There is a reason why the Mill Hill East branch of the Northern line stops suddenly, one stop from Finchley Central. It's because this was once the main line, part of a pre-tube railway linking Finsbury Park to Edgware, with tracks to High Barnet a later addition. There were plans in the 1930s and 1940s to revive the old line as part of London Underground's NorthernHeights plan, but these fell through when wartime austerity burst ambition. The eastern end of the old railway, from Finsbury Park to Highgate, is now the Parkland Walk and a lovely place for a stroll. The middle of the old railway, close to Finchley Central, is now part the Northern line. And the western end of the old railway, from Mill Hill East to Edgware, that's unexpectedly mostlywalkable. And that's where we're going today.
The single track at Mill Hill East runs a few yards beyond the station and then halts at some buffers. Alight here and you head out to a bus stop, turn right and you'll end up at Waitrose. But turn left, then left again into Bittacy Road, and the old railway's much easier to follow than you'd imagine. A broad embankment rises up between rows of flat-roofed houses, a blatant continuation of the old route exiting the station through a fence. OK, so it continues into a house and backyard almost immediately, but there's plenty of green space on either side... ideal for a kickabout if only this wasn't "No Ball Games Allowed". And straight ahead through the trees is what can only be a railway bridge. Two open arches carry Sanders Lane over the old tracks, with a line of black on the brickwork above marking what looks like years of funnel-soot. Lower down comes more modern decoration from a wall of graffiti, more scrawl than art, there are no Banksys here.
And then, blimey, it looks like we're off out into the country, but that's an illusion brought about by entering a cutting. In fact there are still houses up there, but the wooded slopes and earthy track camouflage them well. Oak and sycamore rise to either side, indeed there are acorns scattered everywhere at this time of year, and squadrons of squirrels cavorting in the trees with their treasure. Look carefully at the edge of the undergrowth and you'll spot rows of posts, the sort they use on the tube to hold the lineside cables up. These were installed along the entire line in readiness for its post-war upgrade, but that never came so now they decay slowly in situ, overrun by ivy or with bits of concrete falling off. It's quite pothole-y here, and potentially muddy. It's also really quiet. I bumped into absolutely nobody at all along the entire mile ahead, with the exception of two retired cyclists pedalling and splashing through. Occasionally a large hole has been dug, with red barriers all around, and the smell of gas suggesting some utilities project is exploiting the railway corridor. And just once there's a deep dip down that couldn't possibly have been part of the original trackbed, unless perhaps this was a rollercoaster ride.
The railway runs beneath Pursley Road, permitting the opportunity for walkers to pop up and peek. And then more greenery beyond, which turns out to be Copthall - the sporting heart of Barnet. It's like some council planner once got out a thick pen and coloured in umpteen acres north of the A1 as a recreational zone. First up is one proper golf course, then a ladz-friendly Golf Centre that's all driving range, equipment shop and par 3s. On the opposite side of the footpath those shouts you can hear are soccerblokes kicking a ball around on 14 resolutely artificial pitches. This isn't jumpers for goalposts, this is "Lucozade Powerleague Mill Hill", offering special packages for lonely players who can't live without mini-tournaments. Barnet have one of their main leisure centres ahead, a short jog from the footpath, for racket sports and pilates and whatever other activities might need such a big car park. And beyond that, somewhere almost famous.
Saracens are currently the top performing Rugby Union side in England. Until earlier this year they ground-shared Watford's pitch at Vicarage Road, a crumbling pile that's seen considerably better days. More recently they've relocated to their own ground at Copthall, a more modern athletics track conversion, and much more open to view. Step through the leisure centre car park and you can walk right up to the fence at Allianz Park, named after the insurance company willing to fork out the most. One minor ancient grandstand faces one giant modern one, its seats grouped artistically in blocks of autumn colour. The team plays on artificial turf in the centre of an athletics track, but now with permanent trappings (like a team shop in a trailer) dotted around. If only the railway still stopped at the top of the drive supporters might get here more easily, but it's 49 years since this wooded footpath last saw even a freight train (and anyway, that house back at Mill Hill East now blocks the way).