Towards the end of Betjeman's 1968 TV documentary Contrasts it becomes clear why Sir John is making the journey from Marble Arch to Edgware - he's in mourning for a county.
The sisters Progress and Destruction dwell
Where rural Middlesex once cast her spell.
Dear vanished county of such prosperous farms,
Where now are gone your weatherboarded charms?
Still in my dreams I see your sudden hills,
Your willowy brooks, and winding lanes and rills,
The red-brick Georgian mansions' garden wall,
The little church, the spreading cedar tall.
See the Welsh Harp, with undulating shore,
And hear beyond the road's arterial roar.
Your swinging signboards, barns with curly tiles,
Your little lakes on which the sunset smiles.
Keats and Leigh Hunt in better lines than these
Have praised your misty fields and towering trees.
Constable's brush, with light and liquid fire,
Immortalised this unforgotten shire.
Dear Middlesex, dear vanished country friend,
Your neighbour, London, killed you in the end.
The county of Middlesex had been swallowed up by the creation of Greater London a few years previously. Its loss was keenly felt in northwest London, as residents on either side of the Edgware Road suddenly found themselves in Brent or Barnet overnight. But Sir John was lamenting more than just a name - he'd been around long enough to remember the landscape before it was overwhelmed by suburbia. He liked a good housing estate it's true, but he loved the villages they'd replaced more, and it's on such rural images that his documentary unapologetically lingers.
Welsh Harp: When Sir John reached Staples Corner, it wasn't yet the concrete megajunction we know today. The M1 connection wouldn't be made for another 10 years, so he never paused to decry the despoliation of its careering viaducts. Instead he pauses fractionally further on, to the west of the Edgware Road, at the Welsh Harp lake. Its sylvan setting is deceptive, the truth being that it's a reservoir formed by damming the River Brent and flooding farmland, almost 200 years ago. You can't fish here but you can sail, and the watersporters were out in number at the weekend taking advantage of the wind. Unfortunately they were all up the far end near Neasden, so all I got to see were some swans and cygnets watched over by a number of pigeons.
The eastern end of the Welsh Harp is overlooked by a curve of semi-detached houses, not many in number, though rather more sit further behind with no view of the water. It's all very Metro-land, and therefore unobjectionable today, but imagine the fuss when the foreshore was originally built over. A similar story is being told today on the north arm of the lake where Barratt Homes are creating Hendon Waterside, a "flagship regeneration development". In this familiar tale a former council estate (here York Park) is being replaced by a high-density housing project, in this case exchanging 680 homes for 2171. Some of these new homes will be in 29-storey towers, with balconies overlooking the water, utterly out of keeping with the existing lowrise neighbourhood. But none of this is at odds with Brent and Barnet's future plans for West Hendon and Colindale, in line with the hint that Betjeman first spotted a short distance up the Edgware Road some fifty years ago...
Colindale: Merit House was brand new in 1967, a gleaming 12 storey office block located immediately alongside the Edgware Road on the site of the Hendon Tram Depot. So new that it was still empty, its only tenant the Brylcreemed caretaker at the front desk. Betjeman greets him with some incredulity, wrongly assuming that he must be very lonely, even very frightened, sitting here alone all day. His tone becomes increasingly patronising towards the unfortunate employee, the best that Sir John can say of the building being that the views from the top floor must be marvellous. "It would be a very good place to have an office, if one could get here," he adds, overlooking the fact that Colindale tube station is barely five minutes walk away.
I found Merit House relatively easily, although at present it's the tower with no name. The entire building is being renovated, or should I say repackaged, to better appeal to relocating businesses. Thus far the exterior has been reclad in environmentally-friendly louvred glass, as is the modern fashion, and there are workmen in helmets out front and on the roof. The developers claim to be "regenerating an unsightly, under-used and outdated office building into a positive, high quality, high performing, sustainable building", which is more the sort of thing you expect in NW1 than NW9. Heaven knows what Sir John would have made of the "open plan break out area featuring Wagamama-style benches and private booths set against a stunning feature wall", but I doubt he'd have been impressed. Instead his lift ride to the empty echoing top floor inspired my favourite of the four poems in the documentary.
One after one rise these empty consecutives.
Now we have come to the uppermost floor.
Where in the car park are Jags of executives?
Where far behind them the bikes of the poor?
Ghosts of the future are waiting to settle here,
Click of the typewriter, buzz from the boss.
The tea trolley's tinkle and hiss of the kettle here,
"Hurry up Myrtle, he's ever so cross."
Pig troughs of light will hang down from the ceiling,
Holiday postcards this bareness adorn,
Brave indoor plants give a tropical feeling,
Eyes will look lovingly, hearts will be torn.
Somewhere they'll raise where the views are extensive,
Beige, pink and soundproof, a partition wall
At fine-figured walnut, on leather expensive,
Here may be sitting the top man of all.
The true purpose of Betjeman's ascent was to view his beloved Middlesex, and to point out pockets of countryside within the extended metropolis. Distant Mill Hill boasts green slopes to this day, and the Silk Stream still trickles through the nearby recreation ground, but the great flat stretch of Hendon Aerodrome has long succumbed to redevelopment. Part exists beneath the RAF Museum and part below Hendon Police College, but the majority lies under the Grahame Park Estate, first occupied in 1971. One of the GLC's larger mistakes, designwise, it too is getting another lease of life as Barnet council and some bulldozers attempt a second start. Indeed one gets the feeling from visiting Colindale that everything here is being replaced, from the old hospital by the tube station to the tube station building itself. One high profile casualty is the British Library's cavernous Newspaper Library ("Land Acquired"), another the amazing Oriental City market/restaurant complex closed in 2008 and still not yet rebuilt as ugly townhouses and a Morrisons. Whilst planners hope they're creating a vibrant and cosmopolitan urban quarter here, all the signs are that Colindale is fast becoming a densely-packed and characterless residential blandspot, its de-Middlesex-isation sadly complete.
Edgware: Betjeman omits Burnt Oak, which is a shame, because he says he liked the place. Instead he skips from the Silk Stream to the end of the Edgware Road, which is of course in Edgware. Production notes for the documentary show that Sir John planned to film a sequence in the Green Shield Stamp Building "which defaces Edgware", ideally with a tea trolley in shot, but this never transpired. Instead the camera lingers briefly on the parish church ("very low, but not worth close inspection inside") and Station Road (where the boarded-up Railway Hotel awaits rebirth as a Tudor-fronted 100-room hotel), before departing the Edgware Road altogether. Betjeman's final stop is St Lawrence church, Little Stanmore, as fine a place of worship as this small country town could deserve. The verger leads him inside the Baroque building and turns the pages as Sir John sits at the organ, the payoff being that the organist here was once none other than your actual George Frideric Handel. I hoped to look inside myself but the church only takes visitors on a Sunday afternoon, so my attempt to follow Betjeman to his closing credits faltered right at the end. But I commend his choice of route, and his sequence of stops, and can confirm that the Edgware Road's Contrasts remain, indeed have strengthened, some fifty years on.