Wednesday 14 August – Northolt (Square B1 on the Tube map), North Wembley (B3), Northwick Park (B3), Northwood (A2), Northwood Hills (A2), Norwood Junction (F6)
After the ups and downs of the last two posts – in the former a sense of achievement, in the latter the inevitable anti-climax – I have sought succour in the pearls of wisdom that Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville strewed so plentifully in his follow-up to Democracy in America, his masterful Cheesemaking in France: ‘When approaching a truly resplendent Morbier, one must savour it bite by bite.’ I will do likewise. I will focus not on the journey but stop by stop.
Today, for instance, I will ignore the long pointless travelling between Northolt (way out north west on the Central line), North Wembley (way out north west on the Bakerloo) and Northwick Park (way out north west on the Metropolitan). The latter two stations are probably but a mere roll of a Double Gloucester away from each other, but do I Caerphilly? And so what if I see the inside of Baker Street station more times than there are holes in an Emmental? Hah! I wave my Stinking Bishop at all its ten platforms!
Partly I’m buoyed up by the thought of dinner: Fran has ordered the wondrous ricotta hand-made on Tuesdays by the Bermondsey cheesemaker and sourced by Aga’s Little Deli in Forest Hill. She will be making the River Café recipe Penne con zucchine e ricotta – the zucchini harvested from our neighbour’s greenhouse. The Bermondsey ricotta imparts an Elysian warmth and cossetting depth of character to this Italian comfort food. The Inner Curmudgeon stirs. Let’s get this TubeforLOLs nonsense out of the way then, Craig, he says. Chop! Chop!
Sixty five minutes after leaving Forest Hill (Overground, then Jubilee from Canada Water and Central line from Bond Street) I reach Northolt (Square B1). It’s 10.55 am. For the past ten minutes I’ve been sailing at roof-level the great North West London Housing Ocean: row upon row of pebble-dashed, red-shingled, bay-windowed, between-the-wars semi-detacheds. I’ll be seeing lots more of this seascape throughout the day.
Northolt station is a surprise. It’s plonked to one side of the busy A312 dual-carriageway, the Hayes Harrow Expressway. There are no shops in sight and only distant views, mostly over parkland, of housing. It’s all very pleasant.
To my left I spy a huge modern building. It’s the Northolt Leisure Centre and Library. Unfortunately, the library is closed for ‘serious’ maintenance. I go upto it but I can’t make out anything beyond the darkened glass. I put my ear to the glass and listen. No, I can’t hear any laughter, not a single wry chuckle. There is no convivial clinking of glasses, no friendly ‘Pass the Lincolnshire Poacher, Old Man!’ Yup, Ealing Council (who run the Centre) are right, this is serious maintenance. But exactly what is ‘serious’ maintenance? Ah, Watson, that’s a three pipe problem.
I turn back. There’s no hanging baskets which means, since I am in Ealing, that there isn’t a local shopping centre this side of the tube. There are patches of colour and a neat little park some distance away on the other side of the road past the station. I investigate, tumble upon a sign announcing ‘Northolt Village’ and a small, so-so parade of shops.
There are no hanging baskets but there is a smart little park. This turns out to be the northern tip of the Northolt and Greenford Countryside Park, though there’s nothing countryish about the park here. It reminds me of parks of my childhood with Park Keepers lurking behind trees waiting to order me to keep off the grass. Plus, the summer bedding of zinnias and lobelias is definitely old school. But, now that ‘Parkies’ hold no fear for me, I walk on the grass, I zoom in on the zinnias.
North Wembley is another 65 minutes away. I check the Metro: 4% rail fare rise ‘is just doing your bit’ As a Freedom Pass holder I cannot possibly comment on this. Sherlock Holmes, however, sitting by the side of The Wee Professor notes the second person plural before ‘bit’. His view is that this indicates that the person quoted is not a rail user himself or, if he is, has his travel expenses paid for him. It’s getting crowded in this carriage what with alter-egos and their fictional chums. Nevertheless I make room, via Enid Starkie’s biography, for bad-boy poet Rimbaud. Except Rimbaud is now an ex-poet, he’s tramped around much of Europe in energetic but vain attempts to get work and he’s in Abyssinia being a coffee trader, gun-runner and slave trader. He’s not very good at this, according to Enid. He’s developed a conscience.
Seventy minutes after leaving Northolt (Central to Notting Hill, Circle to Paddington, Bakerloo to Queen’s Park, Watford-bound Overground) I’m in North Wembley (B3). It’s one o’clock. My heart gives a lurch as I clomp up the station stairs: it reminds me of Headstone Lane (see post A Harrowing Tale …). Thankfully it’s not nearly as bad as that. Not that that’s saying much.
There’s a reasonable though down-market local shopping centre with a butcher’s shop as well as a Tesco express. Thoughts of that Bermondsey ricotta have made me hungry. I search the three Asian groceries for samosas or bhajis but they don’t seem to do them. There’s a discussion on courtesy taking place in one store. A black delivery man is saying, ‘Don’t speak in your language when you’re doing business with other people, it’s not right. We don’t understand you.’ The female shop-keeper is taken aback at this. ‘Oh, we weren’t talking about you or the delivery.’ ‘That’s not the point,’ replies the delivery man. He’s not being aggressive, he’s merely stating his case.
I pause outside a lurid shabby Indian fast-food joint. At the very end of the grease-laden list of kebabs, meat curries and tikkas is the item tikka paneer roll. I pause. I’m tempted. But in the end a tikka paneer roll is a step too far. I return to the station. You’re a wimp, Craig! What about your so-called rule of trying out new things on TubeforLOLs, things you wouldn’t normally try out, hey?! The Inner Curmudgeon mutters. But it’s only a half-hearted mutter. He wants to get home a.s.a.p.
It takes 55 minutes to get to Northwick Park (B3) – Bakerloo to Baker Street, Metropolitan back up. The station itself is serviceable, with a display of student artwork and, if you turn right, a little kiosk. Beyond this you plunge into the Great North West London Ocean of houses. There’s nothing else. Just houses.
Except today, England and Scotland are playing footie down the road later, which means there are be-kilted Scottish football fans spread out across the capital like Mars bars in a fish-and-chip shop’s deep fat fryer. ‘I’m at a place called Northwick Park,’ slurs one into his mobile. ‘Ah tell you man, Ah’m hammered. Completely hammered.’ His friends are examining the map of the weekend tube closures. They are trying to find a tube to Trafalgar Square. I explain that, in its wisdom, Transport for London calls Trafalgar Square ‘Charing Cross’ and point them and their friend (‘Ah didnae sleep on the train …’) to the right platform. They tramp off up the stairs singing (I use the word loosely) what I believe is a Lady Gaga song.
I pass under the station westwards and, after skirting the extension to Westminster University’s half-mile long ‘Harrow Campus’ (think Halls of Residence), come to Northwick Park Hospital. Now there is some competition for the accolade but I reckon Northwick Park is London’s ghastliest hospital.
None of the photos I take shows the true frightfulness and horror of Northwick Park: the battered streaked concrete, the windows like black holes, the palisade fencing (keeping patients in? visitors out?), the die-back on much of the miserable planting by the scruffy car park. And they cannot, of course, show the faint but penetrating smell – something complexly organic, burnt and unpleasant; nor the constant aggravating whine of ventilation; nor the heavy headache-inducing atmosphere. Northwick Park is the hospital as aversion therapy: one visit and you’ll never want to go to another hospital. Two visits and you probably never will go to another hospital.
My next stop is Northwood, a hop of only five stops north towards Amersham, Chesham or Watford. I look out over the Great North West Housing Ocean. I wonder if I’m turning into a snob. I couldn’t bear to live in one of the hundreds and thousands of ugly houses in this quarter of London. Even the trees appear apologetic. They look like they want to shuffle off elsewhere. Sort of like their Scottish predecessor Birnam Wood did when it legged it to Dunsinane – but then look at the trouble that caused! But Northwood (A2) isn’t bad. It’s built on a hill and it’s got good bone structure, reasonable if unexciting brick-work, and a Blockbuster as well as a Waitrose, a book shop as well as a Golf shop. Oh! And hanging baskets.
I stop at a small vaguely Italianish café. I wonder about a mozzarella panini but the mozzarella will come from cattle not buffaloes, it won’t have that unctuous blandness that is your mozzarella’s true worth. Besides, I think, later, I think … I opt for an unexciting tuna salad then make my way back to the station. Northwood, I decide, is the kind of place that Sybil Fawlty would describe as ‘such a dear little place, an absolute sweetie …’ while Basil kicks his car. There, I am turning into a snob.
My next station is only one stop down the line, Northwood Hills (A2). Transport for London, once again, is playing fast and loose with the English language. Even ‘Northwood Hillocks’ would have the staff at the Trades Description Enforcement Agency licking their pencil stubs.
But it’s better than I expected – this is the fun part of having low expectations – with a broad hanging-basket-bedecked main street containing a fair range of shops, cafes and wannabe restaurants. It’s relatively uncluttered by moving automobiles. Not that there’s much to write home about, little in the way of halloumi, while, behind the main drag, it’s back to back pebble-dashed, red-shingled semis.
My final destination is an hour and a half away – Metropolitan to Finchley Road, Jubilee to Canada Water and an Overground train bound for West Croydon. During the course of the journey, Rimbaud staggers back to France, has his leg amputated in Marseilles, goes home to Northern France, then returns to Marseilles where he has a death-bed conversion and dies. Back in Paris all the poets reckon he’s the bees knees – though they think he’s been dead for years. There’s not a single mention of cheese in Enid Starkie’s biography. Surely Rimbaud must have tucked into cheese now and then? As De Tocqueville said: ‘A man without his camembert is like an artist without his muse.’
Perhaps I’m being perverse, but I quite like Norwood Junction (F6). OK, it’s a smaller, scrottier, zingless version of Peckham despite having Crystal Palace Football Club down the road. (Despite?) Nevertheless, its High Street is likely the definitive street to go to if you fancy jerk chicken or an Afro-Caribbean haircut. And it’s a shoo-in for South London Snarl-Up Centre of the Year 2013.
I’m taking photos of the station when I’m approached by a guy. He’s called Khris Raistrick and he’s a one-man marketing force and all-round booster for Norwood Junction. He’s on the South Norwood (SoNo) Tourist Board and the Board of the Stanley People’s Initiative, the voluntary group who are taking over the Stanley Halls from Croydon Council. When he hears what I’m up to he suggests that I take an alphabetic tour of Iceland’s herring factories.
I decide to turn the other cheek and visit Stanley Halls. This is a wonderful Victorian institution founded and designed by philanthropist, architect and inventor, W.F.R. Stanley. (100+ patents for mathematical instruments, theodolites, improvements to cheese curd cutters, etc.) Originally the UK’s first Technical Trades School, it is a Grade 11* listed building with a set of halls and classrooms that once served as spaces for plays, concerts and lectures. I remember going to a meeting there once, years ago, and afterwards being given a guided tour by officers from Croydon Council. A mighty fine building, I thought, but how on earth could one make it work as an arts, leisure or community space? Ah well, it’s taken Croydon Council years to decide that they haven’t a clue how to run it. It’s too big a problem for them. They’ve decided to transfer it to a community organisation. I wish The Stanley People’s Initiative all success though it will be a long struggle. They’ll need all the support, advice and resources that the Council and others can offer.
I walk back up the High Street and take the subway under the station. This has its own blue plaque: Norwood Junction Subway – The world’s first reinforced concrete underpass There’s a photographic exhibition of local shops, businesses and houses along the walls of the underpass. Arthur Conan Doyle lived here for a few years in the 1890s. Hmm! I think, as I wait for an Overground to take me four stops north to Forest Hill: Stanley Halls, that’ll be a three-pipe problem.