diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 24, 2006

  Metro-land revisited
  Harrow School


There are two Harrows - the elite on the hill and everybody else down below. The famous public school got here early, founded in 1572, and perches atop the summit as befits its perceived importance. The Metropolitan Railway [photo] got here relatively late, in 1890, and populated the surrounding fields with upwardly mobile state-school fodder. The contrast between the two areas is considerable.

Harrow-on-the-Hill station [photo] down in the valley is a multi-platformed hub, constructed with plain brick simplicity. The tiny waiting rooms on each platform survive, but the newsagents' kiosks haven't been so fortunate and now contain vending machines dispensing chocolate, wet wipes and disposable rain ponchos. Beyond the ticket barriers, out into the centre of town, this could be any garish minor town centre. A hexagonal office block squats inelegantly above the bus station. A gold-painted fibreglass cherub on a nearby wall attempts to imbue the redevelopment with history, and fails. The St Ann's Shopping Centre has been sucked dry of any ounce of character - an artificial retail boulevard alongside a soulless plastic mall. It's great if you want to go shopping, far better than anything my local area has to offer, but I suspect Betjeman would have absolutely hated it. He was much more at home up on the hill.

"Then Harrow-on-the-Hill's a rocky island
And Harrow churchyard full of sailor's graves
And the constant click and kissing of the trolley buses hissing
Is the level of the Wealdstone turned to waves."

John Betjeman (Harrow-on-the-Hill)

Harrow School is undeniably impressive [photo], even if you have no intention of forking out £24000 a year to attend full time. There's no recognisable campus, just a hotchpotch of buildings integrated into the surrounding village, so visitors are able to take a really good look around. At the heart of the school is a cluster of old and historic buildings [photo], including a chapel by George Gilbert Scott, a vast stone war Memorial and the 'Old Schools' 17th century classroom block. Further out are numerous houses for boarders, each with their own master and matron, and a lane leading down to the extensive (and very famous) playing fields. There's a special musty shop where boys can buy cufflinks and hand-sewn name labels, and another selling sensible shoes, hockey sticks and cricket flannels. But because I visited during the holidays there were no boys in boaters crocodiling along the streets, just summer school students jabbering their way from dorm to library, which wasn't quite the same.

Elsewhere on the hill are strings of charming cottages clinging to steep tumbledown lanes [photo]. Were these in the Cotswolds there'd be coach parties of tourists spilling out onto the pavement, cameras in hand, buying tea towels and boxes of over-priced fudge. Thankfully not here. And right up on the summit, with its spire visible for miles, is the parish church of St Mary [photo]. It's a little charmer inside, a consequence of 900 years of unbroken history, including a medieval chancel and some Victorian extensions by Gilbert Scott (again). The churchyard is also worth a look, partly for the gobsmacking verse written in tribute to London's first railway accident amputee [photo], but also for the extensive view to the east. It was here, atop an old tomb beneath a drooping elm, that the schoolboy Lord Byron came regularly for peace and inspiration. He never quite got his wish to be buried on this spot, but a plaque beside the south porch tells that his illegitimate daughter Allegra is buried somewhere nearby.

"Oh! as I trace again thy winding hill,
Mine eyes admire, my heart adores thee still,
Thou drooping Elm! beneath whose boughs I lay,
And frequent mused the twilight hours away;"

Lines Written Beneath an Elm in the Churchyard of Harrow (Lord Byron, 1807)

I enjoyed my walk around Harrow-on-the-Hill rather more than I was expecting. It's such an unexpected oasis amongst the uniformity of the surrounding area, and Byron was right about the view. OK so it's a bit posh, but you don't have to approve to appreciate. And I'm glad I downloaded the walking tour from this page on the local borough website before I went, otherwise I might easily have missed Churchill's first boarding House, the spot where Lord Shaftesbury devoted his life to the poor, and the plaque on Grove Hill commemorating Britain's first motorist fatality [photo]. You might not want to spend five years of your life here, but I bet you'd enjoy a couple of hours.

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