Even though I have lived in London for all my life, I am still finding out things about it that I never knew.
Some time ago, I can across a book in my local library by a man called Hunter Davies. He is perhaps best known for his works on football and the Beatles, but it turns out that in his time he has written on rather a lot of subjects. The book that caught my eye was called A Walk Along the Tracks, in which he goes for a series of walks along the routes of disused railway lines in various parts of Britain (and, thanks largely to Dr Beeching, there are a lot of disused railway lines in Britain).
It so happens that one of the disused lines Hunter chose for his book was part of the Edgware, Highgate & London Railway, which ran between Finsbury Park and Edgware, with branch lines to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Today, parts of this are still operational as the Northern Line, but the bits that interested Hunter for his book were the bits between Finsbury Park and Highgate, and the branch to Ally Pally.
Writing in the early 1980s, he described the route as something of an urban wasteland. However, not long after his book was published the old route was significantly cleaned up, renamed the Parkland Walk and declared to be a nature reserve. I promised myself I’d pay the place a visit, and when I found myself with the day off work and the sun shining in the sky that is exactly what I did.
My walk started at Finsbury Park Tube Station, from where I made my way past a man selling clothes out of a suitcase underneath the railway bridge, several buses and a run-down pub to get to the south gate of Finsbury Park itself. Once in the park, I found a footbridge over the railway lines to the Parkland Walk entrance.
For the most part, and as you’d probably expect from a nature reserve laid out along the route of a disused railway line in the middle of an urban area, the path has housing on either side for much of its length, and the walker has an elevated view into many back gardens. That said, it is amazing how much overhanging trees and birdsong can do to block out the noise of the metropolis. For a few minutes, it almost felt as though I was going for a walk in the country – an experience quite unlike the one that Hunter described when he covered this very same ground over thirty years ago.
That said, I wasn’t the only one going out for a walk. I was passed by a few teenagers on their mountain bikes (well, it is the school holidays), some shoppers taking a short cut, young mothers out with their kids and a few joggers who may or may not have been inspired to get running by Mo Farah. An elderly couple out blackberrying were having some sort of domestic, while the sight of a young girl carrying a lead with a staffie on the end of it prompted me to wonder who exactly was taking who for a walk.
The walk continued, crossing quiet back-streets on bridges built for the railway. Of course, this wouldn’t be a disused railway line without a disused railway station, and the Parkland Walk has the remains of Crouch End Station. The tracks are of course long gone, but the platforms are still there, as are bits of the old station building on Crouch End Hill. It’s an odd feeling, walking along a platform that hasn’t been used in decades.
Since I was walking through a nature reserve, I had brought my binoculars with me in the hope of seeing some birds. It may have been the presence of so many people, the fact that it was midday, the fact that there are a lot of leaves on the trees at this time of year or a combination of all of those three, but I did not have much luck. I looked up in the hope of seeing something but I did not get to see very much. A woodpigeon, a great tit, a couple of blackbirds and a solitary crow were all I managed.
The Parkland Walk is split into two parts; the first ends just before Highgate Station where there are a couple of tunnels that led to the original station (which is on ground level, directly above the current one and as such not accessible to the public). The tunnels were fenced off – I remembered from Hunter’s book that he’d been able to walk the length of them – but the amount of rubbish inside them indicated that someone, somehow had managed to sneak in.
My walk now ceased to follow the route of the line itself, taking instead a detour through Queen’s Wood and Highgate Wood (remnants of the ancient Forest of Middlesex which once covered most of what’s now North London) to rejoin the line further up the Muswell Hill Road. I knew that Highgate Wood is regarded as very good bird-watching venue in this part of the world and was keen to add some more bird sightings to my rather pathetic list, but alas it just wasn’t my day. I did, however, find an old drinking-fountain erected in 1888 as ‘the gift of a few friends’, and on such a hot day I was thankful for the foresight of those Victorian friends.
Back on the route of the line, it wasn’t long before I noticed that I was level with the roofs of the houses on either side. Although I hadn’t realised it, I’d followed the line onto a viaduct on the south-eastern side of Muswell Hill. As the street of houses on my right ended, my reward for sticking with the walk this far became apparent – a wonderful panoramic view across East London and parts of the City. Even without the binoculars, I could see the Olympic Park, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and the Shard.
It turns out that Hunter’s recommendation was a good one, though I don’t recall that he mentioned the view (not that any of the buildings I’ve mentioned existed when he did it). Pleased with having found a different aspect to London, I walked home.