Writing Portfolio


The Capital Ring: South Kenton to East Finchley

To South Kenton on a clear Friday morning in February, starting on the last part of my Capital Ring walk by the Windermere, a big pub by the station that looked like it was built in the Thirties – as did every other building in the surrounding area. No time for a drink, though, for Dad and I had some walking to do. Besides, it wasn’t open at that time of morning.

Before long, we’d passed through our first park of the day – Preston Park – and crossed Preston Road, crossing over the Metropolitan Line as we did so. 

One street later and it was under the Jubilee Line and over the Wealdstone Brook, a tributary of the River Brent. The next street led us to a footpath which turned onto an open space called Fryent Country Park; it would be grass paths for the next couple of miles, and very muddy some of them turned out to be. 

We climbed Barn Hill, and before entering the trees turned for a stunning view of suburban north-west London and the ridge of countryside behind it (marking the borderland between Middlesex and Hertfordshire). Of particular note on this vista were the church atop Harrow-on-the-Hill, Bentley Priory, the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and the Edgwarebury Hotel.

At the top of Barn Hill was a trig point (282 feet up) and a pond adorned with signs advising that fishing and camping are not allowed in the vicinity. 

A dead and hollowed-out tree provided a perching-post for ring-necked parakeets; these pale green and rather loud creatures are relatively new additions to London’s bird scene. Native to India, they’ve been recorded in south-eastern England since the late Sixties and there is a nice story about how they got here, something about the first pair being released by either Mick Jagger or Jimi Hendrix (who for a time lived on Brook Street in Mayfair, coincidentally next-door to where George Frideric Handel had lived over two centuries beforehand), although it’s more likely that the earliest ones escaped from private collections. Either way, they’ve firmly established themselves here now and they seem to do well despite the weather!

Moving downhill, we crossed a track signposted as Eldestrete, an old path which according to Colin Saunders in his book is reckoned to be of pre-Roman vintage and “was used by pilgrims to St Alban’s shrine”. That book, by the way (as I may have mentioned before, it’s published in association with the Ordnance Survey and is simply called The Capital Ring) has proved to be very useful, especially at points where the Capital Ring signage may be damaged or not immediately apparent. Crossing the A4140, we continued through Fryent Country Park which is a place that Dad and I have both driven past many times but never stopped to explore. That, of course, is what something like the Capital Ring enables people to do; it connects places which people may have heard of or passed on a regular basis but haven’t looked at further. There is, of course, always more to London – maybe I should qualify that by saying Greater London – than people think; Samuel Johnson was, of course, right when he pointed out that “when a man is tired of London he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford”.

We got another good viewpoint from the top of Gotfords Hill (just over 200 feet; no trig point this time). After walking alongside and through gaps in hedgerows, we hit suburbia again in the form of Kingsbury which has a rather interesting church; St Andrew’s was built in 1847 and was reckoned to be one of London’s finest churches but it was built in the West End (Wells Street to be precise). By the early twentieth century, falling congregation numbers led to the church being closed and it was threatened with demolition. What saved it was suburban development to the north – the growing suburb of Kingsbury was turning out to be too big for its church, so a solution was proposed. Between 1931 and 1933, the church was taken apart stone by stone and rebuilt in Kingsbury. We turned left just after the church, heading along Old Church Lane which afforded views of the ‘old’ St Andrew’s church through the trees (it’s now a Romanian Orthodox church).

Our next goal was the Welsh Harp, alias Brent Reservoir, a place where I’ve gone birdwatching several times. It was here that we crossed a local authority boundary for the last time on the walk, leaving the London Borough of Brent and entering the London Borough of Barnet. The reservoir – which gets the ‘Welsh Harp’ name from a pub that used to stand nearby, dates back to the early nineteenth century when the River Brent was dammed to supply water for the Regent’s Canal; as well as a popular wildlife-watching venue, it’s also well-known as a sailing centre. We stopped for lunch there, looking out onto the reservoir with the sound of the North Circular making itself known in the background (more of that to come). Bird-wise, we saw black-headed gulls (lots of those), coots, moorhens, tufted ducks (lots of those, too), a lone lesser-black-backed gull, pochards, gadwalls, mallards, geese of the Canada and greylag varieties and mute swans.

After the Welsh Harp we crossed the A5 – part of Watling Street, the old Roman road which I’d previously encountered in its south-of-the-river guise as the A2 on an earlier Capital Ring section. Then it was over the M1 and into Hendon, skirting the back-streets just to the north of Brent Cross Shopping Centre which celebrated its fortieth birthday last year (it’s never been the same since they got rid of the fountain). We were still walking in bright sunshine but parts of the sky looked ominously grey. A subway took us under the A41 and not long afterwards a footbridge took us over the Northern Line (Edgware branch) – and from the footbridge you can see Brent Cross station, supremely ill-suited for access to the shopping centre of the same name but it should be noted that the station pre-dates the centre by over fifty years.

 The footbridge led into Hendon Park, and it was here that Dad’s Capital Ring odyssey came to an end, he having started the walk after me but from a point further back. 

I would therefore be doing the final few miles back to East Finchley on my own. For part of this I would be doing so within earshot of the North Circular, a ring road that dates back to the Twenties and which “has the dubious distinction of being the noisiest road in Britain” (according to Colin Saunders); it has never ceased to amaze me that people will voluntarily (I presume they do so voluntarily) pay good money for and live in the houses that line it. Thankfully, the Capital Ring goes through parks for the most part of this stretch.

First up was Brent Park, a narrow park running alongside the River Brent which was deliberately left undeveloped when this part of North London was built up, just in case the river flooded. There’s a pond called The Decoy (so called because it used to be used to lure ducks for the purpose of capturing them) and I’m pleased to report that the flowers were out at this time of year. 

At the end of the park is the point at which the Brent is formed from the merger of Dollis Brook (which rises in Moat Mount Open Space) and Mutton Brook (which starts out as an underground stream in Cherry Tree Wood in East Finchley). These are followed by the ten-mile Dollis Valley Greenwalk which could be a future walk, should I fancy something a little shorter next time.

Following Mutton Brook and the afore-mentioned Dollis Valley Greenwalk, I passed under the North Circ and through a small patch of open space sandwiched between the former and Hampstead Garden Suburb, a settlement established in the early twentieth century by Dame Henrietta Barnett, a philanthropist who wanted to set up a community which included people from all social backgrounds (but no pub), a social experiment which lasted for a couple of decades before economic reality took over and the Garden Suburb became one of the most affluent parts of North London. 

I skirted along its northern edge, briefly touching on Addison Way before passing through Northway Gardens and Lyttleton Playing Fields, the latter of which afforded a view of the Garden Suburb’s skyline, with the spire of St Jude’s and the dome of the Free Church bookending the girls’ grammar school named after Dame Henrietta; that, by the way, is where I did part of my teacher training, thirteen years ago.

From the playing-fields I emerged onto Norrice Lea, a stretch of road with a primary school at the end. This was familiar to me, for last year I did my bit for democracy by being the man in charge of a modest-looking portacabin close by the gate that served as the local area’s polling station in the EU referendum. After crossing the A1, it was time for the final stretch – up through a couple of streets of very nice (and very expensive) houses that count as being in the Garden Suburb even though they have the N2 postcode which denotes East Finchley. This took me to Edmund’s Walk, a close which has at the end a narrow path which leads to The Causeway, the footpath leading to the back entrance to East Finchley station which was where I started on my Capital Ring walk almost two years ago.

I stood there briefly as some people walked past, going to or from the station oblivious to the modest green Capital Ring signs that had caught my attention and sent me off on a 78-mile walk, a circle which I had now closed. What, I wondered, would I do next as a walking project? The London Loop, perhaps, or maybe the Thames Path? Or perhaps a series of shorter walks? First things first, though; I’d walked nine miles that day, and I needed to sit and put my feet up while having a cup of tea that didn’t have the metallic taste that comes with drinking it out of a flask. So I went home.


The Capital Ring: Greenford to South Kenton

That part of the Capital Ring which runs from Greenford to South Kenton is described (in Colin Simpson’s very helpful walking-guide The Capital Ring) as “one of the hilliest parts … a substantial amount is on uneven ground or grass which may be muddy or wet after heavy rain”. Although it wasn’t raining on the day Dad and I set out to Greenford to continue our walk along London’s circular footpath, we both reckoned that hiking-boots were a good idea. A wise move. As for hills, I could see the first one, Horsenden Hill, from the platform at Greenford station.

From there, we passed a retail park before entering the Paradise Fields Wetlands, a nature reserve on land that used to be a golf course. I’d brought my binoculars with me but I didn’t see much from a viewing-platform – a solitary moorhen, a few crows and little else. Before long we rejoined the Grand Union Canal, this time following the branch that goes to Paddington to (eventually) become the Regent’s Canal

Moorhens, coots and mallards were seen on the canal, which we followed as far as a road bridge, passing under it before climbing up to it in order to cross over the canal.

Then the first climb of the day began, along grassy footpaths and a series of steps to reach the summit of Horsenden Hill, marked by a trig point some 260 feet above sea level (not the highest point on the Capital Ring, that honour going to the vicinity of Severndroog Castle on the Woolwich-Falconwood part, or even the highest point of the day which was still to come). 

It’s said that on a clear day you can see Windsor Castle to the west, but I couldn’t.

We descended through a wood, almost being sent the wrong way because one of the many direction signs (adorned by the walk’s logo which depicts what is nowadays called the Elizabeth Tower – it was never called Big Ben, which is the nickname of the largest bell inside it – surrounded by arrows) had been knocked over; I restored it as best I could by resting it against a nearby tree with the arrows pointing in the right direction. There followed a walk through suburbia, crossing the A4090 to reach Sudbury Hill station. We turned off the main road, and subsequently turned off that road onto a track that took us sharply uphill before spilling us out into the A4005 on which we continued the climb. At this point the signs, usually green, turned black to be more in keeping with the locale.

We were now in a rather posh part of town, Harrow-on-the-Hill, and we were following the London Road right into the heart of the old village which is dominated by Harrow School, one of the top public schools in the country (old boys include Sir Winston Churchill and Lord Byron); we saw a few of the boys by sadly none of them were wearing straw hats. The hill, topped by the spire of St Mary’s church, is 350 feet high and is a prominent landmark that can be seen for miles around. At the village green we had hoped to be able to pop into an old pub called the King’s Head – said to have been one of many places where Henry VIII courted Anne Boleyn – but today the pub has closed down, although the sign still hangs on a gallows-like structure. 

There was also a street called Church Hill which I’d like to think was named in honour of the wartime PM but I presume it predates him as it does indeed lead up to the afore-mentioned church which stands at the top of the hill (although the spire is obscured by one of the school buildings if you look up from the High Street).

We descended from Harrow-on-the-Hill via Football Lane – named not for the view of Wembley Stadium but because it leads steeply down to the school’s playing-fields, which we crossed to get to the Watford Road. 

It was here that we took a look back up the hill before encountering a stile which, believe it or not, is the only one on the Capital Ring.

Next up was a muddy part which made me glad I’d worn my boots. 

The path ran between Northwick Park Hospital and a golf course – there is, I recall, a good Churchill quote about golf; not the ‘good wallk spoilt’ one (which has been attributed to, among others, William Gladstone and Mark Twain) but his description of it as “a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose”. There were high nets to protect us walkers (and the cars parked outside the hospital, of course) from errant balls. We didn’t seen any golfers but we did see a mixed flock of thrushes on one of the greens which included redwings and fieldfares as well as song thrushes.

From there it was but a short walk through Northwick Park (the park, not the hospital) to South Kenton station. It is my hope that the next part of the Capital Ring will be the last; Dad only has to go six miles from South Kenton to Hendon (where he started), while I have a further three miles in order to get back to where I started at East Finchley, almost two years ago. It is a circle that has taken me to many parts of Greater London that I would not have otherwise visited, and it is to close soon.


Stonehenge and the A303

For many years, I have always associated Stonehenge with going on holiday. This, quite simply, is because it’s located right next to the A303 and as such is passed, and seen from the car, while driving down to the West Country.

A true wonder of the ancient world, Stonehenge is one of Britain’s oldest and most mysterious sites. Reckoned to date back some 5,000 years, with the construction phase spanning over 1,500 years (so it’s reckoned), no-one knows why it was built – it was the product of an ancient culture that left no written records – although the some of stones themselves are known to have been quarried from some mountains in Wales, 250 miles away from where it stands on Salisbury Plain. Did it have an astronomical function, or was it a religious site – a place of pilgrimage, a place of healing or maybe a place of death (there’s certainly plenty of evidence for people having been buried in the vicinity)? Archaeologists continue to be fascinated by the site and the surrounding area, and some of the theories as to how Stonehenge came to be built and what it was for go back centuries (it’s even been linked to the King Arthur legends, of which more in a later post).

What we do know for sure is that by the Middle Ages, the Stones and the surrounding land were owned by a local abbey, while following the Dissolution of the Monasteries it was owned by various aristocratic families, the last of which sold it in 1915 when their only heir was killed on the Western Front; by this stage, the Royal Flying Corps had established an airbase nearby. The man who bought it in 1915 donated it to the nation three years later, and following that a gradual campaign to save the monument from encroaching modern buildings got under way. Today, Stonehenge – a UNESCO World Heritage site that’s managed by English Heritage – stands majestically amid chalk grassland, with the modern age mostly in evidence courtesy of the traffic on the nearby A303.

Quite a few people have a favourite road, and the A303 is mine – probably because of its obvious holiday associations. Running from the M3 near Basingstoke until it joins with the A30 just outside Honiton, it passes through five counties and follows ancient routes such as the Harrow Way which pre-dates the Romans. The modern road dates back to the nineteenth century when the New Direct Road was built for stagecoaches travelling between London and Exeter; when Britain’s roads were numbered in the early twentieth century it clearly wasn’t thought of as being particularly significant, although nowadays it’s much busier than the A30 which runs parallel to the south (that’s the one to take if you’re heading for Salisbury or Yeovil). Even though a few parts of the A303 are still single-carriageway, many drivers heading west seem to prefer it to the motorways (it’s less boring, what with getting to see Stonehenge en route) and it has even been the subject of a TV documentary in which it was called the ‘Highway to the Sun’.

Recent developments in the vicinity of Stonehenge, which is where the A303 is single-carriageway and a bit of a traffic hotspot partly because it’s single-carriageway (the notion of a dual-carriageway running through a World Heritage Site is a controversial one) and partly because people slow down to look at Stonehenge, have focussed on returning this ancient site to the haven of tranquillity that people might expect to find. The A344, the road that branched off from the A303 just before Stonehenge and ran right past it, was closed in 2013 and grassed over; the visitor centre that had stood on that road was taken down and a new one was built some 1½ miles away. Now, visitors heading west on the A303 have to drive past Stonehenge in order to get to the new, state-of-the-art (and environmentally sensitive) visitor centre, from which the monument itself cannot be seen – you can either get a shuttle-bus there or walk to it, just as pilgrims presumably did for millennia.

Nowadays, if you’re an adult who didn’t book in advance, a visit to Stonehenge will set you back £18:20. For this, you get the shuttle-bus service and the chance to walk near (but not among) the Stones (the access visits, where you get to go into the Stone Circle itself, are over £30 for adults and are only available outside usual opening times, meaning that access visits only take place early in the morning or late in the evening; these have to be booked in advance). Having visited recently, I’ve found out that if you walk from the visitor centre and don’t mind seeing the Stones from a bit further away then you don’t have to pay.

Future plans for the area involve redirecting the A303 into a tunnel that will run underneath Salisbury Plain, meaning that it won’t go past Stonehenge. This idea has been mooted for years and quite frankly I’ll believe it when I see it, but I can’t say I’m keen on it. In fact, I think it’s a bad idea. Sure, Stonehenge itself will be a bit more peaceful without the sound of nearby traffic once the construction work on the tunnel has (eventually) finished, but for many the chance to briefly catch a glimpse of this historic and magnificent monument, one of few links we have with the prehistoric world, will be lost; only those willing to stop and pay will be able to lay eyes on it. And that, I feel, would somehow be wrong.


Whig history and fake news (with Lucy Worsley)

Lucy Worsley has clearly been busy recently. The historian, Chief Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces and TV presenter (who has brought us such documentaries as The First Georges and Empire of the Tsars) was on Beeb One in December with Six Wives, and is now on Beeb Four with British History’s Biggest Fibs which re-examines certain aspects of our history. The latter is the more interesting, and it shows that there is nothing new about what we now call fake news.

If you haven’t seen it, there are no prizes for guessing who Six Wives is about and if you didn’t catch it you probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were costumes (it wouldn’t be a Lucy Worsley documentary if she didn’t don at least one historical costume; this irritates some but I see it as a visual sign of an enthusiastic presenter getting underneath the surface of her subject), dramatic reconstructions that inevitably looked like low-budget imitations of A Man for All Seasons or Wolf Hall, and Dr Worsley telling the story in her usual engaging, light and energetic manner that’s a refreshing change from the affected bitchiness of (say) David Starkey. Of particular note were her insights into Anne of Cleves although these were pretty much the same as the impression of her that was given in the 1970 drama series The Six Wives of Henry VIII. To be fair, the saga that was Henry VIII’s marital history (all that, ahem, chopping and changing) is is one of the best-known stories from English history and as such I’d’ve been amazed if Dr Worsley had come up with anything new; to her credit she let the wives rather than Henry take centre-stage, but such an approach has nevertheless been done before and in this instance it could’ve been condensed into a single hour.

Meanwhile, Henry VIII’s dad was key to the first episode of British History’s Biggest Fibs which is a much more interesting and thought-provoking programme. It was Henry VII who, after defeating Richard III at Bosworth, embarked on a major propaganda campaign to assert the legitimacy of his claim to the throne (which was rather questionable, he being the grandson of Henry V’s wife by her second husband). He managed to convince people that he had been declared King before the battle, and set about demonising Richard with a vengeance. He asserted his legitimacy with symbols too. The Tudor rose, combining the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York, was created and adopted as his symbol, showing how he had unified the two rival royal houses (he’d strengthened his claim by marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece). But the red rose hadn’t really been used as an emblem by the Lancastrians, and contemporaries had never used the term ‘Wars of the Roses’ to describe the ongoing (yet surprisingly sporadic) conflict between the two rival branches of the Plantagenet dynasty between 1455 and 1485. Indeed, the idea of their supporters using roses to identify their allegiance owes more to Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 (specifically, the scene where the supporters pick red or white roses in the garden of Temple Church) than anything else; at Bosworth, Richard’s banner was adorned by a boar, while Henry used a dragon. Sticking with Shakespeare, who was writing during the reign of Henry VII’s grand-daughter Elizabeth I, the Bard drew heavily on the works of Henry’s chroniclers when writing Richard III, which presents said king as an out-and-out villain who is beaten by good in the form of the Earl of Richmond (Henry).

Aside from detailing the rewriting of history that Henry VII and his chroniclers embarked on, there’s a good point from Dr Worsley (as well as waving a sword in a field in Leicestershire, she gets to dress up as a Tudor-era Yeoman of the Guard in this one) about linking this to the Whig interpretation of history, which is an approach that seeks to present the past as an inevitable progression, with things always getting better and better; if used by a ruler (and throughout history, it often has been) then I guess it’s an approach that is not dissimilar from what we would now call fake news. As Dr Worsley herself points out, some elements of our history are a “carefully edited and deceitful version of events”. ‘Fake news’ may be a new phrase, but it is not a new phenomenon.

More overtly related to the Whigs was the second part of British History’s Biggest Fibs which looked at the Glorious Revolution. For many years this event was presented as a key to Britain’s subsequent prosperity by, for example, the Victorian historian Thomas Babington Macaulay whose History of England exemplified the Whig interpretation; the advances of British power in the eighteenth century owed much to the sovereignty of Parliament that had been enshrined by the Glorious Revolution. But how did the Glorious Revolution come about? Was it a peaceful transfer of power following the tyranny of James II, or a foreign invasion? Certainly James was suspected of aspiring to be an absolutist ruler and his Catholicism didn’t help. James’s enemies, who came to be called the Whigs, were not above the use of fake news to discredit him, for example with the rumours that his son born in June 1688 (the future Old Pretender) was actually an illegitimate imposter who had been smuggled into his wife’s bed in a warming-pan. James’s response, engaging with this craziness by publishing statements from those who had witnessed the birth (apparently, the number of witnesses was well into double figures), only made matters worse – the Whigs produced pamphlets discrediting the witnesses and their statements, and someone even came up with a map of St James’s Palace which showed the route that had supposedly been taken by the servant with the warming-pan, from the convent next door (where, the story went, the imposter-baby had been born) to the Queen’s bed!

Using propaganda to discredit a tyrannical ruler is all very well (it evidently works even better if his attempts to refute it can themselves be refuted), but how do you go about getting rid of him without risking civil war? The solution, as revealed in the cellars of a long-demolished Buckinghamshire mansion called Ladye Place (owned by an MP who indulged in publicity-seeking behaviour like using a court summons to wipe his bottom in public), was to invite someone else to invade England – that someone else being the Dutch prince William of Orange. Such an invitation was treason – the seven senior politicians who signed it didn’t use their own names (those were added later) – but in the light of what happened next this invitation came to be seen not as a treacherous act but as a plea from a desperate nation. Those seven politicians would be remembered not as traitors but as heroes, the ‘Immortal Seven’.

There’s more to it than that – the situation in England was linked to that in Europe, where the Protestant William was locked in a struggle with Louis XIV, the Catholic King of France. By looking at things from the Dutch side, it’s evident that William – who was married to Mary, James’s daughter – had considered invading England even before he was invited to do so; with the resources of England (and Scotland and Ireland) behind him, he would be much better placed to fight against his rival Louis. When he did invade (after sailing along the Channel, he landed at Brixham in November 1688), he was shrewd enough not to present it as an invasion, with his weapons of war including a printing-press which was used to print multiple copies of the declaration which presented his reasons for arriving in England; this propaganda campaign was clearly a success, for by the time he got to Exeter he was greeted not as an invader but as a liberator (even the colour of his horse – white – was symbolic, referring to a passage from Revelation which Dr Worsley quotes, while wearing a suit of armour of course). James fled; the Whigs said he’d abdicated.

There followed the reign of William III and Mary II, the only joint monarchy in our history – and it was enshrined by the Bill of Rights which barred Catholics from the line of succession and gave the Whigs the constrained, or rather constitutional, monarchy that they’d wanted. As Henry VII and his supporters had done unto Richard III, so William and Mary and their supporters did unto James II by denouncing him as a tyrant. Getting rid of a king and asserting the sovereignty of Parliament; revolutionary this undoubtedly was, and to a Whig it was indeed glorious; “if you win a conflict,” as Dr Worsley points out, “you get to pick its name”. You also get to ensure that your version of said conflict is the version is the one that gets the most publicity to the point where it can even be seen as fact rather than interpretation; William III knew this as well as Henry VII had done.

Some at the time called the Glorious Revolution a bloodless revolution, which wasn’t the case if one considers subsequent resistance to William in Ireland. In 1690 he met his father-in-law on the battlefield for the first time at the Boyne, and easily defeated him. This has been commemorated by Northern Irish Protestants every 12th July ever since – or has it? In actual fact, the subsequent battle of Aughrim, which took place the following year, was seen as more significant at the time and that was the one that took place on 12th July and was commemorated, but in 1752 the Gregorian calendar was adopted in Britain and Ireland. This led to the commemorations focussing on the Boyne (which had taken place on 1st July, that date becoming 11th July under the new calendar) instead; to this day, these commemorations continue to be an incendiary subject in Northern Ireland (William III – King Billy – is still very much either a hero or a villain depending on one’s perspective).

Perceptions change with time; in recent years the relative merits of Richard III and Henry VII have been re-evaluated (with the discovery of the former’s remains underneath a Leicester cark park sparking much re-thinking), while the Whig interpretation of the Glorious Revolution faded somewhat in the twentieth century (and yes, in the light of various revolutions that have taken place since the late seventeenth century some historians have queried the extent to which it really counts as a revolution). History, or rather the evidence that has survived, is always open to questioning and reinterpretation. Much like some of what we read and hear in the news today, said evidence is usually biased in one way or another and may well be exaggerated (or even in some cases factually inaccurate and/or intentionally misleading); one thing we can say for certain is that it was ever thus.