Rewilding one of London’s lost railways

IT’S more than half a century since a train last ran through Crouch End railway station in north London.

But there are probably more people wandering along its platforms today than at the height of the steam railway era.

That’s partly because this line never really enjoyed a true “heyday” and partly because the route has been a parkland walk for more than 35 years.

It may be only a few miles from the modern transport hub of Finsbury Park, but the line through here to Highgate and the branch from there to Alexandra Palace never really took off in the way the developers had hoped.

It was built by the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway and opened on 22 August 1867, running from Finsbury Park to Edgware via Highgate.

Branches would follow to Alexandra Palace and High Barnet. Swallowed up by the Great Northern Railway and later the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER), part of the route would become the High Barnet branch of the Northern Line, but ambitious Tube expansion plans in the 1930s were thwarted by the Second World War.

In some ways Alexandra Palace was doomed from the start. The branch was constructed by the Muswell Hill Railway Company and opened on 24 May 1873 along with the palace. However, when the palace burned down only two weeks after opening, the service was considerably reduced and then closed for almost two years while the palace was rebuilt.

There were other periods of temporary closure too due to insufficient demand, though in 1935 it looked as if it would get a new lease of life when London Underground revealed plans to electrify the branch.

Works to modernise the track were well advanced when they were halted by the war, services reduced to rush hours only as a result of wartime economy measures.

After the war, dwindling passenger numbers and a shortage of funds led to the cancellation of the unfinished works in 1950 and British Railways withdrew passenger services to Alexandra Palace on 3 July 1954 along with the rest of the route from Finsbury Park.

After the track was lifted, most of the platforms and station buildings were demolished but two sections from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, excluding the tunnels and station at Highgate, were converted into the Parkland Walk, which was officially opened in 1984.

Stroud Green station consisted of two wooden side platforms which were gutted by fire in 1967 and demolished shortly afterwards, but Crouch End was more substantial and both platforms survive.

The line continued to be used for goods into the 1960s and by London Underground for train stock movements until 1970 when it was completely closed. The track was lifted a couple of years later, by which time it was already being used as an unofficial walkway.

A hundred years ago the steam train took just six minutes to get here from Finsbury Park, and another 10 or 11 to chug all the way round to Alexandra Palace.

Today the journey takes a little longer but the 3.9-mile route is designated a local nature reserve, part of the 78-mile Capital Ring Walk round Inner London, and reveals a glimpse of north London life that motorists never see.

From here a glance back at the city skyline reminds you just how far this feels from the hubbub of central London – a green corridor of trees and birdsong providing 21st-century Londoners with a welcome respite from the concrete jungle and rumble of city traffic.

Woodland wander back in time

HOGBACK Wood is one of Beaconsfield’s hidden secrets.

An attractive area of old, mainly deciduous woodland on the western edge of the Seeleys housing estate, it’s owned by the National Trust but not mentioned on their website.

LOCAL SECRET: Hogback Woods in Beaconsfield PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Indeed online references are rare, thought it’s one of a number of local woods mentioned by the Woodland Trust and is very popular with dog walkers and joggers, as well as boasting a plentiful cross-section of birdlife, including jays, goldcrests and firecrests.

Back in the 18th century there were some 30 farms and smallholdings around Beaconsfield, boasting a mixture of arable and pastoral farming, with wheat growing and the rearing of cows, pigs and sheep being the main activities.

Seeley’s farm was swallowed up and the land developed between the late 1940s and early 1970s, though the name lives on in local street names on the estate.

By 1881 the farm covered more than 200 acres and employed nine labourers. Like so many other local places, the land was well suited to growing cherry trees and in 1892 Job Wooster planted a huge 18-acre orchard of cherries.

HOME SWEET HOME: a nuthatch nest building at Hogback PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Cherry trees are still abundant in the area today – but back then there were up to 60 people employed at the height of the picking season, when trainloads of fruit would leave Beaconsfield by rail for the Midlands.

Since the housing development of the 1960s, Hogback today is a natural playground for local youngsters, a perfect place for den-building or playing hide and seek.

The 22.5 acres form a narrow patch of wooded paths linking the village of Forty Green with the outskirts of Holtspur. Usually accessed from Woodside Road, the woods are also perfectly situated for a wander over to the Royal Standard of England for a welcoming pint or meal, when lockdown restrictions permit.

The pub itself is steeped in centuries of history, predating the 16th-century farmhouse at Seeleys, which was originally part of the Gregories Estate, probably taking its name from the Cely family who lived in Beaconsfield in that period.

BUSY BIRDLIFE: a green woodpecker in Hogback Woods PICTURE: Graham Parkinson

Researchers from the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society explain how the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds stayed at the farm in the 1780s and while in Beaconsfield fulfilled a commission from Catherine II, Empress of Russia, to paint an historical picture.

He chose as his subject The Infant Hercules Strangling the Serpents and the model he used was William Rolfe, the six-month-old son of a local family. Today the original painting still hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

Farming days at Seeleys may be a distant memory, but the woods provide a perfect base for a circular ramble to Holtspur and beyond, picking up the Berkshire Loop of the Chilterns Way to head towards Wooburn Green, or returning along Riding Lane to Forty Green and that welcoming pint.

Rambles round Midsomer country

CHILTERNS villages don’t come much prettier than The Lee, and this area is a perfect base for a summer ramble.

It’s just a shame that HS2 construction is having such an impact on this part of the world – and you don’t have to wander very far to come across hand-made signs protesting about the “ecocide”.

HS2 apart, this is glorious countryside where there’s been a small community since the Domesday Book of 1086 – and doubtless earlier.

The name is believed to derive from the old Anglo Saxon word ‘leah’ meaning ‘woodland clearing’. At that time the Chiltern hills were largely covered with woodland and the community at Lee would have been closely linked to nearby lowland areas at Great Missenden and Wendover, which had land more suited to crops and grazing.

In the 13th century a chapel was built at Lee; known locally as The Old Church, it is now a Grade I listed building.

With ancient rights of way such as the Ridgeway passing close to the hamlet, the cluster of hamlets around Lee remain a magnet for ramblers and cyclists, not to mention an increasing number of Midsomer Murders fans keen to scout out popular locations from the series.

The Cock & Rabbit on the archetypically English village green is better known to followers of DCI Barnaby as the Rose & Chalice – and being handily placed halfway between Great Missenden and Wendover, it’s a good staging post for any walkers reaching and leaving the area by train.

Another local landmark that’s hard to miss is the Grade II listed wooden ship’s figurehead of the Admiral Lord Howe at the entrance to Pipers, a country house steeped in the history of the Liberty family, of Regent Street fame.

As Lord of the Manor in the 1890s, Arthur Liberty he extended the estate to encompass a dozen working farms, many houses, cottages and public houses, and there are still many visual reminders in the village of his influence. He died in 1917 having built Pipers for his nephew and eventual heir.

The figurehead comes from the Navy’s last wooden ship, dating from 1860, though it never saw sea service and was used as a training ship at Devonport before being broken up in 1921, with many of the timbers used for the mock Tudor extension to the Liberty store in London.

Ramblers and cyclists wanting a more dramatic forest setting don’t have far to go to explore Forestry England’s 800-acre site at Wendover Woods, recently expanded as part of a redevelopment funded by a massive HS2 community grant.

On a quiet day the trails offer miles of varied paths and gradients to explore, along with picnic areas, a children’s playground, Go Ape treetop adventure course and nearby mountain biking area at Aston Hill for those wanting a more challenging range of adventure trails.

Or if you still haven’t had your fill of Chilterns landmarks, make your way over to Hawridge & Cholesbury Common, designated as a local wildlife site and offering the perfect place for another circular stroll.

Cholesbury is an ancient hill top village and has much to interest the visitor, especially an Iron Age Hill Fort which is one of the most impressive prehistoric settlements in the Chilterns.

Starting from the 17th-century Full Moon pub, with its atmospheric views over the nearby windmill and common, you can opt for a two-and-a-half or five-mile round trip to the fort, which was probably built around 300-100BC and occupied from the Roman conquest into the middle of the first century AD.

For the less energetic, the area is criss-crossed with footpaths and is rich in wildlife, including fox, badger and muntjac deer as well as a range of birds and butterflies.

Against the reassuring backdrop of the crack of leather on willow (cricket has been played on the common for more than a century), you can enjoy a leisurely stroll here without veering far off the beaten track (or too far from the prospect of a welcoming pint at the Full Moon)…