Tuesday, 21 November 2017

London Loop 16 alternative via Woodcock Hill

The view from Woodcock Hill, Borehamwood, as enjoyed by military communications officers since 1588.

Woodcock Hill Village Green, an attractive informal open space with fabulous views which was saved by the local community, now provides a much greener and slightly more convenient way of kicking off LondonLoop section 16 between Elstree & Borehamwood station and Scratchwood. It’s particularly welcome as a little further along this section is perhaps the worst stretch of the entire trail, the long detour up and down the A1 to use a safe crossing, and while the alternative doesn’t address this directly, it does help redress the balance of the overall section.

When the Loop was first devised, access along the east side of the railway from the station wasn’t straightforward, and what’s now the Village Green was private land where public access was only on an informal basis. This is why the official route still grinds uphill along Deacons Hill Road, a rather long and dull residential street, and then along Barnet Lane, a busy local through-route. The alternative route makes use of newly-built and much quieter streets to connect with the Green, and from there stays entirely off-road as far as the A1, apart from a crossing of Barnet Lane. Because the official route involves retracing your steps from the station while the alternative runs straight past it, if you break at Borehamwood, the latter will save you about 500 m, though the two options are about equal in distance if you’re just passing through.

At some point it’s likely that the official route will be diverted this way, but this will require funding for new signing which isn’t currently available. So, for the moment the Loop arrows still point along the road, though the “informal” alternative is included in the latest edition of the official Loop guidebook, as updated by Colin Saunders. The only significant feature you’ll miss compared to the official route is a glimpse of some rail tunnel ventilation shafts. And of course, the road-based route is all along surfaced pavements while the alternative involves unsurfaced paths that might get muddy. But all things considered, I recommend the alternative above the official route, even for first time Loop walkers, and have updated the route description PDF to include both.

Leaving Borehamwood

Poetry in suburbia: Wordsworth Gardens, Borehamwood, out of daffodil season.

There’s lots more about Elstree, Borehamwood, the railway and the most famous local industry, film-making, in my writeup of London Loop section 15. Given its good rail connections and its proximity to London, the area is currently under enormous pressure for housing. At the time of writing the start of work was imminent on a new housing estate on what’s currently derelict land on your left along Station Road. The Elstree & Borehamwood Gasworks was built here in 1872, and gasholders still stood until dismantled in 2016: aerial photographs clearly show their footprints. A fragment of evidence remains on the ground too: a couple of older houses known as Gasworks Cottages.

The housing a little further on was built in the 2000s on the site of the Fire Research Station (FRS), one of the more obscure specialisms of the area. It was founded by a consortium of insurance companies as the Fire Offices’ Committee Testing Station in 1935. The main FRS moved to Watford in 1994 but assessment of fire and security products continued here until 2000, when the site was closed and demolished to make way for the current estate. The streets are named slightly incongruously after poets – Auden Drive, Coleridge Way, Wordsworth Gardens. The latter includes a square of green saved from the wide grounds of the FRS: you’ll need to visit in daffodil season to judge whether it lives up to its name.

Woodcock Hill Village Green

The Armada Beacon on Woodcock Hill.
Reaching Woodcock Hill Village Green itself, you’re in an older area of housing developed by the building group John Laing & Son, which bought up much of the remaining farmland around the town from the Earl of Strafford in the 1950s. All the Laing estates incorporated green space, and it’s likely the area that’s now the village green was deliberately left for this purpose – there’s a local legend that then-owner John William Laing intended to donate it to residents, and from 1959 a community group acted as guardian to the site.

Its status remained unresolved, though, until 1996 when it was earmarked for further housing. A campaign group, Woodcock Hill Open Space Forever! (WHOSE!), stepped in to defend it, beginning the long process of official registration as a Village Green. At the public inquiry in 2007, the key question was whether the land had been unfenced for 20 years, settled in part by a newspaper article about a man who was prosecuted for mistreating donkeys he kept tethered there. The inspector eventually found in favour of the application, and the space has been a Village Green since 2008. WHOSE! converted itself into the Woodcock Hill Village Green Trust, and a team of its keen volunteers now looks after the site.

Had Woodcock Hill been adopted as a formal recreation ground in the 1950s, I doubt it would have as much character today. There’s a pleasing wildness and slightly scruffy informality, with long grass and seemingly random clumps of bushes: much more textured and ecologically rich than a mown glass recreation ground. One of the highlights is the view north over Hertfordshire: on a clear day, you should be able to spot St Albans Cathedral, 13 km away and on the London Countryway sections 10 and 11 (and in my suggested alternative section 11).

The trail passes an armada beacon, dating from George V’s silver jubilee in 1935 but on or close to the site of one of the chain of beacons lit in 1588 to communicate the sighting of the Spanish Armada off the Cornish coast. It was restored and lit again in 1988 to mark the 400th anniversary of the Armada and again for Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in 2012.

The lofty prospect supported another line-of-sight communication system from 1807 when the hill housed one of a chain of stations in the naval telegraph system developed to help coordinate the response to a possible invasion from Napoleonic France. The next station south was at Hampstead, the next one north at St Albans. This particular system was dismantled following the defeat of Napoléon in 1812, though a telegraph chain remained in use between London and Plymouth until 1847: London Countryway section 2 passes a tower that formed part of this at Chatley Heath in Surrey.

From the beacon, the path essentially parallels Barnet Lane, passing a series of small, often dry, ponds within scrubby woodland. It soon emerges onto the road itself to rejoin the official trail more-or-less opposite the path into Scratchwood. All the walk so far has been outside London, in Hertfordshire’s Hertsmere District (and in Watling Chase Community Forest), but a short stroll along this path will take you into the London Borough of Barnet. Cross the road carefully, while congratulating yourself for avoiding a 1 km walk along it.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

London Loop 15 alternative via Harrow Weald Common

Grim's Dyke House: gentility and a grim history.

This short alternative route for London Loop section 15 via Harrow Weald Common avoids a slight dogleg and some road crossings, though it does miss out on one of the best viewpoints on the trail. I’ve also taken the opportunity to say more about the pretty but rather wiggly official Loop link from Stanmore Little Common to Stanmore station via Stanmore Country Park.

Crossing the high ground in the north of Harrow borough, the Loop encounters a continuous chain of open spaces on former common land: Grimsdyke Open Space, Harrow Weald Common and the City Open Space. Yet the route ducks out of the green to cross the relatively busy Old Redding road twice. I suspect this is partly a legacy issue: Grim’s Dyke House and its surroundings form an enclave within the public space and there may have been an issue with access across the drive. But a more positive reason for the dogleg is to visit Old Redding Viewpoint with its breath-taking prospect of central London, and the adjoining historic pub, The Case Is Altered.

For the view alone, my recommendation is that you stick to the official route. But if the view and/or the pub hold no interest, or you’ve already been there and done that, or you particularly want to avoid crossing busy roads if you can, there is an alternative described by Colin Saunders in the most recent edition of the official guidebook. This uses parts of the more recently-waymarked Harrow Weald Common Nature Trail to stay within the woodland to the north of the road. Two more plus points for this option are that it’s 350 m shorter and takes you closer to the house, which is well worth a look.

From Carpenders Park

Although it’s not an official Loop link, there’s an obvious and convenient way of joining the trail eastbound from Carpenders Park station. This is the next London Overground station north from Hatch End along the West Coast Main Line, just outside London but still in the Transport for London (TfL) fares system, in zone 7. Like Moor Park at the end of section 13, it began as a golf halt, originally opening around 200 m north of its current site in 1914.

The current station was built in 1952 at around the time the area was undergoing large-scale development into a new suburb. I’ve said a bit more about this in my original post on section 15, but didn’t realise then that this largely private estate just across the railway from the Greater London Council estate at South Oxhey was the model for Plummers Park in Leslie Thomas’s novel Tropic of Ruislip (1974). More about this in the discussion of the real Ruislip under Hillingdon Trail section 2.

The developers of Carpenders Park left a green ribbon along the course of the Hartsbourne stream, which rises on the slopes of one of the golf courses between here and Bushey to the east, and flows for about 5 km roughly northwest to join the river Colne near Oxhey Hall. A Woodland Walk now follows the stream east of the railway: a street name, The Mead, is a reminder that flood meadows once lined the waterside where houses now stand.

The woodland strip is a panhandle extension of Carpenders Park lawn cemetery, soon visible through the trees: at this point your route bends right to stay under the branches, entering the designated area of Watling Chase Community Forest. As mentioned under Loop 15, the cemetery is something of an anomaly as it’s run jointly by the London Boroughs of Brent and Harrow, although it lies outside both their boundaries. Only at the very end do you need to leave the woodland path, joining a short stretch of the cemetery drive which delivers you to Oxhey Lane just north of the point where the official London Loop route passes Mutton Wood.

Further along, as acknowledged by Colin Saunders in the latest edition of the London Loop guide, the farmland northeast of Grim’s Dyke Golf Course is the site of the Wild Green Project, which aims to create a multi-layered forestry farm producing a range of foods and other products but with a beneficial environmental impact. I bumped into environmentalist and sculptor Lee Lannon, the man behind this, when I was last passing through. He told me that progress has been delayed by issues with landowners, which is why the sign has been taken down – but hopefully things will be back on track by spring 2018.

Harrow Weald Common

You can read more under Loop 15 about Harrow Weald Common and the tragic story of the death of dramatist and librettist W S Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, at Grim’s Dyke House. Following the nature trail diversion, you’ll see a bit more of the common, with its scrubby woodlands, old earthworks and clumps of rhododendrons spilling from the former Victorian gardens. Crossing the house drive, it’s worth a short detour to view the house itself, completed in 1872 by Richard Norman Shaw for the painter Frederick Goodall, and Gilbert’s home from 1890 until his death in 1911. With its tall chimneys and half-timbering, it’s a splendid early example of the ‘Tudorbethan’ style that later flourished in the early 20th century, though there are various distinctive details like rounded archways that almost anticipate art nouveau.

Following the death of Gilbert’s widow Lucy, the house and estate were bought jointly by Middlesex County Council and London County Council in 1937, and the house was used for rehabilitating tuberculosis patients. It’s still under public ownership, currently with Harrow council, but has been leased as a hotel since 1970. Surrounded by well-kept lawns and gardens, it looks impeccably picturesque and genteel in a late-Victorian way, and it’s understandably popular as a film location. If you were walking the Loop using overnight stays, this would be a delightful, if rather pricey, place to break your journey.

The numbered posts of the 3.75 km nature trail installed by the Harrow Weald Common Conservators in 2008 help you navigate through the space: one of them is placed at precisely the point where the alternative route leaves the official Loop. The nature trail is split into two loops (lower case ‘l’!) identified by colours: a shorter orange loop around Grim’s Dyke in the west and a longer purple loop around the common in the east. In case you were wondering, here’s an outline of what the numbers indicate: for more information, you can download a leaflet from the Harrow Nature Conservation Forum website. I’ve included the posts on the official Loop route too, as a supplement to Loop 15.

4. This post, on the orange loop, stands by the side of the lake where Gilbert died. Now it’s filled with marsh plants like yellow iris and willow scrub.

7. This section, also on the orange loop, runs along the boundary between the overgrown garden on the right, with exotic planted trees, and the common on the left, populated with native trees like downy birch, beech and oak.

8. This is where the purple and orange loops meet, and where the alternative Loop route diverges from the official one. From here you follow the purple loop back into old gardens, and then on the other side of the drive back onto the common again, with more downy birch, and some fallen logs providing habitats for birds, insects and fungi.

17. Don’t worry, you haven’t missed anything – walkers on the purple loop encounter this post towards the end of their walk where it directs them back to the Old Redding viewpoint.

9. This is where the two routes rejoin, and is incidentally the highest point on the Loop north of the Thames, at 158 m. The 7 km Bentley Priory Circular Walk also shadows the trail from here. The notes about this post draw attention to the old ditch and bank topped with a hawthorn hedge a little further along on the left, past the cottages, and the rare species like wood sorrel that can be found there.

10. Passing this post, look out for the oak trees planted to mark the boundary of the common in the 1860s, and a pollarded oak on the right. You cross over Len’s Avenue.

11. A strip of grassland marks an area of lime-deficient soil. In the 1980s this was the last vestige of heathland on the common and there are plans to try to restore it.

12. Oak trees dominate this area, with some beech and rowan. Most of the trees here are only 50-100 years old: as with many now-wooded commons, grazing once would have maintained a more open landscape, and the trees have grown up since this practice declined.

Shortly after this post you leave the Common and continue into the Bentley Priory site, described in more detail under Loop 15.

The Stanmore link

Spring Pond, Stanmore Little Common.

The London Loop link to Stanmore station isn’t the usual functional stroll through the streets, but an enjoyable walk in its own right, making good use of Stanmore Country Park, a major green space that you otherwise won’t encounter on the trail. The break point is easy to miss, in a clearing among the various ponds of Stanmore Little Common, and the first reward of breaking your walk at this point is a fuller view of Spring Pond and its surroundings. The pretty complex of red brick buildings on one side was built in the 1860s as staff accommodation and stables for Stanmore Hall. The banks of the pond were once more wooded, but many of the trees had to be cut back to deal with an algae infestation. From the pond you cross towards a wall, behind which is the hall itself, a neo-Gothic mansion built in 1843. I’ve said a bit more about Stanmore in general under Loop 15.

A short stroll down traffic-calmed Dennis Lane soon brings you to the country park (here's a link to the official website, though you'll find much more information on the Harrow Nature Conservation Forum website). This occupies former farmland attached to Warren House, at the top of the hill you’ve just descended: you pass it on the main trail and I’ve said a bit more about it there. The estate had numerous owners prior to 1890 when it was bought by the banker and philanthropist Henry Bischoffsheim. In 1922, his widow left it to her grandson John Fitzgerald, a member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, the 21st Knight of Kerry and 3rd Baronet of Valencia – not the Spanish city and province but an island off the Kerry coast, today more commonly spelt Valentia.

Fitzgerald, an agricultural enthusiast and livestock judge, showed his national loyalties by replacing the herd of Jersey cows on the estate with Kerry cattle, though some of the park area was used as a golf course. In 1937, as we’ll shortly see, Fitzgerald began to develop parts of the estate for housing, and sold off a large portion including the former golf course to Middlesex County Council and Harrow council as green belt land, though farming continued into the 1950s.

Woodlands in Stanmore Country Park.

The site became a Country Park in 1976 when it was partly managed by the Greater London Council, but is now wholly owned by the London Borough of Harrow following the GLC’s abolition. Designated a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) in 1995, it’s a mix of meadows and fields, including some acidic grassland dotted with the raised nests of yellow ants, and woodland – some of it recent secondary growth but with some ancient semi-natural woodland with wild service trees and mature hornbeams. Much of the Loop link stays within the trees, interleaving with another nature trail and its numbered posts. At post 13 there’s a spiky midland hawthorn, and at post 14 you cross an ancient hedge line by a 250-year-old oak.

The link leaves the park, and the Community Forest area, past a bluebell wood and enters the Warren House housing estate along Kerry Avenue. This is the area developed for Fitzgerald in the 1930s to take advantage of the opening of the railway. He was determined to create something a cut above the average suburban style, as evidenced by the generous lawns, the wooded strips that divide some of the roads and the stylish art deco, or rather ‘moderne’, houses that line them.

Some were designed by Gerald Lacoste (1908-83): an artist as well as an architect, he was also responsible for various World War II propaganda posters. There are some particularly large and fine examples of his work clustered around the junction of Kerry Avenue, Valencia Road and Glanleam Road (the origins of the street names are obvious if you know something of the family history: Glanleam is an estate on Valentia island). Other architects were Douglas Wood and Owen Williams, one of the creators of the old Wembley Stadium.

The last few hundred metres of the link continue along Kerry Court, across a grass patch and through a hedge that strategically shields the estate from busy London Road. Immediately opposite is Stanmore station, designed in cottagey suburban style by the Metropolitan Railway architect Charles W Clarke. Curiously, the station has been on three different Underground lines since opening in 1932. In 1939 the branch was detached from the Met and became a branch of the Bakerloo Line, and in 1979 it was reallocated again, as the northerly section of the newly-built Jubilee Line. Despite discussions in the 1930s about a northwards extension, Stanmore remains a terminus.

Stanmore station, now on its third Underground line.

Friday, 3 November 2017

London Loop 11 alternative via Weston Walk

Grand Union Canal and Great Western Railway viewed from the end of newly opened Weston Walk, Horton.

A new path opened early in 2017 has further reduced the amount of road walking on the London Loop through Hillingdon borough. Following a green strip beside a new development site, Weston Walk links the point where the trail leaves Stockley Park directly with the Grand Union Canal towpath just east of where the Loop originally rejoined the canal at Horton Bridge.

The original route along roads through a largely industrial area does have some minor points of interest, though most walkers will undoubtedly prefer the new greener alternative, even though it’s very slightly longer (by 150 m or so). At the time of writing, signing on the ground was still directing walkers along the old route. I’ve amended my route description to include both options.

As explained in my commentary on London Loop 11, in the 19th century much of the land to the north of the canal here was covered by brickfields. The site immediately to the south of Horton Road, once known as Coopers Dock, had several subsequent uses, including as a printing works and a concrete works. It had been derelict for a decade before developers Prologis took it on a few years back for redevelopment into a business park under the name Prologis Park. A big distribution depot now stands on the eastern portion, while at the time of writing the rest was already flattened ready for building.

Improvements to public access have been provided under a ‘section 106 agreement’ (s106), where a developer undertakes to provide public benefit as a condition of planning permission. This includes resurfacing the towpath along the south of the site – you’ll only benefit for a few metres of this if you’re walking the Loop – as well as the current path, the line of a former private drive converted into a landscaped green strip. It appears to be named Weston Walk after one of the company’s executives, Paul Weston. Information boards narrate the story of the local brick industry, and at the end is a small grassy mound which provides good views of the canal and the Great Western Railway, running parallel at this point. I’ve said more about the former under London Loop 11, and the latter under London Loop 10.

Entrance to Weston Walk, Horton, a stroll across former brickfields beside a new distribution depot.