diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Random borough (32): Barnet (part 3)

Somewhere famous: Hampstead Garden Suburb
London's finest garden suburb lies north of Golders Green station, along the edge of the Finchley Road. Hampstead Garden Suburb isn't especially famous but, even if you've never heard of it, many of our richer celebrities know it well and have chosen to make it their home. Richard and Judy live here, and Martin Bell, and Katie Boyle, and the last king of Greece, and once Noel Edmonds and Peter Mandelson, but they've both left now. The Garden Suburb was the brainchild of Henrietta Barnett, a leading social reformer from a century ago, who bought up 250 acres of farmland to create a low density, tree-lined estate suitable for all classes. She'd got the idea from Ebenezer Howard's pioneering settlement at Letchworth, but her London version Henrietta would be purely residential, without any measure of industry to support the hyperlocal economy. Hernrietta's first action was to save the Hampstead Heath Extension from development, then in 1906 she appointed Raymond Unwin as her architect and the grand design began.

The first and finest architecture lay along the axes of Hampstead Way and Meadway [photo]. Nothing overly huge, just a surfeit of tasteful Arts and Crafts townhouses grouped so as not to become repetitive. There were no fences, only hedges, and angled gables that hinted at country dwellings. The entire estate is a pleasure to walk around, even today. The streets are wide, and the traffic is light (so long as you can dodge the occasional TfL red minibus). Jonathan Ross lives somewhere hereabouts, beneath a French mansard roof, and occasionally holds suburb-busting parties that annoy his neighbours. I saw no evidence of celebrities out on the streets, although there were rather more personalised numberplates parked up than one might normally expect. Even in midwinter, the hedges give the estate a green feel, which was part of the original plan. Enclosed to the north are two patches of woodland called Big Wood and Little Wood, the former large enough to be a secluded wildlife haven. My passage through its muddy paths disturbed robins and squirrels, though I was rather hoping for a close encounter with a dog-walking celeb. No such luck, not even an ordinary human, in this haven of peace.

But my very favourite spot was the square on the hill [photo]. On the Suburb's highest land Dame Henrietta placed "houses for worship and for learning", including an Institute for adult education and two churches. The former is now a girls' school named after its benefactor, but it's the parallel churches that most impress. They were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and are superficially similar, with his Anglican masterpiece now Grade I listed. St Jude's is long and high, in tile and brick, with a tapering spire atop a part-octagonal tower [photo]. For a mere parish church it's monumental, and visible across the open fourth side of the square from many miles away. For balance, across manicured grass, lies Lutyens' second triumph. The dome on the roof hints at a Roman Catholic influence, but no, this is a Nonconformist Free Church for the worshippers of NW11 [photo]. It's a salutary thought that had the estate been built 100, even 50 years later, its centrepiece would undoubtedly been a parade of shops... but thanks to Henrietta, thankfully not. Ironically, alas, her classless vision has been eclipsed by an upper-middle desirability, and celebrities are now more likely to move in than you or me.
by tube: Golders Green   by minibus: H2, H3

Somewhere retail: Brent Cross
To think that Brent Cross was once the finest retail centre in London. It was the first stand-alone mall anywhere in the UK when it opened in 1976, but doesn't look anywhere near as alluring now, merely a giant shed alongside the North Circular Road. Arrive by car, once you've escaped the jams beneath the flyover, and you'll be fed into the dark multi-storey round the back of the site. Arrive by bus, after you've experienced various twists round the sinuous one-way system, and you'll be dumped at a bleak interchange alongside the delivery lorries. Arrive by tube, if you dare, and you'll face a grim ten minute walk through some of the most hostile concrete infrastructure in the capital. Around Brent Cross the road is king, and pedestrians are herded into gloomy underpasses or occasional footbridges to cross this über-urban environment [photo]. Even the River Brent, after which the area and shopping centre are named, has been demoted to an unattractive concrete culvert alongside the dual carriageway. Look carefully and you can see where '70s planners built steps down to the water's edge for the recreational delight of visitors. Such misplaced optimism. No recalcitrant shopper ventures this way now, and the artificial riverbank is strewn with litter. [photo]

Once inside the shopping centre, I was struck by how no-longer big it seems. Maybe I've been spoilt by the likes of Westfield, Lakeside and Bluewater, but Brent Cross's two-storey mall felt more like a medium-sized High Street in a box. From Fenwick to John Lewis, past the central atrium where some unfortunate salesman was attempting to flog vacuum cleaners, it's not so far. The mall up to Waitrose smelled of baked cookies, while the entrance to both department stores reeked of perfume. At the front of John Lewis I watched an elderly lady with a walking stick pulling her basket ever-so-slowly past the white-coated ladies and their bottles of sample spray. Once they'd have stopped her for a potential sale, but that was decades ago, and now they simply wished she'd pass by quicker. I scanned the Centre Guide for a record store, but in the section labelled "Music and Electrical" the only vaguely musical stores were Apple and the various mobile phone companies. Digital discs are already extinct at Brent Cross, and even the printed word is restricted to whatever WHSmith deigns to stock. But there are 40 different places to buy clothes, which still reels the punters in, attracted too by the promise of free parking (which is not a policy the council employs elsewhere).

There are major plans for redevelopment at Brent Cross, not only at the shopping centre but across 150 hectares of the surrounding neighbourhood. New shops will be built on the outdoor car parks and fresh connections made to nearby tube and rail stations [photo]. The River Brent will be revitalised, additional bridges over the North Circular will be constructed, and an attempt will be made to introduce a cafe-culture boulevard with multiplex cinema. Most importantly there'll be 7500 new homes (which, to put the project in perspective, is three times as many as in the Olympic Village). This is a very long term project, taking at least twenty years before the transformation is complete. But, standing in the Tesco/Toys'R'Us car park on Saturday afternoon, I couldn't imagine a better eyesore to wipe from the map and start again.
by tube: Brent Cross   by bus: 102, 112, 142, 182, 186, 189, 210, 232, 266, 326, C11

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