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In this series, John Rogers and I will be looking at a set of topography books published in the 20th Century. Beginning with Gordon S Maxwell’s The Fringe of London (1925), we will work our way week by week through other volumes, other areas of topographic interest. We will be undertaking a walk based on the contents of the books, in some cases simply duplicating walks already described by the original authors. However, we will occasionally use the books as ‘provocations’ in order to explore the areas under discussion.

John and I are both exponents of what could be described as a ‘palimpsest’ approach to topography, whereby we favour older walking guides over more recent publications. In a sense, a walk described in a book dating from, say, the 1930s, lingers as a ghostly residue in the landscape so examined. The sense of time-in-place thus created intensifies the experiencing of a particular place or zone.

A chapter in The Fringe of London titled ‘Rural England – Four Miles from the Marble Arch’ focuses on the small hamlet of Monks Park, a Middlesex hamlet that, in Maxwell’s day, clustered alongside the river Brent to the south of Wembley’s Oakington Farm (which was close by where the stadium is today). The hamlet ran eastwards from the Harrow Road and consisted of little more than a single row of houses. Maxwell was intrigued by this community, the members of which had recently complained in The Times that they suffered from the infrequencies of a rural postal service – and this within ‘four miles of Marble Arch’!

Always on the hunt for ‘lost’ or overlooked places within reach of London, Maxwell visited Monks Park and spent the day wondering alongside the winding Brent, enthralled by the purple spikes of loosestrife, half-ruined sluice gates and – in the distance – the ‘strangely eastern’ arches and domes of  the new stadium at Wembley. What Maxwell fails to mention is that the Willesden Urban District sewage farm was also located on the Brent, near to that rivers confluence with the Wealdstone brook, just to the east of Monks Park! The advent of the West Middlesex Main Drainage Scheme in 1936 rendered this site redundant and today it serves as the location for the St. Raphael Estate.

The years following the publication of The Fringe of London saw the appearance of suburban streets. These eventually ate up the meadows Maxwell also describes in his essay. Fortunately Wembley UDC preserved a large area of open space–Tokyngton Recreation Ground–to the immediate south of Monks Park. The hamlet itself was absorbed into the burgeoning suburbs and lingers today in a street bearing its name. The arrival of the North Circular Road necessitated the channelling of the Brent through a concrete conduit. For many years the stream ran its straightened course through the centre of the park. This crude solution to the dangers of flooding has since been superseded and recent years have seen the sculpting of ‘natural’ twists and curves in the river’s course as well as the planting of riverine vegetation in order to increase biodiversity. Incidentally, the Monks Park locals didn’t have to wait long for their complaint to The Times to be sorted: a new post office arrived in 1927, along with a full postal service.

John and I will be undertaking our Monks Park walk this Sunday 1st November, if we can agree on where and when we are actually going to meet!

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The area around Monks Park circa 1970. Photograph courtesy of Brent Archive

This episode was broadcast on 11 November 09 and repeated on Monday 16th November 10 – 10.30pm

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