Friday 17 May – Harrow & Wealdstone (Square A3 on the Tube map), Harrow-on-the-Hill (B2), Hatch End (A3), Hatton Cross (E1), Headstone Lane (A3)
It’s a little before ten o’clock as the Bakerloo train rocks towards South Kenton and Harrow. I am looking westwards – past sports pitches, a golf course, parklands – at a wooded ridge, its verdure punctuated by two graceful church steeples. If you ignore the looming mass of Northwick Park Hospital in the foreground, it’s as pleasant a prospect as one can get most anywhere in London. This is Harrow-on-the-Hill, the tiny privileged principality of Harrow School. I’ve been there once before and I’m wondering whether my second visit will confirm, amend or overturn my first impressions.
In total today, coming and going, I will see that view eight times – twice from the Metropolitan line, twice from the Bakerloo and four times from the Overground.
Despite the lack of any watercourses tumbling down the ridge, the headline in The Metro seems oddly appropriate: Becks to the future.
This TubeforLOLs is a nonsense, fulminates The Inner Curmudgeon, a total, utter, rank nonsense.
He’s been banging on since we left the grey skies of Forest Hill shortly after nine o’clock. Who’s to know? he fumes. Who’s to know if we stop off first at Harrow & Wealdstone, next take two stops up the Overground to Hatch End, and then pop in at Headstone Lane one stop on the way back? Then we could leg it to Harrow-on-the-Hill, stomp up to the School, stomp back down and go visit Hatton Cross.
It’s the rules, I say.
What difference will it make? he retorts.
Ah, that old canard! It’s not about obeying the rules, I explain, it’s about internalising the rules so that, no matter how stupid they are, how abnormal, we follow them without thinking. The extraordinary becomes normal.
The horrific becomes the mundane! Huh! The IC retorts.
I know what he’s thinking and I’m definitely not having that kind of historical comparison. Don’t go there! TubeforLOLs is harmless. Or, at least, the only person it’s harming is me.
At this rate we’ll miss Have I Got News For You?
We’ll watch the repeat on Saturday, I counter.
He relapses into silence then, after a while, grouses, At least it’s bound to be the worst, most hopeless, most pointless TubesforLOLs.
The Wee Professor coughs then pauses.
Both The IC and I freeze in our tracks. As regular readers will know, The WP is an unassuming cove who positively shuns the limelight. He is Central Casting’s ideal of the backroom boffin. He knows that knowledge is power and that ignorance is bliss, and he wields his knowledge sparingly.
Of course, it all depends, he begins, on whether there are delays to the trains. But I’m a little worried about the Leyton-Leytonstones … Another cough. And the Watford-Wembleys … A third cough …
Altogether today, I will pass through 148 stations and change lines 14 times. The journey times will take seven and a half hours, visits will take four hours. The return journey from Harrow-and-Wealdstone to Harrow-on-the-Hill will take 135 minutes. I discover on my visit to H&W that The IC is right: it’s less than a mile’s walk between the two stations. We could have walked there and back easily in 40 minutes.
What’s more worrying is that The IC might also have been right about taking a short-cut or two. H&W, H-o-t-H, Hatch End and Headstone are all, basically, parts of Greater Harrow. The differences and disparities between them may have been thrown into even more stark relief without the side tour to Hatton Cross (the stop on the Piccadilly line before the Heathrows) and the grind of seven and a half hours on the tube. But I do read seven long articles in the London Review of Books – around 30,000 and 35,000 words.
I now know that H&W station is situated between Harrow Town Centre and Wealdstone. If I come back again (doubtful), I’ll check out Wealdstone. The main road to the shopping malls of Harrow from H&W is a long, struggling shopping parade interrupted by a mosque (still being built) and a massive Tesco. Despite one or two interesting shops and eateries, the parade never really raises its game until we get to Debenham’s and the Town Centre proper. That’s presuming, of course, that you go along with the thesis that Debenham’s raises any sort of game.
One stop north of H&W is Headstone Lane – which I, of course, visit last. This is definitely the poor relation of Harrow, a kind of distant uncle that is kept locked in the attic (or basement if you like your uncles really scary), the kind of uncle one doesn’t really talk about.
Headstone Lane is suburbia of the scrubbiest sort with a woeful parade of shops that someone really should put out of its misery and streets of pebble-dashed houses with a raggedy strip of grass by the broken-up pavements. Quite clearly, capitalism gave up on Headstone Lane some time ago. R.I.P., I think, as I leave Headstone Lane.
One stop north of Headstone Lane is Hatch End. Hatch End is smart, up-your-Beckhams suburbia. It’s as much Herfordshire-in-London as it is part of Greater Harrow.
There are upmarket shops – hi-fi / home cinema shops, fancy furniture shops, bakeries and more salt beef bars, champagne bars and Italian restaurants than you can shake a bread-stick at.
Mind you, there’s continuous traffic advancing both ways along the Broadway – it can be quite perilous crossing the road – but somehow it’s a river rather than a snarl-up as at Finsbury Park and lesser destinations. And I’m not too sure about the tubs of planters stapled to the pavements.
But I must hurry on from Hatch End, and go back in time, to my visit to Harrow-on-the-Hill. Is this the jewel in the crown of Harrow, I ask myself as I step out blithely up the steep ridge towards Harrow School. Or is it the castle on the hill with the poor at the gates?
There is no doubt about the beauty of the place. The red-bricked architecture is all of a piece, is graceful, calming, serene. Only the modern design-by-numbers street furniture sets a jarring note. But there is something fantastical and strange about the place. Every other building on the High Street is part of the School; the High Street itself is a thoroughfare for the pupils to slouch from any of a dozen boarding houses to the dining hall, chapel, library, gymnasium, sports hall, bursar’s lodge, the numerous academic facilities or to Bethlehem.
In reality, the whole of the village is the School campus. Most pedestrians are pupils or connected, in some way, with the School. Walking through the village as a member of the public has the feel of walking through private land, of being permitted to be there only through the largesse of the land-owner, a permission that can be denied at a moment’s notice and with no reason given.
The pupils process through their demesne in pairs and small groups. There is none of the usual teenage larking about. They wear ill-fitting, badly tailored uniforms of light grey trousers and off-purple jackets – bought, no doubt, from the Harrow School Outfitters on the High Street, benefitting from their monopoly position. Many have boaters tucked under their arms, mainly large white affairs, but a few have smaller, shinier boaters that look as though they have been aged in nicotine. There is obviously a boater hierarchy – as there is an unmistakable hierarchy about everything and everyone in this place. I quail, I am here only on sufferance.
There were delays on the Bakerloo line coming to Harrow-on-the-Hill so I decide I will have a lunchtime sandwich here in the hope that the delays will be a thing of the past when I return to the station. I settle for a quaint little café which I first thought was a curiosity shop selling cake stands and twee little items. Inside it’s like a theatre set; it’s almost a pastiche but I’m not sure if they do humour ‘On the Hill’. I elect for a large berry smoothie and the panini of the week – vegetarian option. This comes with a couple of industrial vegetarian sausages rather than rashers of bacon. Stern memo to pigs: until mankind comes up with a tasty veggie sausage, your backsides will always be in danger.
I pay a staggering £14.70 for the privilege of eating ‘On the Hill’. Clearly they do have a sense of humour after all.
After looping back to Hatch End, I loop forward to Hatton Cross. Like Harrow-on-the-Hill, I have been here before while walking the London Loop. This time I am here not through enjoyment but because I am on a mission.
Oh, put a stopper in it, yells The Inner Curmudgeon. You’ve come here because you’re visiting every station on the December 2012 Tube map, and you’re doing it alphabetically.
Hatton Cross may very well be the fundament of the London universe. My notes read: ‘Awful place – the smell, the sight, the feel on the skin and at the back of the throat, most of all the unrelenting, sometimes shattering noise from the traffic rushing past, the grind of the M4 in the distance and, above all, the aircraft.’
I was astonished, the last time I was here, how low the planes landed over the houses nearby. The noise was cataclysmic, the whole universe shuddered every sixty seconds as a plane flew in. The planes, particularly the Jumbos, looked huge as they came in over the houses. I want to get a photo of this.
What has happened? The planes are taking off, not landing. They’re much higher in the sky and are peeling off earlier. I ask a young Indian who is bringing in the supermarket shopping from his car. He explains that he’s lived here all his life, since he was eight. The flight paths are changed daily, he says, sometimes from one hour to the next, sometimes they’ll start up at six or seven in the morning, sometimes the planes do go right over his house. But, to be honest, I’ve got used to it, he concludes. This is not the message I want to hear.
He gets the last supermarket bags out of his boot and looks at the sky. You’ll get better photos of the planes if you go back towards Hatton Cross, he advises me. They’re coming out over the British Airways building.
I walk back thinking on the encounter. I can’t believe he thought I was there because I was some kind of airplane-spotter. But most of all I can’t believe that he’s got used to the constant shattering noise. I can’t believe – though I must – how quickly we humans become habituated to the abnormal, the ugly, the brutal. You could call it resilience or resignation, acquiescence to the hierarchy above us or the historic English attitude of ‘mucking through and making do’.
I’m most of the way back to Forest Hill when I decide that, at the end of the day, the best you can call that is plain stupid.
The Inner Curmudgeon snuffles. What you would call internalising the rules then, eh?
I get back – eventually – to Forest Hill and Gingerbread Cottage around eight thirty in the evening. I am bone-tired.