WALK HARROW Somewhere pretty: London Loop section 15 Hatch End to Stanmore (5 miles)
One thing Harrow has in spades is open space. A third of the borough is Green Belt, including most of a broad northern strip, and by London standards this is landscape heaven. I chose to follow one of the capital's major strategic walks across fields, through woodland and past an ornamental death pond. And it was all the better because almost nobody else had had the same idea.
To Hatch End station, clutching a pdf printout of London Loop section 15. I would have preferred the proper leaflet, except the folk at Walk London are incredibly protective of their 55 strategic walk leaflets and permit dispatch of only three per online request. I'd soon be extremely lost as a result of their excessive prudence. My reduced-size, mostly-grey, deskjet route map proved to be a hopeless indicator of direction, even within the first few minutes. It is this way, isn't it? Big field, ambiguous wording, too many potential exits, not enough signs. Help, I appear to be stuck on the wrong side of a prickly hedge. But eventually I worked out how to get back on track, and passed through a gate, and... [Sorry, at this point the London Loop crosses into Hertfordshire for about a mile, which isn't Harrow, so I'm not going to tell you about it. Especially the snooty golfers.]
Is this track really called Ass House Lane? Apparently so. And apparently it crosses a pre-historic earthwork called Grim's Dyke, although I'm still not convinced I actually saw it - the shallow earth trench I spotted could have been any other non-ancient feature. The woodland here forms the edge of Harrow Weald Common, and this end was once part of a landscaped garden belonging the famous comic librettist W. S. Gilbert. He lived in Grim's Dyke (the house, not the ditch) for 20 years, and was especially proud of his ornamental lake complete with boathouse and central island. Alas, this lake was to lead to his untimely death. One day in 1911 a young female house guest got into difficulties while swimming, and when Gilbert jumped in to assist he suffered a fatal heart attack. His widow had the lake drained, and it's now just an eerie vegetated hollow in the woods [photo]. Meanwhile Gilbert's gorgeous home, much praised by Betjeman in his Metroland documentary, has become a rather desirable hotel[photo].
Just to the south, along Old Redding, is a large car park with impressive panoramic views over northwest London. I'd never spotted this before, despite having visited the pub nextdoor, and I enjoyed the opportunity to watch the planes landing at Heathrow eight miles away. After dark, however, it wouldn't surprise me if this car park transforms into prime dogging territory - it had that look about it.
My walk returned into the deserted woods, striding along not-quite muddy paths beneath yellowing leaves. Roll on autumn, I say, if it looks like this. And then across a main road into Bentley Priory Open Space. A concrete path skirted the edge of something top secret and secure, which I later discovered was one of the country's most important airforce bases. RAFBentleyPriory was the headquarters of Fighter Command during the Second World War, and the entire Battle of Britain was directed by officers holed up in the manor house. It's an enormous site, barely visible beyond ubiquitous security fences, and currently undergoing a period of enormous change. The RAF station here closed with a flourish at the end of May 2008, and future plans include less exciting things like a museum and lots and lots of luxury apartments. The perfect gated community, I fear.
Next, on my poorly signposted walk, to Stanmore Common. The official route weaved between two tree-fringed ponds [photo], then passed a rugby pitch where 30 overweight blokes were grunting in the late afternoon sunlight. And then, at a nearby residential enclave named 'Little Common' (which oh so definitely wasn't common), I decided to break my journey. The London Loop continues from here to Aldenham reservoir and Elstree, but they're back in Hertfordshire and that was off limits. Instead I headed south down the hillside, through Stanmore Country Park and back to the edge of the tube network. These strategic walks are great for taking you the non-obvious route via the green bits, and my autumnal stroll had shown northern Harrow in a glorious light. by train/tube: Hatch End, Stanmore by bus: H12
Somewhere random: The Answer Lies At The End of The Line Some days it seems that any old reason will do. For modern art, I mean. Whether it's shoving bunkbeds in the Tate Modern to simulate Armageddon, or flooding the roof of the Hayward Gallery as a parodic intervention, it seems modern artists can get away with anything. In the case of Stanmore station, it's all about publishing a book of crosswords. Artist Serena Korda was inspired by the fact that secret wartime codebreakers deciphered Hitler's secrets in a military outpost on the corner of Brockley Hill, and has assembled a collection of interconnected cruciverbalist art. There are eight crosswords altogether, compiled around some very local themes (such as the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital and the Stanmore Bowls Club). You're supposed to be able to pick up a booklet from Jubilee line stations, but they're so rare that downloading the pdf is likely to be a more profitable pursuit. Go on, you're not doing any real work this afternoon.
If you get stuck on the clues, that's where a trip to Stanmore station comes in [photo]. There are linocut posters at the northern end of the platform giving hints to certain solutions (yes, 12 across really is "QUAGGA") and praising celebrated crossword setter Roy Dean. There are further hints on the stairs (yes, "saw nothing" is an anagram of "WASHINGTON"), although you get funny looks from passing commuters if you pause too long to read them. Still not enough help? Never fear, because the solution for each of the eight puzzles has been painted onto the roof high above the ticket hall, each grid surrounded by ornate swirly artwork. The Answer Lies at the End of the Line. So if you haven't solved Serena's crosswords before the end of January, you'd best travel out here to Zone 5 to take a look. by tube: Stanmore by bus: 142, H12