WILLESDEN TO HORSENDEN HILL

With a Sunday to spare and inspired by two separate London books that I’d recently read, This Other London  by John Rogers and the anthology Mount London  (published by Penned in the Margins), I decided to take it upon myself to walk from my flat in Willesden Green to this place Horsenden Hill that I’d heard so much about recently. Stories of a fragment of wooded, heathy countryside not far from Wembley, peopled by cheetah people and Sylvester McCoy, were enough to tempt to me.

I’d heard John talk about the place with great enthusiasm during his talk he gave at the Stoke Newington Literary Festival, with Gareth E. Rees (who’s Marshland we published last November at Influx Press), a talk that I was lucky enough to be introducing. I realised it was exactly the same place I’d heard Justin Hopper talk about at the Mount London  launch at Rough Trade East a few weeks previous. Digging out my A-Z (it’s worth mentioning that after a few years of trying the Google maps mobile phone method, I’ve fallen back onto using my battered A-Z as I find it much easier, despite feeling like French tourist whenever I dig it out on the street) I found that Horsenden Hill was only six miles from where I was living. Not a long walk, even in the summer heat.

There was another, more personal reason, for me to take a walk through the polluted areas of Stonebridge Park and Wembley around the North Circular, namely this being the area that my mother spent much of her formative years and where she and my dad lived before they upped sticks and moved down to Kent in the mid-eighties when I was a toddler. Most of my family’s London stories are from this area, yet it’s a place I really don’t know very well, having spent the best part of a decade trying not to leave Hackney.

Having lived in Willesden for just under a year, though, I have been starting to get to know the territory a little better. My partner’s sister lives not far away from us right by Harlesden Police Station, I’d been doing some teaching in North Acton near the horror of Western Avenue, and I’d made a point to investigate the parks and green spaces around us - as a side note, I’d recommend all Londoners to visit Gladstone Park in between Willesden and Dollis Hill. It’s a great space, filled with flocks of green parakeets, weirdly empty a lot of the time and with fantastic views out over the city.

I looked at the maps and made a few mental notes how to get there, deciding I’d cut through Roundwood Park with its great views out towards Wembley stadium and the austere Jewish cemetery. I take a slight egotistical pride in being able to find my way around London fairly intuitively these days; after nearly six years of working as a mentor and latterly private English tutor, I’ve worked in nearly every London borough and have gained a pretty decent understanding of the city and learned how not to get lost, whether I was in backstreets in Elephant & Castle, Frognal, Enfield Lock or Gipsy Hill.

Roundwood Park (originally Knowles Hill) is highly managed, full of Victorian style gazebos, buggy-pushing mums, Sunday joggers and well-tended flowerbeds bursting with primary colours. I crest the hill, look out at the stadium and the rows of gravestones, before heading into the maze of backstreets that are neither quite Willesden or Harlesden.

It’s easy to read to much into things when you’re on a walk (especially if you’ve read too much landscape writing and deep topography like I have), but coming down a seemingly abandoned street I see a row of houses that are named, in order: Whitstable, Rye, Winchelsea, Hastings.

I grew up in Whitstable and have begun to write about the place a lot. The weekend following this walk, I’m heading out onto the Romney Marsh, starting at Rye, with Gareth Rees for an upcoming collaborative project about this weirdly unpopulated area of the south-east; Gareth himself lives in Hastings, and the day after that walk I will be in Whitstable visiting my mum (who of course once lived in the places I’m about to walk through). It’s as good a sign as any that this was the correct way to spend my free time.

I don’t know these streets, and so I’m surprised when I come out next to the Harlesden Police Station, where I’d been only the night before having dinner at my girlfriend’s sister’s house. Now, at least, I know an interesting route that’s more satisfying than the number 266 bus.

The route I’m taking toward the North Circular crossing and onto Horsenden Hill is up Craven Park. There’s a huge new housing development in the works, the boards around the worksite peopled by happy and smiling multi-cultural families. CRAVE SPACE. CRAVE LOCATION. CRAVE CULTURE.

I crave all these things, but I’m cynical enough to believe I’m not going to get it here.

Craven Park takes me onto Hillside and into a busy, traffic clogged part of Harlesden. I stop and look at a piece of ‘Art in the City’ a metal circle about six foot wide people with sun gods and other magical beings. 

The traffic chugs by. I walk on, noticing signs for a London Welsh language school, Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain.

Hillside is a slog, uneventful, grey concrete and exhaust fumes and little else. As I start to near the North Circular, I see a small Jack Russell, seemingly without an owner, happily trot into the lanes of traffic, crossing the road to confused beeps from vans and motorcyclists. The dog investigates the people clutching bags of shopping at the bus stop, then trots back over the road, seemingly impervious to harm. More horn honking ensues.

Then I’m at the crossing of the North Circular. I’ve read that this part of London is one of, if not the most, polluted part in Europe. It certainly seems believable. The traffic roar is like a physical force, almost soothing. I always wonder where all these people are going; it’s unpleasant and fascinating.

Over the lanes of traffic and tasting the pollution in the air, I take a detour into Brent River Park. As the name suggest, the River Brent cuts through here. A few men sit by the entrance drinking cans of Tyskie. The park itself is nearly deserted; crows sit on the climbing frames and swings cawing to each other. I sit on a bench to get my bearings, drink water and smoke a cigarette, and watch a mother drag her truculent toddler through the park.

I walk onto the short bridge crossing the river. It’s a pretty tragic sight today, the water extremely low, metal pipes hung with fringes of green weed visible. The water barely trickles. Then, in one of those moments when London can surprise you, I see a grey wagtail land on the railing right in front of me, it’s beak full of insects. It’s tail wags, it hops, flies off to land by the concrete walls that here form a riverbank. I can’t remember seeing this bird for many years.

With the hum of the North Circular behind me I wander into Wembley, the streets rammed, just like any other part of London. Buses rumble, kids shout, shoppers shop. I stop in a high street supermarket and buy a cheap sandwich; I can’t be bothered with any consumer ethics today, I’m hungry and don’t want to break into my twenty pound note. Wembley, I have to say, leaves little impact on my imagination, but I’m only cutting through so perhaps TK Maxx and Topshop are all I should expect to see.

Leaving the madness of Wembley behind, I look at my A-Z (French tourist) and make sure I look out for Barham Park. It turns out it’s not hard to find, all it entails is following the Harrow Road, as I have been for what feels like an eternity. After the consumer chaos, Barham Park is still and silent. A few kids play cricket. I find a secluded manicured garden, a few old men sitting on the benches, sit down and eat my lunch. It’s a lovely spot, and I wonder if I’ll ever be back here. I rest for a while, check the map, and realise I’m nearly at my destination. 

A few more sleepy residential roads and I find an entrance to Horsenden Hill. So strange how the buildings all just stop and immediately I’m in woodland. I can still hear the hum of traffic, mixed with birdsong, but all I can see are trees. I’ve always enjoyed that disconnect of experience that London can give you.

I pass two young men who look at me a bit oddly; I have my camera slung over a shoulder, am wearing muddy Karrimors and shorts, and my old punk t-shirt is riddled with hot rock burns.

Horsenden Wood is a must visit; quiet even on a Sunday, calming in that way unexpected woodland can be, full of fluttering jays and darting wrens. I get a bit lost and finally defer to the fact that maybe I should follow the yellow and black arrows; I do so, up the hill and out of the woodland, reaching the summit of Horsenden Hill. Swaying grasses, that chirp of crickets, an almost-meadowland, a real shock even though I knew this was here. I wander over to the information boards, mouldy, unloved and weather beaten in that way I feel all information boards should be. I feel initially extremely conscious of my actions as I take photographs of the area; a trio of shirtless Polish men, necking super-strength lager, are lounging in the grass. Then I realize they almost certainly don’t give a shit about what I’m doing. I start to yearn for a beer myself. I settle for water and a cigarette. A few families wander over the hill summit, walking dogs, couples arm in arm. I’m always a bit jealous when I know others got here first (stupid, I know), try and compute that to some people this is local.

I won’t talk about the history of this place; read the books I’ve already mentioned. What I will say is that Horsenden Hill is one of the most striking London locations I’ve yet visited.

I head down the other side of the hill, into another patch of billowing grass and wildflowers. Bees buzz and butterflies flap. Following the path to get to the Grand Union Canal, heading into another patch of woodland, I notice a man shrouded in the undergrowth waving and smiling at me in a beckoning way. I concede this is a pretty good spot for illicit sex.

I trace a route down the hill, past burnt earth and the remains of Dominos pizza boxes, a couple in a state of intimacy in the grass, before hitting a road which comes as a shock after all the unexpected wildness of the place. I follow Capital Ring signs and get onto the Grand Union Canal. I’m somewhere near Perivale, or in other words, I don’t know where I am. Signs point to Greenford, a mile’s walk up the canal. That’s good enough; I can tube it to North Acton, and get the bus home.