fields revives the name of a field here shown on an 18th century map, but on a sunny day when damselflies buzz over the lagoons and the sunlight dapples through the willows, you may well conclude the site is still entitled to it. This is the remainder of the undeveloped Rockware land, occupied by a golf course until annexed to Horsenden Hill and remodelled in 2000 with funds released as a part of the public benefit obligation of the Westway Cross development. You pass the Subway Lagoon then the Main Lagoon on the right: a short detour leads to a wooden platform overlooking the latter. Further on, the woodlands on the right are known as the Flood and the Oaks while the more open meadows on the left are Bramble Patch Field and Brook Field.
The Ring approaches IBM Footbridge, opened with the site in 2000 to replace an earlier bridge across the Grand Union Canal Paddington Arm a little further south. A well-defined footpath and cycleway continues across the bridge and through the meadows of Horsenden West to Brabsden Green, and Google Maps has this labelled as the Capital Ring, but the official trail stays on this side of the canal for the time being. A glance at the map reveals this is a notably less direct route, but it includes an excursion over Horsenden Hill which you really wouldn’t want to miss.
I’ve said a bit more about the Paddington Arm on Hillingdon Trail 1: it was opened from Bulls Bridge to Paddington in 1801 to provide a more direct route into central London for traffic on the Grand Union Canal than working through the Hanwell Flight to Brentford and continuing downstream along the Thames. Following the towpath, you can soon glimpse the IBM building on the right, followed by the ancient oak woodland of the 11 ha Perivale Wood Local Nature Reserve (LNR).
This is one of London’s oldest nature reserves and the last reserve managed by the Selborne Society, originally a national organisation founded in 1885 to commemorate the work of the naturalist Gilbert White, who had lived at Selborne in Hampshire, hence the name. The early history of the society is entangled with the emergence of better-known heritage and environmental charities like the National Trust and RSPB and in its heyday it owned and managed numerous properties. It’s looked after the wood since 1902 and bought it in 1923 using funds from an anonymous donation. Sadly, the LNR isn’t open to the public, only to society members and pre-booked educational groups.
Like Perivale Park, Perivale Wood was actually in Greenford, outside the old boundaries of Perivale itself, though as soon as you pass the woodland edge, with the more open area of Lower Thrifts Field to the right, you finally enter the former parish, if only for a brief visit. Ballot Box Bridge, where the Ring leaves the towpath, is named after a pub along Horsenden Lane, of which more later. In fact there are two bridges: the original humped road bridge, numbered 13, and a more recent parallel footbridge, numbered 13A. You walk under both before crossing the latter to reach one of the highlights of the whole trail.
|Grand Union Canal Paddington Arm approaching Ballot Box Bridge.|
|View west from Horsenden Hill towards Northolt.|
Horsenden Hill is one of London’s, and the Ring’s, brightest green gems, an expanse of old hay meadows, fields, grassland and woodland, rising to a lofty height of 85 m, the highest in Ealing, above a sea of largely interwar suburbia. Partly thanks to the discouraging terrain, it remained undeveloped long enough to be protected by local authorities in an early version of the Green Belt scheme. In 1933, by which time the eastern slope had become a golf club, a partnership of Middlesex County Council and Ealing and Wembley boroughs bought the rest for £98,000 to use as a public open space. Management was passed to Ealing, and its successor London borough still looks after the whole site, now much expanded to 100 ha with the addition of adjacent areas.
The name means ‘Horsa’s hill’, resulting in a popular association with the legendary Horsa who with his brother Hengist is said to have led the Anglo-Saxon occupation of England in the 5th century. Alternatively, according to a Victorian account, it’s the burial place of a Saxon chief called Horsa who fought a battle with his son-in-law Bren at Brentford over his daughter’s honour. But this seems equally fanciful: ‘Horsa’ was a common Saxon name and the first attested Battle of Brentford was between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes (see Ring 6). In fact, the hill was settled long before Saxon times and may have been farmed 7,000 years ago. Partial archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence of a Celtic Iron Age settlement on the summit, now a scheduled Ancient Monument.
I’ve described three different routes to the top. The preferred Ring route up the western flank is admirably direct and not too steep until the final flight of steps, but there’s a longer and perhaps more interesting signed alternative that includes a bit more of the canal and the buildings of Horsenden Farm, including toilets. The unofficial Green London Way, meanwhile, follows the alternative route through the farm then opts for a more direct climb up the northern slope: this is the most challenging option, with a stile and a long flight of rough steps through woodland, but all three involve some effort, rewarded by the views.
The main trail ignores the formal entrance to the site and heads instead across Horsenden Green, once the locus of a small settlement. Through a band of woodland, you emerge into a meadow known as Home Mead, striated by the remains of ancient hedgerows, with the views improving as you climb. You might even encounter cattle, as grazing has been reintroduced to the site. Crossing a flat terrace below the summit, you’re walking over a large covered reservoir constructed in 1951, though disused since the early 1960s. Then there’s the final flight of steps to the top.
The signed alternative goes through the main gate and soon runs close to the canal past private moorings on the opposite side of the towpath, before ascending to the 1860s farmhouse and its surrounding buildings nestling attractively under the hillside. There was once a visitor centre and café here, though both are sadly no longer open, though there are numerous information boards, toilets and other features. In 2014 the farm was leased to a social enterprise which planned to reopen the café and create a horticultural centre supporting people with mental health difficulties and learning disabilities. Unfortunately, this project soon went bust, and the farm is currently managed by voluntary group the Friends of Horsenden Hill. They maintain the very pleasant front garden and are gradually recreating the orchard that once stood to the southwest of the house. The tiny Perivale Brewery occupies an outhouse and is occasionally open for summer events.
The straight track running east-west through the woodlands behind the farm once marked the northern boundary of Perivale: uphill from here, you’re back in Greenford. Along the way are signs for the Gruffalo Trail, installed in 2016 to encourage children to explore the woods: it includes several chainsaw tree sculptures of the popular characters created by author Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Scheffler. The signed alternative then meanders back east again through a field known as Long Mead to rejoin the main trail, while the Green London Way heads more directly uphill.
Whichever way you reach the top, you’ll find a rough grassy plateau with breath-taking views stretching on a clear day to Buckinghamshire, Windsor and Surrey. Not too far away and particularly significant are the twin spires of Harrow on the Hill, the next major landmarks on our journey. During World War I, this high but flat expanse was used as an anti-aircraft gun station, then a platform for searchlights in World War II. There are now no remnants of either these or the Iron Age settlement, just a few lone trees and a well-preserved Ordnance Survey triangulation pillar or ‘trig point’, one of the few on the Ring: for more about these now-redundant structures see Loop 5.
The trail descends the hill through Horsenden Woods, part of which is ancient woodland, a fragment of the Forest of Middlesex. In the early 19th century a local farmer began clearing the trees to create arable land: the wood was only saved because he went bankrupt and now forms a valuable part of the patchwork. At the foot of the hill the trail turns west again, bringing you past Whittlers Wood and back to Horsenden Lane North, a continuation of Ballot Box Lane, by the Ballot Box itself. The current pub-restaurant was built in the 1950s some 400 m north of its original location. The historic pub had completely vanished by the 1970s, its site reabsorbed into the woodland of the park.
The streets north of the hill were developed in the 1930s and afterwards. The most prominent building is the brown brick All Hallows Church, opened on its triangular site in 1940. Designed in the unfussy style of the day by architect Cyril A Farey, with its squat tower it looks to me like a cross between a church and a power station. In front is the more recent addition of a millennium garden. The trail crosses Whitton Avenue, the third of the main roads which opened up the area in the 20th century, constructed in the early 1930s.
One welcome patch of green tucked away in the residential streets across the road is Ridding Lane Open Space, a remnant of the parish common lands that once covered much of north Greenford, still boasting some mature trees. The Ring runs alongside it on a stretch of Ridding Lane which bends west to parallel the railway. Approaching the main road, you’re following the old parish boundary, though the modern boundary has been realigned slightly north along the railway tracks. Crossing the railway on Greenford Road, you finally leave the old Greenford parish and today’s Ealing borough to enter the old parish and modern borough of Harrow, although the area to the east of the road has been separated off into Brent.
|Another Holden masterpiece: Sudbury Hill station.|
The railway drove the rapid development of the area into the 1930s and, as often, the station ended up lending its name to the wider neighbourhood. The line was extended further in 1910 to Rayners Lane to join the Metropolitan Railway to Uxbridge and then incorporated into the rapidly expanding Piccadilly Line in 1932. In preparation for this change, the old station building was demolished and replaced with the current handsome moderne structure, with its glazed red brick box incorporating the Underground roundel. It’s now Grade II-listed as a particularly notably example of the work of architect Charles Holden, also responsible for several other landmark Piccadilly Line stations of the same period.
Just a few steps further is a more architecturally modest station, Sudbury Hill Harrow, on the National Rail Chiltern line. It’s the slightly younger of the two, opened in 1906 on what was then the Great Central Railway’s link between its Marylebone line at Neasden and the joint line it operated with the Great Western Railway from Paddington at Northolt (now South Ruislip). Originally it was named South Harrow, which though more historically accurate was confusing as the Underground’s South Harrow station was some distance away, so it was renamed in 1926. As mentioned at South Greenford station above, services from Paddington on the joint line have all but ceased, so this is now the main route for Chiltern trains towards places like High Wycombe and Birmingham.
After crossing this second railway the Ring forks off along South Vale, but a few steps further along the main road is another Grade II-listed building, the former St Andrews Church Institute, a whimsical Victorian Gothic fake flint cottage from 1849, now a private college. Prior to 1928 when Greenford Road here was incorporated into the arterial road we previously encountered by Westway Cross, it was a more minor thoroughfare: the Ring follows the older, more direct route to Harrow, part of which is now a wooded urban footpath officially known as Green Lane, though locally as Piggy Lane, another unexpected remnant of hilly rural Middlesex.
The steep climb up the lane begins the Ring’s ascent of Harrow Hill, merging at the top with the main London road, known here, as just mentioned, as Sudbury Hill. As usual in London, poshness increases with height, and you’re soon surrounded by large private properties in leafy surrounds. There are some notable listed buildings in what’s now a conservation area. The second house on the left, set back from the road and painted white with timbered gables, is the White Cottage, built in 1908 to a design by the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect Baillie Scott (1865-1945). On the next bend is another early 20th century Tudor-inspired designer house, the Orchards, with a distinctive arched gateway: architect Arnold Mitchell built it for himself in 1900. A little further up, you can glimpse a large pale yellow painted house behind a red brick wall and trees, now known as the Mount House but built around 1810 as the Convent of St Dominic.
At the top of the slope, the main road bends left downhill again, but our way is ahead along the old London Road towards Harrow village. At the corner are two more listed buildings. The three-storey house with the protruding porch and arched passageway in the centre of the range on the right just before the junction is Highlands, a particularly handsome mid-19th century house. A much smaller cream-painted building with charming dormer windows just around the corner is known as Toll Gate Cottage, recalling the fact that tolls were collected here when the road from Harrow to Paddington became a turnpike in 1801. The 17th century timber-framed building wasn’t a toll house, however, but a timbered-framed stables and coach house connected to a bigger propery on the site, likely converted to a freestanding cottage in 1864.
Harrow on the Hill
|A man who held the manor for a mere weeks surveys the Green at Harrow on the Hill.|
The Kings Head is the three-storey white building centre left.
As mentioned under London Loop 14, Harrow was once a large parish and manor in the Middlesex hundred of Gore, stretching all the way from Pinner and Harrow Weald on the boundary of Hertfordshire south to the river Brent, including places like Wembley and Alperton which are now in Brent borough. This was a ‘dispersed parish’ of numerous small hamlets linked by paths, though a centre of sorts developed atop Harrow Hill, one of several gravel-topped hills rising from the London clay above the river Brent and its tributaries, at 124 m not quite the highest point in the parish but made conspicuous by its isolation. This was the location of the hearg or pre-Christian temple that gave Harrow its name, later replaced by a church.
The manor is first mentioned in land grants by King Offa of Mercia in 767, and at one point belonged to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury. After the Norman conquest it was granted directly to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Domesday surveyors recorded 113 inhabitants in 1086. In 1545, Henry VIII forced Archbishop Thomas Cranmer to hand over the property and almost immediately sold it into private hands. The manor, for centuries largely rented out as farmland, passed through several owners, with sections gradually split off and sold separately: perhaps the most significant holders, between the 17th and 19th centuries were the Rushouts, Barons of Northwick, of more later. The property finally descended to a member of the Spencer-Churchill family, who sold the remainder in 1920.
Doubtless Harrow would have developed like many other London ‘villages’ but for an event in 1572 which shifted its fortunes forever. John Lyon, a wealthy local farmer, obtained a charter from Elizabeth I to establish a school offering free education to local boys. That school still survives today, having grown from a charity for the poor into one of the biggest and most prestigious of British fee-paying independent ‘public’ boarding schools, a bastion of privilege which has educated seven prime ministers including Winston Churchill and Robert Peel, and numerous other members of the elite, with other alumni including George Gordon Byron, John Galsworthy, Richard Curtis and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Bob Gilbert, whose Green London Way route also passes this way, identifies three reasons why things worked out as they did. The founding charter allowed the school to take in paying ‘foreigners’ to help subsidise the local ‘foundationers’, but with no limit on their numbers or fees, they rapidly became the focus of attention. Lyon stipulated that the only compulsory subject was Latin, which pupils were required to speak both in and out of class, posing a barrier to the poor lads of the parish. Finally, as Eton College near Windsor (London Countryway 11) positioned itself as the High Tory educational establishment of choice during the later 18th century, Harrow provided a useful alternative close to London for families with opposing Whig sympathies. A legal move by local people to force the school back to its original mission failed in 1805, and by 1867 the Harrow Gazette was bemoaning that “aristocratic invaders like the Vandals of old have by sheer force of numbers taken possession and overrun the hill”.
The school’s influence has resulted in an environment that’s unique, fascinating and completely free of the 20th century suburban blandness typical of so many of London’s outlying centres, but not in an entirely pleasing way. There’s no single enclosed campus: the many school buildings are distributed around the village, giving an odd sense of apartness, like a private space that’s somehow open to the public. You might have to reassure yourself that you’re allowed to be here even though you’re not in school uniform with a boater on your head and a chauffeur waiting to waft you home to mummy.
The village's isolation grew with the opening of the Metropolitan Railway in 1880. This inevitably crossed the flatter ground below, and the station known as Harrow-on-the-Hill was some distance from the school, in a hitherto sparsely populated area then known as Greenhill. The railway triggered a housebuilding boom, soon creating a dense new town around the station, now one of the most important local centres in this part of London, and leaving the hill largely abandoned to the Gazette’s aristocratic Vandals.
Most of the private residences up here are occupied by teachers and other staff, and even the businesses are geared to the school, with prices pitched at the sort of proud parents who can afford over £14,000 a term for their sons’ education, so don’t expect a cheap lunch. The remaining pub, the Castle, just off our route on steep West Street, with a listed multi-roomed interior preserving numerous late 19th century features, would be upmarket in most other parts of London: here it seems positively earthy. The streets are eerily spotless, thanks to the practice of sending naughty boys out litter picking.
Space precludes mention of every significant feature on this stretch – if you’re seriously interested, there are several dedicated guides – but I’ll try to draw attention to the important ones, starting with London Road itself. This ancient highway was another of John Lyon’s passions: he left more in his will to maintain the road than the school, as commemorated in the latter’s Long Ducker sporting event in November which includes a run along the road. As you approach the village centre, note the 1930s K6 phone box in front of West Acre, the first school building you pass on the left – school buildings are easily identifiable by their discreet dark blue signing. Next door is Mount Pleasant, a Grade II-listed three-storey mansion from the early 19th century, followed by two shops separated by a passageway in an 1855 building at numbers 104-106.
The small but attractive grassy patch known as The Green at the junction with Byron Hill indeed looks like a miniature village green, and in recent years planners have tried to encourage the creation of a small shopping centre here, though it isn’t the original local centre, which is further along. As the pub sign on its gantry on the grass testifies, it was originally the forecourt of an old inn, the Kings Head Hotel, the substantial three-storey white stucco building set back a little from the street, in line with the gantry. Local legend holds that this was built on the site of a Tudor hunting lodge, but it’s unlikely Henry VIII, whose likeness has appeared on the sign since at least 1770, ever visited, as he only held the manor for a matter of weeks. Still, there are records of an inn and sign going back to the 16th century, though the current building is 18th century. It closed as a pub in 2001 and was subsequently converted to flats, leaving its sign to deteriorate. The current gantry was installed in 2013 to a historical design and is maintained by the Harrow Hill Trust, who have compiled a detailed history.
Immediately to its right is a listed 18th century house with three shop fronts added in 1895, the middle one of which (84) retains its original interior fittings as a tailor’s shop, though it now sells antique light fittings. Overlooking the Green to the left, another K6 phone box stands outside a solid two-storey brick building topped by a louvred cupola, the Old Council House built for the parish council in 1913. On the right (north) side of the High Street is a Victorian Gothic building with three shop fronts (45-49); another similarly fanciful Gothic building a few doors down (41), now a café, has a stepped gable and decorated arches above the first-floor windows.
Further along, on the right, is a brown gate set in a brick wall, and behind it a dun-coloured mansion clearly built in stages, with one narrow white wall protruding as far as the street. Up on this wall is a relief of a lion in Coade stone, and there are lions adorning other local buildings too, recalling the name of the school founder. As you walk a few steps further, the building reveals itself as even bigger than it first appeared. This is the Park, commanding a country estate once known as Flambards which dates from the 14th century.
The original house, once the largest in Harrow, was a little further south, back towards the Green, where a terrace of low shops now stands. Work on its replacement, designed by John Nash, commenced in 1797, though it’s been much altered since, including by Lord Northwick, who owned it between 1806 and 1823. In the 1830s, one of the school's teachers bought the house and part of the grounds for school use, and by 1885 the whole estate belonged to the institution. The grounds, remodelled in the 1760s by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and Henry Holland, are on the register of historic parks and gardens but are sadly closed to the public, used by the school largely as a private golf course.
The red brick building with the distinctive gable end at no 52, rebuilt in 1870 but likely around a 16th century timber frame, is listed, as are the white-painted cottages beyond it, dating from the 17th century or earlier. The flight of steps past these, leading to West Street, is one of several in the village necessitated by the hilly surrounds. The junction of High Street and West Street was once the commercial centre, hosting a weekly market granted by a charter from Henry III in 1231. The market lapsed by the end of the end of the 16th century and now only a granite drinking fountain installed in 1880 provides a focus to the space.
A succession of substantial listed buildings lines the right side of the High Street’s final stretch. Moretons, an 18th century three-storey house in white stucco, looms over the top of West Street. No 7, next door, is from a similar period. The Old House, with its passageway leading to school offices, was rebuilt in the 18th century to incorporate parts of an earlier structure. No 3 was built in 1850 from gault brick, with an elegantly recessed ground floor. No 1 High Street, just by the width restriction, is a fanciful Gothic Revival building from 1866, with decorated brickwork and a circular turret. Close by is a particularly fine example of an 1870s pillar box to the hexagonal design by John Penfold, the first series of post boxes to be painted in the now-familiar red.
The main school
buildings are clustered around the fork formed by the High Street and Church
Hill, many of them dating from the second half of the 19th century
when the institution expanded dramatically. Standing in front of the
substantial porch of Decimus Burton’s 1845 Headmaster’s House, surmounted by a
shield depicting a rampant lion, and looking towards the fork you can see a red
brick building with two stepped gables and a little white clock tower between
them. This is the Old Schools, substantially rebuilt in 1820 but incorporating the
original 1615 panelled schoolroom.
Vaughan Library, Harrow on the Hill.
The tip of the spire of St Mary’s Church just peeks above it. The church is along Church Hill at its summit and you’ll pass it if you break your journey here by following the signed Ring link to Harrow-on-the-Hill station. But even if you’re continuing it’s worth a detour to the oldest building in the village, on the site that gave the area its name.
The current church was consecrated in 1094 though little of its 11th century structure is still visible except for the lower section of its tower. The most extensive alterations took place under George Gilbert Scott in 1846-49. John Lyon is buried here, as is George Gordon Byron’s illegitimate daughter Allegra, who died aged only five. Byron himself spent much time in the churchyard during his schooldays: his favourite spot was the Peachey Tomb, now known as Byron’s View, overlooking the green slopes of Churchfields where the Harrow Fair took place annually between 1261 and 1872. The poet recalled the site in ‘Lines written beneath an elm in the churchyard of Harrow’, though the elm burned down in the 1930s.
The wedge between the two streets is occupied by the Harrow School War Memorial building completed in 1926, its design by Herbert Baker cleverly weaving ceremonial steps into the hilly site. Behind it is the1877 neo-medieval Speech Room, designed by William Burges. Our way runs past perhaps the most striking building, on the right side of the High Street: George Gilbert Scott’s Vaughan Library of 1863, a little chapel to knowledge with its stained-glass Gothic windows. It commemorates Charles Vaughan, an Anglican vicar who became a modernising headmaster in 1844.
The phase of rapid
expansion initiated by Vaughan continued over several decades, though the man
himself resigned unexpectedly in 1859. He pursued a policy of relentless suppression
of homosexuality, which had previously flourished among the students in a culture
described by historian of English public schools Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy as “an
adolescent boy's jungle…where lust and brute strength raged completely
unrestrained”. But according to some accounts he was himself secretly involved
in a passionate gay relationship and was forced to resign or be exposed. Vaughan
himself commissioned Scott to build the Harrow School Chapel next door,
completed in 1857, when student numbers were overwhelming the parish church: in
contrast to the library, it’s a big but dull mock-Medieval affair. Beyond it is
another legacy of Vaughan’s ambition, the mock-Tudor New Schools of 1855
with its looming brick chimneys.
The Music School, arguably the most handsome of
Harrow School's buildings.
The Ring keeps right along Peterborough Road then descends from the hill along Football Lane, which unsurprisingly given its name leads down to the sports grounds. The tall red brick building with Dutch gables just around the corner on the right is the former Butler Museum named after Vaughan’s successor, built in 1886 and now used as part of the science school. Where the route ahead becomes a footpath known as Music Hill, you’ll see the Music School tucked away in its own grounds on the right. It was created by E S Prior in 1891 in what its listing calls a “highly individual style”, with a barrel-vaulted roof flanked with square turrets, creating an acoustically favourable indoor space. Smaller and more modest than many of the other grander but sometimes aesthetically questionable school buildings, and with a simplicity that looks forward to the next century, it’s many people’s favourite.
Harrow School Playing Fields
Descending past the extensive 1980s school sports centre to the foot of Music Hill, you’ll find a bristle of footpath fingerposts pointing out across playing fields These are a legacy of a long-running public rights of way dispute in which walkers took on the considerable wealth and influence of Harrow School, winning a victory that had implications for many other paths.
Once, these grounds with their views of Wembley stadium were mainly hay meadows, and the agricultural tradition continues at the school’s own farm, across the fields in the distant corner, partly run by students and now home to a notable herd of English Longhorn cattle and a flock of Shetland sheep. Ancient field paths provided useful links for locals and schoolboys alike. Footpath 58, straight ahead, led to the Ducker Pool, the old school bathing pond, while 57, branching half-right, ran to the manor house at Sudbury. Then the meadows were drained and levelled to create rugby and soccer pitches, some of which were marked out across the lines of paths. For years walkers simply did the sensible, courteous thing of diverting around the pitches when they were in use.
The problems began in the early 2000s when the school planned major improvements to its sports facilities at the same time as the Capital Ring was in development along Footpath 58. Wanting to avoid encouraging what was technically trespass by requiring walkers to make informal diversions, Harrow council suggested the creation of additional permissive routes for use during matches. The school agreed to this in 2003 but that same year, the council separately granted planning permission for a new astroturf pitch and tennis courts without reference to the fact that these would lie right across Footpath 57. It seems the school took advantage of the fact that in some legal documents the paths were listed as ‘undefined’, meaning that while their entry and exit points were specified, their exact alignments across the fields were not. In seeming contradiction to this, the official ‘definitive’ rights of way maps clearly showed the paths as exact lines, and this evidence should have prevailed.
|The only and now last stile on the Capital Ring in 2018.|
The upshot of all this is that we can still walk straight across the fields, thus the gaps in the tennis court fence for Footpath 57 and the grass markings showing the line of Footpath 58. The permissive routes are also still in place and the Ring signing encourages you to use one of these, but feel free to keep straight across the grass instead. Unless of course there’s a match on, but as the evidence to the inquiry showed, that’s only likely to be the case for 6% of daylight hours.
As you walk, make sure to take advantage of one of those significant views by looking back. You’ll see a classic profile of Harrow on the Hill, where the spire of St Mary’s church, which once commanded the surrounding countryside, is now less prominent than the neighbouring spire of the school chapel, an eloquent symbol of how Lyon’s good deed has swallowed his home village.
On the other side of the field the path becomes a boardwalk across a small brook, a minor tributary of the river Brent. For years, walkers reached the busy Watford Road here by climbing over what was famously the only stile on the Capital Ring, but was replaced by a kissing gate in 2020. Once through this and onto the pavement, you’ve left the London Borough of Harrow for the London Borough of Brent.
|The 'indefinite' buildings of Northwick Park Hospital glimpsed from the Ducker Path.|
The Watford Road is a centuries-old highway branching from Harrow Road at Sudbury towards Harrow Weald and Watford. By the 19th century it had become a popular diversion avoiding the steep climb of the traditional main road through Harrow on the Hill, which by the 1830s was little used as a through route: instead, travellers from London could branch onto the Watford Road and turn left at Greenhill through what was to become the new suburb of Harrow around the station. This itinerary was recognised as an important, if not trunk, route from London in the road numbering scheme of 1922, which numbered it A404, continuing from Harrow towards Rickmansworth and Amersham.
The road forms the western edge of a near-rectangle of land known as Northwick Park, bounded by the Metropolitan Line to the north, the West Coast Main Line railway to the east and the streets and houses of the Sudbury Court estate to the south. Historically all this was included in Harrow parish and manor, part of a large area of ‘desmene’ farmland used directly by the lord of the manor rather than sublet. By the 14th century the wider area was known as Sudbury – the ‘south borough’ --- to distinguish it from other parts of the large and sprawling manor. In the 1630s the Sudbury lands were split up into separate farms and let to tenants, including Sheepcote Farm which covered most of what’s now Northwick Park.
Following the rapid population increases of the later 19th century, Sudbury was split administratively from Harrow and placed into Wembley civil parish. Along with Kingsbury, historically a separate parish, this formed the new Wembley Urban District, which became a municipal borough in 1937. When London was enlarged and the present-day boroughs created in 1965, Wembley wasn’t reunited with Harrow but instead merged with Willesden as the London Borough of Brent.
Much of the population growth that shaped the area was driven by local landowners' fondness for enriching themselves through development. Harrow School, keen to protect its own potential for expansion, bought much of Sheepcote Farm in 1905 to protect it from housebuilding: the last tenant farmer was Thomas Grimwade, a noted producer of dried milk using a process he’d patented in 1855.
Across the road, the Ring follows the Ducker Path through a patch of wood with a hoarding on the right. This encloses the Ducker Pool, originally a cattle pond on the farm which was used by schoolboys for bathing. In 1907 the site was rebuilt by the school into one of the largest private outdoor swimming pools in the country, surrounded by a newly planted coppice woodland. In 1985 its function was usurped by the school sports centre passed earlier on Music Hill and it was sold for redevelopment as a Hindu temple. But planning permission for this was refused, and the pool is currently derelict and inaccessible, with the surrounding area including the woodland designated as a Site of Local Importance for Nature Conservation.
The rest of the land is now council-owned, originally acquired by Wembley borough council and Middlesex county council in 1936, again as a buffer against housing. Sadly, what could have become an extensive and diverse area of public green space and parkland was then further parcelled out, with sections put to other uses. One of these is clearly visible through the trees on the left as you continue along the path: Northwick Park Hospital, a massive NHS general hospital opened in 1970 on a site used as a field hospital in World War II. Its blocky architecture was supposedly indeterminate, designed for continuous obsolescence with no final plan. One of its most famous patients was Chilean ex-dictator and friend of Margaret Thatcher General Augusto Pinochet, who was treated here while fighting extradition for murder and torture in 2000. Another campus-based development opened to the north in 1971: Harrow Technical College, now part of the University of Westminster.
The area to the south (right) of the path was first used for landfill, then let in the early 2000s to a private operator as a nine-hole golf course, Northwick Park Golf, thus the tall nets visible above the trees. The operator promptly put a driving range right across a public footpath that runs south from the Ducker Path towards Sudbury Court, requiring walkers to ring a bell when approaching. Then, with council support, it attempted to replace the path with a dogleg diversion, prompting another footpath dispute that should have been avoided. The public inquiry inspector found the original disruption to the path was illegal and ordered that it was reinstated and made safe, but this still hasn’t been done.
The Ducker Path finally reaches the fraction of land that did eventually become a public park, also known as Northwick Park. This is largely an uninteresting expanse of mown grass and sports fields, though there are some mature trees, remains of old hedgerows, a community garden (off our route to the northeast), play facilities and a smart 1950s sports pavilion, and the space is well-used and valued locally.
From the pavilion, a Capital Ring link heads northwards along the Pryors Path to Northwick Park station on London Underground’s Metropolitan Liine. The line was opened in 1880 as the Metropolitan Railway’s extension to Harrow-on-the-Hill and trains originally ran non-stop through the fields of Sheepcote Farm here. The station, accessed by a simple subway under the line, was added in 1923 to serve new housing, and was originally known as Northwick Park and Kenton.
Looking around the park, you can’t help but think it could have been so much better, with the preservation of a broader public space allowing the persistence of wilder and more natural areas alongside the grass. In 2019, Brent council in partnership with the local NHS trust, the University of Westminster and others launched a combined proposal for a comprehensive remodelling of the whole area called the One Public Estate programme. This promises improvements to the park and the creation of new green spaces, cycleways and footpaths, but at the same time the prospect of 1,600 homes on parts of the hospital site and elsewhere. Meanwhile, the owners of the Ducker Pond have been pushing, so far unsuccessfully, to cancel its nature conservation status so they can build a sports centre.
The shoddy treatment of this patch of land seems curiously appropriate given that its name commemorates the Rushout family and their country seat at Northwick Park in Worcester. John Rushout (1770-1859), the second Baron Northwick, was an enthusiastic incloser of common lands who operated largely as an absentee landlord through ruthless local bailiffs, described by his tenants as “a cormorant who was eating us up”. The early 19th century was a terrible time for rural workers in England as inclosure robbed them of commoners’ rights, increasing mechanisation reduced employment, wages fell and rents and prices increased. Following two disastrous harvests in 1828 and 1829, a wave of violent local uprisings swept southern England, largely targeting the new horse-powered threshing machines.
The disorder was termed the Swing Riots as it was accompanied by a series of threatening letters sent to landowners by a mysterious Captain Swing. Rushout was among the recipients, in a missive warning he had “ground the labouring man for too long”. Local farmers wrote to him in more reasonable terms asking for rent relief: his response was to accuse them of conspiracy. And he had the authorities on his side: the riots were ruthlessly suppressed with 19 people hung and a further 481 transported. Ultimately the troubles led to reforms which ameliorated conditions, but Rushout and his descendants continued to enrich themselves through the exploitation of inherited manorial lands, resulting in the dense developments we’re about to cross.
South Kenton station
|South Kenton station.|
This stretch was part of the first section between London Euston and what’s now Harrow and Wealdstone station, originally with no intermediate stops. The full 180 km length to Birmingham opened in 1838, with trains taking 5½ hours to reach the Midlands city. Local services weren’t added until 1912 when the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), successor to the London and Birmingham, built a new pair of tracks, electrified on a direct current fourth rail system, along the route from Euston to Watford to improve capacity, now known as the Watford DC line. Three years later, the London Underground Bakerloo Line was extended from Baker Street to Queens Park on the Watford line, with Tube trains continuing to Watford, though these have subsequently been cut back to Harrow. The local trains from Euston have been part of the London Overground since 2007.
The land to the south of Northwick Park was once Sudbury Court Farm, another of the desmene farms of Harrow. Edward Spencer-Churchill, first cousin of Winston Churchill and the Rushouts’ successor by marriage, first proposed to develop it soon after inheriting it in 1912 but the plans were interrupted by World War I. It was finally built up between 1927 and 1936, taking advantage of increased awareness of the area following the British Empire Exhibition in Wembley in 1924-25. Nearly all the houses are in the uniform mock-Tudor style popular at the time, and many of the streets take their names from places around the original Northwick Park in Worcestershire.
South Kenton station opened to serve the new estate in 1933, with a single island platform which, like most intermediate stations on the route, faces only the Watford DC lines. Less typical for this stretch of railway is the Modernist waiting room with its stylish concrete and glass. Originally the platform was accessed by a simple footbridge, later replaced by the current subway.
A more impressive 1930s survivor stands immediately on the other side of the railway: the Windermere pub. You can see it from the station platforms but as services are frequent here, it’s worth continuing through the subway for a closer look, even if this brings us into Kenton in the next section. Built by the Courage brewery in 1938 to serve the new housing developments, it’s a fine example of a big new ‘improved’ pub of the period, designed for a middle-class clientele. The exterior is in fanciful Dutch-inspired style with shapely gables, but its Grade II listing and entry on the National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors are ensured by its tasteful indoor fittings, which have somehow avoided the vandalism inflicted on many pubs in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the three separate bars is now used as a function room and the old jug and bottle has gone, but the wooden panelling, interior porches and fireplaces with pictorial tiling all remain. The huge pub now seems disproportionate to modern needs, and though friendly it does have something of a neglected air, so enjoy it while you can.