diamond geezer

 Monday, January 28, 2013

Winter Wanders
[part of London Loop section 16]
High Barnet to Cockfosters (3½ miles)

After an eventless year, Walk London were back this weekend with their Winter Wanders. A programme of 35 guided walks took place across the capital, but mostly in Central London, along pavements rather than footpaths. So I joined one of the three walks braving the outskirts of London, because life's more fun that way, and headed to the far reaches of Barnet. Here I joined a group of hardy hikers, about fifty-or-so in number, led by local guide Paul Baker. He led us along the last few miles of London Loop section 16, joining the tips of the Northern and Piccadilly lines via ancient woodland. Along the way we enjoyed bright sunshine, wind, hail and a rainbow, plus a lot more mud than anyone walking in central London had to endure. And blimey, did they miss out.

"Please make sure you've signed in," said Paul as we congregated outside High Barnet station. This seemed slightly over the top for a free guided walk, especially when one of the columns was for "mobile phone number", but once I saw Barnet Council's name at the top of the sheet I wasn't entirely surprised. We waited patiently while certain walkers availed themselves of the last toilet facilities before Cockfosters, and listened to the health and safety talk, then set off on an instant diversion. Normally the route heads via Mead Way and King George's Field, but Paul had checked the latter out earlier and decreed it too muddy to pass. That was a shame, especially for those of us in appropriate footwear, because the upper end of the slope apparently commands a stunning view across north London. Instead we had to troop up Barnet High Street, where the view was more of people going shopping, until we rejoined the proper route in Monken Hadley. [map]

Ah, the heights of Monken Hadley. This gorgeous village on the Great North Road has a history stretching back almost a thousand years, as well as being the site of one of the Wars of the Roses. The Battle of Barnet took place here in 1471, and here died Warwick the Kingmaker, near the bus stop on Hadley Highstone. Grand houses grew up along the green in the 18th century, elegantly Georgian, which became a bolthole for the well-to-do trying the escape the stink of inner London. Author Fanny Trollope holed up here to try to cure her daughter's TB, alas unsuccessfully, and explorer David Livingstone hired a cottage to write a book in 1857. How great to live inside one of these historic houses today, although the downside must be having large groups of ramblers standing on the verge outside pointing at your windows.

Our group had been clogging pavements since route-marching up the High Street, but past the parish church (and through the white gates) we finally stepped out of harm's way onto Monken Hadley Common. This is a wedge-shaped strip of mostly-woodland, one and a half miles long, and we'd be following it all the way to Cockfosters. This is almost all that remains of the hunting forest of Enfield Chase, this borderline sliver bequeathed to the residents of Monken Hadley when the remainder of the Chase was enclosed. Kingsley Amis used to live alongside the common, as did Spike Milligan in a brooding mansion behind a row of trees, but alas neither had sheep or donkeys they needed to exercise here.

The common's deep wood cover looked rather muddy, so we stuck to the not-quite-so muddy verge along the roadside. Up until this point those in trainers had had it easy, but here was the first hint that any pristine whiteness might not last. This didn't bother the half dozen or so young children on the walk, especially Joshua in his sturdy wellies. He walked into ponds ("Joshua, come out"), he wandered into sludgy puddles ("Joshua, stop that") and he strode purposefully into quagmires ("Joshua!"). At the foot of Bakers Hill the tarmac ran out, and the underfoot mud quotient slowly rose. In one long clearing the entire footpath had been appropriated by rainwater and thawed snow, so we were forced to divert through squelchy brambles and across an increasingly damp floodplain. Our snaking queue of adults trod carefully for a full five minutes, but Joshua stomped straight down the middle of the temporary stream with a big grin.

Normally the Pymmes Brook is nothing but a trickle, but we crossed a coffee-coloured torrent. Here Paul directed us up a side path, again muddier than we'd have liked, to show us Jack's Lake. This used to be a boating lake, popular with Victorian daytrippers, and doesn't always look its sparkling best in midwinter. It was at precisely this point that the hail began, pocking the surface of the lake with miniature impact craters. Various displaced waterfowl flew off to avoid continued bombardment, while the banks around us were rapidly covered by half-inch balls of ice. We retreated cautiously beneath the tree cover (but secretly, obviously, it was great).

And that was nearly it. The suburbs of New Barnet pushed up close to the common, perhaps too close, as we splattered further mud on our trousers on the slow climb out of the valley. Eventually we emerged through the final cattle gate, and attempted to escape the rain beneath a small tree outside the Cock and Dragon pub. Here Paul took his leave of us, to a round of well deserved applause. He runs several other (paid-for) walks in the Barnet area, with his next exposition of the Battle of Barnet due in four weeks time. Wonderful though Walk London's Winter Wanders are, it's the guides who plough the streets of London week in week out who deserve our full support.

And that was only one of the Winter Wanders I enjoyed yesterday. I spent the morning touring the heart of Westminster on the above-ground Subterranean London tour. So popular was this free walk that three separate guides were needed to cater for the two hundred who'd turned up, and we criss-crossed our way around the Embankment and Whitehall for the next two hours. Peter from London Walks was an excellent leader, divulging secrets hidden beneath the ground in tubes, tunnels, bunkers and cellars. I knew a lot of the stuff already, because I'm like that, but I'm pleased to say I still learnt plenty (including the unlikely reason why Parliament Square was covered with flowers for Diana's funeral). In a large group or by yourself, London remains a fascinatingly diverse place to go for a walk.

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