Sometimes I go for a walk through a London suburb and only do my research afterwards to see if it was more interesting than it looked. So it was with NorthCricklewood.
Orientation: Cricklewood, the much-derided suburb, lies on the former Watling Street between Kilburn and Hendon. North Cricklewood is cruelly segregated from actual Cricklewood by an impenetrable mile long stripe of railway lands. On its opposite flank is the A41 dual carriageway and to the north an industrial buffer zone, beyond which lie the arterial horrors of Brent Cross. An estate agent would try to suggest that the area nestles up against Child's Hill and Golders Green. Reality is less cosy.
The heart of North Cricklewood is a fingerprint-whorl of a housing estate lined by sturdy interwar semis. Roads are broad and pavements plentiful, so not all of the front gardens have repurposed for parking. Extra attic windows peer out through ridges of red roof tiles. The estate's central 'roundabout' is a shrubbery garden locked shut by Barnet council, to be admired but not enjoyed. Planners opted for a 'hills' theme when naming the streets, so the outer ring comprises Cotswold Gardens and Cheviot Gardens, with remaining avenues gifted to Cleveland, Cumbria, the Chilterns, Malverns and Quantocks. The spine road is Pennine Drive, whose shopping parade looks somewhat down at heel until you spot the upholsterers and artisan framers housed within. The local estate agent last updated its shopfront in the 0181 era. House prices are higher than you'd think. As neighbourhoods go it's solid but nothing the Evening Standard will be writing about soon, or indeed ever.
But actually: 100 years ago Cricklewood was the site of the Handley Page aircraft factory, a pioneering facility grown large on wartime construction. Alongside they established Cricklewood Aerodrome, both as somewhere to test planes and as a base for one of the very first public airports. A London to Paris service was inaugurated in 1920 using former bombers modified for passenger use. But the surrounding area built up to the point where aviation became untenable, so in 1929 Handley Page shifted all their flying to Radlett and the aerodrome became the Golders Green Estate. Walking round its ordinariness today, you would absolutely never guess any of this.
I'm not sure what I was expecting of Cricklewood Millennium Green. Perhaps a verdant lawn with flowerbeds and benches, maybe a communal focal point. Instead I found a fenced-off grassy acre on the railway side of Claremont Road showing several signs of love and attention two decades back but rather fewer of late. Its gates were only slightly ajar, leading through to a semi-overgrown enclosure dotted with wooden posts and artistic remnants meant as play equipment for children who no longer come. Every litter bin overflowed with cans, bottles, pizza boxes and dozens more cans. One Millennium Commission plaque had survived, another was merely a large blank circle. I followed what was once a nature trail to the rear of the site, where a mound looked out over Thameslink sidings and thicket hid the uncharred remains of a bench. I felt uncomfortable and unsafe, which can't have been the original intention. I crept out fast.
But actually: The site was originally railway land covering part of a carriage shed and some air raid shelters, re-landscaped in 2000 with humps of earth and re-planted with hazel and maple. Originally the Millennium Green had a pond, but this proved hazardous and difficult to maintain so has since been removed. Alistair Lambert's railway-inspired sculptures remain, somewhat overwhelmed. A private sponsor once paid for the grass to be cut, but they've moved on and it very much no longer is. Thankfully a community trust has been set up to look after the place because Barnet council were never going to, and without them it'd be a lot bleaker. But it remains the sole greenspace for the housing estate across the road, the housing estate that used to be the Handley Page aircraft factory until that closed in 1964, hence the prefential lager-swigging spot.
Two things struck me about Clitterhouse Playing Fields - how large it was, and how little playing was taking place. The name also raised an eyebrow, but I assumed there must be a good reason for it. Swathes of goalpostless green stretched off into the distance with maybe one group of kickabout schoolkids visible and a few dots of exercising dogs - not much to show for 40 acres. In one corner a wildlife area had been reclaimed and some old buildings looked like the community were trying to do something with them, but otherwise the whole place was despondently facility-free. Along Claremont Road a block of smart housing, knocked up very recently, encroached shamelessly onto the recreation ground's footprint. On the far side an insignificant concrete-banked stream dribbled past some allotments, similarly undisturbed. So much potential, so little take-up.
But actually: Originally this was ClitterhouseFarm, an agricultural relic with (genuinely) 14th century roots (the name meanis 'clay house'). But the Midland Railway cut it down to size in the 1860s, a gasworks and sewage works took more land to the north, and in 1926 Hampstead FC built a stadium and that killed off the farm for good. Its outbuildings are the sole survivor, that's the community project in the corner, now with an intermittently open cafe. The football stadium, most recently Hendon's home ground, was sold to developers and has taken over a decade to reach residential fruition. But Clitterhouse Playing Fields is protected Metropolitan Open Space, so is lined up for a major recreational upgrade with all-weather pitches, tennis courts and changing facilities for thousands of new residents who haven't moved in yet.
What cuts off North Cricklewood from Staples Corner, lodged in the armpit between the railway and the North Circular, is the Claremont Road Industrial Estate. This dates back to a time not so very long ago when our city still supported manufacturing, thus cement works, warehouses and factories still had their place. Through traffic is not allowed, and pedestrian access is via a stripe of open space behind some derelict sheds, down a half-blocked slope and through a pre-demolition site. The shutters are down at Schleppers Removal & Storage. No further A1 Envelopes will be produced. McGovern's Haulage is closed and the tip is no longer in operation. As for the northern half of the estate this lingers on as a dead end frequented by grubby lorries, with a single catering truck to serve up gizzard suya to those who remain. Only a fool would walk this way.
But actually: Utter transformation is on its way. The industrial estate, several adjacent blocks of flats and a fair amount of train depot are destined to become Brent Cross South, a massive development site facing another massive development site across the North Circular. Barnet council gave everything the go ahead in 2010 but progress has been glacial, and the shopping centre bit's been put on ice indefinitely. What'scoming south of the A406 are 6700 houses squeezed into every available space (the usual bricky blocks), alongside desk-based workspaces for 25000 non-manual workers. The masterplan won't be complete before 2030, but by that time the new Thameslink station should be complete and maybe connected up to a new west LondonOverground orbital. Clitterhouse's pitches, courts and changing rooms should be in great demand. North Cricklewood will never be the same.