Wednesday, 13 July 2011

In Suburbia

It’s mid afternoon and after five hours walking through London from the HS2 terminus at Euston, I’m nearing very familiar territory.  I grew up close to this part of the line and the next ten miles will be full of memories.
First of all I’m on the hunt for the birth of the garden city movement.  Before Hampstead Garden Suburb, before Letchworth, and long before Welwyn Garden City, there was Brentham.  Dating from 1905 it’s small, only 600 houses or so, and hidden away today in unremarkable suburbia, but it is as much an icon of 20th century town planning as Robert Johnson’s Cross Road Blues is of 20th century rock music.  I walk up Brentham Way and am transported back to the pioneering days of co-ownership, of social and environmental self-help, and of that not very flattering poem by John Betjeman – Group Life:  Letchworth.  The little cottages (pictured below), with their simple arts and crafts detail on walls and chimneys, became the pattern book for the much larger and bolder garden cities to come, and appear in a diluted form in many of the homes of the 1920’s and 30’s.  I bet they cost a bob or two now.

Beyond Brentham I reach the small neighbourhood shopping centre of Pitshanger Lane.  I walk through it in stunned disbelief.  There’s a bakers, a greengrocers, a butchers, a furniture shop for heaven’s sake, a chemist, a small Co-op foodstore, restaurants and a pub.  A buzz of friendly conversation takes place among the obviously affluent shoppers and local residents.  The street isn’t pedestrianised but no one’s driving very fast and it’s easy to cross the road.  Behind the shops there is a park with well maintained tennis courts and a bowling green.  This can’t be real!
Frankly I start to imagine that I’ve stepped on to the set of a West London remake of The Truman Show.  I would have everything I wanted here and would never need to leave.    Somehow I tear myself away, and as I cross the golf course I start to hear the maelstrom of the A40 again, and to see the Central Line trains, on an embankment now, marking the route of HS2.
I climb Horsenden Hill in the late evening sunshine.   I’m familiar with this viewpoint from my teenage years (material for another blog entirely), so I know it will be worth it.  When I reach the summit, disturbing a green woodpecker which shrieks its laughing alarm call as it flies away, I can see back to the City of London, and plot my onward journey through the suburbs of London to the Chilterns.  These low wooded hills of Middlesex are a great asset in the midst of suburbia, and as I walk down through the fields to my accommodation in Northolt I breathe deeply of the fresh air of the county of my birth.
The HS2 consultation has made little impact here.  I speak to people in Greenford and Northolt about it.  “Oh – it’s coming here is it?  I didn’t know”.  “Well if it’s right beside the Central Line I shouldn’t think it will be any problem.”  I still can’t find anybody who is opposed to it.
Just before I stop for the night I walk past the church of St Mary’s Northolt.  This ancient whitewashed building, with its broach spire, set in its churchyard and few remaining fields, was very important to me as a child (pictured below).  Growing up in a world where everything else I ever saw was built after 1930 it was a link to the Middlesex of my imagination as I passed it on the bus.  As I stand there tonight, with nostalgia for that childhood flooding through me, a strange thing happens.  A large flock of birds flies above me, and settles in an oak tree.  Their long tails and noisy chatter are somehow not of Middlesex.  Then I realise.  These are Ring Necked Parakeets, escapees from aviaries, which are doing so well in the wild here now.  Evidence, if I needed it, that the Global Village is not restricted to our species.

I get up the following morning to the forecast of rain and the more immediate problem of sore feet.  I immediately regret my decision that full hiking boots would not be a good look on the mean streets of Kilburn and Ladbroke Grove.  I’m stuck with my lightweight shoes for the next two days, and I know I’ll have blisters by the end of it.
I trudge through the interminable 1930’s suburbia of Northolt and South Ruislip, past the “Industrial Estate” which is now a succession of retail parks in a bizarre and random mix of modern, mock rustic and utilitarian styles.  At least in Sainsbury’s I can buy some plasters for my feet.
The rain gets heavier and the houses look just the same as I pass Northolt Aerodrome.   This is the RAF’s oldest station, but today it is mostly known as the place where London’s political and business elite board their executive jets.
As one of them roars in to land a hundred feet above my head I see through the rain “RUISLIP SAYS NO TO HS2”.  An estate agent’s sign board on the central reservation of the A4180 has this emblazoned where SOLD (subject to contract) ought to be.  The further I walk the more posters and banners I see.  They are in living room windows, on fences and on notice boards.  On a pedestrian safety barrier a banner thunders:  “Help save your community from HS2”.  Blimey – it makes it sound like War of the Worlds.  Why does Ruislip not want HS2 when Northolt and Greenford really don’t mind?  Apparently only 10 properties may need to be demolished in Ruislip, and most of the way there is plenty of room beside the Central Line, so it isn’t a threat to people’s homes on the scale of Euston.
When I get to West Ruislip the continuous built-up area abruptly ends.   After expanding by nearly ten miles in the 1930’s the tree trunk that is London has put on no more growth rings in this direction since.  The designation of the land here as Green Belt following Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944 brought development to a shuddering halt, shelving plans to extend the Central Line to Denham, and has been a source of open air recreation and a fillip to property prices ever since.
I cross the golf course to the point where HS2 will leave the existing railway corridor for its viaduct across the River Colne.  I walk on across fields of cows towards the river, and if it were not for the traffic noise in the background I could be in Devon, or Herefordshire (pictured below).   I’m sure if I lived here I’d be as keen as anyone to protect the Green Belt from development, however much I might complain about sky-high house prices.
The Colne valley is a patchwork of former gravel pits, now flooded, along the Grand Union Canal.  Fishing, walking, boating and bird watching are the main activities here.  I stop on the Canal where the viaduct would cross and try to imagine it.  I can still hear traffic, and the existing railway line is busy with trains, so this isn’t an undeveloped area.  Once it was built I think people would quickly get used to it.  But the building of it – that is another story.
I’ve arranged to meet a friend for lunch in the Old Orchard pub in Harefield.  It has a great view down the Colne, and I can easily picture the viaduct sweeping across the valley.  This is a pub that has made up its mind about HS2.  There is a Stop HS2 petition behind the bar with about 200 signatures, and the numbers are still growing.  I chat to a member of one of the local fishing clubs.  “It’s the disruption I’m worried about.  We’ve got 45 lb carp in our lake. They take twenty years to grow that big, and now they want to build a viaduct in the middle of it.  What if something goes wrong and it kills all the fish?”
I head off over the M25 – where HS2 will once again enter a tunnel – and leave the last of London behind me.  Half a mile on I stop and sit down on the edge of a wheat field.  Peacock butterflies, poppies and daisies colour the field edge.  I’m on the fertile chalk soil of the Chilterns, and with 25 miles of London streets behind me I’ve got about 70 miles of countryside to enjoy before I get to Leamington Spa.  My feet hurt, but I feel like the luckiest man alive.

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