Yesterday I set out from Mill Hill East along a railway line that's no longer there. It used to run to Edgware via the heart of Mill Hill, but plans to turn it into a tube line floundered. A few freight trains shuttled up and down, but in 1964 the line closed and now it's possible to walk along much of it. But only about half of it. As a potential transport link this line is dead and buried. As we're about to see.
The first mile from MHE, a pleasant woodland walk, continues a little further past the arenas of Copthall. Leaves are slowly browning, nuts are falling, and squirrels are still the busiest creatures hereabouts. But up ahead very soon is a gate, and a road, and a tunnel. It's not an original railway tunnel, the circular cross section is too narrow even for a tube train. What it is is a subway, a means of crossing under Page Street, installed by town planners for the non-existent hordes passing along this footpath. Eventually this tube became an unsavoury damp hideaway beneath the road and some council employee came along and shut it off. On the western side at present you'll find crisp packets and a discarded printer. But cross the road (up top, it's easy) and descend past the 'Subway closed' sign and, ooh, the opposite door is open. Peer inside to spot a pair of fetid shoes and what might be other belongings, suggesting a shelter of last resort for one Mill Hill resident. A housing estate has arisen here, with flats swarming along minor cul-de-sacs, and a later infill of more flats along the precise line of the railway. The street signs are labelled 'Private Development', so there's no point in entering because there's no longer anything to follow.
So yes, in the absence of disused railway track we get to follow a nearby road instead. It's Bunn's Lane, initially a residential road, whose most interesting feature is probably its name. That or the two major roads which career across it halfway down, the first the A1 'Watford Way', the second the M1. Metal steps lead up to pavements on either side of the A-road dual carriageway, should anyone want to walk this way, although I saw no evidence. What I did see was an overgrown road running underneath, one lane wide, and assumed perhaps it might be the old railway. And so it was, up until 1964 when it was converted into an entirely different form of transport. This was an old M1-to-A1 slip road, originally the southern end of the motorway until the current terminus at Staples Corner was opened in 1977. If you were trespass-minded you could easily hop through or over a fence and explore further. I walked on instead towards the parallel M1 overpass, a tediously featureless construction, at some point crossing the path of the old railway inbetween. It's not a lovely spot, this, but some speculator has it earmarked for flats, because even a noisy polluted scrap of wasteland can be home one day.
Bunn's Lane continues north towards Mill Hill Broadway station, somewhere you might know. Along the way it crosses an entirely unnecessary bridge, which is a telltale sign that the original east/west railway ran underneath. Indeed there was a station down below, with the none-too-snappy title of Mill Hill (The Hale), which would have been a familiar name on the tube map if only the Northern Heights plan had come to fruition. Nowadays a line of car parking spaces and several more flats fill the space, which'd mean umpteen evictions if anyone ever planned to recreate the railway. But that's pretty much the final residential blockage. Cross into Lyndhurst Park and you can step off the path into the undergrowth to see some bricked up railway bridge arches. The entire northern edge of the park is the old railway trackbed, but you'd only notice if you deliberately walked into the trees and spotted some old posts. This is proper urban safari stuff, a 1000-foot strip of untended land that's all mounds and thickets and groundcover and discarded cans and adventure. I can well imagine if you're a local pre-teenager this being your secret woodland hideout (or if a little older your drinking den), and all within convenient stepping distance of the park proper should Mum and Dad call out. Passing through felt like exploring uncharted territory, so this was my favourite bit of the entire walk.
Very well hidden in the northwest corner of the park, really very well hidden indeed, is a locked gate. This is one entrance to the Mill Hill Old Railway Local Nature Reserve, a linear enclave owned by the London Wildlife Trust. They've preserved the line of the old railway for half a mile ahead, a pleasant green footpath sandwiched between the backs of houses, occasionally opening out to broader spaces. But yes, a locked gate, which a notice announced was only unlocked every Sunday between 10am and 3pm. I'd gone on the wrong day, which was sad, so I made a superhuman effort to return to the same part of the back of beyond the following Sunday to gain access. Damn, still locked. OK, so it was chucking down with rain so no sane naturalist would have been out hunting slow-worms, waxwings and saxifrage. And OK, maybe the keyholder had slept in, or was ill, or was on holiday or something. But when a sign says "Open every Sunday" and you come bang in the middle of the appointed time and it's shut, that's a huge disappointment.
Instead I had to divert through the roads of Burnt Oak, which wasn't quite the same. The WatlingEstate was a grand London County Council project of the 1920s to rehouse inner city dwellers, my great grandmother included. The area now sees taxi drivers and Asian pensioners living side by side, all part of the capital's generally unseen suburban hinterland. My detour included a stretch along the landscaped Burnt Oak Brook, gushing with rainfall runoff, then some more ordinary residential streets to, yes, another locked gate at the other end. It's easy to see where the railway went next - along a road that's now the entrance to a Northern line facility. "Tube Lines Welcomes You To Edgware Track Depot", says the sign, but not if you're an urban rambler, so I had to divert again elsewhere. A series of streets and alleyways led eventually to the existing Edgware station, which isn't where the old railway ended up at all. That terminated a little closer to Edgware village, on a site now covered by the Broadwalk shopping centre. For a last peek at the old trackbed check the far corner of Sainsbury's car park for an alternative entrance to the Edgware Track Depot. And should you ever want to ride from here to Mill Hill East by train today, it's all the way back down to Camden Town and change.