There's something quite physical about the effect of Monday mornings on me, and today was no exception. Yes, I couldn't wait to get out into the sun and get walking, but the high pollen count turned my mind to molasses, and on the Metropolitan line, that can be fatal.
You see, the Metropolitan line isn't quite as simple as the Tube map would have you believe. Hidden from casual users who rely on the standard Tube map is a system of fast and semi-fast trains that's a bit of a shock to those of us who are used to Tube trains stopping at every station, and this morning I picked the wrong train and ended up on the edge of zone 7 before I knew what had hit me. That'll teach me for looking at the front of the train, seeing 'Amersham' and thinking, 'OK, North Harrow is on the way to Amersham, so this is the one for me.' It wasn't, and it took me a fair amount of slow and frustrating backtracking to reach the start of today's walk.
Possibly more irritating, though, was that I'd waited at Rayner's Lane for 15 minutes for a Metropolitan line train to take me down to Harrow-on-the-Hill, which is where I picked the wrong train north... and Rayner's Lane is only ten minutes' walk from North Harrow station. You'd think by now I'd have learned that sometimes it's quicker to walk than take the Tube, but instead I enjoyed three bonus trips on the Metropolitan line that I didn't even need to take.
See? Monday mornings can even happen to you when you're not working. Thankfully the walk – when I finally started it an hour later than planned – was a complete delight, and it didn't take long to wash the cobwebs away. God bless the English countryside...
North Harrow to Pinner
The suburbs of zone 5 are noticeably greener than those of zones 3 and 4, and this short leg is a good example. When planning my route, I decided that in the absence of any obvious points of interest – which the unkind would argue defines suburbia – I'd walk via as many green spaces as possible. In the glorious sunshine, this approach is paying heavy dividends, as the parks of outer London are lovely, and one such example is the long, thin Yeading Brook Open Space, just down the road from North Harrow station. The open space is a long, thin stretch of lush greenery, with the backs of houses visible to the south through thick undergrowth, and the gentle trickle of the Yeading Brook hiding behind thick bushes to the north, sandwiching a pleasant, winding path that's completely cut off from the clatter of the outside world. There's a small stone bridge over the river, no litter to speak of, and on a Monday morning, not a soul to be seen. It's a blessed relief after the clanking of the Tube, and sets the scene perfectly for a day of green below and blue above.
Soon after popping out of the western end of the Yeading Brook Open Space and turning north through pleasant and tidy suburbia, there's another suburban treat in the form of Pinner Village Gardens. Considerably more open than the open space, this is again a delightful place to while away a few sunny minutes, and the entrance onto Rayners Lane hints at why: the steps leading up to the park are awash with colour, spilling out onto the busy junction with Marsh Road. It's a great example of the parks of suburbia invading the streets of the city, and sets the scene for the greenery that seems to have taken over the northern reaches of the Metropolitan.
Indeed, the energetic traffic of Marsh Road is a bit of a shock after the peace of the parks, but it's only a short walk to Pinner station and the last Metropolitan station of zone 5. Opened in 1885, Pinner station is a bit of a shed, tucked away up a side street next to a large Sainsbury's, but don't worry; the station buildings get a lot more interesting towards the end of today's walk.
Pinner to Northwood Hills
From the station, a quick backtrack takes you past the King George IV pub and into Pinner Memorial Gardens, which continues today's theme not only by being exquisitely manicured, but intriguing too. As I arrived at the park gates, a policewoman waved at me, popped her head out of her fluorescent car and asked, 'Are you going to be walking in the park?'
'I was planning to,' I said.
'That's fine,' she said, 'but would you mind sticking to the paths?'
'Sure,' I said, and set off into the park to be greeted by a uniformed dog handler and a massive and presumably extremely hot Alsatian, sniffing through the undergrowth to the side of the path. I'd have asked the handler what he was looking for, except he was having a devil of a time trying to persuade his faithful bloodhound to jump into a bed of nettles and have a good sniff around. The dog was having none of it; I guess that in this heat, even highly trained Alsatians get arsey, and who can blame them?
Luckily there were no sleuthing canines up at the park lake, as this is clearly where the mothers of Pinner gather en masse on a Monday morning to air their children... although, come to think of it, this could be where the nannies of Pinner bring their charges, as the park marks a boundary in the fortunes of the locals, quite literally. The tailored and luscious garden surrounding the eastern end of the lake is a bit of a give-away, but hop up West End Lane for a block and turn left into High View, and there you have it: a whole road of houses for whom 'semi-detached' is the feeling after a few too many glasses of chardonnay, rather than the only option you can afford. It's a very green road, with bushy trees invading from the nearby parks, and if you stop and stand still for a moment or two, it's a challenge to hear anything apart from the odd twittering bird, or perhaps a distant buzz saw. Zone 6 can be a lovely place to live, if you've got the bank balance.
On the other side of the B466, the small park of Cuckoo Hill is a relatively uninteresting open space, without any of the views that the name might imply, though as a spot for exercising the dogs or crashing out with a nanny-and-child-free picnic, it's worth the detour. More interesting and slightly wilder are the fields just after the housing of Wrenwood Way, though most of the fields to the north are fenced off and the path is forced round the edge, on the wrong side of a wire fence.
There's a noticeable difference in the quality of housing when the path pops out into Chamberlain Lane. Don't get me wrong, this is still a pleasantly quiet spot, but compared to the opulence of High View, the walk north to Northwood Hills is a bit more... well, pebbledash, I suppose. To the right there are some lovely views over the fields that you've just walked round, and the allotments are pleasant enough, but Joel Street is a busy place, the Northwood Hills Hotel has a slightly worn air about it, and the station itself won't win any architectural prizes. However, even somewhere as apparently self-effacing as Northwood Hills Hotel was where one school-age Reginald Dwight cut his teeth by playing the piano every Friday evening for one pound a night. It wouldn't be long before he teamed up with Bernie Taupin, changed his name to Elton John, and started on the star-studded road to super-stardom, but this is where the magic started, unlikely though that sounds.
It doesn't really manage to make Northwood Hills feel any more vibrant, though; indeed, Northwood Hills station was opened on , while its neighbouring stations were both opened in the previous century (Pinner in 1885 and Northwood in 1887), so right from the start it had some catching up to do. In a sense, it feels as if it still has.
Northwood Hills to Northwood
There isn't much to report about the walk from Northwood Hills to Northwood, though there's an early highlight just north of Northwood Hills station in the form of a Wimpy restaurant (well, it's a highlight for me, as Wimpy restaurants never fail to make me smile, though I'm not sure why). The houses along the busy A404 (or Pinner Road, to give it its proper title) are much like the houses along any busy road in London, and if England had qualified for Euro 2008, you get the feeling that there would be England flags hanging out of most of these windows. As it is, there's one lonely house proudly flying the Italian flag, and there's a large England flag in the window of the Olde Northwoode pub, up by the Metropolitan line bridge over Rickmansworth Road; then again, it also sports blacked-out windows and a sign announcing 'Adult Entertainment Daily, 2pm-10pm', which isn't terribly enticing, to be honest.
Things take a turn for the better along Hallowell Road, a very pleasant suburban backwater where you'd be surprised to see any England flags. The gardens are tidy and on a Monday morning the garden waste recycling bags take over the pavement, and in a change from the norm, it's the red brick of the modern St Matthew's Roman Catholic Church that sticks out as a new-build in this area of older, more traditional houses. It's only when you reach Green Lane, home to Northwood station, that things revert to form; Tube stations are rarely situated in the most desirable part of town, and although central Northwood is not a bad spot, its suburbs are much more attractive than its main roads.
Northwood to Moor Park
Somewhere on today's walk, I left London behind. I'm not sure where, exactly, but if I think of Harrow, I think of North London, whereas when I think of Watford, I think of Hertfordshire. If I had to pick the spot where this happens, it would be on this section, somewhere between Northwood and Moor Park; it shouldn't come as a surprise, then, to learn that half a mile to the west of this leg lies Kewferry Road, two houses from which were used in filming for The Good Life. Goodbye London, hello home counties!
It's evident from the first few steps that we're back into the affluence last seen in Pinner. The houses along Eastbury Road are defiantly detached, with mock Tudor replacing the pebbledash and luscious gardens buffering the main road. I'd planned to follow a right of way along the side of the Tube line, but although I tracked down the wooden gate that surely led to the green dotted line on my Ordnance Survey map, it was stubbornly locked and wouldn't budge despite the full weight of my shoulder crashing into it, so I shrugged back onto the main road and viewed the houses through a slightly different light: I don't mind money and I don't mind opulence, but I do mind people obstructing rights of way, as that's the thin end of the wedge. Still, even the communist buried deep within me sighed with pleasure at some of the houses along the way; it's a lovely spot, is Eastbury.
I managed to turn back onto the right of way a little further up the road, taking a short path that wound round a large tree, growing right there in the middle of the path; turning right at the Tube line, I followed it through some very uncooperative explosions of nettles and brambles, the first bit of my walk that hasn't been suited to trainers and ankle-high socks. But it didn't last, and soon enough I was lapping up the suburbia of Bourne End Road, on the way to a junction with the London Loop.
It's weird, but I remember this part of the world well, even though it's five years since I was last here on day 9 and day 10 of the Loop. Perhaps it's because the path south from Moor Park station is a Loop link path, so I've already walked along it twice, or perhaps it's because the grassy fields south of the Sandy Lodge Golf Course look on paper like a great place to crash out with a picnic, but in reality the grass is just too thick, and the overhead power cables rustle a little too energetically to make it a relaxing spot. Instead I opted to stop for a bite to eat in the thin strip of woods between the Tube line to the west and the golf course to the east, even though the only place with suitably comfortable tree trunks is where the locals come to dump disposable barbecues, cans of Stella and cigarette butts. Never mind, because we're about to step into the poshest spot on the Metropolitan line so far...
Moor Park to Croxley
Moor Park station is rather functional and shed-like, but I'm still taking photos of all the Tube stations, even the boring ones, just to prove I've been there. The biggest challenge is managing to take a picture without a juggernaut or double-decker bus blurring into one side of the shot, but out here in the countryside, it's a lot easier. Still, that didn't stop me lining up a distance shot of the station, showing the raised platforms behind the entrance, just before a main in a suit walked bang into shot from the left. I figured I'd give him a couple of seconds to get into his car, but I wasn't expecting him to laugh in the process.
'Ha!' he smiled, managing to imbue his chuckle with enough sympathy for me to look in his direction. 'That's always happening to us when taking pictures of houses.'
'I bet it is,' I said, noticing that he'd come out of an estate agents' office right next to the station. 'I have real trouble with the traffic in town, I can tell you.'
'I know what you mean,' smiled the estate agent, and hopped into his car. It was a short exchange, but it made me feel good; having yet to jump on the property ladder, I'm going to savour this conversation as the first and possibly the only genuinely empathetic conversation I'll ever have with an estate agent. My house-owning friends tell me that empathy is not high on most estate agents' agendas, particularly in these days of negative equity.
If there is a recession coming, then they forgot to mention this to the inhabitants of Sandy Lodge Road, where the houses are absolutely huge, the trees lining the road are gargantuan, and the pavement is made up of gravel, which looks lovely when you drive everywhere, but which is a little tiresome for those of us on foot. But this isn't the kind of place where they particularly want to welcome visitors, unless you're a builder or a servant; indeed, the cliché of the Philippino maid and the Polish builder is graphically illustrated by a stroll down Sandy Lodge Road, as every few houses there's either a swarthy gardener heaving a mower round the lawn in a glistening T-shirt; a shrill, south-east Asian accent screaming at the rest of the house help from inside the gleaming entrance hall to another palace; or a team of bare-chested builders, singing along to the radio while creating yet another extension or landscaping yet another driveway. In the main, the houses are pleasant, though when they go over the top, it's truly horrendous (white Doric columns are never going to be a good idea, are they?). This is Desperate Housewives territory, if ever you've seen it, and it's rather fun to walk through.
Unfortunately the next part of my route, a quick section along the A4145, wasn't fun to walk through at all, despite beautiful views into the Withey Bed Wood and along the River Colne. Most A-roads have a wide enough verge to accommodate at least a single file of walkers, but this stretch of busy Moor Lane has no verge for most of the half-mile from Sandy Lodge Road to the Vale Industrial Estate, and if anyone is mental enough to want to follow in my footsteps, I'd recommend avoiding this stretch altogether (though it's hard to see an obvious alternative by looking at the map, to be honest). Luckily there are signs warning motorists that there may be pedestrians along this part of the road, so at least nobody sounded their horn, but it's a blessed relief to cut into the industrial estate and into Common Moor.
Common Moor is, without a doubt, proper countryside. It's large enough to hide the traces of civilisation around the periphery behind bushes and trees, and if it wasn't for the electricity pylons along the southern edge and the hill of Croxley Green poking above the trees to the north, you could easily convince yourself that you were in the middle of nowhere. So perhaps this is the point where I finally left London; if so, that fits the Tube map rather well, as Moor Park is in zone 6, while Croxley is in zone 7, and everyone knows that zones 7 to 9 aren't proper London, and are an invention purely to keep the Metropolitan line within the Tube system.
It's a short but enjoyable stroll across Common Moor to a bridge across the River Colne, and a few yards further on, the Grand Union Canal, which we'll come back to in a minute. For now, though, Croxley Green is up a steep path, where Croxley station dominates this corner of the Watford Road, which it shares with the inviting Red House pub. Looking like a large suburban house, Croxley station was opened as Croxley Green in 1925, but was renamed plain old Croxley in 1949 to differentiate it from the nearby Croxley Green railway station. It's a strange thing to find this far out, a Tube station, but that's the Metropolitan line for you; it boldly went where there was literally nobody, and suburbia arose in its wake.
Croxley to Watford
When I dropped back down the hill to the Grand Union Canal, Monday morning struck again, catching me unawares after such a lovely day's walking. Clearly thinking not one little bit, I crossed to the south of the canal to join the Grand Union Canal Walk, blissfully unaware that it actually goes along the north bank of the canal. It was only when the towpath peeled away from the canal at a weir feeding the River Gade, and headed into a bland industrial park, that I spotted my schoolboy error, so if you're wondering why my photographs are magically taken from the wrong bank, now you know. The only positive aspect to this accidental detour was my close approach to the proposed site of Ascot Road station, part of the proposed Croxley Rail Link, which would see the original plans of the Metropolitan Railway fulfilled by joining the Metropolitan line to Watford Junction (the Tube line never made it into Watford town centre, stalling at the rather peripheral Cassiobury Park). If this ever gets completed, it will transform this part of the Tube, but for now, it's still a bit of a sleepy backwater, and is all the more pleasant for that.
I couldn't get back to the canal until I reached the Watford Road, but I doubled-back and strode south along the canal walk for a while anyway, just to see what I'd missed, and it's a treat. I love canal walking, particularly when there are plenty of narrow boats about (as there are round Croxley), and I was impressed enough to change my plan to head into Watford along the A412, and to continue heading north along the canal for a bit more.
This turned out to be a good move, not least because the Grand Union Canal is a lovely little canal. Heading all the way to Birmingham, there's a long-distance walk along the towpath all the way from Paddington to Birmingham, and it's tempting; a friend of mine cycled it last year, and he loved it. But I couldn't stay on the canal long, and soon turned east into Cassiobury Park, a fitting end to this tale of parks, big and small.
Cassiobury Park is lovely, and miles away from the urban sprawl of central Watford. Soon after crossing the canal into the park, there's a set of paddling pools that are clearly a crowd-pleaser on hot Mondays like this, and the rolling grassland stretches out in front of you, with not a building in sight. This is the land of lazy cycle rides in the afternoon, of Frisbees and football, and I'm so glad I added the extra mile or so to detour this way; it's great. Indeed, it's hard to believe that just south of the park is the Metropolitan line, but there it is, Watford station, another Tube station disguised as a large suburban home.
This time I couldn't work out which of the two Tube trains would be leaving first, despite looking quite hard, but luckily an entire school of children with amusingly tied ties pushed past me and started filling up the train on the right, so I followed and was soon caught up in a saga involving signal failure, a lack of announcements and resignation on my part that the Tube is more enjoyable to walk than to take. But even signal failure can't take away the fact that this is a very pleasant corner of the capital, and I'm even more optimistic about zones 8 and 9. It's going to be a bit of a shock walking through the city centre again after all this pleasant countryside strolling...