Today, the tale of two northwest London hilltops with very different fates.
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Ealing: Horsenden Hill 85 metres (20th out of 33) [map][map]
Ealing has a proper peak. Horsenden Hill rises up steeply on all sides, the way a child would draw it, while an Ordnance Survey map displays a bullseye of concentric contours. Whichever side you arrive it's a good 100 foot climb to the top, and there are several possible ascents, which makes this a good place for an urban hike. The Capital Ring passes over the summit, and members of Horsenden Hill Golf Club climb a fair way every time they make a round. I took the golf club route - badly signposted, but nobody was out on the course so my random wander didn't get in anyone's way. [3 photos]
The hilltop's relatively flat, easily large enough for a ballgame, even if the grass isn't cut to make that entirely practical. But only if you spot the access panels would you necessarily spot the slight artificialness that conceals yet another of London's covered reservoirs beneath Horsenden's mown façade. The land round the central trig point is more real, it's where an iron Age hillfort sat, and here the long grass is alive with unseen buzzy creatures. A single oak stands where the main footpaths meet, but there are considerably more trees around the southern rim blocking any hope of seeing through. Instead panoramas to north and west are what you get, which you can interpret from the information boards Ealing Council have helpfully plonked in the corner. Peer through the dead flies and grime to confirm that yes, those are the Chilterns, and that's Stanmore, and that big flat-roofed white building is the Royal Mail Distribution Centre in Perivale. Various charred piles suggest that bonfires and barbecues are popular up here, perhaps as the ideal chill-out at dusk for those that live in the avenues beneath. Thankfully Shirley Ann's wooden memorial bench hasn't gone up yet, but one fears it can only be a matter of time.
I had the plateau much to myself initially, until joined by a selfie-snapping mum who'd lugged a pushchair up the hill. Some young children wandered by like this was their summer playground, because how great would that be, and a barrage of unrelated ramblers followed. I was surprised how few of those climbing to the top stopped and lingered, especially after climbing the steeper paths from the canal - a quick pause and they were straight back down again. And then a bloke arrived with a picnic table, closely followed by three small boys carrying sports gear - the advance guard for an extended family invasion. Up they panted from the car park, barely 100 metres away direct, but far enough below to spread out the group into mountaineers and stragglers. Before long the space beneath the oak tree had become a social encampment decked out with blankets and sunshades, with Jack Daniels being poured and a variety of supermarket picnic food on display. I left them to their rounders, or whatever, and headed back down rejoicing that the house builders left Horsenden alone. by tube: Sudbury Town by bus: 204, 487, H17
LONDON BOROUGH TOPS Brent: Wakemans Hill 92 metres (16th out of 33) [map][map]
But the housebuilders got this one. A hilltop higher than Horsenden rises up from the Edgware Road in the general vicinity of Kingsbury. It's harder to see on the map, there being streets and houses everywhere, but this too is a proper hill with bullseye contours, if rather shallower on the flanks. The borough peak is on Wakemans Hill Avenue, a typically broad suburban street built when space in outer London wasn't at a premium. It's lined by white-fronted semi-detached houses topped with tiled gabled roofs, each with either a well tended front garden or more likely hardstanding for two cars. The cul-de-sacs to either side have names like Summit Close and Hillview Gardens, as a hint to what lies beneath, and there are indeed some fairly bracing views towards Colindale and Finchley as the main avenue drops away. On the brow of the hill I passed a man delivering leaflets door to door, I think for dial-up pizza, while another man out tending to his hedge almost reversed into me with a power saw. And if you're thinking it all sounds very Metroland, you'd be right, indeed this very hilltop featured in Betjeman's famous documentary. [5 photos]
It's not a long segment, slotted in between longer trips to Wembley and Harrow, but Sir John appears briefly on what looks like the battlements of a castle, only for the camera to pull back to reveal a most peculiar house. He'd come to Kingsbury to revel in the work of ErnestTrobridge, a quirky architect from the 1920s with a taste for timber-framed construction. Some of Trobridge's more cottagey homes remain in the area, for example just round the corner in Buck Lane, but his style didn't prove popular at the time and the more traditional semi-detacheds smothered the area. Betjeman picked Highfort Court for the programme, an amazing corner-site apartment block with crenellations, turret and arrowslits, accessed up a rather narrow central staircase. Across the street is a slightly lesser beast, this time with twin white towers, now partially obscured behind a lofty conifer. Even closer to the summit is Whitecastle Mansions, the name perhaps more impressive than the reality, but those who live in Trobridge's maisonettes today no doubt revel in their oddity. And OK, so Horsenden Hill has done so much better in surviving untainted, but at least the smothering of Wakemens Hill was done in style. by tube: Kingsbury by bus: 32, 83, 142, 183, 204, 302, 324