diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 20, 2014

Three East London villages: 3) Noak Hill

My third village sits in the north-eastern corner of London, at the top right-hand corner on the map. Not the precise right-hand corner, because that's on the M25, but sprawled across the Havering Plain one field in. It's very much off the beaten track, not really on the way to anywhere, nor with any intention of being. It's an hour's walk from the nearest station, and not quite served by bus, but then if you lived out here you'd almost certainly drive. It has one church, one pub, the odd thatched cottage and the obligatory garden centre. It's Noak Hill, and it's a proper Essex village in every respect except that it's not quite in Essex. [4 photos]

Once known as Nook Hill, this is another village that owes its survival to the Green Belt. This whole area north of the Brentwood Road was once part of the estate of a manor house called Dagnams (not to be confused with Dagenham, which is the other side of Romford). In 1772 it was bought by a merchant called Richard Neave, whose meteoric rise to the nobility included posts as the Governor of the Bank of England and the High Sheriff of Essex. In 1919 the 5th Baronet auctioned off a large portion of his estate to a number of farmers, but kept hold of the land immediately around his mansion. The remainder was compulsory purchased in the late 1940s by the London County Council who promptly covered it with ten thousand houses to create the Harold Hill estate. Planning legislation has ensured that no finger of suburban sprawl quite reaches out to touch the original village today.

You can almost take the bus, indeed two routes advertise themselves as terminating at Noak Hill. But they stop by a patch of green beside the last houses in Harold Hill, and to reach the village proper requires five, ten, fifteen minutes walk. While you're here, perhaps visit the pub. Once called The Goat it changed its name in 1715 to become The Bear, and upped its game still further in the 1960s by actually acquiring a pair. Landlord Ron kept two brown bears called Rhani and Honey in a cage in the pub garden, along with a public menagerie of lesser animals, and occasionally brought them into the bar to enjoy a brown beer and a bag of crisps. Don't come expecting the same devil-may-care attitude today. The Bear is now a pub grill targeted far more at the neighbouring estate than the village up the hill, and serves nothing more exotic than a Chilli Dog.

Noak Hill Road rises steadily after crossing Carter's Brook, passing a handful of delightful cottages on the climb. Thatched Cottage speaks for itself, and used to be a village store, while Rose Cottage and Old Keeper's Cottage are timber-framed and weather boarded. What used to be the blacksmiths until the 1970s is now a characterful long house with four motors parked outside, and the former Post Office across the road has long turned residential. It's left to three signs at the main road junction to reveal what Noak Hill does best today - a plant nursery, a potato merchants and an aquatic centre.

The Ingrebourne Way starts here, a cycle track and footway running 11 miles down to Rainham. If you ride I think you'd like it, not least because it's so utterly different to most other London bikeways. A short distance through the first section the woodland opens out to reveal an unexpected public park, this the former grounds of Dagnams Manor. Of the house itself there's no sign - this because the LCC installed a caretaker after the war who promptly pinched all the lead from the roof and the rain got in, forcing demolition. A few fenceposts and the cobbled stable floor are all that survive, this at the Noak Hill end, whereas most of the parkgoers are dogwalkers from Harold Hill to the south.

Back in the village, one of Noak Hill's two places of worship is what you'd expect - redbrick Anglican with a slippery path to the front door, the last Lady of the Manor buried outside, and Zumba classes in the church hall every Tuesday. The other is a Hindu mandir, the Radha Krishna Temple, which in reality turns out to be the old school converted to community use, and not the glamorous turreted marvel you might have hoped. Tisbury's offers the only coffee in the village - a machine brew in a huge shed whose main purpose is the sale of tropical and marine fish, if that's your bag. And the garden centre's closed until the end of February, sorry, in case you were thinking that might be a good reason to visit.

Step further north along the lane and you'll catch the unmistakeable tang of manure, as if to prove the area's rural credentials, and then the smallholdings kick in. It's quite horsey out here, and pigeony and cattery too, and the sort of place you'd build a bungalow if you were trying to flout a planning regulation or two. Hence I found Benskins Lane quite oppressive, forever afraid that the local Neighbourhood Watch firmly wished there wasn't a public footpath passing their front gates. Ditto the tunnel at the end of the track where the path dips beneath the M25, in a cutting that destroyed the rural calm forever. The top right-hand corner of London lies along the hard shoulder, indeed it's somewhere you've quite likely, fleetingly, been. Essex looks a lot prettier on the other side.

[Today's challenge: risk a third trip to the outskirts of Havering before the remaining readership departs]

Friday update: I've been taken to task by the webmaster of the FriendsofDagnamPark website, whose excellent resource I linked to eleven times above. "In the main you did a pretty good job. I have two minor complaints; one that we got no acknowledgement and two that one part paragraph is grossly inaccurate. I accept that you had a lot to take in and your synthesis of the data on our site was not bad." Hopefully the second half of the second paragraph is now less inadequate as a result of their helpful feedback.

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