An Eye On London

"The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren and to do good is my religion." Thomas Paine

Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Woods Of Finchley and Highgate

The path through Highgate Wood leading to Queen’s Wood Nature Reserve

Though it is hard to imagine today North London ,very much like South London in this respect, was once covered in a thick canopy of trees and ancient woodlands, some dating back to prehistoric times and beyond . Modern house building, suburban sprawl and the expansion of London and its artery of transport networks have done for most of these woodlands and geographically altered the ecology of the city for ever. From Dulwich in the south to Highgate in the north and all points in between there once existed a thick spread of mighty English Oak trees alongside Hornbeam,Mountain Ash, Silver Birch, Elder, Hazel, Sycamore, Maple and Hawthorn to satisfy the cravings of the most demanding of carpenters. In North London this Great Park, as it was known, sheltered life and gave life though nearly all of it is now gone and yet in places and by foot the visitor is able to glimpse the tiniest surviving remainder of the once ancient and mighty woods and marvel at what once filled these parts.

Cherry Tree Wood, a small though partially dense wood, is squeezed into green space between suburban housing sprawl and the track embankment opposite East Finchley underground station. At first glance the park appears to be popular amongst mothers and their young children until you realise that all parks, woodland or green space with a play area is popular with all parents in all parts of London. It’s not a large park but it’s very hospitable and at just over five hectares there isn’t that much of it left. It is a reminder of what once was. A short walk away down a suburban avenue is Highgate Wood which, at thirty-eight hectares is bigger, denser and darker. Once inside Highgate Wood it becomes apparent that this was once even more substantial than it is and though teeming with dog walkers at various times of the day it has the feel of a great wood. Highgate Wood is cared for and looked after by the ‘Friends of Highgate Wood’ who do a worthwhile job of maintaining the paths and ensuring that the trees are trimmed when they need to be and the paths maintained and that everything within its confines runs tickety-boo. As I walked though the ‘friends’ were hard at it maintaining a fence and repairing a damaged thicket.

The short walk from Cherry Tree Wood to Highgate Wood allows you to imagine a London nestling between two great ridges at Highgate and further south at Dulwich, below the Crystal Palace transmitter. London sprawled across further smaller mounds and hillocks and marshland, rivers and streams. The view from Highgate Village is an outstanding vista across the artificial peaks of the City of London and beyond towards Blackheath, Woolwich and Kent.

Highgate Wood is dark, nestling in the hillside then descends down into what feels like the bottom of a crater in Queen’s Wood. Both woods are separated by the main Muswell Hill Road which connects the upper end of the Archway Road to Muswell Hill Broadway. Both are different woods and have a different feel about them. Queen’s Wood has a lively cafe which doubles as a Visitor’s Centre, of sorts.On the day I passed through there was a meeting in progress of ‘The friends of Queen’s Wood’ who, I’m assured, do a lot of good work and maintain the cared-for feeling that the Wood has. As I sat with my tea and cake they debated and deliberated and nodded earnestly to this proposal and that and ended by talking to a young father who thanked them for their hard work. All cooed appreciatively. Like Cherry Tree Wood the Queen’s Wood has spent time and energy planning and building tree-walks and other activities for youngsters to enjoy. This is what gave it, to my mind, an advantage over those that govern Highgate Wood.

‘The wood is an ancient oak-hornbeam woodland, which features English oak and occasional beech which provide a canopy above cherry, field maple, hazel, holly, hornbeam, midland hawthorn, mountain ash and both species of lowland birch. The scarce Wild Service Tree (which is evidence of the Woods’s ancient origin) is scattered throughout the wood.’ -Wiki

Emerging from the south-eastern side of Queen’s Wood I climbed a stiff path into Priory Gardens and at the end of the road sits Highgate Underground station. A great walk over: three different woods and a great cafe in which to end your tramp. Hard to beat, really.

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Rory Stewart Reflects On Walking Whilst Walking Across Afghanistan

I decided to include a post on the renowned diplomat, long-distance walker and former Deputy Governor in Iraq, Rory Stewart, as I’d just finished re-reading his great book The Places in Between. He’s a fascinating character with an interesting background and if a man deserves a wider audience then it is he. I recommend his book, heartily, and if you do read it I hope you get as much enjoyment from it as I did.

Rory Stewart is a Tory MP for Penrith and the Border and a former diplomat who has an unusual background. He is a supreme long-distance walker and wiki informs us that ‘from 2000 to 2002 he made a series of treks in rural districts of Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, India and Nepal, a journey totalling around 6000 miles, during which time he stayed in five hundred different village houses’ . He walked across Afghanistan in January 2002 just as the post-9/11 Allied bombing of Afghanistan began. He covered the distance entirely on foot following the route taken by the Mongol Emperor Babur the Great. In extremely hostile conditions and at high altitude Stewart survived by living off the generosity of the Afghan people to shelter and feed him. When he sat down to write ‘The Places In Between’ he dedicated the book to ‘…the people of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal…never in twenty-one months of travel did they attempt to kidnap or kill me.’ His dedication gives you an idea of the hazards he faced and the tight prose chronicles his every misfortune, scrape and slice of good fortune. No doubt, the film will be in production soon as it is rumoured that Brad Pitt has bought the film option and was in the process of casting. We shall see.

So why walk? And why walk such long distances, day after day? Well, a long-distance walk gives an individual time to think and the space to let the imagination reign freely; it gives you time to reflect upon your life or to contemplate the meaning of human existence or to merely escape from the everyday and the mundane. With so much time to ruminate long walks can evoke new ideas or change an individuals perspective on the world. A long walk gives you plenty of miles to free the clutter and see the world clearly. Rory Stewart put it slightly more eloquently:

‘I felt quite detached from the landscape. I wondered how I might connect my Afghan walk to my walks in Iran and Pakistan… I redesigned a journey around the world, which would finish where I began in Turkey.

I thought about evolutionary historians who felt that walking was a central part of what it means to be human. Our two-legged motion was what first differentiated us from the apes. It freed our hands for tools and carried us on the long marches out of  out of Africa. As a species we colonised the world on foot. Most of human history was created through contacts conducted at walking pace, even when some rode horses. I thought of the pilgrimages to Compostella in Spain; to Mecca; to the source of the Ganges; and of wandering dervishes, sadhus and friars who approached God on foot. The Buddha meditated by walking and Wordsworth composed sonnets while striding beside the lakes.

Bruce Chatwin, who was very interested in these things, concluded from all of this that we would think and live better and be closer to our purposes as humans if we moved continually on foot across the surface of the earth. I was not certain that I was living or thinking any better.

Before I started, I had imagined that I could fill my days by composing an epic poem in my head or write a novel set in a Scottish village which would become more rooted in a single place as I kept moving. In Iran I tried earnestly to think through philosophical arguments, learn Persian vocabulary and memorise poetry. Perhaps this is why I never felt quite at ease walking in Iran.

In Pakistan, having left the desert and entered the lush Doab of the Punjab, I stopped trying to think and instead looked at the movement of the canal water and peacocks in the trees. In India, when I was walking from one pilgrimage site to another across the Himalayas, I carried the Baghvad Ghita open in my left hand and read a line at a time. In the centre of Nepal I began to count my breaths and my steps, reciting phrases to myself, pushing thoughts away. This is the way in which some people meditate. I could only feel this calm for at most an hour a day. It was , however, a serenity that I had not felt before. It was what I valued most about walking.’

Rory Stewart The Places in Between (2004)

Horsenden Hill – The Highest Point in NW London

Photo by Vin Miles – BBC Website

Horsenden Hill with a view of six counties and ten London Boroughs from the top

Horsenden Hill is neither mountainous nor is it hard to climb and it may not be the first name that springs to mind when planning a walk in north west London but it is worth your time and the effort to walk to its summit. Its location provides a wonderful antidote to a trudge through the hinterland of warehouses, business parks and over burdened roads which sit north of the A40 London to Oxford road. I approached the Hill after a morning jaunt along the Grand Union Canal followed by a quick turn northward and across the fields.Though it’s only 85m in height the walk through the woods and across the meadow had me breathing shortly. As you clear the woods there are a couple of benches which those with the time use to watch the planes landing and taking off at Heathrow Airport. After a couple more gates you reach the path that takes you to the top of Horsenden Hill. The hill is a scenic spot which is a great place to eat your sandwiches, have a picnic or just lie on your back and watch the House Martins and Swallows swoop above you or trace the vapour trails of competing planes.

The hill has been in use for some seven thousand years from the original Stone Age dwellers to troops manning a gun placement during the Second World War. The hill’s connection to the Roman era was that it was the site of a small fort or a look out post. By the fourteenth century Medieval farmers had control of the site and archaeological finds indicate that a wide range of crops – wheat, barley, corn, rye and peas – were grown here.The hill is above the remains of Horsenden’s Ancient Wood which is now so small and has been reduced to a small copse which the Capital Ring cuts through.

As the hill sits north of Wembley Stadium it is hard to avoid noticing the ‘stadium of the bland’ and it’s banal archway but there is also a visitor’s centre, a cafe, craft shops and a public toilet to wipe away that particular memory once you descend.

John Furse

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