diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 31, 2008

  MoDA Suburban Guided Walk
(Walk 1)
  Arnos Grove to Southgate (2 miles)

As the Piccadilly line crept northwards in the early 1930s, so the tendrils of semi-detached suburbia pushed out into the fields between Barnet and Enfield. A delightful location, therefore, for an architectural stroll. The Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture has published three pocket-sized mini-booklets detailing guided walks in the area, each starting and finishing at a classic tube station. So I bought the set from the shop at their museum in Cockfosters (£1.99 each, or £5 for three) and set off to rediscover suburban bliss.

Some would argue that there's no finer tube station than Arnos Grove [photo]. Charles Holden's drum-like ticket hall rises with pleasing lofty symmetry, very much a child of the Art Deco 30s, and perfectly in tune with the surrounding suburbs. These are no identikit homes, these are proper little domestic palaces in a variety of architectural styles. Booklet in hand, I headed off along the designated trail. Within a couple of minutes I'd admired a Grade II listed swimming pool, a geometric-framed library and a neo-Tudor pub, all of which I might easily otherwise have ignored. Down into Arnos Park - a reminder that not all these former fields ended up beneath houses and gardens - and up the other side into residential Arcadia.

Morton Way, New SouthgateMorton Way, and the avenues leading off from it, are quintessential suburbia. Well-spaced gabled semis, set back from grassy verges behind manicured privet hedges. 75-year-old trees with lopped-back branches, shadowing conservatory extensions and set-apart garages. Herringbone brickwork and diamond-lattice windows, brightened by the occasional intricate leaded light. Steep tiled roofs topped with obsolete chimneypots, shielding over-prominent burglar alarms. And so much larger than any London developer would build today. You could get at least four flats out of the floorspace taken up by one semi-detached home, and probably a block of 20 if you threw in the back garden too.

In Whitehouse Way are a few contrasting clusters of flat-roofed modernist semis, noted by Pevsner, each pair with gently curving frontage. My printed guide helped me to identify the shiny pigmented blocks surrounding certain doorways as Vitrolite (alas no longer made, should you want some for your own residence). Onward up Summit Way to the heights of Southgate. It was striking how few of these houses still have a green front garden. Where once were lawns and flowerbeds, the only variety these days is whether the crazy paving is rectangular or irregular, and which car has been parked on top of it. Homeowners' horticultural skills, out front at least, are restricted to a few tiny strips of earth dotted with the occasional shrub or rosebush.

Chestnut Close, OakwoodOn a midweek morning, these residential streets were a hive of middle class activity. The postman was delivering a package to number 48, watched from the end of the garden by a padding tabby. Further up the road a vanful of builders were attempting to look busy, while nextdoor's windows were receiving vigorous attention from a window cleaner perched up a long ladder. Meanwhile the lady of one house was scrubbing down her front porch with purple cleaning fluid, a flash of bright red stair carpet visible in the hallway behind her. I received a polite "good morning" from a permed pensioner walking down the hill trailing a tartan basket on wheels. If only I'd seen a milkfloat humming by, the suburban illusion would have been complete.

It's not all semis. There was a luxurious stack of cottage-y flats at Bush Court, round the back of Chase Side, perfect for the newly-relocated 30s commuter. And then there was Southgate station, of a similar age, and even more outlandish [photo]. It looked like a flying saucer had landed, or maybe some engineer had built a translucent electricity substation in the wrong place. Surrounding half of the squat circular building was the austere brick crescent of Station Parade. A large clock ticked silently at the centre of a sheer brick curve, beneath which were tiny unbranded shops named only by retail category - "JEWELLER" "ARTS AND CRAFTS" "TAKE AWAY FOOD" "FRIED CHICKEN SHOP". The whole area may now be three quarters of a century old, but it has a coherent modernist appeal that vanquishes anything truly modern.

Walk 2: Southgate to Oakwood. More of the same, but with allotments.
Walk 3: Oakwood to Cockfosters. More of the same, but with contrasting council houses. This walk also passes the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture, on the campus at Middlesex University, which you still haven't visited yet, have you? Their Shell Guides exhibition runs until November, so don't delay too long.

How to buy the three MoDA walks
Follow the three walks on a Google map
Guided tour of the four northernmost Piccadilly line stations (June 22, £12)

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