diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 19, 2013

BAKERLOO: Off line

The Bakerloo line now terminates at Harrow and Wealdstone, but for most of its life it pushed further north. The top end used to be at Watford Junction, that's from 1915 all the way through to 1982 when the line was abruptly pulled back. Six stations were expelled in that curtailment, and they're now served by a less frequent London Overground service. So I thought I'd go and visit two of then, one on either side of the Greater London border, the first in Zone 6 and the second in Zone 7.

After passing through a flurry of not-that-thrilling stations, architecturally, Hatch End comes as a pleasant surprise. You might not guess immediately from the platforms, but look more carefully at the station building on the western side and you'll see the attraction. Signs aren't written on plastic above the doorways, they're carved in stone. Two locked doors behind the footbridge are still labelled "Bicycles" and "Cloak Room", the latter a hint of a more genteel age when left luggage was a service the public desired. Two thirds of the entrance into the "Booking Hall" has been panelled off, and the chiselled lettering above is part covered with moss. If it's wet, an overhanging gable shelters no more than a carriage-length of passengers from the rain. If it's dry, the flowers blooming in their baskets might turn out to be no more than plastic. But step out into the car park and look back, because that's where the finest view's to be found. Hatch End station is a proud vertical affair, raised up like a miniature town hall with central clocktower and a golden weathervane on top. Pride of place goes to a sculpted stone carving of fruit and foliage, topped off by the year 1911 and the initials of the London and North Western Railway. It's so nice here that the Harrow Heritage Trust have placed one of their special brown plaques on the outside, an honour bestowed on only 30 locations in the borough. "This (Wrenish Style)" building by Gerald Horsley was built in 1911 on the site of the first station opened in August 1842" it says, but in capitals. John Betjeman rather liked the place, as you'd imagine. It even won 'Small Station of the Year' at the National Rail Awards last year, for all the kudos that's worth.

Hatch End itself is rather likeable too. A few minutes walking along the The Broadway and I got the feeling this is somewhere that Jewish couples aspire to retire to. The floral baskets are sponsored by the local synagogue, the bakery does eggless cakes, and everything's really suburbanly 'nice'. Most of the shops on the parade are aimed at keeping folk busy, be that getting your hair done or politely dining out. Hatch End's culinary status is long established, thanks to the inestimable Mrs Beeton. She moved into an Italianate villa here in 1856, and stayed long enough to write the The Book of Household Management (compiled from monthly supplements to The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine). Her house was destroyed by a bomb during WW2, but Hatchets restaurant now proudly occupies the site, and the Harrow Heritage Trust awarded them a brown plaque too.

I thought I'd walk from Hatch End across the border into Hertfordshire. The London Loop runs parallel to the railway, up a pine tree avenue many are proud to call home. Here sons kick footballs against their double garage, and signs on trees invite residents to 'Garden Planning with Monica'. I was looking forward to the walk past Pinnerwood Farm until I discovered that an appealing looking field was in fact a squidgy cushion of mud. I tried to follow the path but succeeded only in turning my trainers an unappealing shade of brown so was forced to retreat. The only alternative was a mile-long detour across the railway, via the Hatch End Millennium Bridge, below which the Bakerloo line no longer passes. I was particularly surprised to stumble upon another HHT brown plaque marking the site of Grim's Dyke, an ancient British earthwork, running up a narrow patch of woodland between two sets of back gardens. The very edge of the capital is on Oxhey Lane, past the finest detached villas, past the golf club. The line is marked by a squat white boundary post, and a topiary hedge, and a sign saying County of Middlesex. And then finally it's out into broad rolling countryside, a stripe of lush Green Belt before the overspill estates begin.

There are two settlements either side of the West Coast mainline here, of which Carpenders Park is the smaller. There's no park, although the entire area was fields and the occasional farmstead until the 1930s. The first semis and bungalows rose up the hillside before the war, while the later flat-roofed houses were the fictional setting of Leslie Thomas's Tropic of Ruislip. I saw no such wife-swapping exploits on my traverse, just one happy husband painting his guttering while a football commentary blared, and there's no novel in that. Perhaps I missed the interesting bits of this Watford outpost, but it seems the station's only called Carpenders Park because this side of the railway grew up first.

South Oxhey, on the western side, is more of a beast. It's almost entirely council estate, built by the LCC in the late 1940s to rehouse thousands displaced from the capital. In its day it would have been aspirational, but those days are long gone, and there's an especially tired feel to the central shopping centre. Two rectangular blocks sandwich a bleak central piazza, lined by shops like Cheapjacks, Pound Smart and Sunny Boy's Cafe. The Fisherman's Cabin advertises itself with a painted St George's flag and the legend Love England, Love Fish and Chips, while a dog paws against the window on a balcony above. Just one building pierces the postwar sprawl, and that's Oxhey Chapel, a 400 year-old flint and redbrick mini-church plonked between the vicarage and the sports centre. It's perhaps no surprise that Gareth Malone's production company settled on South Oxhey as the ideal setting for a series of The Choir - one down-at-heel community within easy driving distance of his home. They rose to the challenge magnificently, but it'll take some major investment from Three Rivers Council to kickstart this place back to proper life. The contrast between the streets of South Oxhey and the avenues of Hatch End is striking, so perhaps it's for the best that the two are separated by a barrier of temporarily impenetrable mud.

Oh, and Carpenders Park station? Nothing to get overly excited about, more a subway that rises gently between the tracks to a canopied island platform. From here you can watch businessfolk speeding past in their Pendolinos whilst waiting for the Overground to turn up, sometime in the next twenty minutes if you're lucky. They say that maybe one day the Bakerloo line will return, because if it can't go to Camberwell it could at least come here. It needn't rush.

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