In the satirical magazine Private Eye, there’s a column called ‘Signal Failures’ – its penetrating glare focuses on railway related mishaps. The column is written under the pseudonym Dr B. Ching, in loathsome memory of Dr Richard Beeching, who is credited with the closure of over half of the railway stations in the 1960s, for the sake of economy and efficiency. Alas, the car had become empress of the road.
One plus point, however, of Beeching’s ‘railroading’ proposals is that an increasing number of the disused railways lines have been turned into way-marked walks, public amenities benefitting body and soul. One such wonder trails in our locality, the Parkland Walk; a two sectioned, ‘southern’ and ‘northern’, roughly four and a half mile stretch. The mostly level walk follows the route of a steam service, opened in 1867, which ran from Finsbury Park to Highgate, and a branch line that whistled from Highgate to Alexandra Palace, started in 1873, when the Palace opened.
Plans to electrify and incorporate the lines into the underground never came to fruition. Passenger services ceased in 1954; freight services stopped in 1970. Eventually the tracks were lifted and most of the associated land was transferred to Haringey Council (Islington Council inherited a small section). Fortunately, for the sake of conservation, the land is now a designated Local Nature Reserve. A scheme introduced in the 1980s to build a dual carriageway along the route was scuppered vehemently by local campaigners.
We walk through a lush, verdant land, where a careful balance of woodland (over 30 species, interspersed with shrubs and wildflowers (over 200 species are believed to exist), is being nurtured and wildlife are encouraged, such as squirrels, bats, butterflies and birds, migratory and home based.
A few reminders of urban energy are the staggering views over London, with Renzo Piano’s Shard included, which we see from the bridges and aqueduct (acrophobes beware), the colourful and skilful graffiti, schools and local government buildings, and the gardens of Victorian villas and terraced houses. An enchanting sculpture of a spriggan – a mischievous, devilish fairy originating in Cornish folklore – by Marilyn Collins (1993) peers over us from an arched wall. As the tunnels are closed, unfortunately we follow the road for a while (the detour is a little confusing despite signposts) unless we venture through Highgate Wood. At the end (or the beginning?) one finds the beautifully landscaped and tended Alexandra Palace Park. But as in the holloways of the rural landscape the only light is natural; the path feels quite eerie when twilight encroaches. Indeed, it is this area and atmosphere that may well have inspired Stephen King to write his 1980 short horror story ‘Crouch End’, although some folk think that the spriggan sparked the tale – an impossible reality given the time span between the two creations, an ‘urban myth’ as the artist says.
This article first appeared in Living North Resident in the June 2013 issue.