Penultimately on my orbital tour around the capital, I've been to Brentwood. We all know where Brentwood is, don't we?
I've known where Brentwood is since Wednesday 7th May 1980 when we did it in Geography. Specifically we did Weald Country Park, which is just outside the town, as an example of Resource and Amenity Conservation. My O-Level teacher asked us to copy a summary map from the blackboard into our exercise books, to set the scene, and no he didn't forget the M25 because it hadn't been built yet. Look, that's the very first example of me misspelling Brentwood as Brentford and then having to cover it up - something I've done several times since. Then we got to draw another map showing the various zones within the park (wasn't my handwriting gorgeous in those days?), and then we wrote about it. I've been wanting to go and see the place for real for the last 37 years.
"The aim of the country park is to provide a varied range of activities for Londoners. It is certainly very close to London and, within a relatively small area of about one square kilometre, are the facilities for many varied country activities."
I need to have a word with my 15 year-old self. Yes, technically the park is within a mile of Greater London, but connections are very poor, without even a footpath to link the two, and the M25's made the disconnect a lot worse. Weald Country Park exists very much more for residents of Brentwood than for anyone else, indeed I doubt most residents of Harold Hill know it's there, and it's not easy to get to without a car. As for dimensions the area's more like one square mile, double the size I suggested, which explains why walking around the park took quite so long.
"Each of the activities is assigned its own zone so that one use does not conflict with another (e.g. you don't get horses being ridden through the picnic area). This zoning not only makes the park more compact but also makes it easier for the visitors to find their way around."
I stumbled upon a land use map on a noticeboard near the fishing lake, and grew quite excited when I noticed it was divided into the same broad zones as I'd transcribed in 1980. The horsey zone is still there, and signs warn riders not to stray into areas where being trampled by hooves might not be ideal. The forest zone still feels very different to the rest of the park, with great muddy chestnut avenues where the average dogwalker chooses not to roam. The picnic zone has hay in the summer, as opposed to the short-mown grass of the 'casual recreational zone' where the majority of visitors tend to accumulate. Top fact - Weald Country Park was London 2012's first choice for the Olympic mountain biking event, but inspectors from the Union Cycliste Internationale considered the terrain insufficiently challenging so the event was moved to HadleighPark instead.
"Visitors are also thought of through the large number of toilet blocks placed all over the park and also through the siting of a café in the centre. In this way refreshments are never very far away wherever you go in the park."
More rubbish from DG Jr. The map I'd just drawn showed very clearly that the toilet blocks weren't 'all over the park', only in the western half, and the café definitely couldn't be described as 'in the centre'. Indeed the café's now even less convincingly central than before, having been relocated adjacent to the largest car park on the southwest edge, tucked inside an attractive timbered barn. It's busy here on Saturday as families unpack dogs and buggies from their vehicles, directing small children towards the adventure playground, ducks and deer, and trying to prevent their dogs from harassing the latter. The top toddler attraction is the Stick Man play trail, based on the book by Julia Donaldson, consisting of various assemblages of wooden scrambling equipment designed to tire a littl'un out.
"It is these special facilities (toilets, cafe, etc), the nearness to a large conurbation, the smaller size of area covered and the fact that the area is not always one of great beauty but just a piece of open countryside, that makes a country park different to a national park."
I'm not convinced that's my finest ever sentence, but it did bring this particular double geography lesson to a suitably box-ticking close. I got a grade A for my work, and a 'Very well done!', and of course an itch to visit the real Weald Country Park one day. I'm pleased to report that it's a lovely place to explore, even if I didn't get to go up the folly steps behind the church because some pot-smoking teenagers were holding court on the belvedere. If they or any of the rest of you are doing GCSEs any time soon and need a recreational human geography example, I hope that my extended essay is of use. And perhaps that glimpse back into my schooldays helps explain how this blog I write ended up the way it is.
Somewhere random: Shenfield
When Crossrail extends northeast in May 2019, Shenfield will be the end of the line. Lucky them, gaining numerous trains to central London and beyond. But is it worth the rest of us heading the other way and going for a visit? I've been, in this case by tediously sluggish rail replacement bus, and I can confirm there's absolutely no reason to come.
Shenfield is a dormitory suburb, fortuitously located where two railways fork, with little lingering history other than an old pub or two on the Chelmsford Road. At its heart is a minor shopping parade, bookended by a giant Costa and the railway bridge, providing services residents can't be bothered to drive into Brentwood for. To give you a flavour, the first half dozen shops at the station end are a charity shop, nailbar, funeral directors, tanning salon, hairdressing salon and health spa. The tanning salon is open until 10pm every weeknight - they take their skin tone seriously in Shenfield - and has a whopping red ribbon draped across the front door like a billowy crucifix to attract custom.
Up on the railway an orange-jacketed army can be seen swarming over tracks and platforms, making the most of a lengthy blockade to undertake pre-Crossrail engineering works. A new platform is being built, step-free access added and a junction remodelled to allow more frequent longer trains to run. One way to see the action is to head to the deep cutting which divides the southern suburbs in two and look down from the sole (extremely narrow) road bridge. Wagons of aggregate curve beneath shiny steel gantries, cones and pipes lie scattered around the trackside, men in helmets stand around and point at points, and OK so the view's not brilliant but it's the best you're going to get.
The road to the north of the cutting is Priest's Lane, a winding avenue of affluent boltholes half-concealed behind high hedges. Its residents are particularly unhappy at the council's suggestion that a patch of open land above the railway be used for housing, and at a considerably greater density than their own swish street. Their gardens are therefore liberally bedecked with laminated protest signs, the main gist being "Say No To More Traffic", which is rich coming from families with two or three cars parked outside. On a quiet Saturday their strident protest felt more like petulance, but apparently the road is a peak hour rat-run with queues lengthening the daily commute, and ironically it's being hemmed in by the railway that exacerbates the issue. Crossrail's housing pressures aren't only being felt in London, but in Essex too. by train: Shenfield
» By far the most interesting place to visit in the borough of Brentwood is the Secret Nuclear Bunker. This is located in farmland north of Kelvedon Hatch, and is of course no longer Secret, nor would it now be much good as a Nuclear Bunker. I visited it 2010, and blogged about it then, so I wasn't going to go back this time. But it is amazing though, on every level.
» Lynn emailed me a couple of years ago to tell me that I really ought to visit St Mary the Virgin in Great Warley, because it possesses "the only art nouveau-style church interior in the world." That is an amazing claim, and the photos I've seen suggest also true. Unfortunately it's only open on Thursday afternoons, and Bank Holiday Mondays, and after the communion service on Sundays, plus it's a heck of a hike out of Brentwood, but I will absolutely get there one day (and in less than 37 years).
» Another place I'm told is quite interesting is Ingatestone Hall, which is the one interesting thing in the rail replacement village of Ingatestone. Unfortunately its eight period rooms and ten acres of gardens are only open from Easter until the end of September, and only a couple of days a week, so I didn't go there either.
» Finally there's Brentwood Museum, which should have been a must-visit, tucked away in a quaint 19th century cemetery lodge at the end of a pebbledash cul-de-sac in Warley. This only opens on the first full weekend of the month, so my timing couldn't have been better, but alas only between April and October, so couldn't have been worse.