T L Bartlett’s The Story of Roxeth dates from 1948 and has been subsequently reprinted in paperback format. The dust jacket on the original depicts the author’s notion of a coat-of-arms which sums up the deep history of the old manor of Roxeth: A shield, divided into three parts–each containing a gloved hand and labelled with the names of one of Roxeth’s tithings–is crested by two rooks. Bartlett was clearly very proud of this little patch of apparently nondescript suburbia centred on South Harrow underground station and sets forth to do it justice in his highly unusual book.
The first time I saw a copy of The Story of Roxeth was in 2000, shortly after becoming aware that South Harrow had an older and more resonant name. The book was on display in the window of a little second-hand bookshop in Ickenham (now sadly gone). Shortage of funds caused me to pass it by and I assumed I would never see another copy. Fortunately, David Tobyn, who runs the Walden Bookshop in Chalk Farm, picked up a copy two or three years back and passed it on to me.
Unlike other books we have looked at in the series, The Story of Roxeth is a local history. However, this isn’t your standard fare. The Story of Roxeth possesses a visionary quality born of Bartlett’s deep attachment to Roxeth, a place he both grew up and died in and in which he served as a local scoutmaster. Bartlett was the founder of The Friends of Roxeth, an organisation committed to transmitting the history and lore of the area to the thousands of new arrivals who had followed in the wake of the arrival of the Piccadilly line in 1935. The organisation was run from Bartlett’s semi-detached house at 91 Woodend Avenue.
field recording: Roxeth and the river valleys
Bartlett focused on the physical characteristics of the old parish of Roxeth, recalling his childhood experiences as a bird watcher out on Roxeth Marsh (now a municipal suburban open space). Indeed, bird life was of particular importance to Bartlett as he saw the loss of birds – particularly rooks – as symbolic of the eclipse of historical Roxeth by the then Harrow Urban District Council and the London Transport Passenger Board’s ‘South Harrow’. Mass housing inevitably followed on the arrival of the tube and this provided the material correlate to the loss of name as the old meadows, hedges and lanes were submerged beneath bricks and mortar.
Interspersed throughout the book are the scripts for a series of masques written for the scout troop of which he was master. They were originally produced and performed at the hall behind St Paul’s Church, Corbin’s Lane, in November 1945 to celebrate the eleventh centenary of the emergence of Roxeth as a recorded entity. 845 AD was the year in which Roxeth first ‘enters history’ via a Saxon manuscript describing how Werhard exchanged one cassate of land at ‘Hrocs Seath’ with Weremberht, a local thane. It is a further measure of the energy with which Bartlett pursued his project that he managed to persuade the Harrow UDC to finance the laying of two marker stones inscribed with the date. Bartlett was intent on preserving a sense of the name origins for Roxeth. Interestingly, his reading of these differed slightly from those given by J E B Gover in The Place-names of Middlesex (1942): according to Bartlett Hrocs Seath is Old English for ‘the Rooks’ heath’ and the alternative name of Roxey is derived from Hrocs-eye: ‘the marshy isle of the Rooks’.
The masques present historic figures associated with Roxeth: Leofwine, ‘the local landlord’ who, like his brother King Harold, fell at the battle of Hastings; William the First’s archbishop, Lanfranc, whose lands included Roxeth (and much of the rest of Harrow area – it was Lanfranc who built the church of St Mary’s at Harrow-on-the Hill, though it was consecrated by his student St Anselm); Chaucer, who Bartlett feels may well have visited Roxeth; and Thomas Beckett, who frequently stayed at the archbishop’s country retreat at Headstone Manor a little to the north of Roxeth. A recurring figure in the plays is the ‘Spirit of Roxeth’, a gaunt bearded character swathed in rags who carries a stave. The Spirit appears frequently across time and addresses the various luminaries, warning them not to destroy him or the place of which he is the spiritual guardian.
photo: Peter Knapp
Early on in the book Bartlett cites the theory presented by Sir Montagu Sharpe in Middlesex in British, Roman and Saxon Times (1919) that the positioning of Middlesex’s mother churches is based on Roman field shrines laid along the boundaries of pagi – Roman units of land surveyed by Julius Frontinus about AD 74-78. The present author tried to replicate Sharpe’s theory by converting the size of a pagi according to Sharpe to fit a 1/25000th OS map, drawing it on tracingpaper and placing it over the map. I would describe the results as indefinite… Incidentally, Sharpe was a co-founder of the RSPB together with WH Hudson and at one time a chairman of the Middlesex County Council. He thought that the name Roxeth derives from Hroces Seadum: a rookery.
T L Bartlett is the personification of everything I hated in my teens and twenties; a socially responsible and active member of his community with links to the church, local history and the scouts, and a devotee of the deep history of what is a – at first glance – a rather boring suburb – the sort of place I found suffocating and restricting in my teens. It is a measure of the way time changes us, that I now feel that Bartlett’s deeply rooted regional sensibility together with his commitment to good works in the name of his community approach a personal ideal.
field recording: Roxeth ambient
The particular feature of the area we looked at for the purposes of the programme was the little Roxbourne Stream, which flows from the lower slopes of Harrow-on-the-Hill down through Roxeth and South Ruislip towards its confluence with the Yeading Brook just south of Northolt Aerodrome. I first traced the Roxbourne from Harrow eight years back but only ever got as far as Victoria Road, that fine 1930s thoroughfare built by the Middlesex County Council, which runs close to South Ruislip station. Then, about four years back I decided to follow the Yeading from West Harrow down through Northolt towards Heathrow where the stream changes its name to the River Crane. Just south of Northolt Aerodrome, on the south side of Western Avenue, I located the confluence between the Yeading and the Roxbourne. What made the event particularly poignant was the discovery, just by where the rivers met, of an air vent mounted on a brick plinth and inscribed ‘Middlesex County Council’. Obviously main trunk sewers follow the river courses and unite at that point before rushing on towards the purification works at Mogden.
The intention to base the walk on a river led us to ask Tim Bradford, author of The Ground Water Diaries to join us in tracing the Roxbourne from South Harrow. Tim’s book is a well-researched though light-hearted survey of many of the streams now buried beneath the roads and alleyways of London. As is usual, John and I were also joined by our long-suffering photographer, Peter Knapp. Delays occurred on the day, caused by signal failure on the Piccadilly Line but eventually we set off from South Harrow station, following the railway north to where a large brick viaduct carries the line over what is clearly a river-gully formed by the Roxbourne’s course, though the stream is conduited beneath ground level at this point.
photo Peter Knapp
Next we turned westwards across Rayners Lane to the site of the old Newton Sewage Farm. It is here that a northern arm of the stream finally surfaces, running gently through a miasma of stumped willows, dried stems of woody herbs (it was November when we visited) and the first craws of the crows that frequent the area. Crossing Alexandra Road we entered the park that now covers the site of Roxeth Marshes. It was here that I had seen Crows in abundance on previous visits – though I rather doubted that they were Bartlett’s much-loved rooks. These birds had the heavy waddle and lack of gregariousness that I associate with carrion crows. Neither did they exhibit the distinctive ‘bald-patches’ above the beak that rooks usually have. (I should mention here that Bartlett makes a charming reference in his book to a crow named Merops, pet of Mrs Eliza Brightwen, owner in the 1890s of The Grove, a vast old building high up in Stanmore.)
Everybody was on form that day; Tim in particular spoke with clarity about his devotion to plotting the streams of the London area and, although he downplayed there being any ‘cosmic’ or mystical dimension to his studies, his druidic beard was a dead giveaway – this is a man who has immersed himself in stream-lore, who knows the rills, rillets, brooks, ditches and hatches of his zone and has correlated them with some vital component of his inner world. I had been aiming for us to get as far as South Ruislip that day. As it was, I had been grossly overoptimistic: both Tim and John had to split for home as childcare and job requirements summoned them. So, after a mere mile’s walk (which took us three hours) we headed north up Alexandra Road and, after admiring the 1930s cinema which is now a Zoroastrian Centre the boys took the tube home.
I wandered off, down along Rayners Lane and back to Roxeth. I then got lost in nameless suburbs never to be found again and ended up at Wood End, where the hill, upon which the old Post Office aerials are mounted, provided a heart-rending view at gentle dusk across the Brent Valley towards Hanger Lane and Ealing. That, however, is another story…