|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 station.
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 now crosses.
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 the 1960s.
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 Preston Story.
|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 2010.
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 Eldestrete.
‘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 church.
|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 Shopping Centre.
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 space.
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 the Thames.
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 Brookside Walk.
|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 its name.
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.
After paralleling 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.
The privately 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 North Road.
|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 robbers.
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 in 1965.
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 1965.
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 London’s expansion.
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 Loop.
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 regeneration.
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 figures.
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 boundary.
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 and Germany.
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 station.
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