John and I made our first field trip last Sunday, meeting as arranged at Stonebridge Park station, where we were joined by our photographer friend, Peter Knapp. Our aim was to explore Monks Park, an area described 85 years ago by Gordon S. Maxwell in The Fringe of London.
I arrived early and wandered around in the rain taking photographs of the little Wembley brook which has its confluence with the Brent just by the crossroads between the North Circular Road and Harrow Road after having run down from Sudbury, some way to the north. A sense of despondency settled on me as I waited for my companions, fuelled partly by the knowledge that I could never know enough about any given place to satisfy all the experts, the hungry and critical local historians, down at heel psychogeographers and various other miscreants.
photo: Peter Knapp
Peter arrived a little late and I spotted the bafflement on his face after hearing my potted outline about why we were meeting by the North Circular Road on a wet Sunday. The same thought crossed my mind; what exactly was drawing us out to this god-forsaken landscape with its droning arterial road, its sullen river running though concrete channels, its rows of suburban rooftops visible beyond the twisted ill-looking willows in the drab recreation ground?
Such is the nature of topographic exploration. Entering landscapes with an element of doubt as to what exactly is being looked for is a sure way to allow that space within which you can be moved and excited by what you find. As we set off west along the arterial road I recalled our first ever excursion together, back in 2005, in which John, Peter and I followed a 42 and 48 inch water main from Golders Green, down over the A5, through Gladstone Park in Neasden and along the south side of the North Circular to Wycombe Road, which is near Monks Park. This time we had another watercourse on our minds and as we entered the Tokyngton Recreation Ground we all commented on how powerful a presence the river Brent was.
As described in this blog’s previous entry, the banks of the Brent have been reshaped in recent years so as to more closely resemble the twists and turns one expects from a river. Extensive vegetation has been planted along the river’s length. This is a good thing as it creates ecotones, those transition zones between different plant communities used by wildlife for purposes of hunting or evasion. Most of the plant life consisted of native species, though at one point I did spot the dried ‘brolly’ stem of a Giant Hogweed standing defiantly amidst the nettles and willow suckers. As Peter snapped away at the river, swollen after the previous night’s rain, John and I discussed our plans: we decided to follow the park for a hundred yards or so and then slip through an exit into Monks Park itself, doubling back along the road to re-enter the park close to where we had originally come in. This we did, walking along the footpath as it wound ahead across improved grassland as is typical of urban parks.
photo: Peter Knapp
field recording from Monks Park 1
At one point I looked back the way we’d come and was astonished to see a dense mass of herbage and banks of tall willows shadowed by the vast office block at Stonebridge Park. It was a discordant meeting of the (apparently) old with the modern, the black shell of the building in fact predating the supposed rurality of the river bank. As I looked on, I felt myself rise into other people’s lives, Monks Park teenagers evolving into pram-pushers and workers, successions of hair styles and musical modes, lives flaying out from an imagined 1970s into the electronic density of our contemporary world.
Far ahead we glimpsed a few sultry couples walking with their kids on the sodden grass. A mewling gang of gulls fought mid-air for a pile of white bread deposited at the playground and a trouble-making crow slipped in beneath the airborne tussle, quickly making off with a crust. To our left we could see the Wembley Arch high over the rooftops. John and Peter thought this was most interesting but for myself, I don’t particularly get off on it – perhaps because I come from an area where views of the arch are commonplace.
photo: Peter Knapp
John looked particularly rugged as he leaned against a bench struggling with the sound equipment: As I secretly envied him his straggling red hair – so different to my own lifeless rug – I found myself wondering how exactly I had fallen in with a bunch of such interesting people, and how far I had travelled since the lonely days when I first developed an interest in topography.
field recording from Monks Park 2
I originally visited Monks Park in 1999, after buying my first copy of The Fringe of London. Having checked that there was still a place called Monks Park using my 1957 edition of the Geographer’s Atlas of Greater London, I took the 245 bus from Golders Green down to Neasden, intending to approach my quarry via the Brent. I set off across some grassland from Kingsbury Lane, walking just behind the Metropolitan Railway ‘village’ formed by Quainton, Verney and Chesham Streets.
I threaded through, following the stream until it came to the long embankment of the underground line and disappeared into a tunnel below. Never being one to shirk my topographical responsibilities I dropped down into the water and, taking my torch from my knapsack, entered into the darkness. Deep below the railway line the waters rose until they passed my waste and I had to hold torch, map and copy of Fringe of London aloft, my hands brushing the roof of the tunnel. Apparently some of the locals claim that the tunnel is inhabited by a creature born of the relationship between a farmer and a goat – though whether this is truly local in origin (the area was still farmed into the 1930s) or is the product of somebody having watched to many 1970s Hammer horror films I cannot say. Either way, I didn’t see any goat-man, scared though I was.
excerpt from the introduction to The Fringe of London by Gordon S. Maxwell – read by Heidi Lapaine
I ended up on that occasion in a wasteland behind Fourth Way, part of the Wembley Trading Estate. It was a madness of industrial detritus and sickened elders clogging the river’s bank. As I squeezed my nose to block the smell emanating from the Middlesex Meat Company my copy of Maxwell’s book tumbled into the Brent and floated beneath an overhanging section of the riverbank formed of old tyres and rotting stacks of sex mags.
I thought about this now as I watched John tinkering with his rudimentary sound equipment. Much as I appreciate my friends, there is a quality to walking alone that takes me out of communal time into a zone that seems to be the land’s time only. We turned out of the park and into the actual street named Monks Park and looked over at some little houses, a date-plaque on one of these inscribed 1916. Maxwell presents the street in his book as a rural community rather than a rustic one and at one point discreetly lets slip that the houses thereabouts weren’t very old by stating that ‘some of them are already clad with creepers’ (emphasis mine). I wonder if these little homes, all in a row, weren’t built for munitions workers, but I have not been able, to date, to determine whether this is so or not. John ribbed me mercilessly over the street being named in large steel lettering on the wall of a health centre, as if I had ever argued that the place would be difficult to find. John however is a psychogeographer, a species renowned for their arrogance and intractability. I suspect we all found it pretty dull and at this point talk began to hinge on whether we shouldn’t make for Neasden IKEA for a meal of meatballs and chips. In particular, Peter was outspoken concerning this possibility. I hadn’t realised that IKEA served meatballs, a further indication of how ‘deep’ my Deep Topography really is: follow my methods and I guarantee you, you will end up seriously dissocialised (and with no money to boot!).
field recording from Monks Park 3
photo: Peter Knapp
So that was it really: we followed the river eastwards towards the trading estate, past a section where the sward widened out to views of 1930s semi-detacheds silhouetted against the evening sky. It was a mythic suburbia we entered, all of us moved by the mute pathos of a disused bowling green slowly disappearing under sprouting strands of Canadian fleebane and Michaelmas daisy. Later the park evaporated as the route narrowed to a footpath following the river. We entered echoing railway tunnels and murky confluences (where the Lidding or Wealdstone brook hits the Brent) and ravings of knotweed and Himalayan Balsam. We made it to IKEA eventually, after traipsing up by the Neasden TFL depot (note the Planta genista growing over beyond the tracks) and through to the furniture store via a bridge over the canal feeder, which was clogged with duck weed, or ‘Jenny green teeth’ as we call it in Middlesex.
After the meal I tried to describe to the boys how I had once seen numerous specimens of Water dropwort growing behind the steel palings of a factory close by. Each plant had been covered with snails, apparently immune to the poisonous leaves and stems. However, John and Peter seemed more intent on catching their respective buses so I saw them off and was left standing alone in the dark car park, the rain ticking against my waterproof jacket.
This episode will be repeated on Monday 16th November 10 – 10.30pm – the podcast is available from Resonance 104.4fm