Outer London West Middlesex; Outer London South Herts and North Middlesex; Outer London South West Essex; Outer London North West Kent; Outer London North East Surrey

I recently completed the London Loop, the circular path which runs around the edge of Greater London.  (My title is taken from the telephone directories which between them once covered that area.)  A surprise of the Loop is how much it contrasts with the Capital Ring, which I have written about previously.  The London Loop is much less urban than the Capital Ring – inevitably and by design, for its purpose is to exploit the countryside which has been preserved on London’s fringes, while the Ring is an inner suburban walk.  But unlike the Ring the Loop seems detached from the districts it passes through.

My chief memory of Enfield, for example, is the distant views of Trent Park and Forty Hall from among the fields.  Teddington is represented by the residential streets at its western end, Hounslow by the Heath rather than the town, Hayes (Middlesex) by the Grand Union Canal towpath.  Chingford impinged only as the very edge of the built-up area as it touches Epping Forest which otherwise predominates.  At Stanmore I had a strange sense of passing through and not passing through, as the signs and the map told me that was where I was, but I was certainly not at the centre.  I saw the centres of Uxbridge and Elstree only because those places are at the ends of sections of the Loop, so I deviated from the route proper to or from their railway stations at the beginning or end of a day’s walk; and the centre of Barnet only because I made a detour to find somewhere for lunch.  Chigwell is perhaps an intermediate case in that you only encounter the modern centre – the railway station and shops – when getting to and from the route of the Loop, but the latter does take you past the King’s Head, a half-timbered inn which was depicted on a poster painted by Fred Taylor in 1914 for the London Underground to encourage excursions to Chigwell.  Only at Rainham (Essex), Erith, Old Bexley, Ewell and especially the market place and river front of Kingston did I have a sense of passing through a town; it is not the predominant sense of the route even at most towns it encounters.  The Capital Ring gives the opposite sensation even at its greenest.

In short the Loop, considered as a London walk, has a nebulous quality.  Rather than giving a hold on the capital it is more an affair of west Middlesex, south Herts, south west Essex etc.  And perhaps this was what was intended.  Modern London has these places as part of its complex character, and the London Loop brings this aspect into focus.  If we consider it and the Capital Ring together we have a beguiling picture of London, because of the contrast and tension between them.

Another reflection is perhaps more central to the concerns of this blog.  The route of the Loop is well signposted, it is shown on maps and there is a written description, with strip maps, in the guidebook by David Sharp and Colin Saunders.  But all this does not mean you are always certain of the way.  Sometimes, for example, the route I took through a wood did not follow the official path all the way.  Sometimes I took a detour for some other reason.  For example beside the River Crane at Hatton Cross large puddles, the residue of floods, had made the bank impassable, so I had to take instead to nearby streets.

Detours such as this are excusable.  Surely no one can have completed any long distance path without at least one, which implies some elasticity about those paths’ routes.  So a path such as the Loop will in time become a variety of oral tradition: the bounds of acceptable deviation from the official route will be established by custom and, like oral traditions such as songs, verse and stories, will vary over time.  The course of the London Loop exists, will exist and will have existed in both the official marked route and in the deviations from it commonly used.  In so many aspects of existence there is the official record and there is the way things are done in practice.  We have to investigate both if we are to establish historical truth.

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If you travel on a Thameslink train between Tooting and Streatham, you can have, from the left-hand windows as you face forward, a rare view of old London.  It can be glimpsed only very briefly, and I would probably never have noticed it if a signal had not one day brought my train to a dead stand with my seat in just the right position, so that I was presented with the scene for as much as two minutes rather than perhaps two seconds.

Between the two stations the train travels at rooftop level for some distance, and there is a stretch where the only buildings to stick up above the houses are churches, some old London board schools – and one modern block.  The houses are initially a mixture of late nineteenth century terraces, inter-war and modern, but then we leave the inter-war and modern houses behind.  Some more modern houses will appear less than a minute later, but for that brief time we see only the late Victorian terraced houses.  A few seconds into that short time parallax causes one of the board schools momentarily to blot out the modern block (on the horizon, left) so that, TV aerials and suchlike apart, we glimpse a roofscape of gables, tiles and chimneys which has barely changed for at least a hundred years – or we would if someone in the foreground had not had a loft conversion done since I first noticed the phenomenon.

Enjoyable walk…

I have now embarked on the London Loop. Last weekend I walked the section between Jubilee Park and West Wickham, in the Kentish suburbs, and crossed Keston Common. On a noticeboard there was a programme of monthly winter walks organised by the Friends of Keston Common. These alternated between two kinds, “Enjoyable Walk” and “History Walk”. Surely this doesn’t mean that the History Walks…?

The concrete, asphalt, gravel and green turf beneath my feet

I have recently completed the Capital Ring. If you have not met it, the Capital Ring is a 78 mile circular walk around London. Its London is mostly that of the inner suburbs, although it ventures out as far as Harrow on the Hill; its character is perhaps summarised by the position of its two river crossings, at Richmond and Woolwich. Hazlitt famously encapsulated the delights of walking:

Give me the clear blue sky over my head, and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me, and a three hours’ march to dinner – and then to thinking!

But he went on:

When I am in the country, I wish to vegetate like the country… I go out of town in order to forget the town and all that is in it.

What the Capital Ring shows is that green turf is not necessary to the thinking that a walk stimulates, nor do we necessarily want to forget the town. The designers of the Capital Ring have made an effort to include as much green as possible, but the scene is in fact a matrix of green and buildings in constantly shifting juxtapositions and proportions; a scene both asymmetrical and fluid whose constant movement, which the built-up parts emphasise, is itself conducive to thought – for my money more so than the countryside. It is a long time since I enjoyed a walk so much and so consistently. Every step I took exhilarated me, even on the one day (out of six) when it never stopped raining.

Rather than forgetting the town, let alone all that is in it, the Capital Ring gives us a different perspective on it. These are residential districts, but firmly, sometimes grittily, urban; unlike the outer suburbs they are not failed attempts at a country retreat (which is not to disparage the outer suburbs, which have become a landscape in their own right). And these districts are very definitely neighbourhoods, with a focus and an independent life. I would advise any new visitor to London to walk at least a section of the Capital Ring. It gives a better view of London life than the round of the traditional tourist sites can. It is indeed a record of what London is.

To link the various districts that the Ring does induces new connections both on the ground and in the mind. Walking from Highgate to Stoke Newington, for example, I was illogically surprised that these two places are so close (the map should have told me) but their different characters had made them seem physically far apart too. Physical and mental boundaries, I feel, should be permeable and somewhat ill-defined, so that we can relatively easily move from the centre of one thing to the centre of something else essentially different, and so make unexpected connections. Many people who live in the metropolis will travel to nearby countryside to walk; I once walked from Croydon to Colley Hill, which must be much less common, and the surprise that I could do that added to the pleasure of moving from one landscape to another, sharply contrasting one when that contrast was so gradually achieved.

We should, too, enjoy the urban landscape for its own delights. The Capital Ring does this. Much of even its green stretches consists of urban park, also a distinctive form of landscape. But contrast the guide book to the Ring by Colin Saunders with the guide book to the London Loop by David Sharp and Colin Saunders. The London Loop is another circular walk, this one around the edge of Greater London and therefore including much genuine country. But the authors of the Loop guide think it necessary to say, “there are inevitably some more urban stretches where you may wish to grit your teeth and think of the many pleasures to come.” Why? I would expect a walk around even the edge of the metropolis to mingle suburb and country, to its greater enjoyment. The city, as Brigid Brophy observed, is “one of the cardinally simple brilliant inventions, like currency”. It is also beautiful, even at its most everyday.

The Troxy is some proxy

Another highlight of my year was the reopening concert on August 22 of the Trocadero Wurlitzer. This, the largest Wurlitzer cinema organ ever imported into Europe, was originally installed in the Trocadero cinema at the Elephant and Castle, where the organist for some years was Quentin Maclean, one of the two or three finest of all British cinema organists. The Trocadero was pulled down in 1963 when the district was redeveloped (look out of the window of your Thameslink train and weep…) but the organ was saved by the Cinema Organ Society, and after some years sounding at South Bank University, and some years of silence in store has now been installed in the Troxy, Stepney.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

In short, as I have written elsewhere:

Since the Trocadero
Has long since been reduced to zero,
The Troxy
Must act as its proxy.

But what a proxy. John Abson and his team of volunteers who have restored, reinstalled and voiced the organ by devoting long hours of spare time over several years have done a superb job which I cannot possibly praise highly enough, and two fine but contrasting organists, Richard Hills and Robert Wolfe, demonstrated by their technique and musicianship the scale of the achievement.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERASAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

The Troxy itself, now converted into a concert hall and conference centre, was like the Trocadero one of London’s super-cinemas. Since few of these are left the Troxy, with its decoration intact, is itself an archive, preserving the sensation of taking part in communal mass entertainment in the days before television.SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA The sheer size impresses – and the auditorium was well-filled – but just because of the size the astonishingly clear acoustic is a pleasurable shock. At one point the microphone through which Richard Hills was announcing his items failed; he used his unamplified voice instead but was still clearly audible to me in one of the further-flung rows on the balcony. The exuberance of the decoration testifies to the exuberance of the mind which created it. I like to think of the effect of both scale and spectacle on those who appreciated it in its heyday as a cinema. What leap of mind and spirit there must have been when those used to their local fleapit came here.  There could be no more fitting home for the Trocadero Wurlitzer: a home of the kind, and on the scale, it was designed for.

I believe that such undertakings as the restoration of old cinema organs are important political acts. Against the bland, the corporate and the over-familiar they strike a blow for the unusual and the idiosyncratic, for the small-scale and local, and for the volunteer and the enthusiast. And they not only preserve a corner of existence which might have disappeared but bring it regularly to life for our delectation.

Empiricism and evocation.

Reading recently, with as much patience as I could muster, Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, I reflected that re-creating the flavour of a time and place is not helped by too great an effort to do it. Some objectivity – an objectivity that archives are good at holding us to – is paradoxically far more evocative.

Scarp is a personal exploration of the ridge of high ground to the north of London on the Middlesex-Hertfordshire border. This is the eponymous Scarp, which the author claims to have identified and named. The book recounts some of his explorations of the area and his relationship to it throughout his life. But if his aim was, as the blurb says, “first and foremost a personal inquiry into the spirit of place” the attempt does not at all come off. It is pretentiously written: Papadimitriou strains after effect, over-ornamenting his description to the point of tedium, and recalling for this reader Orwell’s “a tremendous advantage is gained by not trying to be clever” and Samuel Butler’s “I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable”. The central premise is unoriginal: that ridge of high ground has been known for generations as the Northern Heights – a phrase Papadimitriou does use, on page 231, but in passing, and printing it in lower case. The nineteenth century railway engineers who built the main lines north from London all had the problem of penetrating the ridge; the plans drawn up between the wars to extend the Northern Line called the scheme the Northern Heights project; and Northern Heights was a name considered for what became the London Borough of Enfield. Papadimitriou often wanders off into fantasy – acknowledgedly to be sure, but it is difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins and hence what we should take seriously as personal testimony. We have here in short merely one mind’s discursive thoughts and reveries, and although he clearly does know some history and despite some close descriptions of nature I did not at all have a sense of the landscape he reckons to portray.

An instructive contrast is with Alan A. Jackson’s London’s local railways. Jackson simply recounts the story of the construction and operation of these local lines throughout their life, the changes they have seen and their effects on London’s landscape and development. He has quarried the archives very thoroughly. The book is – I suggest in consequence – far more atmospheric. His method is implied in the book’s dedication, “To the suburban traveller”, to which he appends an epigraph from Constable, “We see nothing until we understand it”. Understand your familiar scene, Jackson seems to say, know thoroughly its origin and its function over time, and you will feel more intensely its essence – indeed put like that it is almost a tautology. Jackson visited every one of the lines he writes about, in many instances more than once over decades, and his physical descriptions are commonly his own observations. Though they can be highly coloured he states exactly what he sees and uses it as historical evidence. They are personal, but objective in the sense that he wanted to give an account of what is “out there” rather than an account of his thoughts.

I like to think that the archives both anchored him to objectivity and inspired him to be atmospheric. When we use archives to write history we are bound to convey the knowledge they give us; but it is in giving it to us and as they give it to us that they take us close to the atmosphere of things as they were, an intense sensation which we will also wish to convey, and which we will convey by recounting with feeling what we find. The two things are indissolubly paired.

A short manifesto.

On this blog I shall be posting my thoughts on archives, their nature, capabilities and implications, and some of the things I find in them.  It is My Archives in that it is archives as I see them and that it is an archive of my writings on the subject.  There may be some bias towards London, which is where most of my historical research is done, and where I have friends amongst archivists, and especially towards Middlesex in the twentieth century, which is my specialism.  But I hope to range widely beyond this, in particular to the north of England, where I spend a good deal of my time, and to questions of historiography as they relate to archives.  I hope you will enjoy reading it.