diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 15, 2012

Random borough (32): Barnet (part 1)

Barnet's big. In terms of population it's the biggest borough in London, and in terms of area, top five. You'll find it beyond Camden, strung out along the two northern branches of the Northern line. Closer in it's quite built up, very suburban, but further out it's hilly and rural, possibly the closest proper countryside to central London. It may be a tightwad borough, well known for slashing spending and cutting services, but that doesn't make Barnet a joyless place. Lots to see, much to do...

Somewhere to begin: Barnet Museum
There's been a museum in Wood Street, Barnet, since the 1930s. Back then the town was in Hertfordshire, on a peculiar spur of the Home Counties poking into the heart of Middlesex. The town's more properly known as Chipping Barnet, to distinguish it from all the other Barnets such as East and Friern, and might still be called that had not the tube station been called High. The station was built on the site of the famous annual Barnet Fair, once known for its livestock and horse racing, but now better as rhyming slang for hair. You'll find information about all of this, and lots more besides, inside an early Georgian house just opposite St John's church.

While some local museums are bland, some archaic and others over-modern, Barnet Museum is a veritable hotbed of history. Three floors of rooms are packed with "stuff", more likely unlabelled than not, in a way that genuinely conjures up the way life used to be round these parts. On the ground floor there's an old hearth plus various kitcheny bits in the front room, and full details of the Battle of Barnet in the rear. Downstairs is very girly, all Victorian costumes, lacy hats and samplers. The real meat's upstairs, with a series of thematic displays based around topics such as "light", "truncheons" and "the local bowls club". One cabinet's devoted to the Watson Barnet microscope, another to the Barnet ventilator (a portable "iron lung" which once saved the life of borough-born actor Elizabeth Taylor). Someone here takes collecting royal crockery very seriously, including a century of commemorative cups and mugs, even a 1977 Silver Jubilee paper plate. There's a complete Victorian salon in the room over the stairs, because that's what gets schoolchildren visiting, plus a rather lovely collection of vintage High Street receipts.

The special atmosphere at the museum is primarily due to the number of volunteers bustling about. They're in the entrance hall to welcome you, and maybe sell you a book or postcard from the extremely well-stocked local stash. They're lurking in the office out the back, doing the filing, occasionally popping out with tea. And they're even sitting amongst you, doing real historical work like cataloguing old parish magazines. Budgetary concerns mean there's still a fight ahead to keep the place open. Poor old Church Farmhouse Museum was closed by the council last year, and the building and surrounding gardens are currently up for grabs to the highest bidder ("Grade II* Listed Building For Disposal Freehold/Leasehold"). Barnet Museum survives, for now, because there's some doubt over who precisely owns the lease. But councillors would surely be glad to be rid of the place, because Barnet councillors prefer ready money to heritage, and they probably can't see the point of a collection of old gloves, school registers and tins of powdered egg. But when it's gone, it's gone. And at the moment, up Wood Street, it's decidedly still there.
by tube: High Barnet   by bus: 107, 184, 263, 307

Somewhere historic: Monken Hadley
You can add Monken Hadley to your list of Great London Place Names. The toppermost settlement in Barnet is a delightful village, medieval in origin, with more than its fair share of historic importance. There are winding lanes and duckponds [photo], and a rolling common surrounded by grand houses, but most of all there's a battlefield. One of the most decisive battles of the Wars of the Roses was the Battle of Barnet, fought here on Easter Sunday 1471, which helped to secure the throne for Edward IV. Leading the Lancastrian army was the Earl of Warwick, Richard Neville, erstwhile known as the Kingmaker. He set up camp near Monken Hadley on the Saturday, with Yorkist Edward arriving alongside under cover of darkness. Battle lines were drawn in the early morning, amid fog which made targets uncertain, and the resulting chaos meant the entire conflict was over before breakfast. The Lancastrians lost heavily, and in the ensuing retreat the Earl of Warwick was captured, stabbed and his body mutilated. With opposition crushed, here and at the later Battle of Tewkesbury, Edward would rule England for the next twelve years.

An obelisk to commemorate the Battle of Barnet stands on the main road through Monken Hadley, on a triangular green at Hadley Highstone. It was erected in 1740, and is supposed to mark the spot where Warwick died. Fat chance. It was originally placed 200 metres to the south, but later moved to a convenient space between two rows of cottages, and that was more wishful thinking than fact [photo]. An Ordnance Survey map shows the battle site on private land beyond Dury Road, but even that turns out to be the subject of some conjecture. The true battle was rather more spread out, and current thinking puts the main action a few hundred yards further north... which is just beyond the London border in Hertfordshire. Sssh, let's ignore that awkward possibility, else my random borough visit was entirely unfounded.

But I loved the village, even if I didn't stay long. The church is almost as old as the battle, in the perpendicular style, with a reputed "Armada beacon" at the top of the tower [photo]. A gate in the road leads through to Monken Hadley Common - long and thin, and apparently the only surviving remnant of the ancient woodland of Enfield Chase. On Saturday morning the grass was part-covered with frost, most poignantly the bench where My Dearest Bob's wife left a potted bouquet back on Christmas Day [photo]. The pond at the top end of the common, one of the sources of the Pymmes Brook, was swimming with fragments of ice, while a few dogs and joggers braved the cold amongst the occasional patch of sandy gorse. I didn't have time to fully inspect the Georgian mansions hereabouts, at one time home to David Livingstone, Kingsley Amis and Anthony Trollope's mother Fanny. But I reckon this place deserves a summer return visit, and London Loop section 16 looks like a pretty good excuse.
by bus: 84, 399

I hate to go on about buses again, quite so soon after my trans-capital epic, but Monken Hadley's two services deserve a mention. On my way there I caught the 84, which is that special bus north to St Albans, the one where you can use Oyster as far as Potters Bar. Except you can't any more. As of two weeks ago the 84 no longer accepts TfL tickets, it's had its Local Service Agreement withdrawn, so I had to stump up hard cash. As a special offer to Oyster holders the fare is only £1.35, although as a Travelcard holder I'd previously paid nothing. So on the way back from Monken Hadley I caught the TfL service instead, the elusive 399, which is one of the most infrequent bus routes in London. Only six buses a day run this way, none before ten and none after three, so I was damned lucky to spot one. I flagged it down by the church (it's Hail & Ride), then rode a handful of stops to The Spires shopping mall... where the driver flipped the blind to become a 389. And that's an even less frequent bus, part of a daily off-peak switcheroo, which I could have caught to one of tomorrow's reports...

» For those fascinated by Barnet, Paul Baker runs historic walks round the town and the surrounding area. Today's guided walk is all about The Battle of Barnet, highly appropriately, and starts at 11am up near Monken Hadley. If you miss it, Paul repeats approximately monthly, or maybe try his ghost walk or Dickensian walk instead.

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