diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 22, 2006

  Metro-land revisited
  Gladstone Park

  Neasden


"Over the points by electrical traction
Out of the chimneypots into the openness
Til we come to the suburb that's thought to be commonplace
Home of the gnome and the average citizen
Sketchley and Unigate, Dolcis and Walpamur"

John Betjeman on Neasden ("Metro-land", BBC, 1973)

If you were making a documentary about Neasden today, you wouldn't go the local park. More likely you'd go to the Shri Swaminarayan Mandir [photo], the impressive pinnacled Hindu temple on Brentfield Road, to be compared and contrasted with that other great modern temple, the blue and yellow IKEA on the North Circular. But neither of these had been built when Betjeman came in 1972, and I suspect he wouldn't have visited either. Instead he headed northeast from the station, up the slopes of Dollis Hill, to Gladstone Park.



This is one of the larger parks in north London, safeguarded against creeping urbanisation by Victorian philanthropists. There are 97 acres to slouch in, jog through and kickabout on, as well as large ares of woodland and hay meadow. Take a seat on one of the benches at the crest of the hill and the park spreads out in front of you, down a steep grassy slope to a sea of identikit semis in the valley below [photo]. You can see for miles, round from the old Post Office Tower to the new Wembley Stadium, across swathes of undulating suburbia. Look carefully and you can spot the Trellick Tower, and Harrow on its hill, and a steady procession of jets descending to land at Heathrow. It's perhaps not surprising that a grand home, Dollis Hill House, was built on the hilltop, nor that one of its most famous residents was William Gladstone the Liberal Prime Minister. Another regular house guest was author Mark Twain, who later penned perhaps the kindest words ever written about Neasden.

"I have never seen any place that was so satisfactorily situated, with its noble trees and stretch of country, and everything that went to make life delightful, and all within a biscuit's throw of the metropolis of the world."
Mark Twain (Innocents Abroad, 1869)

Dollis Hill House today is a pitiful shell of its former self [photo]. Following a couple of arson attempts coupled with insufficient funds for renovation, one suspects it's only the scaffolding keeping the place upright. The stable block is in better shape, doubling up as an art gallery and cafe, with an immaculate walled rose garden nestling behind [photo]. An ornamental pond also survives, though the nude statue standing ankle deep in the murky green waters is a much later addition [photo]. This is a favourite spot for parked-up baby buggies and wheelchairs, or just for plonking down with a picnic beneath the rustling leaves and throwing crusts at the ducks.

Betjeman preferred civic pride to hilltop history and met up instead with local birdwatcher Mr Eric Sims, creator of the Neasden Nature Trail. Mr Sims effused on film about the variety of birdlife to be seen in Gladstone Park, and the bracing stroll he had devised to allow local residents to experience the same. Look, a hen blackbird, and here a house sparrow, and there's a pigeon. His enthusiasm appears out of all proportion, as these are birds which might be seen in any park across the nation. In suburbia, when you have no real countryside to hand, you have to make do with what you have. A check on Gladstone Park's website today reveals that others still share his in-depth fascination with the mostly-ordinary. Blue tits, chaffinches and crows are still lovingly catalogued, along with rarer visitors such as the green woodpecker (spotted by Colin George on June 29th last year) and a flock of redwings (spotted by Martin Thompson the previous April). Another scarily obsessive part of the site measures out each of the park's pathways so that those out power-walking can tell, to the nearest hundredth of a mile, precisely how far they've travelled. Alas of the Neasden Nature Trail itself, a product of the pre-internet era, there is no sign.

Eric and Sir John also narrowly missed the area's most fascinating secret location. While they were peering through binoculars in the Brook Road allotments, a small doorway across the street shielded something far more extraordinary. This is the entrance to 'Paddock' [photo], the government's bombproof WW2 bunker, to which Winston Churchill and his cabinet would have retreated had Whitehall ever been bombed. Paddock contained scores of rooms across two floors, protected beneath five feet of reinforced concrete, with enough room for 200 support staff within. But Churchill only ever visited once, for a dry run, and after the war the site was mothballed and forgotten. It was still top secret in 1972, and only came to light when a local housing association was given permission to build on top of it.

I'm not convinced that the family currently living in the house nextdoor to Paddock are aware of their secret neighbour. They gave me the funniest look as I stopped to take a photograph of the locked entrance door, maybe because they thought I was snapping their wheelie bin instead. And then they drove off in their car, hesitantly, hanging around in a nearby road until they were absolutely certain that me (and my camera) were no longer hanging around [photo]. They must surely notice next month when the bunker is opened up for London Open House weekend and scores of vistors in yellow hard hats start gathering in front of their driveway. I was lucky enough to get a ticket two years ago and ventured down in the wartime depths, along the long damp corridors and into the rusting cabinet room. It was a fascinating visit, and such an unexpected find beneath the streets of Neasden. But I think one visit was quite enough. Churchill and me, we have that in common.

Paddock virtual tour
Subterranea Britannica history of Paddock (seriously detailed)
more Paddock photographs


<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>


click to return to the main page


...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream