A vast yet largely invisible presence hovers over the northern suburbs of London. Screened from the consciousness of the city-dweller by the pressures of the day-to-day; by TV, self-concern and a rabidly anthropocentric culture, the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire Escarpment (henceforth Scarp) broods and awaits its benediction.
On summer evenings—when the sun sets furthest north—Scarp casts its shadow over the serried ranks of housing which shatter against its southern rim. Winter brings the sound of gushing below low points in the suburban streets and shopping parades as the streams which originate on Scarp swell and are channelled beneath Edgware, Pinner or Ruislip and flow towards their confluence with Brent or Colne.
Scarp is a conspicuous but broken ridge running from Batchworth Heath, near Harefield, on the Middlesex-Buckinghamshire border, via Oxhey to Elstree and thence eastward to High Barnet. Further east, the ridge runs through Hadley and Enfield Chase, widening considerably north of the former place towards Shenley and North Mimms. The eastern edge of Scarp curves north and then north-east, following the River Lee upstream into Hertfordshire, until it diminishes in height in the region of Hertford and Great Amwell. Much of the land is green belt broken by small clusters of dwellings, old farms and ribbons of Victorian suburban houses. Scarp attains its greatest height at Stanmore Common (480 ft).
Scarp’s northern slope faces onto the Hertfordshire river plain towards St Albans and Hatfield, a land broken by the river valleys of the Lee and Colne. The Chiltern range is clearly visible from many points. Southwards, Scarp frowns down upon London and across to the North Downs and Kentish Hills on the far side of the Thames basin.
Sliced by railways and motorways, topped by old roads running its length, repeatedly scarred in the name of civic utility, yet never acknowledged openly as possessing a coherent identity, Scarp nevertheless persists in the infrastructural unconscious of the northern reaches of the city. North London’s sewage system is aligned with the rivers running off Scarp; our arterial roads follow the major river valleys born of the confluences of these streams and in turn provide the framework for the major trunk sewers serving north London. Thus, the utilities we most take for granted—macro-engineered symbols of our modernity and efficiency—are inextricably bound up with Scarp’s existence. From numerous suburban locations in north London, such as Rayners Lane or Colney Hatch Lane, glimpses are gained of Scarp’s dark mass. It is a fixed and solemn backdrop to the city’s ephemerality. Yet this sinister and unexplained presence seldom provokes comment or recognition.
I have slowly become obsessed with Scarp and I am currently writing a poetic survey based upon the numerous researches I have carried out while walking its undulating yet elevated mass over the last eighteen months. It was therefore apt that the third programme in our second series of Ventures & Adventures in Topography should focus on at least part of this astonishingly overlooked landscape feature.
On a boiling day in June 2009 John Rogers and I set off together with my agent, Jon Elek and the writer Craig Taylor to traverse a section of Scarp from Highwood Hill in Mill Hill to Elstree. Our route took us over Moat Mount, through Scratchwood and onto the Edgwarebury uplands via Clay Lane. All that day we were presented with views from Scarp down onto the smear of North London and across the Thames valley to Guildford and Dorking. Weighed down as they were with cameras, sound-recording devices, maps, sandwiches, compasses, topography books and water-bottles etc my colleagues’ stamina began to flag and so we headed up old Edgwarebury Lane and crossed the M1 motorway onto Barnet Lane before heading into Elstree in search of a pub.
Finally my co-walkers settled down for a beer and crisps before returning to London via mini-cab. Waving goodbye, I made my lonely way on to Bushey via Elstree Aerodrome and Sandy Lane. Eventually I collapsed from heat exhaustion and dehydration and spent the night sleeping in a concrete pipe on remote Merry Hill, waking in the night to survey the sodium-lit nightmare vortex of Watford. I felt lonely and wondered why I ended up in such bizarre situations; how it was that I wasn’t curled up in bed at home with cat of girlfriend. Such is the fate of the deep topographer.
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