It’s 10 years since the first walk I did with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp, which ended around the back of an old industrial building somewhere just beyond Stonebridge Park. We’d been following the course of an underground water main from Golders Green as Nick delivered curbside sermons on how the civic infrastructure of northwest London acted as ‘storage vats of regional memory’.
It’s two years since my last walk with Nick – on that occasion for This Other London where we’d picked up a short section of the water main off Cricklewood Broadway and followed it past St Michael’s Church and across Gladstone Park. So when I mooted another walk and various exotic possibilities were floated it seemed inevitable that we’d end up back somewhere in the vicinity of Stonebridge Park and that Nick’s sacred ley line gurgling through a 48 inch pipe beneath the pavement would play a role.
Alongside the usual digital kit I lug around trying to capture these excursions (camera, field recorder, various mics and associated accessories) I lobbed a copy of Walter Jerrold’s Highways and Byways of Middlesex in my bag. Jerrold had guided me when I walked out from Sudbury Hill over Horsenden Hill through Perivale to Hanwell and in the course of that walk had teased me with descriptions of early 20th Century Hanger Hill and Twyford Abbey. It would make good tube reading on the way out to Stonebridge Park.
When I stepped out of the station to be greeted by Nick he seemed to read my mind, I mentioned the Jerrold and the idea of taking in Hanger Hill and Twyford Abbey was tacked onto the itinerary. We moved along a now overly familiar stretch of the North Circular – a scene I’ve watched back hundreds of times when editing The London Perambulator and also glimpsed when walking along the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union from Kensal Rise to Northolt last Easter. The site where our walk had ended 10 years ago was still a patch of rough ground at the end of a mini-industrial estate. New fences have been erected, diggers chunter round on a large adjacent plot, the old bus is still parked at the end of a long driveway. Somehow despite slow encroachment this corner of London retains a left-behind feel, an eldritch zone where the fences are there to keep something in as much a keep people out.
I’m totting my camera – experiencing things mostly through the filter of a fold out screen, following Nick like this is a disorientating experience – I never know where I am or where I’m going, it doesn’t really matter. Pete seems happy just to go along for the ride too taking snaps with his Lomo Actionsampler camera, although the only action to sample is our plodding along the tarmac.
We gaze into the fast flowing waters of the River Brent beside the Wembley Travelodge then move on along a muddy path through a spindly outcrop of trees that runs beside the river on one side and a council estate the other. ‘Where are we?’ says Nick, ‘What’s this place called?’
‘Tokyngton?’ I venture, having looked quickly at a map before leaving home.
‘No that’s further north towards Wembley’, Nick corrects.
‘Well it must be the outskirts of Alperton’, I suggest.
Pete is looking at the map on his phone but this section of grid is nameless.
Nick spots a Sparrow Hawk gliding above the Brent.
We cross the river and pass through an interwar light industrial estate of low-storey modernist buildings. We stand outside Flexal Springs (1933) and pick apart my erroneous statement that they’re art deco – Pete points out that concrete was the favoured material of European modernists whereas this interwar development seems to be resolutely rendered brick.
We emerge near the Hanger Lane Gyratory – a churning vortex of motor vehicles spinning out of its gravitational field into orbiting suburbs. Long arms of brightly tiled pedestrian tunnels feed into a large central rotunda gathering the echoes of footsteps and conversations into an aural soup. It feels like a sanctuary from the autogeddon above, a safe haven for the traveler on foot. It’s also nice to be out of the rain – the steady drizzle that has fallen throughout the day has hardened into proper raindrops with added attitude.
We shelter in a café in the parade of shops that adorns the gyratory for as long as possible, watching the rainfall intensify and people scampering to the refuge of the subway. Eventually we accept that the downpour is unlikely to ease up and head out in search of Twyford Abbey.
On the way to the Abbey Nick wanted to check in on a mound that he has been fascinated with for around 25 years since he first discovered it. He told us that he suspected it was landfill but he had become enchanted with the large anthills that topped the mound – and I suppose the workings of this ant civilization could have stretched deep into the interior of the mound which if X-Rayed could reveal a vast matrix of ant tunnels and structures, a habitation mirroring our insect life scurrying round the city, although the ant world you imagine would be more ordered and humane.
The rain was falling hard by the time we reached the mound and Nick was disappointed that a fence had been erected stopping us inspecting the state of the anthills. I tried to console him that at least now our insect friends would be left in peace but his disappointment was tangible. Frankly in the driving rain I wasn’t keen on scrambling up a muddy mound to look at ants nests and sought refuge in the underpass.
We passed via the old Guinness factory at Park Royal redeveloped to host the Diageo offices and a new housing development still under construction that comes with the now standard computer generated imagery of the new world to come when all we actually see are piles of grey breeze blocks. A wrapper around the site yells out its ambitious boast not only to place a roof above your head (if you can afford the £420,000 for a one-bed flat) but that you will ‘FIND YOURSELF’, a spiritual quest that I suppose is what drew the Monks to the Abbey across the road.
The Royal Waterside development of 265 luxury apartments within a ‘new neighbourhood’ bemusing dubbed First Central (East Village is bad enough but at least it’s in the East – this is neither First nor Central). Any doubts that such developments are not built to alleviate London’s chronic housing shortage but to suit the overseas investment market are dispelled by the blog on the Redrow Homes website written in Chinese “From China to London Why invest in London property”. Elsewhere on the website, under the sub-heading of “Investing from overseas” Redrow proclaim, “There has never been a better time to invest in London and Redrow London are committed to making the process as easy as possible for purchasers outside the UK.”
Opposite Royal Waterside are the locked gates to the Abbey so we move down the road to survey the site from the grounds of St Mary’s Church. Through the metal grated fence we can see that the Abbey doors have been left wide open – awnings on the balconies flap in the breeze blowing straight through the broken windows. The old Abbey building apparently being blighted – caught in planning limbo, its inconvenient Grade 2 heritage listing being slowly bypassed by the processes of nature till the structure gradually rots and crumbles. But despite the deliberate neglect this ‘cockney-Gothic’ masterpiece retains its grandeur. It was built in 1808 on the site of an old moated manor house with drawbridge, then taken over by the catholic monastic order of the Alexian Brothers in 1902 and run as a nursing home. It was never actually an Abbey.
We lament the vandalism so evident that surely it should be stopped and Pete reads off details of the planning quagmire that has produced the situation with the submitted planning application for building 25 dwellings in the Abbey and 65 in the grounds not complying with the London Plan.
We move on out of the grounds of St. Mary’s to the white traffic noise of the North Circular Road, which along with the building of Park Royal Station in 1903, had sounded the death knell for this rural idyll. Until then the Abbey and the church was all that constituted the village of West Twyford, a place Nick informs us is listed in the Domesday Book. Even so Michael Robbins noted in 1953 that, “Cows are still to be seen grazing in the fields, and it is the nearest place to London where the motorist is requested to ‘Beware Cattle Crossing’.
Our topographical patron saint, Gordon S. Maxwell described a day spent here in 1927 in Just Beyond London under the heading of, ‘The Monks of Middlesex – a haunt of Ancient peace at Twyford Abbey, missed by the growth of the mighty city’.
The city seems to have finally found the Abbey and Nick has found a portal into the past as he suddenly disappears from the pavement through a large gap in the wooden fence where a panel has collapsed into the undergrowth. We follow him to the Abbey grounds where what appears as a long high wall thickly coated in ivy turns out to be a sequence of derelict buildings, what Maxwell describes as the ‘Home Farm’, that provided the Abbey with food. We enter the gloom of the “whitewashed cottage” described by Maxwell through an opening in the blanket of ivy. There is a straw bed where someone appears to have been sleeping. There are large holes in the upper floors giving a clear view upwards through the building to the leaden sky. We look out across the meadow towards the Abbey where the cattle grazed. When Maxwell was here with ‘fellow-author and rambler’ Rev. T.P. Stevens, he saw cassocked monks wandering the meadows and some at work “building a new rick from the new-mown hay”.
We appear to be alone to explore the dark moldering buildings, the only light breaking through gaping holes in the roofs. The ducks, geese and pigs long gone with the monks that reared them. There is a peace here that despite the din of the traffic from the road not more than 20 yards away recaptures what Maxwell described 90 years ago as, ‘a little bit of real country still, a forgotten corner’.
Passing back through the hole in the fence is like time-travel back to the 21st Century, our return greeted by plumes of toxic rainwater splashed off the North Circ by the rampaging hoards of hometime traffic. Up ahead, the second sighting of the Wembley Travelodge is enough to signal the end of the walk as we amble back to Stonebridge Park.
I’ll be presenting a work-in-progress video featuring this walk at the Flat Pack Festival in Birmingham on 29th March