diamond geezer

 Friday, March 03, 2017

10 Barnet/East Barnet/Finchley/Friern Barnet
This is the biggie, the only one of the Herbert Commission's proposed London boroughs to be made up of four former administrative districts. Finchley and Friern Barnet were in Middlesex, whereas Barnet and East Barnet were in Hertfordshire, and would thus be dragged screaming into the newly created confines of Greater London. Of the four constituent parts the one I knew least about was Friern Barnet, so that's where I chose to spend my Saturday, once I'd worked out where on earth it was exactly on the map. And the answer is north of the North Circular, slotted inbetween the northern ends of the Northern and Piccadilly lines but served by neither (see number 6 in yesterday's quiz for a better approximation). I wandered around for three hours so you never have to. [map] [8000 photos]

10 mildly interesting things to see in Friern Barnet

1) Friern Barnet Town Hall

Yes of course Friern Barnet had a town hall, even though the district never boasted more than thirty thousand residents, located at the crossroads at the top of Colney Hatch Lane. What's more the building's concave frontage looked terribly familiar, which turned out to be because the architects based the design on Watford Town Hall, right down to the copper lantern in the centre of the roof. The building's unusual because the foundation stone was laid two weeks after the start of World War Two, and opened in 1941 when you'd think the authorities would have had better things to do, but the large air raid shelter in the basement hurried things along. "An exceptional civic building", said English Heritage, and "a good example of pared-down modernism", prior to giving it a Grade II listing. But it is of course now flats, with three further blocks crammed into the former garden round the back, so let's hope the current inhabitants of 'Alderman Court' are looking after the place.

2) Colney Hatch

Go back a couple of centuries and the town hall crossroads was the heart of the hamlet of Colney Hatch. These days the suburb of the same name has migrated south, across the North Circular, clustered around the oddly-named church of St Peter-le-Poer. The surrounding streets were built to accommodate the families of labourers, but that's not how the population hangs today. Mothers chaperone their sons home on the bus from Saturday morning football, and the local community hall hosts Maths and English tuition once a week, but also the Muswell Hill Foodbank. Meanwhile the landmark South Friern Library is closing temporarily next week, despite being barely 10 years old, so that the shelf area can be halved in size, the remainder can be let out, and opening hours can be slashed. Is there nothing Barnet council won't sell off?

3) Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum

If you're local, you'll be wondering why it's taken me until Number Three to mention this one. When Middlesex opened an asylum in Colney Hatch in 1851 it was easily the largest mental hospital in Europe and, being an extraordinarily longitudinal building, also boasted Britain's longest corridor. Well over 2000 patients were locked away inside, in less than optimal conditions, and 'Colney Hatch' would once have been a derogatory term every Londoner knew. Amazingly the facility only closed down in 1993, after which it was handed over to a housing developer and converted into luxury flats. The grand Italianate building ensured that these were proper luxury flats, complete with 24 hour security, private swimming pool and a courtesy coach to Arnos Grove tube station (lest residents be forced to ride on a bus with normal people). The development is now called Princess Park Manor, and its website tempts potential punters with a bullet-point history that never once mentions the site's lunatic past. Impressively the council ensured that the immense lawns out front are now a public park, not that anyone on site goes to any lengths to advertise this, so I felt distinctly unwelcome walking past the guard on the front gate and stepping out onto the grass. Here I managed to be wildly impressed by the sheer scale of the building, before being set upon by a pekingese whose owner had turned away briefly to bag some unwelcome business. Members of One Direction are amongst those who've lived in this rampantly snobby enclave, still very much a fortress, so perhaps best seen from afar.

4) New Southgate station

One reason so few people have heard of Friern Barnet is that the district only ever had only one station, and this on the far eastern boundary. Initially named Colney Hatch & Southgate to coincide with the opening of the asylum, the authorities became increasingly keen to downgrade mention of the hospital lest it damage local investment, so the station's name switched to Southgate and Colney Hatch, then New Southgate and Colney Hatch, then Southgate for Colney Hatch, then New Southgate and Friern Barnet and finally just New Southgate. It's a gloomy dump of a station, entirely building-less, with two downbeat platforms serving trains to Moorgate, while Inter Cities rush through the gated-off centre. If Crossrail 2 ever happens this'll become one of the northern termini and be utterly transformed, but that's incredibly hard to imagine here today.

5) Goldsmith Road

Wandering the backstreets behind Friern Barnet Community Library, I stumbled across a terrace of unexpectedly pretty houses and stopped to admire. Skilled craftsmen must have been let loose on the frontage during construction, with every space between ground floor doors and windows covered in coloured tiles, and an additional classical frieze at first floor level. Throw in some ornate ironwork supporting a single raised porch, accessed up a natty set of steps, and I was impressed enough to whip out my camera to capture the scene. Somewhere around photograph number three I became aware of a harridan in a pink blouse glaring at me intently from her doorway, as if to say Bugger Off You Creepy Nutter Before I Report You To The Police, whereas I thought If You Will Live In A Building Of Local Architectural Interest You Should Expect To Be Appreciated. Obviously I took one more photo, just to rile her more, and then skedaddled.

6) Friary Park

If you've been wondering how Friern Barnet got its name, it was originally known as Little Barnet until the manor came under control of the brotherhood of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem - with frère the French word for brother. Friary House sat on the hilltop, once home to the judge who tried Guy Fawkes, but demolished in favour of the existing villa in 1871. The surrounding park opened the day after Edward VII died, paid for by the local Steam Carpet Beating magnate, and includes a prominent statue 'The Bringer of Peace' dedicated to the former monarch. Meanwhile the rambling house has become a community centre for, amongst others, the Barnet Elderly Asians Groups, and contains an endearingly independent coffee-and-hot-food cafe of the kind that North Londoners love.

7) Queen Elizabeth's Well

Friern Barnet Lane used to be an important road north out of London, at least until the route through Finchley took precedence. Travellers passing St James's Church would have stopped for refreshment at a well named after the first Queen Elizabeth, who came at least once to stay at the Friary House over the road. The well was swept away when the council widened the lane in 1926, but they did add a memorial stone, which still stands amid a small municipal flowerbed, complete with plaque... which is the only places I saw Friern Barnet UDC mentioned on my walkabout.

8) 85 Torrington Park

One of television's biggest-ever stars spent five years in Friern Barnet, in a particularly good-looking semi in Torrington Park. That's comedian Eric Morecambe, whose first family home was a ground floor flat on Torrington Park, close to the Torrington Arms pub in North Finchley run by his brother-in-law. It took until 1961 for Eric and Ernie's fame to properly take off, thanks to an ATV series for Lew Grade, at which point the Morecambes (and Chips the dog) moved away to a new estate in Harpenden. These days number 85 is part of a nursing home, linked to neighbouring houses via wheelchair-friendly walkways, but if you squint carefully from the road you can confirm the former flat's existence thanks to a Blue Comedy Plaque unhelpfully placed beside the front door.

9) Whetstone High Road

The district of Friern Barnet once stretched north as far as the centre of Whetstone, but only covered the eastern side of the High Road, and not all of it, and not an especially exciting chunk. The Griffin pub was included, built on the site of an old coaching inn, and repeatedly rebranded, so lacking somewhat in genuine history. More evocative is the block of rock embedded in the pavement outside, this allegedly the "whetstone" used for sharpening knives after which the area was named, but more likely a latterday block used by coachmen for mounting horses.

10) The rest of Friern Barnet

Walking the streets of this former district I was struck by how consistently rather nice it was, indeed a damned good example of what I might describe as 'Upper Quartile London'. I spotted some atypically posh houses up near Oakleigh Park, and some less desirable council stock down towards New Southgate, but the vast majority of homes fell comfortably inbetween, indeed this is very much somewhere the middle class might aspire to live. But not especially well connected, or exciting... which might be why residents like it so much.

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