Hill, tai chi, hill, backwards walking, hill, downwards falling, hill, church, hill, pub, hill
(ICYMI: Having executed a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity, the writer has produced these blogs to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)
On a long walk like the 120km Capital Ring, the human mind tends to take refuge in compartmentalisation. Not just of the rising chorus of muscular aches and skeletal pains, which one must keep behind a closed door as with unwanted trick-or-treaters, but by slicing up the journey into manageable chunks.
And so, to fractions. Today’s 30km walk is a quarter of the total, and Mencap have kindly set up three checkpoint stations at roughly equidistant waypoints. Striding out of the second at 11.30am, I’m commencing the third of today’s four inter-checkpoint sections, and I’m aiming to keep up the pace which has seen each of the previous two completed in 1hr 45m. This is because at 3pm, England play in a World Cup quarter-final, and I’m determined to watch it at the Wembleyish finishing line.
In truth this section is the shortest of today’s four, but I’ve noticed something nominatively repetitive about the places through which it threads: Horsenden Hill is followed by Sudbury Hill and then Harrow-on-the-Hill. Time to climb.
And indeed the second half opens with a killer: straight up Horsenden Hill, which is far from the quaint equine sugar-lump its name suggests. It rises to 85m above sea level, while the Grand Union Canal snakes around it at about the 30m contour – so in a sweaty 10-minute burst of teeth-gritting I climb 55m to the summit of an ancient hillfort, settled in the Iron Age. At least, I’m pleased to find, there’s shaded wood.
Although I have left my fellow pace-setting walkers behind enjoying a long pause at today’s halfway marker, the hill is not mine alone. As I make breathless audio notes, a chap doing some training sprints up the hill alongside me, carrying a large branch replete with all its foliage. A forester in a rush? A slightly shy jogger?
Having crested Horsenden Hill, I use gravity to my advantage and half-jog, half-snowball down the other side through ancient woodland. It’s slightly quicker, but more importantly it makes more physiological sense than straining leg muscles to stop my own momentum. Toward the end of a long walk, downhills can be harder than uphills, but this method brings a bracing breeze to the chops and the cardiovascular excitement gets the body ready for more.
Reaching the bottom of the hill and doing the reverse of that move when you trip up and attempt to style it out by pretending you’ve started jogging, I come across the bloke with the branch again, now engaging in something which to the untrained eye looks a bit like tai chi. As I pass him, I almost bump into an old lady exaggeratedly walking backwards. It looks like some kind of physio - she hasn’t got the most flowing gait – but the three of us make for a curious diorama.
One of the best things about the Capital Ring is that it regularly switches between bucolic idyll and bustling townscape, which maintains interest. After a while of walking through woods and alongside canals, I’m ready for a bit of urban scenery, but I’m not too impressed by the needlessly repetitive and nominatively inaccurate Greenford Green.
That said, most places are interesting if you look hard enough. Shortly after passing the Bilal Masjid mosque, ingeniously created out of an unused shop unit earlier this century to accommodate for the area’s growing Muslim community – according to a 2012 Architects’ Journal report, all bar 200 of the 1500 or so UK mosques are conversions rather than purpose-built – I spy another place of worship designed to meet a similar need.
In the 1930s, London expanded outward as mass housebuilding and improved transportation overcame the inner city’s centripetal pull: Greenford, which in 1919 was a Middlesex country village with a population of 489, would by the mid-1950s be home to 80,000 people. In 1930, the marvellously-named Bishop of London, the Rt Rev and Rt Hon Arthur Foley Winnington Ingram, set up the Forty Five Churches Fund to reach this new audience; in 1931, the London Diocesan Home Mission founded the church of All Hallows in North Greenford. It took nine years for the church to go from promises to premises, but it was worth the wait.
All Hallows was designed by the exquisite eye of Cyril Farey, a renowned draughtsman who worked with Edwin Lutyens and Frank Lloyd Wright, also creating technical drawings for the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. There’s nothing extravagant about its construction, from a buff-brown brick typical of the era, but there’s an expertise of line about it. That squat square tower might look sawn-off but it’s perfectly proportioned, lovingly designed with a sharpness of pencil and mind.
Farey designed a few other churches around London, including the similar St Mark’s in Teddington, much closer to my manor. Pevsner describes Farey’s style as a “worthy, plain, blocky Romanesque”, but Pevsner’s opinions weren’t always air-tight: not far from here, he described the Hoover Factory as “perhaps the most offensive of the modernistic atrocities along this road of typical by-pass factories”. Which deserves this riposte from Steve Coogan’s Tony Wilson:
A few days after the walk, transcribing my audio notes and undertaking preliminary research, I’m saddened to find the church is self-described as “in a period of vacancy”. By the time I pick up the story three months later, there’s someone back in the saddle. This pleases me, for although I’m not religious, it would be a shame on a number of levels if such places were to bolt their doors forever - and not just architecturally. Around 18 pubs a week close down, and if we’re to lose the other traditional local hub too, it raises worrying questions about the future of community.
Climbing a hill and rounding a bend past newly gentrified former council blocks, I find myself suddenly in Sudbury Hill. The Tube station here opened in 1903 as the network groped outwards from Acton; this extension was the first above-ground section to use electric rather than steam trains.
However, in 1930/31 they needed to knock the building down and start again – which is a stroke of luck, because they could get the new one designed by the incomparable Charles Holden, the Bolton-born architect responsible for so much design excellence along the extending tentacles of the District, Piccadilly and Northern lines, among much other good work.
Indeed, Sudbury Town, just down the line, was something of a template for Holden. Like its mate up the Hill, it features a tall, square double-height ticket hall swooping upwards out of a low horizontal building, its walls prettily punctuated with vertical panels of clerestory windows, the better to flood sunlight into that ticket hall, and the whole structure capped off with a flat concrete slab roof. Even Pevsner called it “an outstanding example of how satisfying such unpretentious buildings can be, purely through the use of careful details and good proportions.”
Holden had been on a European tour with his boss Frank Pick, the modernising manager of the Tube network. The two amigos had visited Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden to absorb modern architecture, and agreed upon a new language for the Tube, the now timeless combination of simple geometry (cylinders, curves and rectangles) with tasteful complementary amounts of concrete, plain brick and glass. Simple but not easy, it gifted London a marvellous mix of function and form. Sudbury Hill Tube station was Grade II-listed in 1994; Sudbury Town, listed since 1971, was upgraded to Grade II*-listed in 2011.
After that, the adjacent Sudbury Hill Harrow overground station can only disappoint; it’s a two-platform job on a minor line, opened for freight in 1905 and somewhat wing-clipped in 1964 by Beeching, with offpeak services suspended (although four decades later a pressure group lobbied successfully for an hourly service).
The latter part of the station’s name indicates proximity to Harrow, which lies up another hill, but not before noticing the generous proportions of the Rising Sun pub on the road junction. It’s a sizeable old tavern, arguably bigger than was needed for the local population when built: it first appears in the Post Office Directory in 1874, and by 1895 Sudbury’s population was still under a thousand.
But it was on the rise, faster than most places arounds here, and perhaps the Rising Sun was a hopeful pitch to become the top destination. Perhaps, too, it aimed to cater to the coaching trade: remember, the railways didn’t arrive here until the 20th Century. Either way, it’s grand enough to be on the local council’s statutory list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest, but has also been troubled enough to attraction the council’s attention for less high-minded reasons.
In 2006, locals petitioned for the licence to be removed after reports of “patrons fighting outside the public house, ... urinating in residents’ gardens, damage to residents’ cars and private property, patrons cars illegally parking in the allocated bays for residents, litter being thrown over the fence into the residents’ gardens, noise, nuisance and general public disorder.”
I saw no evidence of this - after a time as a hotel garnering some of the worst reviews on TripAdvisor, it has become a Sri Lankan and South Indian restaurant – but it is time to leave such things behind and become a social climber, geographically and sociologically. It’s time to head up to Harrow-on-the-Hill.