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The story of a short walk from top right to bottom left – from Brent Street to Brent Bridge and the edge of a Welsh Harp reservoir.

I have always been delighted at the prospect of a new day, a fresh try, one more start, with perhaps a bit of magic waiting somewhere behind the morning.

~ J. B. Priestley

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If a post can be dignified by being given the title ‘short story’ then, as Kurt Vonnegut implored, I’d best start ‘as near to the end as possible’

The white noise of city traffic engulfs the moment. One foot in front of the other. Thinking going hand in hand with walking. The rest of the world shut out by the sound of rushing traffic. The walk begins at the filthy junction of the A502 Brent Street and the A406 North Circular where a bridge takes Brent Street over a river and marks the end of the green open space of Brent Park.

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From this point a concrete channel will funnel the River Brent a mile or so until it enters the ‘The Harp’. The name Brent is Old English, from Celtic words meaning holy one or sacred waters. The water doesn’t feel particularly sacred. In fact it feels ignored, contemptuously man-managed through a small weir and into concrete constriction.

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The two Rapunzelesque towers guarding the weir could be called restraint and constraint.

Beneath the bankside rhododendrons there’s a whiff of cigar smoke, brogues and driving gloves or is it corsetry and horn-rimmed glassesncoming off the ground where, until 1974, the Brent Bridge Hotel stood.

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All prawn cocktail starters and Babycham, mistresses and regrets. A portrait of Churchill glowering proprietorially from the wall behind the bar. Is he the Spirit of Spirits, the holy one, some kind of water god? Perhaps he’s the connection to the sacred water – turning the amber river into whisky not wine? The squeak of a linen towel on polished glass, pretention and faded glamour, a gramophone drowned out by the encroaching clamour of the North Circular.

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The Brent, on best behaviour, flows through the hotel gardens. The gazebo towers link the hotel to an annexe – Brook Lodge on the east bank. River Brent or Brent Brook? The Brent here is an embryo river, created just a mile upstream where the Dollis and Mutton merge.

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Wrecked bureau by the side of the North Circular

Following the course of the river downstream doesn’t begin well. The river’s shy and fleet, diving behind the backs of houses. I follow the Brent’s valley south by road. The river runs parallel to the North Circular on the east bank and Shirehall Park on the west.

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At Shirehall Bridge a house with a blue plaque…

Welcome to the Land of Little Tich.

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The blue plaque on a large and melancholy house commemorates Harry Relph, better known as Little Tich, a 4 foot 6 inch tall English music hall comedian and dancer who was best known for his acrobatic and comedic Big-Boot Dance. He wore boots with soles 28 inches long.

The stage name Little Tich, was based on his childhood nickname of Tichborne, acquired through his size, portly stature and physical likeness to the Tichborne Claimant and Wagga Wagga butcher Arthur Orton.

After a long and variously successful career of pantomime,  performance and characterisations Little Tich suffered a stroke, partly triggered by a blow to the head he received whilst juggling a mop. He never fully recovered fully and died in 1928 at the house with the plaque aged 60. His legacy from a life treading the boards? The word titchy to describe a small object…

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The house of Little Tich on the right-hand bank. The Northern line viaduct (with passing Northern Line tube train) ahead.

After passing beneath Shirehall Bridge the Brent flows under the last open arch of a viaduct completed in 1924 to carry the then Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Railway’s extension to Hendon over the valley. The line was subsequently extended to Edgware and later became part of the Northern Line.

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The river, almost lost in greenery, passing under the Northern line arch.
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The river flows in the dark ditch between the arches…

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Mid-summer and the river’s sleepy. Or seemingly so, because despite it’s unruffled appearance, it’s subtly growing. From the rill at the Brent Street weir the river’s calling down water, the aquifers and overbuilt streams, the drains and overflow pipes each adding a votive contribution to the sacred river. The concrete channel’s wider now and the water’s easily able to fill it.

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The powers that be are wary. A Flood Monitoring Station measures hydrometry. A second weir straddles, and momentarily slows the river’s flow.

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At this point, the River Brent’s a secret, little more than a drain. A hundred thousand vehicles run the arteries above, the flow and heartbeat of the city sinuously strain – and the River Brent – ignores the lot and with determined muscle, releases itself and falls the weir, and with renewed determination and directness it makes for The Harp.

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Over the inevitable shopping trolleys and beneath the bobbing footballs.

Welcome to Brent Cross.

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Previously the area had been known as Renters Farm, a name dating from 1309, and it remained largely farmland until the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth century, the site that would become the eponymous shopping centre, was a sewage works. Hendon Greyhound Stadium stood there from 1935 to 1972.

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This aerial view shows the River Brent as a dark line running alongside the Greyhound Stadium, then under the arches of the London Midland main line and beneath Brent Bridge into the Welsh Harp (the top left-hand triangle on the image are the waters of The Harp). The scrubland between the bridges and the site of the greyhound stadium were submerged. Brent Cross Shopping Centre was built (some forty years after this image was taken) a little to the right of this view beyond the then newly built suburban houses of Hendon.

Brent Cross Shopping Centre was the first stand-alone (rather than town-centre) shopping centre to be built in the UK. It opened in 1976 with 75 shops and was revolutionary for its time. The American-style centre introduced air conditioning and late-night opening every weekday to a strike-hit, recessionary Britain.

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A red London bus passes over the Brent and through the dross-scape of carparks that girdle the shopping centre.

Freed from Brent Cross the river again falls out of view beneath the complex road junction at the start of the M1. Pedestrians are discouraged. It passes beneath the Midland mainline on it’s final quarter mile to The Harp.

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After Brent Bridge (seen in the postcard above in the far left middle distance) the concrete channel eases and trees and brambles, nourished by the silt of The Harp, take over the banks. The river looks increasingly at ease in it’s own skin; almost, but never quite natural – a supra-natural water course perhaps?

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After the noise and hurry of Staples Corner, the intersection of Edgware Road, the North Circular and the end of the M1, suddenly nature and the river re-assert themselves…
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The last hundred yards before the river enters the Welsh Harp reservoir. The woodland to the right hand side is the site of the pleasure grounds of the Old Welsh Harp pub.

Outside in the ground were tables, chairs and garden seats, a bar and summer houses, lantern lit alcoves and walks and a bowling green. On the edge of the green were half a dozen cannon, brought from the Napier troopship at Southampton and two of lighter calibre from the Crimean Campaign. Further along the waterfront and hidden in the garden was a skittles saloon which was connected by telephone to the bar. […] Also on the grounds was a bandstand, a sports ground and a private, five acre shooting enclosure bordered by two pavilions…

From Welsh Harp Reservoir through Time by Geoffrey Hewlett

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Today the pleasure grounds are a green wasteland, large parts of the site of the Old Welsh Harp (demolished in July 1971) have yet to be built over. The ground felt over-loaded. A powerful cacophony of silence, an echo chamber of history.

Beneath the tree canopy a distillation of caged wolves and bare-knuckle fighters; the wild-eyed baying of the agitated dogs of the first greyhound race. The stench and press of sweating, day-tripping crowds. The shysters crowding in. With a growing sense of ill-focused anxiety it felt a natural end-point for the walk had been reached. Time to go home.

In our increasingly cynical and secular world perhaps sacred does still have a place? In revealing the hidden; in encouraging a flight of imagination? Perhaps, most of all the sacred is about transformation – a river becoming a body (of water). Or that at least is how it felt to me.

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The 1936 Ordnance Survey map overlying a recent ‘Google Maps’ image of a corner of the Welsh Harp Reservoir. What is clearly shown is just how much silting up and subsequent ‘greening’ has occurred over the last 80 years.

 

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