diamond geezer

 Sunday, October 12, 2008

Random borough (19): Harrow (part 1)

Yesterday my jamjar directed me to the leafy northwestern suburbs, to Harrow. This part of London was almost all fields until the railways came, before morphing rapidly into Betjeman's luxuriant Metroland. Modern Harrow is still full of big houses and wide-open Green Belt spaces. It's London trying to be Hertfordshire. It's the borough with the capital's lowest crime figures. It's far more racially diverse than you might expect. It's not rammed with places of interest, but it's still a very pleasant place to be. Let's start today in Harrow itself, a town in two very different parts.

Somewhere sporting: the playing fields of Harrow
There are two Harrows - the elite on the hill and everybody else down below. The famous public school got here early, founded in 1572, and perches atop the summit as befits its perceived importance. The Metropolitan Railway got here relatively late, in 1880, and populated the surrounding fields with upwardly mobile state-school fodder. The contrast between the two areas is considerable.

the playing fields of HarrowFor the boys at Harrow, on the hill, Saturday's just another school day. Bad luck lads. There are assemblies to attend, and lessons to endure, and of course lots of character building sports to play. The school's famous playing fields are located in broad sweeping meadows at the foot of Harrow hill. They're all decked out for rugby at the moment, although when I passed through first thing yesterday morning the posts stood alone amidst the clearing mist. Things would have been very different come 2.30pm when the Radley College 2nd XV were due to run out for a ruck, along with a myriad of lesser competitive matches on the surrounding pitches. Lots of mud, lots of cracking bones and lots of housemasters yelling critical encouragement at the tops of their voices from the touchline. Three cheers for the gallant losers, rah rah rah. And then for the home team, following every single match (or practice), an absolutely knackering walk up the long steep slope of Football Lane back to the boarding houses on the hilltop. They're clearly evil sadists, these Harrow games teachers.

The school itself is a large collection of motley buildings strung out around the High Street, many of them large, Gothicky and impressive. But this is no exclusive campus - there are shops and restaurants and bijou cottages scattered inbetween, and every now and then a double decker bus thunders right through the middle on its way to Watford. Some of the surrounding lanes are narrow, contoured and gorgeous, and the sort of desirable place to live that's seen more often in the Cotswolds than a mere 10 miles from Charing Cross. At the top of West Street there's a special musty shop where boys can buy cufflinks and hand-sewn name labels, and on the village green another selling sensible shoes, hockey sticks and cricket flannels. Most of the other shops and restaurants seem to be aimed more at pupils' parents, or possibly aspirational sixth formers attempting to spend a little of Daddy's City bonus. This exclusive enclave may jar a little with the world outside, but upper Harrow still has the edge over Eton as an endearing educational establishment.

Harrovians in straw boatersAs I passed through, the street suddenly filled with students exiting whatever mass communal gathering the school insists they attend every Saturday morning. They seemed to be pouring out of the Library, or maybe George Gilbert Scott's grand chapel, and heading back to their boarding houses before lessons began at 11. And it's true, the boys really do wear straw boaters as a matter of course and without a flicker of embarrassment. Attending school here must be really character-building. It looked as if box files and ring binders were also an official part of the Harrow school uniform, because every boy was clutching at least two or three. I decided to get out of the way, because it's not good form to be wandering amongst schoolboys with a camera, and ascended swiftly to St Mary's Church at the very top of the hill.

The church is half a millennium older than the school, and always seems to be surrounded by earnest gardeners with secateurs and wheelbarrows. It pays off, the churchyard's immaculate. Lord Byron used to come up here a lot as a schoolboy, inspired by the panoramic views to the west, and a memorial now marks the spot. I can only imagine that the trees have grown quite a lot since his day, because the view's not as clear as it once was. Nearby is the grave of London's first railway accident amputee (one shouldn't laugh, but his epitaph is ridiculously melodramatic). And the hill has one further unfortunate claim to fame - it's the site of Britain's first fatal motorist accident. I descended to the main town with great care.
by bus: 258, H17

Somewhere retail: Harrow town centre
The shopkeepers of Harrow are worried, and not just by impending economic slowdown. Their metropolitan centre ought to be the retail destination of choice for a million Londoners, with the nearest serious competition far away in Watford, Uxbridge or Brent Cross. But the new Westfield London megaplex, due to open in Shepherd's Bush in a couple of weeks, could prove one lure too many. Harrow's shops are nothing extra-special, just your typical large town department stores and high street chains. Be very afraid.

Arch over Station Road, HarrowA metal arch stands over the southern entrance to the main shopping precinct, heralding such delights as a bookies, a pizzeria and an Iceland supermarket. Don't worry, the shops pick up in quality beyond Katie's statue. The Queen unveiled this bronze of a merrily skipping girl to celebrate the borough's golden jubilee, although heaven knows why. All the major chain stores may be present, but St Ann's Shopping Centre has been sucked dry of any ounce of character whatsoever. It's a soulless plastic mall alongside an artificial retail boulevard, and probably last had a buzz when Princess Diana opened the place in 1987. The St George's Shopping and Leisure Centre is a little showier and more decoratively 90s, but also smaller (so they could only rustle up Catherine Zeta Jones). Its first floor balcony seems to be the chosen place to hang out if you're a bored girl in a puffa jacket, however.

I bought nothing in any of these places, but instead took my wallet to the local Gayton Library. Harrow Borough Council are very precious about their five Heritage Trail leaflets and refuse to make them available on the internet, preferring instead to charge 50p for each and restrict their sale to the borough's libraries. I confused the girl at the front desk by asking for the full set. She had to ask where the leaflets were (er, they're in that locked glass cabinet in front of the desk), and then another librarian set off around the building to try to track down the key. Five minutes later she finally found it, and extricated the leaflets, and even took the second copy off the pile of Grimsdykes because the top one was very slightly over-folded. I was desperately impressed. If you live in the area, and especially if you have a family to keep occupied, these colourful and illuminating leaflets would provide a fascinating way to fill an afternoon. You'll be glad to hear that central Harrow is not included.
by tube: Harrow-on-the-Hill  by bus: anything from H9 to H19

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