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.

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