"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 ShriSwaminarayan 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.