|Wembley Stadium from Barn Hill.
The Capital Ring soon climbs the second pair of its
four Middlesex hills, Barn Hill and Gotfords Hill, both in green surroundings,
before descending through the streets of Kingsbury to follow the rather more
level banks of the Brent (Welsh Harp) reservoir in its flooded river valley. The
trail parallels the Brent north of Brent Cross and through Hendon park and follows
the river itself and its tributary the Mutton Brook through Brent Park and Hampstead
Garden Village to East Finchley. A final section explores several precious
London woodlands, including the famous Highgate Wood, to reach Highgate
This post covers two consecutive official Ring sections
combined to create a day walk. One ends and the other begins in Hendon Park
with short links to Hendon Central or Brent Cross Underground stations, but there
are plenty of other transport options evenly spaced along the way. The trail
passes the doors of two other stations and close by two more, with bus stops at
numerous road crossings.
|Line of the Crouch Brook through Preston Park
A closer hamlet was Preston, just to the northeast, with a
village green at the junction of Preston Road, Preston Hill and Woodcote Hill,
first mentioned in 1220 but likely also of Saxon origin. The name means
‘Priest’s farm’, though any other evidence of church ownership has been lost to
history. It was a small place, only two farms and a few cottages in the mid-16th
century. The northern farm, Lyon’s Farm, was very likely the birthplace of John
Lyon, founder of Harrow School, whom we encountered in the previous section. The
other farm, Preston Farm, stretched southwest, encompassing the area the Ring
By the early 17th century, most of this land, and
on down to Wembley, was owned by the Page family, who began parcelling off and
enclosing areas to create smaller farms and some larger houses, though Preston still
had only 57 residents in 1851. The building of the London and Birmingham
Railway, where our walk begins, in 1837 and the Metropolitan Railway in 1880
initially made little difference as trains ran through non-stop. Preston remained rural well into the early 20th
century, but by then significant areas of agricultural land had been given over
to sporting and leisure pursuits like golf and shooting, spilling over from
Wembley Park to the south where a new station and pleasure garden had opened in
1895. Preston House, an early 19th century mansion in the village
centre, was a sign of the times, becoming a successful tea garden for day trippers in the 1880s.
Following pressure from the shooting club at Uxendon Farm,
the Met opened a modest halt at Preston Road in 1908 and by 1912 the Harrow Golf
Club occupied the former fields of Preston Farm between the two lines. It
wouldn’t last long as, following World War I, suburban development began in
earnest, partly prompted as at Northwick Park by the British Empire Exhibition at
Wembley, of which more below. The new housing of the Preston Park estate
engulfed the golf course during the 1930s.
I’ve already mentioned this estate’s most architecturally
significant building in the previous section: the huge Grade II listed
Windermere pub immediately east of South Kenton station. The rest is typical of
the period: gabled semi-detached houses, some with mock-Tudor details, lining neat
streets with strips of grass along the pavements. An alleyway, likely following
the line of an old field path, takes you along a valley where the now-covered
Crouch Brook once meandered eastwards towards the Wealdstone Brook.
Then there’s Preston Park itself, one of numerous modest
but valuable local green spaces that enliven the more suburban sections of the Ring.
Occupying 7.5 ha, it was created as part of the 1930s development. Once again,
you’re following the course of the brook, and although there’s no obvious trace
of it, a slight indentation to the right of the main path gives a clue. This is
lined with some fine specimen trees; elsewhere, flower beds and a bowling
green break up the grassy expanses.
The trail passes Preston Park Primary School, also an
original feature of the estate, to emerge on Preston Road opposite another big
interwar pub, the Preston, opened as the Preston Hotel around 1927. School and
pub were the work of the same builder, Clifford Sabey, also responsible for
many of the houses. Preston Road was one of the mediaeval lanes through the
area, and there were no buildings on this stretch of it up until the end of the
19th century except for a lodge guarding the drive to Uxendon Farm. What
changed all this was Preston Road station, a few paces north on its bridge
above the London Underground Metropolitan Line.
The Metropolitan Railway originated in 1863 as the world’s
first underground urban railway, linking Paddington and Farringdon around the
northern edge of central London. Various extensions followed, including a
branch northwest from Baker Street to Swiss Cottage, built by another company,
the Metropolitan and St Johns Wood Railway (M&SJWR) but operated and later
taken over by the Met. Traffic on this was initially disappointing, so the
M&SJWR extended it, reaching Harrow-on-the-Hill in 1880. Subsequently the
Met harboured ambitions to turn it into a main line: at its furthest extent in
the 1890s, it reached via Amersham and Aylesbury as far as Verney Junction in
Buckinghamshire, 80 km from Baker Street, where there was a connection with the
London and North Western Railway’s Varsity Line from Oxford to Cambridge (since
largely closed, though part is due to reopen). The Met became an integral part
of the integrated London Transport in 1933 as the Metropolitan Line, which was eventually
cut back to Amersham, with British Rail taking over services beyond, now
provided by Chiltern Railways.
As already mentioned, there were no stations between Neasden
and Harrow until Preston Road Halt opened in 1908, primarily to serve the
area’s sporting facilities. The original entrance was on the east side of the
road and trains stopped only on request: initially there were complaints that
drivers failed to slow down sufficiently to spot passengers in time. Even so,
the new service prompted the creation of the golf course and several large
villas along Preston Road. As interwar development gathered pace, the halt was converted
to a permanent stop, with the present red brick station on the opposite side
operational by 1932. As often, the station shifted the focus of the settlement,
with today’s busy local shopping street in place by the end of the 1930s and
the old village green to the north becoming a quiet backwater. The latter is
still home to the area’s oldest surviving buildings, a couple of late Victorian
villas: all earlier buildings, including the historic farmhouses, had gone by
Before turning off Preston Road, fans of John Cleese and
Connie Booth’s classic 1970s TV sitcom Fawlty Towers may want to stroll
a little further to Wings Restaurant at 294. This was André’s Restaurant where
Basil picked up the meals in the classic ‘Gourmet Night’ episode (1975). If
you’ve seen it, you’ll recall that his car broke down while returning to the
hotel, setting up the famous scene where he thrashes it with a twig, filmed 2
km to the northwest at the corner of Mentmore Close, Kenton.
|Wealdstone Brook, with former fields of
Uxendon Farm to left.
The Tudor period of the 16th century was
notable for conflict between Catholics and Protestants following Henry VIII’s
break with Rome in 1534. As often with religious conflict, there’s a political
dimension: Henry, previously a good Catholic, may have been motivated by his
determination to divorce his first wife Catalina de Aragón despite opposition
from the Pope, but in rejecting the latter’s authority he was also asserting
the independence of England as a nation state and distinguishing it from rivals
like France and Spain where papal influence was more powerful. The reign of Henry
and Catalina’s devoutly Roman Catholic daughter Mary I between 1553-58 was a
period of reaction and the bloody suppression of non-Catholics. Her successor Elizabeth
I, Henry and his second wife Anne Boleyn’s daughter, followed a more pragmatic
course, asserting the independence of the Church of England but encouraging
doctrinal compromise and refraining from vigorous suppression of Catholicism. Even
so, many Catholics disputed her legitimacy and looked to overseas powers for
support in re-establishing Roman supremacy.
One obvious potential rallying point was Elizabeth’s first
cousin Mary Stuart, known as Mary Queen of Scots, who had been raised a
Catholic in France and had a claim to the English throne. Mary fled Scotland,
then still an independent kingdom, in 1567 when she fell under suspicion of
being involved in the murder of her husband and was forced to abdicate. She
sought protection from Elizabeth in England and ended up spending over 18 years
under luxurious house arrest because of the potential threat she posed. But
with little hard evidence to implicate her directly in various attempted coups,
Elizabeth was reluctant to move further against her, fearful of creating a
martyr and believing, too, that as a crowned queen, she’d been anointed by God.
Likely she also harboured some compassion for a relative who, like herself, was
constrained by duty and circumstance. Elizabeth resisted the urgings of
advisers like her spymaster, Francis Walsingham (see London Loop 2), who wanted
Mary removed permanently.
In 1584, Mary was moved to more secure accommodation at
Chartley Hall in Staffordshire. Here, she was banned from communicating with
the outside world, but circumvented this with a system involving letters
smuggled in barrels of beer from nearby Burton upon Trent. This unorthodox line
of communication had been set up by Walsingham deliberately to entrap her, and
every letter in and out was intercepted and read. In 1586, Walsingham got what
he’d been hoping for: a letter in which Mary consented to a plot led by Anthony
Babington to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne with Spanish
support. Like many such plots, this one was amateurishly planned,
overoptimistic and highly unlikely to succeed, its instigators already thoroughly
infiltrated by Walsingham’s agents.
Realising the game was up, some of the conspirators
attempted to flee, with Babington himself taking refuge at Uxendon Manor. The
owners at the time were the Bellamy family, devout Catholics who maintained a
‘priest hole’ for sheltering Catholics on the run. But Walsingham had the
property under surveillance: it was soon raided and both Babington and Jerome
Bellamy, younger brother of owner Richard Bellamy, were arrested. Babington and
six of his co-conspirators were hanged, drawn and quartered at St Giles Fields,
Holborn in an execution so barbaric and prolonged it provoked public outrage. After
this, the queen ordered the second group, including Jerome Bellamy, should be
“hanged until quite dead” before being drawn and quartered. Elizabeth now had
no choice but to commit Mary for trial and assent to her beheading the
following year, but the incident continued to haunt the queen until her final
days at Richmond Palace (Ring 7).
The Bellamys never quite recovered from these tumultuous
events and in the 17th century the property was acquired by the Page
family, already mentioned above. In 1829, it passed with the rest of the Page
estates to Henry Young, junior partner of the family’s solicitor, amid
speculation of fraudulent practice. It was Young who began shifting the land
use from agriculture to sport by setting up a steeplechasing course: it later
became the shooting club that lobbied for the railway halt. The farm held the distinction
of being an Olympic venue, hosting clay pigeon shooting in 1908.
At the end of Uxendon Crescent, you walk under a
substantial bridge carrying the third railway through the area, just north of the
junction where it splits from the Metropolitan Line north of Wembley Park. It
opened in 1932 as a Met branch to Stanmore, serving yet another new housing
development. Slicing through the farm, it bolstered the argument for developing
the land as housing. Following the creation of London Transport, to relieve congestion
it was reallocated in 1939 to the Bakerloo Line, connected at Finchley Road
with a new underground branch of that line paralleling the existing Met from
Baker Street. In 1979 it was reallocated yet again, becoming the northern part
of the new Jubilee Line, with trains continuing through a new tunnel between Baker
Street and Charing Cross.
Unlike some of its tributaries, the Wealdstone Brook is
still visible today, and the Ring crosses it immediately after the railway
bridge. As its name suggests, the brook rises in Wealdstone north of Harrow and
flows for around 6.5 km southeast and south to join the river Brent amid the
industrial estates east of Wembley Stadium. In the early 20th
century, it was described as “one of the most perfect little streams anywhere,
abounding in dace and roach”. Today, sadly, the flow has been ruthlessly
culverted in concrete.
A little way off the trail, south along the Avenue, is Preston’s
first church, the Church of the Ascension, provided to serve the residential
developments. A temporary church, now used as a church hall, was opened on the
site in 1937 but, following wartime delays, the main church didn’t open until 1957.
The Gothic Revival building, designed by J Harold Gibbons and featuring a noted
mural by Hans Feibusch behind the altar, is now Grade II listed.
Climbing Uxendon Hill, the Ring is beginning its ascent of
Barn Hill. You may care to pause at the junction with Wykeham Hill on the
right: this was the site of the manor house where Babington was arrested. Henry
Young demolished the house sometime in the 1830s, building a new farmhouse to
the north, which still enjoyed uninterrupted views across the Wealdstone valley
and the farmland beyond. This too vanished during the 1930s beneath the semis
with the palm trees at 18-20. There’s lots more about the history of Preston
and Uxendon in a series of informative and well-illustrated posts on the
Wembley Matters blog: search for The
|The somewhat surprising Barn Hill Pond.
At the top is the unexpected sight of a placid pond
regularly visited by herons, now slightly disfigured by prominent ‘No Fishing’
signs, surrounded by moody stands of trees. Behind the pond, a gap leads onto
the open hillside, with an Ordnance Survey trig point (see Loop 5) and a fine
view of Wembley Stadium and south to central London. This pleasingly
distinctive spot, though it takes advantage of the underlying topography, is the
result of several centuries of human intervention.
Once, the hill, along with much of the surrounding land,
would have been densely wooded. The woods had long been cleared by the early 18th
century when there were farm buildings on the hilltop, part of the Uxendon estate,
with the hillside used as hay meadows. As we learned above, the land passed
into the hands of local landowners the Pages, whose main residence was at
Wembley Park to the south. In 1792, Richard Page decided to rebuild this into a
grand mansion surrounded by parkland, with Barn Hill incorporated into the
scheme. He hired renowned landscape architect Humphrey Repton, who partially
re-wooded the hill, framing the prospect with swathes of oaks, and replaced the
hay meadows with grazing cattle. Repton was likely responsible for the inspired
addition of the pond, alongside a lookout tower, at least one folly and a
dairy. The scheme was never completed and the buildings are long gone, but the
pond and much of the planting pattern have survived.
A year after the opening of Wembley Park station and
pleasure grounds in 1894, the hill became the 18-hole course of Wembley Golf
Club, with a tee at the summit. As at Preston Park, the golf club was
ultimately sold for housing development. In 1923, with the British Empire
Exhibition imminent, builders Haymills bought it and began building an estate
of mainly mock-Tudor semis like those on the site of the old farmhouse on
Uxendon Hill. Keen to reserve green space for the burgeoning population,
Wembley Urban District agreed with the developer to buy the upper part of the hill,
which would have been challenging to build on, for use as a public park, Barn
Hill Open Space. The housing estate is now largely a conservation area, and
from the hilltop looking right you can see how some of Repton’s plantations
have survived as a strip of trees between the houses.
The stadium, though a much more recent building, also owes
its existence to the British Empire Exhibition, a government-backed propaganda
exercise to boost the image of the Empire at a time when it had already begun
its terminal decline. Taking place on the former Wembley pleasure grounds, it
included pavilions for each colony, various commercial exhibits and a funfair. Its
centrepiece was the Empire Stadium, built on the site of Watkin’s Tower, an
abortive attempt to rival the Tour d’Eiffel in Paris. The huge sports venue,
later renamed Wembley Stadium, combined neo-Classical architecture with northern
Indian Mughal-inspired flourishes, dominated by two distinctive towers. It opened
to host the FA Cup Final in 1923, beginning a long career as the ‘hallowed
turf’ of English football. The exhibition opened for the summer season of 1924,
then reopened in 1925 in the vain hope of recouping some of its losses –
despite 27 million visitors, it ended up costing the taxpayer around £20
million, the equivalent of £1.25 billion today.
|The line of Eldestrete running left to right.
The distinctive lattice arch, at 315
m the world’s longest unsupported roof structure, rises to a height of 133 m
and has become a familiar feature of the London skyline. A retractable roof
gives the venue the largest covered seating capacity in the world, with 90,000 seats
and 2,618 toilets, another world record, but it was also one of the most
expensive stadia to build, costing around £800 million. Inevitably it’s been
dogged by further controversy and legal and financial troubles: the original
pitch attracted widespread criticism from players and had to be relayed in
A link path from here leads south through the estate along
the street called Barn Hill to Wembley Park station, now on both the Metropolitan
and Jubilee lines. The main trail heads north from the pond, passing a path to
the right lined with Lombardy poplars, not the work of Repton but a 1930s council
improvement. You continue downhill under the trees then east inside the edge of
the Saltcroft Wood to reach a crosspaths just short of a car park, where a
wooden fingerpost identifies the well-defined track the Ring crosses as
‘Elde’ means ‘old’ in and this is indeed one of the oldest
highways in the area, part of an ancient route between Westminster and Hertfordshire.
‘Strete’ indicates at latest a Roman origin, as in Old English the word meant a
substantial paved road, but Roman Watling Street not far away runs roughly
parallel, so Eldestrete may date back still further. It was likely used by
pilgrims visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Willesden as well as St Albans
cathedral. Some of it has been incorporated into the modern road network but
here, where it’s also known as Hell Lane, it survives as an unsurfaced track. Like
many old highways, it’s been used as a boundary: though today both sides are
part of Brent, this is the point where the Ring finally leaves the sprawling ancient
parish of Harrow and enters the parish of Kingsbury.
Fryent Country Park
|A restored field pond in Fryent Country Park.
But this period also saw the emergence of modern-style
town planning in London, and the idea of a green belt as a buffer against
rapacious suburbanisation, with county councils given compulsory purchase
powers for this purpose. In 1936,
Middlesex County Council moved to buy up the threatened land, a process which,
following a court challenge, was completed in 1938, with Wembley contributing
25% of the cost. The land to the west of Fryent Way was added to the existing
Barn Hill Open Space, while the eastern section became the new Fryent Way
Regional Open Space, managed by the county. Farming activities continued for
some time afterwards, with public access restricted. Some of the public land was
used for food production during World War II and for prefabricated housing
after the war. But in the 1970s when both sites had passed to the new London
Borough of Brent, nearly all of it was opened for recreation.
The 1968 Countryside Act introduced numerous improved
arrangements for recreation and access to countryside and green spaces, among them
a new designation of Country Park, a large informal green space often in
suburbia or the urban fringes and intended to give city dwellers easy access to
a rural experience. For a while, the government provided dedicated funding to
support their creation. In 1984, the spaces on both sides of Fryent Way were
amalgamated, becoming Fryent Country Park, at 103 ha one of the biggest
continuous green spaces in the area and incidentally the only official Country
Park on the Capital Ring, though there are many more around the edges of
London. Since the 1990s, it’s also been a designated Local Nature Reserve.
Thanks to the persistence of small-scale farming until
well into the second half of the 20th century, the site retained a
surprisingly traditional character for somewhere so close to central London. Much
had been neglected, though, and the creation of the Country Park sparked a
restoration plan largely implemented by a voluntary organisation, the Barn Hill Conservation Group (BHCG), still active today. The object
was to return the park to something like its depiction on a 1597 map of field
boundaries, with missing hedgerows regrown using species taken from surviving
ones, field ponds restored, new ones added and hay cultivation reintroduced.
The result is an environment unique on the Ring and perhaps in London, with an
intimate pattern of small fields separated by verdant hedgerows, still showing
the imprint of the medieval practice of ‘assarting’, where woodland was cleared
in small patches with narrow strips of trees left in between. It gives a
genuine feel for how much of London must have looked in centuries past.
|Royal Observer Corps members at the Gotfords
Hill bunker in 1968, from Wembley Matters.
Buried underground is a near-forgotten remnant of the Cold War, a Royal Observer Corps (ROC) bunker installed in 1961 when the hill was still closed to the public. The ROC, a uniformed volunteer civil defence organisation attached to the Royal Air Force, staffed a surface observation post here during World War II, providing information about German aircraft movements to RAF Fighter Command at Bentley Priory (Loop 15). In the late 1950s, the Corps was repurposed to deal with a potential nuclear attack, with a network of underground bunkers throughout the country, many of them, as here, on former observation post sites.
This one was officially known as ROC Post
Colindale: it consisted of two rooms enclosed by 300 mm concrete walls at the
foot of a 4.5 m shaft, accessed by a hatch and a ladder. In the event of an
attack, two or three ROC members would be expected to seal themselves in for
weeks on end, monitoring and reporting on bomb impacts and the spread of
fallout. The bunker was closed and sealed off in 1968, and nothing remains on
the surface. You do wonder, as I did when passing the larger Woodlands Park
bunker in Gravesend (London Countryway 1 original route), if the value of such installations
was more in propaganda than practicality.
The Ring turns south again through Home Field: over on the
left as you enter is what remains of Bush Farm, now mainly horse paddocks. A
short detour towards them will take you to Bush Farm Orchard, marked on the
1597 map and restored in the late 1980s with traditional local varieties of
apples, pears, plums, damsons, mulberries, medlars, cobnuts and hops. You
follow the edge of Warrens Field again, then Black Landes and Great Hillcroach.
Approaching the woodland of Beane Hill, the trail leaves the site along an
alley onto Salmon Street, once the drive to High Hill Farm. Wembley Matters also has a useful series of posts entitled the Fryent Country Park Story.
|Old St Andrew's Church, Kingsbury
The old village centre was
around the church to the south, but this was severely depopulated by the Black
Death in the 1350s, and by the 15th century a new centre was growing
around the hamlet of Kingsbury Green to the north, some way off our route. The
opening of Kingsbury station on the Metropolitan Railway’s Stanmore branch (now
the Jubilee Line) in 1932 shifted the centre again, to the west. The area has
some celebrity connections: Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) wrote
his play She Stoops to Conquer while living here in the early 1770s, and
singer George Michael (1963-2016) spent his childhood and early teens here.
As in Preston, development pressures grew following the
British Empire Exhibition, by which time most of the land was owned by All
Souls College, Oxford. Several plots, including much of Fryent Farm, had
already been developed by the time what’s now Fryent Country Park was saved in
1938, and the trail winds through some of these to reach Church Lane, the
historic highway connecting the original village with the Green. Fryent Farm
itself was about 200 m north of this corner, on a site that’s now a Coop. But
our way is south, towards the original village. Although nothing remains of
this except the medieval church and the street pattern, several significant
newer buildings have helped qualify it as the St Andrew’s Conservation Area.
The most prominent of these is the monumental St
Andrews Parish Church, which rises beside Church Lane, opposite the entrance to
Tudor Close, an estate of cute mock-Tudor bungalows from the late 1920s. It’s
only stood here since 1933, yet puzzlingly has the typical look of the
Victorian Gothic revival. The answer is that it was originally consecrated in
1847 at a more central location on Wells Street in Fitzrovia, round the corner
from Oxford Circus. By the 1930s, the churchgoing population of the West End
had declined while demand in suburbs like Kingsbury had rocketed, and the
Church Commissioners found it cost-effective to move the building brick by
brick to its current site. Designed by Samuel Dawkes and containing several
other features by renowned Victorians, the Grade II* listed building is
currently on the at-risk register due to problems with the roof and spire.
Round the corner in Old Church Lane, you pass the entrance
to another attractive interwar estate, Blackbird Farm, completed in 1929. With
a wooded churchyard to your left, you soon reach the driveway to the new
church’s small, simple and picturesque predecessor. Old St Andrews is likely the
oldest building in Brent and the only one that’s Grade I listed. It was built
around 1200 on a site that was likely occupied long before that, with some
Roman masonry used in the building’s fabric and scattered around the
churchyard, still surrounded by a medieval ditch and embankment. Several funerary
monuments are also listed. Following the arrival of its successor, the old
church was only used occasionally, and declared redundant in 1977. Plans to
convert it into a museum or an arts centre fell through and since 2008, in
response to further demographic changes, it’s been used as a Romanian Orthodox
|The watery expanse of Brent Reservoir, seen from the eastern end.
Following Church Lane downhill, the Ring has been descending from the hilly heights to rejoin the Brent valley, and we soon encounter the river again for the first time since Greenford, though not quite in the form you might expect. A large area of the valley floor has been flooded east of Kingsbury, around the confluence of the Brent and Silk Stream, to form the Brent Reservoir. It was originally constructed to maintain the Grand Union Canal, which shares some of its course with the river, as we discovered at Brentford on Ring 7.
Artificial watercourses need constant topping up, and the
first stretch of the canal drew water from the lower part of the Brent. Following
the opening of the canal’s Paddington Arm (Ring 9) in 1801, this proved
increasingly inadequate, and in 1811 the canal company completed a feeder
channel taking water from further upriver at Kingsbury. This channel can still
be traced today, flowing gently downhill southwards through Willesden and
Stonebridge Park to join the Paddington Arm at Park Royal. But even this wasn’t
enough, especially after the Regents Canal from Paddington to Limehouse opened
in 1820, and a drought in 1833 finally prompted the creation of the reservoir.
Work to dam the Brent across the line of the feeder
channel at Kingsbury and to flood the fields to the northeast proceeded quickly
and by 1835 four local brothers had become the first people to drown in the new
reservoir. The capacity was subsequently extended several times and the dam
strengthened in 1843 after it broke, causing another death. At its peak in the
mid-19th century, the reservoir covered over 160 ha and stretched
beyond Edgware Road, inundating some of the land that’s now Brent Cross
In the following decades, water supply became less of an
issue as canal traffic declined and other sources were found. Following
downsizing in the 1890s and 1920s, the reservoir now covers around 50 ha and
contains an estimated 1.6 million m3 of water. In 1948, along with
the canal and many other waterways, it was nationalised, becoming part of
British Waterways, which in turn became arms-length charity the Canal and River
Trust in 2012. In the closing years of the 20th century it was little
used for its original purpose, but following work on the dam between 2005 and
2007 it’s been contributing water to the canal once more.
Informally, the reservoir is known as the Welsh Harp,
which puzzles some people as, although its outline on the map conceivably
resembles a musical instrument of some sort, it isn’t really shaped like a
harp, Welsh or otherwise. The name turns out to be from another source, a
coaching inn opened on Edgware Road in 1736, overlooking the future reservoir
site from the rear. During the 1850s expansion, the canal company bought this
up and surrounded it with a flood wall. William Warner became the tenant in
1856 and immediately saw the potential of the unusual waterside site,
particularly as a horse bus service had just started along the road from
central London. He extended the pub, adding dining areas and a music hall,
leased the surrounding fields for pleasure gardens and sports facilities and negotiated
rights to fishing and boating on the reservoir.
The result was a major London leisure destination, which
grew still further after 1873 when Warner persuaded the Midland Railway to open
Welsh Harp station on its newly built line nearby (see below), with special
trains on bank holidays bringing customers in their thousands. Besides catching
some of the top music hall stars of the day, visitors could enjoy everything
from museum exhibits and garden strolls to swimming, shooting, sailing, horse
and greyhound racing and even skating when the weather allowed.
Following Warner’s death in 1889, his widow continued with
the business for another decade, but footfall was already declining as
transport in London improved and competition from other venues increased,
including the pleasure gardens in nearby Wembley which preceded the Empire
Exhibition. The station closed in 1903 and the pleasure gardens had largely
gone by the time the pub was rebuilt in the 1930s. It was demolished in 1971
when the road junction at Staples Corner was expanded: its former site is now a
sliproad alongside the A5. But its name lives on, as does the reservoir’s
association with sport and leisure. In the 1930s, as the area rapidly filled up
with housing, local authorities started acquiring surrounding plots, with the
result that today the reservoir is ringed by 120 ha of open land, much of it
public green space.
Another hugely significant aspect of the reservoir is its
value to wildlife. The ecological impact of its construction was noted back in
the 1850s when naturalist James Edmund Harting began recording exotic visiting
birds for his 1866 book Birds of Middlesex. This is one of the best
sites in London, and in some cases the UK, for breeding populations of great
crested grebe, cormorants, herons and various species of duck. The first
sighting in London of a great white egret was here in 1997, the first Iberian
chiffchaff in the UK in 1972. Altogether, 253 different bird species have been
recorded. This ornithological richness, together with the plant life on the
water’s edge, justified the reservoir’s designation as a Site of Special
Scientific Interest in 1950: the designation mainly covers the reservoir
itself, though much of the surroundings have been a designated Local Nature
Reserve since 2005. When in the early 1970s British Waterways proposed to
develop the area behind the former Welsh Harp site as a marina, it was
ornithologists who led the opposition, resulting in the establishment of the Welsh Harp Conservation Group which is still very active today in protecting the site as a wildlife haven.
The water straddles three ancient parish, two ancient
hundred and two modern borough boundaries. The division between Gore hundred to
the north and Hampstead parish in Ossulstone hundred to the south followed the
river Brent, while the parish boundary between Kingsbury and Hendon in Gore ran
along field edges to join the river from the north. The northwestern part of
Hampstead became Willesden Urban District and is now, like Kingsbury, part of
Brent. But Hendon is now in the London Borough of Barnet, and the borough
boundary still follows the field edges before faithfully tracing the meanders
of the submerged Brent eastwards out in the open water. When the reservoir is
drained, as it is from time to time for cleaning and maintenance, the original
channel is still visible, snaking through the mud. Though ownership of the
site is split between Brent and Barnet boroughs and the Canal and River Trust, which as
well as the reservoir itself owns the waterfront and the dam, it’s managed
jointly through a consultative committee.
The Ring passes the gates to the Welsh Harp Environmental Education Centre, now managed by environmental charity Thames21, which protects
London’s rivers. The imposing green gates look
rather sombre for such a cheerful place, as they were originally intended to
open on to a cemetery. This land was part of the first council purchase, oddly
enough bought by Willesden council in 1928 though it was on the Kingsbury side
of the water. The council planned to build a large cemetery but a complex and
lengthy dispute with Kingsbury and then Wembley councils delayed
this. The plan was finally approved in 1950 and the gates and a chapel were constructed, but more delays halted further progress. Both councils then became
part of Brent which in 1973 opted to use part of the site for the education
centre instead, converting the chapel into classrooms and renting out the rest
to businesses, including a garden centre.
Past the main car park, a diversion on the right takes you
to a waterside viewpoint, with Wembley Sailing Club and Sea Cadet station to
the right and the dam visible across the water, a small black hut teetering
over the river outlet. Back on the trail, you follow the main path to the north
of the waterside, through an area known as Shrike Field in Welsh Harp Open
Space. This was included in Willesden’s 1928 purchase but because of the
dispute passed to Kingsbury in the early 1930s and became part of the public
After crossing a band of woodland, you can identify the
borough boundary from a change in the path surface from hard tarmac to softer
gravel. Now in Barnet, you pass Phoenix Canoe Club to reach a more open area called
Woodfield Park: though mainly grassland and sports fields, this shows some evidence
of its former use as pasture. More scrubby woodland follows, and just before
the end of the path there’s another viewpoint on the right which gives a fine
panorama across the water.
The Ring emerges on the attractively named Cool Oak Lane
by a Victorian bridge which crosses the north arm of the reservoir. In fact,
this is the flooded lower course of the Silk Stream, which originally flowed
into the Brent a little to the south – the confluence is covered by the
reservoir. The stream begins as two separate watercourses, the Stoney Brook,
which rises in Stoney Wood, Mill Hill, and the Edgware Brook, rising in
Stanmore. These combine at Edgware Hospital, flowing southeast and south for 4
km via Colindale. For many years this narrow bridge was a pinch point on the
Ring, where walkers had to share the carriageway rather perilously with cars
passing in alternate directions controlled by traffic lights. In 2021 it was
finally supplemented by a handsome new footbridge just to the north.
The bridge, along with an attractive waterside ‘relaxing
area’ was provided as part of the public benefit obligations of the major redevelopment
of the West Hendon estate now visible ahead, branded as Hendon Waterside. Originally
this land was Cookman’s Farm, then became a small housing estate known as New
Hendon in the 1880s, taking advantage of the nearby Midland Railway. Much of it
was flattened by a German bomb in 1941, which destroyed 40 homes and killed 85
people. It was rebuilt in the 1960s as a large council estate which is now
being redeveloped privately amid some controversy: residents of many former
council homes who had bought their properties have been moved on by compulsory
purchase and the scheme has also destroyed a small public park created as a
memorial to the victims of the wartime bomb.
Wembley Matters is also well worth consulting on the history of the reservoir: search for The Welsh Harp Reservoir Story.
|West Hendon Broadway looking north,
also known as Edgware Road, Watling Street and Iter II.
The stretch of Watling Street immediately northwest from
London to Edgware, starting at Marble Arch, once the grisly landmark of Tyburn
Tree gallows, has long been known as Edgware Road, with several local
alternatives, here West Hendon Broadway. This section was turnpiked in 1711 and
in the 1820s improved further as part of the first state-funded civilian main
road project since Roman times: the Holyhead Road. The United Kingdom had been
officially expanded to include Ireland in 1800 and the government was keen to
improve communications. It commissioned famed engineer Thomas Telford to oversee
a major upgrade of the roads from London to Holyhead (Caergybi) on Anglesey,
the ferry port for Dublin. The route has been numbered A5 since 1922, though
parts of it further northwest were renumbered in the 1980s to discourage
through traffic once alternative motorway routes were open.
Hendon (‘high down’, in the sense of ‘hill’) is first
mentioned as a parish in the 10th century, centred some way north of
the Ring and the railway stations, around the church at Church End. By this
point the manor was held by Westminster Abbey and remained in ecclesiastical
hands until the 1550s. Numerous lords of the manor followed, one of them the
celebrated actor David Garrick (1717-79). Despite being crossed by a busy road,
the area retained its rural character for much of its history, and by the 18th
century boasted several mansions used as country retreats by wealthy Londoners.
Before the railway opened, there were no significant
buildings along this stretch of the Edgware Road except a couple of pubs,
including the Welsh Harp. A little further northwest was a roadside hamlet
known as The Hyde, first recorded in 1281 and extending to perhaps 20 houses by
the mid-18th century. As already mentioned, the railway prompted
housing development in the 1880s, initially under the name New Hendon, later
West Hendon. With improved communications, industrial concerns began moving to
the area – the Hyde was the home of the Schweppes mineral water factory between
1896 and 1980, as well as the Hendon Brewery which began around 1850 but
substantially expanded in the 1890s (it closed in 1959). An electric tram
service along Edgware Road began in 1904, and by the start of World War I, the
houses were already spreading eastwards on the other side of the railway line.
Hendon became an Urban District in 1895, then was merged
with Barnet, East Barnet, Friern Barnet and Finchley in 1965 to create the
London Borough of Barnet, the largest by population and the fourth largest by
area of all the boroughs. Perhaps the district’s best-known feature, Hendon
Aerodrome, originated as a small aircraft works in 1908 and was later used both
as an RAF base and civilian airport before closing in 1968. The site still
houses the Royal Air Force Museum and has been home to Hendon Police College,
the Metropolitan Police’s main training facility, since 1934, but it’s some distance
off our route to the north, in Colindale.
|Transport arteries of two different eras, looking south from Park Road, Hendon:
M1 motorway, with Staples Corner flyover in the distance, and Midland Main Line.
The Ring briefly follows the A5 before turning off at the Post Office along Park Road, soon crossing a long bridge that spans two more recent transport routes, visible on the right. The Midland Main Line was built by the Midland Railway (MR), formed in 1844 through a merger of several regional companies in central England, the oldest of which was started with the aim of connecting Birmingham and Derby in 1832. Originally its trains reached London using other companies’ tracks, first the London and Birmingham to Euston and later the Great Northern (GNR) to Kings Cross. These arrangements proved inconvenient and expensive and in 1868 the MR finally opened its own route into London, leaving its existing tracks at Bedford and running via Luton and St Albans to a grand new Gothic Revival station at St Pancras, on Euston Road next door to its rival the GNR at Kings Cross.
Welsh Harp station was just a little south of our
viewpoint, with an island platform between the slow lines on the right, but no
visible trace of it remains. There’s a signed Ring link from the Post Office to
Hendon station a little to the north: this is one of the original stops but the
current buildings date from the 1970s. Today the East Midlands Railway
intercity trains to Nottingham and Sheffield run
straight through on the fast lines, while since 1988 stopping services have
been provided by Thameslink trains continuing to and from destinations south of
Curving alongside the railway is the M1 motorway from
London to Leeds, the most recent and furthest west of several iterations of the
main road from London to the northeast of England we’ll need to cross. Although
not technically the first British motorway (that was the 1958 Preston bypass in
Lancashire, now part of the M6), it was the first of any significant length.
The first section opened north of here, between Watford and Crick near Rugby,
in 1959 (London Countryway 10), extended to Leeds by 1968: for more about its history and motorways in general, see Loop 15. We’re overlooking the final southern
extension of 1977, less than a kilometre north of its start point at Staples
Corner, marked by the flyover carrying the North Circular Road that you can see
in the distance. The area around the junction was once inundated by the Brent
Reservoir, and you might just spot the long brick viaduct that still carries
the Midland Main Line through the tangle of roads.
Following the mildly rolling contours of Park Road, you
can just about imagine it as the rural byway it once was, known as Gutters
Hedge Lane after Gutters Hedge Farm where the children’s centre now is. Another
farm, Brent Hill, stood a little further along, on the site of Parkfield school.
The area to the south as you approach the end of the street was once a manor
called Renters, held in the 14th century by St Bartholomew’s priory
in Smithfield (now St Bartholomew’s hospital). All trace of its former
agricultural past has been erased by housing, road junctions and the Brent
Cross shopping centre, opened in 1976 as Britain’s first US-style out-of-town
mall, which is on the other side of the houses here. Now there’s another main road
to cross, Hendon Way, a 1920s radial route bypassing the A5 through Hendon,
Edgware and Watford. It was originally numbered A5088 but in 1961 became part
of the A41 trunk route from London to Birkenhead.
The trail finally turns away from the 1920s housing on
Cheyne Walk just north of its junction with Renters Avenue, its name recalling
the old estate. Here a footbridge takes it into Hendon Park across yet another
railway, the Edgware extension of the London Underground Northern Line. This
opened in 1923 from Golders Green to Hendon Central, a little northwest of
here, and was completed to Edgware the following year. Despite its name, the
station at first stood “in lonely glory amid fields” some way from Hendon’s
historic centre, though was always intended to be the focus of the urbanisation
which rapidly followed. Designed by Stanley Heaps in neo-Georgian style with an
imposing colonnaded portico, it’s now Grade II listed. I’ll have quite a bit
more to say about the tortuous history of the Northern Line at the beginning of
the next section.
|Holocaust Memorial Garden, Hendon Park
Section 10 of the Ring ends just inside the park, immediately on the other side of the footbridge, where there’s a signed link to Hendon Central station. If you’re continuing straight onto Section 11, you’ll simply cross the green space in a straight line, missing some of its more interesting features, so a detour is advisable if you have the time. The strip of trees immediately to the left is the Millennium Woodland, planted by local schoolchildren in 2000 and now maturing nicely. The station link turns alongside it, climbing parallel to the railway past a playground and tennis courts to reach the park café in the northwest corner, which claims to be the only kosher park café in Britain.
There’s been a significant Jewish community in Hendon since soon after
the underground railway opened to Golders Green in 1907. The first dedicated
synagogue was consecrated in 1922, and the population grew still further following
the establishment of the Third Reich in Germany in 1933 and the wartime bombing
of the East End, where many Jewish Londoners had traditionally lived. A 1959 survey
estimated that Jewish people then accounted for a quarter of Hendon’s
population, and the community remains strong today.
The rose garden, just east of the café, is a post-World
War II addition to the park, featuring rose beds and pergolas around a
kidney-shaped pond. On Holocaust Memorial Day 2000, this was rededicated as a memorial
garden, commemorating not only the victims of the mass exterminations
perpetrated by Nazi Germany but of other genocidal acts since. The entrance
arch, designed by John Creed, incorporates a Hebrew inscription pronounced
‘lezikaron’, referring to the need to look to the future as well as remember
the past. You can return to the Ring via the avenue of lime trees along the
eastern edge of the park, named Veterans Avenue in 2007 in commemoration of UK
forces veterans. This way, you’ll pass the rather dilapidated pink marble and
granite drinking fountain, donated in 1905 by a local magistrate.
Brent Street and Brent Park
|Now-derelict summerhouses by Brent Bridge,
with the river flowing between them.
By the 1920s, Shire Hall and most of the other big houses
had been demolished to make way for the semis that now line the streets, but if
you continue to the end of the lane, rather than strictly following the line of
the Ring through back streets, you’ll find a handful of older buildings. Two
handsome partly late 17th century red brick houses at numbers 8 and
10 are now used by Hasmonean Primary School. The semi-detached cottages at
numbers 2 and 4, set a little back from the road, still display their fire
insurance plaques. Just around the corner on Brent Street itself is Penfold
House, a stuccoed building with a pictorial roundel above the front door, built
as a hostel for passing drovers in 1713.
Whether you follow the official route or divert, you’ll
end up making a final descent to rejoin the Brent, passing 1970s housing at
Woodburn Close on the left, on the site of Brent Bridge House, a substantial 18th
century stuccoed mansion. In the 1920s it was converted into the Brent Bridge
Hotel, with Brent Lodge, a farmhouse just on the other side of the river which
had been rebuilt as a ‘gentleman’s residence’ in the 1820s, as an annexe.
The riverside provided attractively verdant and genteel surrounds, and some
remnants of those days are still visible as you reach Brent Bridge. Two curious
round shelters with pointed roofs looking like something out of a fantasy novel
stand each side of the water just east of the bridge, originally summerhouses
for hotel guests but now slowly crumbling. The Ring uses a footbridge a little
upstream to cross into Brent Park: this is a recent replacement for a flimsier
earlier bridge linking the two sites. The annexe was demolished in 1935 and
replaced with a large block of no-nonsense moderne-style apartments; the main
house went in 1974.
Spotting the busy road which crosses Brent Street a little
south of the river, you may realise why someone thought to open a hotel here. This
is the North Circular Road A406, voted the noisiest road in Britain in 2003 and
identified in 2013 as London’s most polluted road. It was conceived in the
1920s as an orbital route between the A4 at Chiswick and the A13 at Barking,
not only to improve connections for motor vehicles but to help repurpose
munitions factories into industrial sites and create jobs for servicemen
recently demobilised following World War I. This section was completed as a
dual carriageway by the early 1930s and further extended as part of the
Ringways scheme in the early 1970s, when the Staples Corner junction was
remodelled to accommodate the M1.
|Decoy Lake, Brent Park.
The surrounding land was once Decoy Farm but was remodelled
in the early 19th century to become gardens and parkland for Brent
Lodge. In 1934, with the lodge due for demolition, it was bought by Hendon
council as a public park. It’s an atmospheric, perhaps slightly gloomy, jumble
of lively streams, placid open water, overgrown parkland, scrub and neat lawns,
with a rustic stone bridge spanning the northern end of the lake. Noting that farm
buildings once stood opposite where you leave the park to cross Bridge Lane at
the point where it becomes Bell Lane, you join the footpath that completes our
journey upstream beside the Brent.
Along the Mutton Brook
|Disturbing signs in Brookside Walk.
The Mutton Brook formed an ancient hundred and parish
boundary: crossing it, we leave Hendon in Gore Hundred to enter Finchley in
Ossulstone Hundred, though both are now part of the London Borough of Barnet.
Ossulstone was the largest of the Middlesex hundreds and became the most
metropolitan, covering all of what’s now central London north of the Thames
apart from the City itself and extending to Brentford, Ealing, Willesden,
Finchley, Friern Barnet, Hornsey, Stoke Newington, Hackney, Bow and Poplar. It
was so big that it was subdivided in the 17th century into
‘divisions’ – Finchley is part of the Finsbury division. The unusual name is
from the meeting place of the hundred court at St Oswald’s Stone, a pre-Roman monolith
by the Tyburn Tree at the foot of Edgware Road, which mysteriously disappeared
in 1869. Ossulstone is the last of the Ring’s Middlesex hundreds, though we’ll briefly
dodge back into Gore when we’re forced onto the other side of the brook.
In the 1930s, an enlightened local councillor came up with
the idea of a waterside walking trail through what was then the Municipal Borough
of Finchley, alongside the Mutton Brook and the Dollis Brook. In 1992, at a
time when the idea of urban walks was gaining traction through the work of the
London Walking Forum and others, the London Borough of Barnet improved and
expanded this trail to create the Dollis Valley Greenwalk, from Moat Mount
along the Dollis and continuing along the Mutton to Hampstead Garden Village.
In the 2010s, the Greenwalk was improved with money from the Mayor of London
awarded following a popular vote: one of the most obvious outcomes here is the
broad surfaced path, which also forms part of a cycle route. The London Loop uses the upper west-east
section of the Greenwalk, while the Ring now follows much of the Mutton Brook
section, initially through a strip of park called Brookside Walk. The rest of
the the trail, which joins here from the north, provides a useful link between
the two orbitals.
One thing the recent investment apparently hasn’t been
able to fix is the water quality. Concern about this was first raised in 1990
when an independent survey commissioned by residents reported that the Dollis
and Mutton brooks were dangerously polluted. Barnet council claimed it was
unable to trace the source of the pollution and resorted to installing warning
signs alongside the water. The problem continues to this day, with conservation
groups regularly reporting spills of raw sewage, thought to originate from modern
housing with shoddy plumbing that discharges into the storm drains and thence
into the brook. Sadly, you’ll see the warning signs remain in place along
|La délivrance at Charter Green. Designed by
a pacifist, installed by a fascist.
At its northern end you’ll find a striking bronze sculpture
of a naked woman with outstretched arms, one holding a sword: La deliverance by
the French sculptor Émile Oscar Guillaume (1867-1954), created in 1920 to commemorate
the war dead of Nantes. This copy, known locally as simply as ‘the Naked Lady’,
was commissioned by newspaper tycoon Harold Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere,
owner of the Daily Mail, and donated to Finchley Council in memory of
his mother in 1927. As Harmsworth and his newspaper became prominent British
supporters of Nazi Germany and the British Union of Fascists, it doesn’t appear
he got Guillaume’s intended pacifist message.
The other main road that crosses here is Finchley Road (A598),
a turnpike built in 1835 as an improved route from the West End to the
north, avoiding steep climbs at Haverstock Hill and Hampstead. Known as Regents
Park Road north of the junction, it runs from Marylebone by what’s now Baker
Street station to North Finchley where it joins the Great North Road, of which
more later. Crossing a partly wooded grassy space on the other side of Finchley
Road to rejoin the brook, you’re walking over the former forecourt and
showrooms of Henly’s Garage, one of the biggest branches of a well-known but now defunct London
car dealing chain, which stood here between 1935 and 1989 and gave the junction
A footbridge takes the trail back into Hendon again along
the south side of the brook on a shady, wooded path. On the other side of the
water, the A406 is disentangling itself and heading northeast towards New
Southgate, while the brook continues to parallel the A1. Meanwhile, our path is
briefly forced away from the waterside to emerge into Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Hampstead Garden Suburb
|The Mutton Brook in genteel Northway Gardens.
The area we’re in is known as the Artisans’ Quarter,
which provides a clue to both the plan’s good intentions and its flaws. It was supposed
to provide accommodation for people of all classes and income groups, but still
retained segregation between them. There were two big churches but few shops
and no pubs, deterring those who couldn’t afford their own transport, and the estate
soon became a redoubt of the privileged, much favoured by upper middle-class
intellectuals and artists.
Just upstream of where we leave the brook, the parish boundary
turned south to follow the edge of what’s now Little Wood, so after the first
terrace of housing, the trail leaves Hendon for Finchley for the last time. This
was also the edge of the original freehold plot developed by the trust before
World War I on the Hendon side of the boundary, but the Suburb subsequently grew
considerably beyond this. The first expansion was into the area we now enter, where
land leased from the Church Commissioners in 1911 was largely built up in the years
following the war.
The Dollis Valley Greenwalk soon leaves to the right on a
footpath through Little Wood, one of two preserved patches of ancient woodland,
ending a little to the south at the Hampstead Heath Extension. The Green London
Way also chooses this path, haring off on a long dogleg via Hampstead village. Our
way, meanwhile, converges with the A1 for a few paces to rejoin the Mutton Brook
through Northway Gardens, laid out by Raymond Unwin as part of the post-1911 expansion.
At first the surroundings are well-wooded, with willow and
ash, but then the character changes dramatically: you’re in a neat but charming
traditional park with tennis courts, a pergola, flower beds tended by a local
community group and the brook running politely in a stone-lined channel now
narrow enough to step across. No doubt it would all still meet the approval of
the Edwardian philanthropists. To retain the pre-World War II impression, there’s a
listed red K6 phone box at the end of the park, tucked down an alley a little
to the left along Northway, just past the terrace café with its floral planters.
This spot is the Market Place, the only retail facility in the original plan. Beyond
this is a smaller patch of park, Fletchers Gardens, with specimen trees and shrubs
on a landscaped green slope.
|Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue.
The next street, Kingsley Way, marks the limit of the development directly overseen by the trust: the rest dates from the late 1920s and 1930s and was the work of private developers who paid a fee for the privilege of marketing it as part of the Suburb. The housing is built to higher densities with fewer distinctive architectural quirks, although it shares some of the red brick charm and today is almost as desirable and expensive. The Mutton Brook continues through another open space, Lyttleton Playing Fields, originally laid out in the 1920s: the strip of woodland north of the brook, Watery Wood, is ancient, but the Ring diverges from it through surroundings with a more municipal atmosphere. A large grassy sports field, planned as a cricket ground, stretches to the right, with a café in a sturdy 1930s building to the left. The Ring leaves past a bowling green onto Norrice Lea and passes the Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue with its imposing neoclassical portico, purpose-built in 1935.
the A1 for some distance, the Ring finally crosses it. As originally designated
in the 1920s, the A1 followed the Great North Road, of which more below. The
road here, which runs east-west rather than south-north, was a diversion built
at the same time as the surrounding houses in the 1930s, part of a series of new
lengths of road which bypassed the busy bottleneck of central Barnet on the
original coaching route.
developed reaches of the Suburb spill over the A1. Just to the east is the
Grade II-listed modernist flat block Belvedere Court, while the streets away from
the main road have a very exclusive feel, laid out around cul-de-sacs and geometric
grass patches like the semi-circular Vivian Way Open Space. Finally, there’s a
collection of nostalgic timber-framed houses along Edmund Walk, built from
recycled materials. The Ring leaves the suburb along an alleyway to East Finchley
station, where a public walkway through the concourse takes it to the Great
|The archer atop East Finchley station,
pointing the way to London.
Like Hendon, Finchley was a scattered parish: the historic
nucleus was around the church in the west, some way off our route and, as in
Hendon, named Church End. By the 17th century there were more
populous clusters around North End (now North Finchley) and Whetstone in the
north and the area where we now find ourselves in the southeast corner, then
known as East End. The main reason for this settlement pattern was the Great
North Road, which bisects the parish, connecting East End and North End through
what was once the extensive Finchley Common, a favoured haunt of highway
The oldest surviving main road from London to the northeast is Roman Ermine Street from London to York, also known as the Old North Road and equivalent for much of its route to today’s A10. This begins at Bishopsgate and runs via Stoke Newington (where we’ll cross it in the next section, and see also London Countryway 18 and Loop 17), Tottenham and Royston. With no organised national system of road maintenance in place for many centuries following the Roman withdrawal, there were various problems with this road, particularly where it crossed the river Lea at Ware, and several alternatives emerged. By the 14th century a road ran from Smithfield through Islington, along the Holloway Road and through Highgate, East End, North End and Whetstone to Barnet. In the coaching era of the 17th century, this was adopted as part of what became known as the Great North Road from London to York, Durham and Edinburgh, continuing from Barnet (Loop 16),through Hatfield (Countryway 18) to Alconbury in Cambridgeshire where it joined the Old North Road.
As many as 130 coaches a day passed this way, supporting
numerous coaching inns, the motorway services of the day. The Old White Lion,
just to the right on the other side of the railway bridge, originated as just
such an inn, though the current building is from the 1930s. The Bald Faced
Stag, a little to the north at East End’s central crossroads, is another example,
now in a 19th century building.
|The Great North Road at East Finchley, looking
north with former Hamburger University left.
By the 18th century, Finchley was a patchwork
of tenanted farms, common and rural settlements augmented by the big country
houses of wealthy Londoners attracted by the road connections. Following the
inclosure of the common in 1816, the Church Commissioners, realising the
earnings potential, began buying back some of the tenancies and leasing out
plots for building, and the Great North Road and the other main highways were
soon lined with housing. Development pressures were boosted in 1867 when the Great
Northern Railway began services along a new line built as the Edgware, Highgate
and London Railway from Finsbury Park, where it connected with the main line
from Kings Cross, via Highgate, Finchley and Mill Hill to Edgware, with a
branch to High Barnet added in 1872. East Finchley was one of the original
stations, known as East End before gaining its current name in 1887: unsurprisingly,
this name then spread to the whole district.
East End was
already the most populous part of the parish in the 1860s, known for its poorer
cottages as well as big villas. Following the opening of the railway, the posh
houses began to disappear in favour of dense terraced streets inhabited by “struggling
clerks, small tradesmen, and artisans”. This social change prompted some indignation
from the more respectable classes: the local vicar, who had worked in the ‘other’
East End, noted in 1899 that he’d “rarely seen the Finchley boy equalled for
profanity and rudeness” (perhaps why the narrator of David Bowie's song 'Dirty Boys' (2013) is so keen to go to Finchley Fair). Finchley became an urban district in 1895 and a
municipal borough in 1933 before forming part of the London Borough of Barnet
East Finchley was bombed relatively badly in World War II
and today many of its buildings are modern. Of note just a short stroll to the
north is the Phoenix Cinema, built in 1910 and saved from demolition in 1983
following a community campaign. The big
red brick horseshoe-shaped building immediately north of the station on the same
side is Hospitality House, completed in 1992 as the UK head office of fast food
chain McDonalds and once home to their ‘hamburger university’: since 2013 they’ve
donated part of it for use as a catering and hospitality college.
Rail services were radically reconfigured in 1939 under
the Northern Heights plan, which brought the London Underground Northern Line to
East Finchley. As I’ll explain in the next section, the plan was only
half-completed and the line between East Finchley and Edgware was later severed
so trains now only run to and from Barnet and Mill Hill. But the work did yield
the current Grade II-listed red brick and concrete station building designed by
noted Underground architect Charles Holden in the moderne style and now
considered one of his best. Typically for its type, it makes good use of glass
to provide plenty of natural light, with three tall and simple but elegant
windows at the front, one incorporating the Underground roundel, and semi-circular
glazed stairwells to the platforms. The
jewel in the crown is the 3 m stylised sculpture of a kneeling archer by Eric
Aumonier, high above the left entrance. He’s both a nod to the area’s past as a
hunting park and a celebration of the speedy new electric service, having just loosed
his arrow straight up the line in the direction of central London.
Cherry Tree Wood
|Site of watercress beds in Cherry Tree Wood, looking towards
the source of the Mutton Brook.
Remarkably, a fragment of woodland survived right by the
Great North Road at East End, once known as Rayle Fall then as Dirthouse Wood
because of its proximity to the muck depot at the White Lion. Some of it was lost
to the railway, but the current triangle survived to 1914 when it was bought by
Finchley council as a public open space and opened the following year under the
rather more salubrious name of Cherry Tree Wood after nearby Cherry Tree Hill.
The source of the Mutton Brook is just on the other side
of the line: it runs through the wood and crosses the Great North Road here,
but now in a covered culvert with barely a trace on the surface. The railway
obstructed its flow, and the resulting flooded area was used as watercress
beds. Traces of these survive a little further along as a broad, slightly sunken
grass field that’s still prone to flooding. The park had become quite badly
neglected by the 1980s but an enthusiastic Friends Group has helped restore it
as a varied and attractive space, most recently with the addition of a
community orchard to help it live up to its name.
Historically the wood straddled both Finchley and Hornsey
parishes and their successor districts: the boundary ran north to south across
your path by the junction past the play area on the right, just before the
sunken green. Hornsey didn’t contribute anything to its purchase as a public
park, an enduring bone of contention until 1965 when the boundaries were tweaked
and all of the site placed in Barnet. Past the refreshment kiosk (currently
untenanted, sadly), you cross the redrawn line to enter the London Borough of Haringey
through some smart decorative gates onto Fordington Road.
Hornsey parish covered a much bigger area than the urban
centre and former principal village to the northeast we know by that name today.
It included Muswell Hill, Crouch End, Finsbury Park and most of Highgate and
stretched southeast as far as Clissold Park on the boundary of Stoke Newington.
Like Finchley it was held by the Bishops of London “since time immemorial”, with
the difference that it was regarded as part of their estates at Stepney rather
than Fulham. The names Hornsey and Harringay have a common Anglo-Saxon origin as
Hæringshege meaning ‘enclosure belonging to Hæring’. The ‘Hornsey’ form
came to be used for the parish and village, the Harringay form for a specific
part of the parish and, more recently, the alternative spelling Haringey for the
borough, formed by combining the former parishes of Hornsey and Tottenham in
The history of Hornsey is a long story of clearing woods
for farmland. About half the parish was wooded in 1390, reduced to a third in
1648, with only a few patches left today. The hilly countryside attracted a
quotient of big houses from the 18th century, but intensive
development happened more slowly than in neighbouring Finchley due to poor drainage.
The pace accelerated in the 1890s, mainly through the construction of smaller,
cheaper terraced homes with a few posh enclaves. Following World War II the
area fell into deprivation, with the notable exception of Highgate, but like
much of working-class London it’s been transformed in recent years with trendy
new private housing. The area we’re now in is on the edges of Fortis Green:
this began to emerge as a distinct suburb in the 1820s, later boosted by the
arrival of the railway, but the streets we pass through were some of the last
to be built up, about a century later. Behind the houses on the left side of
Fordington Road, not visible from the trail, a playing field covers an
underground reservoir, Fortis Green Reservoir, built to service the New River
in 1886: we’ll encounter the watercourse itself in the next section.
|Coleridge Fountain, Highgate Wood.
Once it was ‘woodland pasture’ grazed by cattle, but from
the 16th century, when it was known as Brewhouse Wood, it was subdivided
and leased to tenants for commercial forestry. The hornbeams were periodically
coppiced – cut back to a ‘stool’ just above the ground – to yield sticks for
charcoal and firewood, while the oaks grew into tall ‘standards’ which were
then felled for use in building and shipbuilding. Timber from Highgate found
its way into many Royal Navy ships as well as the new churches demanded by
This activity declined during the later 19th
century and in the 1860s gravel was being extracted from part of the site to
surface local roads, providing a new name, Gravel Pit Wood. The last lease
expired in the 1880s and the Church Commissioners began planning to sell off
the wood for housing. But local people were already using it for informal
recreation and in the 1880s Henry Reader Williams, a local councillor and wine
merchant who was also involved in campaigning for free education for poor
children, launched a call to preserve it as public space, generating
considerable correspondence in The Times newspaper.
The Commissioners, clearly Times readers, eventually yielded to public pressure,
agreeing in 1885 to donate the site to be “maintained in perpetuity for the
benefit of Londoners”. But the wood was just outside the territory of the
Metropolitan Board of Works, predecessor of the London County Council, and the
urban districts of Middlesex were yet to be created. So as with several other large
sites around the capital which were protected during the 19th century,
the City of London became the new owner, even though the wood was a
considerable distance beyond its boundaries. Highgate Wood, as it was renamed,
remains in the City’s portfolio of extra-mural green spaces today: it’s the
first and only one on the Ring, though there are several more on the London
Perhaps reflecting the more urban surroundings and the proximity
to central London, the City’s management over the following decades was more
interventionist than we’d expect for a patch of remnant countryside today. Trees
were thinned out, their lower branches removed, and areas cleared for grass sports
pitches. coppicing ceased and the ground was kept scrupulously clear with
fallen branches swiftly removed. Various structures were installed: a network
of tarmac paths, staff lodges and a drinking fountain. Not only did this change
the character of the site, it reduced the biodiversity, particularly on the woodland
floor and understorey.
Things began to change in 1968 when a complaint from the
London Natural History Society successfully halted a programme of new plantings
using exotic conifers rather than native broadleaved trees. In recent decades
the City has pursued a more wildlife-friendly policy, allowing fallen branches
and trees to decay naturally and encouraging fungi and invertebrates. Coppicing
has been restored and areas of the wood are periodically fenced off to allow
The legacy of the previous regime remains visible but now
seems another component of the site’s special character as an unusual hybrid of
woodland and Victorian park. The surroundings are still much less dense than
the neighbouring, and more ‘natural’, Queen's Wood, as we’ll shortly see: in
summer the tall standards with their high canopies seem to march through a
succession of dappled glades, creating an almost dream-like atmosphere when the
sun shines. Yet it’s once again rich in wildlife: 70 species of birds have been
identified, along with five bat species, 180 moth, 12 butterfly and 80 spider.
50 different types of tree and shrub grow here, including the wild service
tree, a reliable indicator of ancient woodland. Deservedly, the wood boasts a Green Heritage
award alongside its Green Flag, and since 1990 has been a Site of Metropolitan
Importance for Nature Conservation.
The Ring enters through Bridge Gate, which indeed involves
crossing a bridge over what appears to be a deep canyon filled with greenery. It’s
actually the cutting of the Muswell Hill Railway, operational between 1873 and
1956. There’s much more to this story which I plan on covering at the start of
the next section when it has a major bearing on the surroundings, so let’s simply
note it for now. Just through the elaborate gate, two Ring waymarks are
attached to short posts made from curved branches looking curiously like embracing
Our old friend the Green London Way rejoins at this first
path crossing, following its long diversion via Hampstead. This is also our
first encounter with the Better Haringey Trail, which takes a slightly different
route through the woods before rejoining the Ring a little further on. It originated
in 2004 when the council held a competition for suggestions from the public for
improvements to the borough. The proposal for the trail was the winning entry
and it was designated the following year using existing access: it isn’t signed
but is shown on Haringey’s cycling and walking map (PDF). It makes a 19 km circuit of the borough with
optional linking routes, starting and ending at Bruce Castle in Tottenham and
running via the Lea Valley, Finsbury Park, Highgate Wood and Alexandra Palace.
The path you follow, lined by bluebells in spring, passes through
a portion of the wood with the oldest known evidence for habitation. Archaeological
investigation in the late 1960s and early 1970s unearthed evidence of Romano-British
pottery kilns deep in the wood to the left, active in the 1st and 2nd
centuries. A little further on, you cross the line of a still visible ancient earthwork:
its origin is obscure, but it could have formed an animal enclosure or a defensive
Perhaps the most attractive of the Victorian additions
stands at a crosspaths in the middle of the wood: a drinking fountain topped
with a pink granite obelisk, donated by generous locals in 1888, though like
nearly all historic London drinking fountains it no longer serves its original
purpose. It’s sometimes known as the Coleridge Fountain after the Romantic poet
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), whose lines adorn the base, taken from a
poem appropriately named ‘Inscription for a Fountain on a Heath’. The choice of
poet is appropriate too as Coleridge lived in Highgate from 1816 until his
death. There’s no direct evidence he walked here, but it seems highly likely.
The words read:
Drink, Pilgrim, here; Here rest! and if thy heart
Be innocent, here too shalt thou refresh
Thy spirit, listening to some gentle sound
Or passing gale or hum of murmuring bees!
From here you can see the rear of the Pavilion Café straight
ahead, occupying a former cricket pavilion built in 1937 which fronts onto the sports
field. But the Ring turns east towards the edge of the wood, passing the Lodge
on the left by the next path junction. This was built as the Head Keeper’s
lodgings in 1886 to a mock-Tudor design by architect Horace Jones, also responsible
for several larger City of London projects, like Leadenhall Market and Old
Billingsgate Market. He was clearly keen to remind passers-by of the site’s new
owners: the City’s logo, a white shield with a red cross and an upturned sword
in the upper left quadrant, is prominently displayed on a gable.
|Lower Pool, Queen's Wood.
The council's improvements included the
charmingly rustic Keeper’s Lodge of 1899, with its clock tower and veranda, on
the left shortly after you enter the space. It’s now a park café, using some
ingredients grown in what was once the keeper’s private garden, now an organic
garden maintained by volunteers. But the council and its successors lacked the
resources of the City, resulting in an less interventionist management regime which
in retrospect was more beneficial for wildlife. This wood has quite a different
atmosphere to its neighbour, with more densely packed trees, a thicker
understorey and rougher paths clambering over its hilly terrain. It had become neglected
by 1990 when it was designated as a Local Nature Reserve and since then an
active Friends Group has helped turn things round.
One Friends project was to restore three woodland ponds,
and we pass a small but valuable example, Lower Pool, shortly after the entrance.
Soon after this, at a fork, the Ring crosses the remains of a woodbank constructed
in the second half of the 16th century. Around this time the management
regime changed from wood pasture, where grazing animals roamed freely, to more
intensive commercial coppicing and timber production, and the bank was designed
to keep out not only livestock but also wild deer who otherwise would have
eaten the shoots of newly coppiced trees. It’s worth making a short detour along
the left fork to the largest pond, Frog Pool. It was converted to a concrete
paddling pool in 1935 but fell into dereliction and was turned back into a
nature pond in 2011.
The ponds are a reminder that we’ve crossed the watershed
from the Brent valley into the Lea valley: they’re sources of the river
Moselle, which flows for around 11 km through Crouch End and Tottenham to join
the river Lea near Markfield Park. Much of the flow is now culverted and some
of it is buried: you can trace it along an unsigned trail, the Moselle River
Walk, which begins at the fork and is also shown on the walking and cycling map. Its name means ‘moss hill’, also found in the
placename Muswell Hill, and in origin is nothing to do with the rather more
famous and substantial Rhine tributary which flows through France, Luxembourg
Back on the Ring along the right-hand fork, the area to
the right is one where coppicing was restored in 1992. You then need to cross a
quiet wooded lane – a rarity in London – to pass through a further patch of
wood. A steep ramp then emerges onto Priory Gardens in the Highgate
Conservation Area, with its mix of early 20th century and late
Victorian terraced and semi-detached housing. Ring 11 ends at an Edwardian lamp
standard with a sign that indicates the trail continues up a side alley, and to
leave the walk here you simply keep ahead for a short distance to Highgate
The Ring reaches Highgate station through the back
door: a steep wooded ridge rears up behind it, giving some idea of how the
streets and other infrastructure have been cut into the hilly terrain. Atop
this ridge is the main traffic artery of Archway Road, but I’ll reserve comment
on this and the surrounding area of Highgate until the beginning of the next
section when we’ll see a bit more of it.
Before diving into the Tube, though, walk a few steps
uphill along the footpath that heads right just before the station entrance and
have a good look through the fence. The view is obscured by trees, but you
should be able to make out some buildings that look like they belong on a
station platform. That’s exactly where they are: this is Highgate high level
station on the trackbed of the original railway through the area. Had the
Northern Heights plans mentioned above been completed in full, it would be an
integral part of a busy interchange station with trains to Finsbury Park, Moorgate,
Muswell Hill, Alexandra Palace, Edgware and Bushey Heath as well as today’s familiar
Northern Line destinations. But it’s been closed since 1954, though
occasionally accessible on guided tours run by the London Transport Museum. As
we’ll soon discover on our next walk, its loss was ultimately walkers’ gain.
|Highgate High Level Station, glimpsed from the end of Priory Gardens.
From 2021, Ramblers volunteers in London have been
maintaining a revised and updated set of route descriptions for the Capital
Ring in partnership with Transport for London, as part of their Ring Rangers
scheme. As these descriptions are an improvement on what was previously
available, I’m no longer providing my own, but instead compiling summary
information sheets with more detail on distances, facilities, linking trails
and alternative routes, surroundings, accessibility and features of interest.
These also include corrections and additions to the Ramblers’ descriptions
where I thought these were needed.
- Ramblers route descriptions: innerlondonramblers.org.uk/capital-ring. There's an addional link on this page to check for the latest changes and diversions.
- London Underfoot information sheet (PDF)
- Google map