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.