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Paper, Scissors, Gone

A walk, midsummer, from Berko to Kentish Town.

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25/01/13


Nash Mills, Apsley


There was a mill recorded here in the Domesday book, grinding corn probably. More recently it had been a paper mill. The canal - the first section of my long trudge home - brought raw materials in. Rags mostly, and later wood pulp and esparto (a type of grass). Paper went out the same way. To Paddington Basin and the world. Hertfordshire was the birthplace of machine paper making and John Dickinson was the most successful of its paper manufacturers. His empire spread along the river system like a water born plant.



Nash House
 


The mill, which once employed six hundred people, closed in 2006. Today the house that John Dickinson built sits in the middle of a large building site on the north bank of the canal. The mill buildings are gone. So too are the engine men and esparto breakers, bleachers, cutters and errand boys. The mountains of rags - ghosts' skins  - gone. At one time the mill was producing three million envelopes a week. Now it is silent but for the sound of water dropping into a brick culvert. The soft gurgle of a million big and little dramas disappearing down the pipe. The chattering classes, Professor Orlando calls them, but you can't do automatic writing on a smart phone. 

Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who discovered Knossos - the principal city of Minoan Crete - was five years old when his family moved in to Nash House in June 1856. I imagine him moving through the empty house with flowers picked from the canal towpath where he has been taken to watch the barges negotiate the lock and to be out of the way of the removal men. Today yellow hawkbeard and purple mallow grow in the short grass by the brick lock steps built by Irish navvies. Looking in to the water, I can see deep excavations. There are tents and caravans, water containers, shovels, picks and fencing. A lost city emerging from baked Mediterranean earth.


Many paper makers arrived  at The Bell - a sixteenth century coaching inn on the London Road - before making their way to the mills in the valley. My grandfather, Dennis Goffey, used to supplement his pension by doing the landlord's accounts. I went with him once or twice. There was a weather beaten boat in the car park which we played in. A cockle stall did business at weekends.
 
Dennis had once been a banker to the Rothschilds. He worked in the Tring branch of Nat West where Lord Walter - the natural history collector - had a ledger all to himself. The estate manager would come in every week. "He never gave us any trouble," wrote Dennis in his memoir. I should 'kin hope not I might add. But then I'm another generation entirely, and would lack patience with anybody that could even think of taking the fragrant roses that are a bank teller's work life and replacing them with weeds and woe. The ledgers in the 1920s, my grandfather remembered, were all hand written; a 15x12x7 inches one contained 750 pages. The branch didn't have a typewriter or an adding machine. The only high-tech gadgetry were "a pair of sovereign scales, a spring silver checker, a copying press, and a four-wheeled trolley." The manager, according to my grandfather, was a drunk who had been a champion on a penny-farthing in his younger days. You can't beat face-to-face banking.


 
Asylum


I leave the canal through arable fields thinking of Ovaltine and air raid shelters, and land girls with red polka dot head scarves.

From Tom's Lane a poppy fringed path runs parallel to the newly widened M25. There are buzzards riding the carbon updraft. Swifts and swallows skim the barley like a hundred years never happened.
 
On the outskirts of Bedmond I join a sunken single-track lane orphaned by the motorway. The scarred boles of an old beech hedge are like giant nuggets of iron slag from a primitive furnace. The linked arms of the trees have a menacing aspect. A kind of arboreal kettling propells you down to the neighbourless house and the dark underpass.

The M25 feels as though it should be half way, but in fact I've only come about eight miles from the Port of Berkhamsted. Which just leaves another twenty six. And a half.

I emerge, blinking,  into another world. A large pillbox-like structure sits on a tumulus or bailey in the trees. There is an abandoned cemetery with the date 1886 above a wooden lich-gate. Where has everybody gone? Where am I? The imagination goes into overdrive in these strange metropolitan wildernesses - more than more obvious countryside like the Lake District or the Peaks. Not that they don't spark wonderment, and blisters. It's just that there is something especially strange about finding wildness in your own back yard. I saw one or two gravestones poking through the nettles,  and stubs of nightlights in the brambled slits of a broken pill box. It must have been weird for a homeguardsman being stationed here at night in 1940, scanning the horizon towards St Albans for the fall of silk parachutes or the landing of a glider.
 
It made perfect sense when I got home and googled it. I've no idea why I'd never looked it up before especially as I've done this part of the walk at the very least, a dozen times. Then again sometimes abundance is demotivating. There are too many stories to listen to them all. So you listen to none or put the old ones on shuffle. The cemetery was consecrated in 1870 on the same day as the opening of its parent establishment: The Imbeciles Asylum, Leavesden. The patients were, according to the logic of the time, "insane paupers" who were "such harmless persons of the chronic or imbecile class as could lawfully be detained in a workhouse."

I  visited a friend in a similar institution near St Albans. I remember walking down a corridor for half a mile to be greeted in French. For us this had been the language of blue spring skies, unsubtly perfumed envelopes, Old Spice and Gauloises, tubes of condensed milk and bangers that would raise the dead.

Now he speaks a language that baffles even Professor Orlando who tells me frankly, tamping down the tobacco in the bowl of his pipe with a bony nicotine stained finger, that it is the most difficult case he has come across since Linear A.

But the feelings that the cemetery conjures up only get stranger when you realise that it is not the half a dozen or so grave stones that are strange. What is really weird is the absence of grave stones.  5090 bodies are buried here in unmarked graves - six coffins in each - cut fourteen foot deep right into the chalk bedrock.

The common view is simply wrong, Professor Orlando continued. The dead do grow old. It is the living who are condemned to return to the past like neutered tomcats licking the place where their bollocks used to be. You are the Telstar generation, he went on, warming to his theme, though I was by no means sure what his theme was by this point because I had stopped listening.


Aerial

 
After a couple of days hiding out in a wood on the Tyttenhanger estate near London Colney just south of St Albans he set off walking towards London but almost immediately aroused the suspicions of  a reserve policeman on duty near the North Orbital Roundabout. The man, a twenty nine year old Sudeten German from Kraslice in Bohemia, was arrested on 14 May 1941 and after several days of questioning admitted that he had been sent as a spy.

Not long after my midsummer walk I visited the field where Karel Richard Richter fell heavily to earth. It had a crop of oats in it when I was there. I inspected the hedge where he had hidden his camouflaged parachute. It was an old Hertfordshire hedge - at least it contained a plum tree with fruit too high for me to pick and there were traces of historic fly tipping and Polish lager.

In a nearby wood I fought my way through dense holly and bramble to the place where the parachute spy had, in the bank of a shallow pond, hidden the tools of his trade - a steel helmet decorated with an eagle and swastika, a flying suit, a pistol and a wireless transmitter. He must have been terrified. I was spooked just being there in July 2011 with no good reason other than idle curiosity and the mind's  need to lose itself in other worlds like the fishermen huddled under their camouflage umbrellas by the gravel scrape ponds.

I had come across a pub earlier in the walk. A former pub, I should say. It was the strangest and the saddest I had ever seen. I wondered if the spy had come across it whilst casing the perimeters of his prison. I imagined him peering through the window at the locals with their shared friendship and history. People perhaps who remembered the faces and stories of people born at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
 
Or just a couple of land girls falling asleep over a gin and tonic and some mechanics from the air field, grabbing something fun-shaped before it was rationed.




The Barley Mow
 



The pub had a hand painted sign on the outside front wall. It was a picture of a man, pitch fork in hand, on top of a cart piled high with harvest. The lettering on the other side of the pub was still clear if a bit tatty: "The Barley Mow". I walked down a rarely used lane past an old cottage. "The dog can get to the gate quicker than you can," read the sign on the gate. Perhaps Richter didn't come up this far. I had to wait several minutes for a break in the traffic big enough to make a dash for the central reservation of the North Orbital Road. Long enough to sink a pint and elope with the landlord's black-eyed daughter. Back in the day.

I suspect that he might have been better off had he landed in the grounds of Leavesden Asylum - they knew how to deal with those claiming to be Jesus Christ or Czech patriots - just ignore them and boil them like turkey cocks twice a week until they forget about such nonsense and the whole thing calms down.

But the strangest thing is the way that the narrative arc of a whole lifetime compresses to a kind of poetry when time is short and someone is narrating a story - like Sherazade -  for their life. I hear strange circular music in the transcript of the trial at the Old Bailey.

When flap opened underneath me,
I did not pull anything, everything took place automatically.
I only a long cord passed away and came out through the trap door.
In any case everything took place automatically.

The noose, perhaps because the hangman was distracted by the preceding struggle,  somehow managed to slip over the prisoner's jaw. It caught under his nose. But the result was never in any doubt.


River


Napsbury, another decommissioned asylum in the Vale of St Albans, was where my great grandfather, Harry Goffey, artist grandson of a sea Captain, died on New Year's Day 1952. It was also where the cat painter, Louis Wain,  spent his final years,  after being transferred from the Royal Bethlehem in Lambeth in May 1930. Perhaps there was a special wing set aside for bewildered animal painters. It's just as well they weren't there at the same time. I don't think they'd have got on. Harry was a dog man.
   
The Vale of St Albans is, geologically speaking, the grandfather of Old Father Thames. Now time and tide have swept the asylums away too. The currents that rounded the pebbles have scuttled the inmates out to the Wash where they moon in samphire and argue over who left the lid off the Prussian Blue.

Among the items left in his will was a  framed colour etching  of his friend Lucy Kemp-Welch's painting of  three horses' heads. Her first taste of success was a painting of horses - "Gypsy Horse Drovers" - going to Barnet Fair. It was painted in Bushey when she and Harry were students of Herkomer's in the 1890s.  Today her work is valued not just for its artistic merit but as a record of a lost way of life.

I imagine old Harry looking up from the hospital grounds towards Ridge and seeing gypsy riders on the green lanes. Or perhaps he looks east along the ghost river and sees the Mersey or the Ancre or the Niger delta. Or none of the above; and probably not even a river. And the grounds didn't remind him of anywhere except that he wasn't at home in Berkhamsted under his own fruit trees. And that he might not even get a biscuit or a cup of tea when he needed one. But now I'm actually thinking of Dennis, who died in a building which had been a workhouse, but wasn't anymore, and my friend .... And thoughts just spin off like flat pebbles skimmed across vast tracts of shallow water, each jump getting smaller and smaller. Not so much Barns-Wallacing as vanishing like so many rabbits down holes or back in hats. But the life has gone out of the idea before I've finished thinking it let alone writing it down, beaten to the gate by the dog, and the creak of a frame from which the sign and significance has long since been removed. The toilets for customers only.


Ridge


In August 1763 a brown paper-like substance was found on a farm in Tuscany on land which had been flooded and then dried. News of the find caught the imagination of naturalists in Italy. John Strange, who would later become the British Ambassador to Venice, brought his knowledge of botanical literature and skill as a microscopist to the investigation. He also involved several Tuscan paper mills in an unsuccessful attempt to produce a new kind of paper from the substance, a kind of algae - conferva - sometimes called "crow-silk"  in  Britain.

Strange died at Ridge on the 19th March 1799. His private museum - one of the largest in Europe - took eight days to sell when it went to auction the year after his death. The sale list reminded me of the lists of personal effects returned to officer's familys in the archives at Kew or the lists of a sailor's effects who has died at sea and his kit auctioned to the crew. An inventory not written with pen and paper (natural or otherwise) but with hammer and Portland slab. The worst thing in this case was the sale of the empty cabinets. But perhaps I'm just being mawkish. It is beautiful and sad. The original stretched to several pages. These highlights appealed to me for one reason or another. To me it reads like poetry. But it is still a list and if you don't like lists you should skip to "Horses" and make for Barnet before the Revenue Men catch up with you.


Hertfordshire plum-pudding stone. Transylvanian rock salt.  A nautilus from Wiltshire. Fossil shells from Dudley and Vienna. Broad-ridged brain coral, sea mushrooms, belemnites from Banbury. A bird’s nest, encrusted with spar from Carlsbad. Polished asbestos from Scotland. Copper from Paris Mountain. Icelandic obsidian. Falkland Island carnelian. Giant hairballs and Roman tiles. Fossil bones from Monte Marte. Wind-pipe barnacles with teeth embedded in sperm whale flesh. A mosaic parrot,  a flying lizard, a humming bird on its nest. Some tables - once the Property of Monsieur De Calonne, the exiled French statesman. Shelves, suit natural history or books. An eagle's claw tobacco stopper and some eggs of a buz hawk, taken from a magpie’s nest in an elm tree at Ridge on April 27, 1793.

 
Horses


My walk down Packhorse Lane  is accompanied by the clop of imaginary horses and the mewing of real buzzards above the pasture fields. I crossed the Barnet Bypass via the horse bridge and returned to the bridleway, now called Arkley Lane.

Less than a mile from here the Holiday Inn at Borehamwood occupies a site where an earlier hotel, The Thatched Barn, attracted the smart set in the thirties, lured by the glamour and sometimes the stars of the nearby film studios. During the war it was requisitioned by the Special Operations Executive and given the code name of Station XV. The head of this establishment was the film director Colonel J. Elder Willis who had worked with Paul Robeson on Songs of Freedom (1936). His task was to develop camouflage which could conceal the materials needed by the guerrilla armies fighting in occupied Europe and elsewhere.

Willis employed many of his friends and colleagues from the film industry - buyers, who could procure strange items (like 1500 rats) without attracting suspicion, as well as craftsmen and prop-makers. The knack of passing off the fake as real was already second nature - though the stakes were higher now and as one worker noted many years later, you wouldn't want to go in to work with a hangover. Their productions read like the prop list of a  James Bond film. Silk maps were sewn in to the lining of a handbag, or rolled up and hidden in a fountain pen. Even more ingenious were jelly feet with straps which would disguise footprints - transforming an operative's shoe into the print of a bare native foot or a Japanese army boot. Several former workers at the Thatched Barn remembered working on exploding horse dung. Plaster cast models were packed with explosive, coated with glue, and sprayed with powdered dung  which had been dried in a specially constructed kiln.

 
   
Green Way


The long march from here up to Barnet  I often see no one - although the walk is sometimes accompanied by the sound of shooting from a gun club just up the road. Today I was surprised to see - I guessed - a farmer and his son in one of the fields and two cars passed me coming from Saffron Cottage the one isolated house in the lane.
   
I've always felt that this part of the walk has the most isolated feel of anywhere I've walked in the capital's green fringes. It's not quite as lonely as the sea wall  on the Dengie Peninsula, but it is unarguably lonely. Lonely in spite (or perhaps because) of the myriad humanity zipping under the horse bridge in hermetically sealed aluminium and laminated glass bubbles.

There is a strong sense of history here - not Kings and Queens and famous battles, though Barnet does have the latter, but of journeys taken on foot or horseback and the push and pull of the capital city in the centuries before the motor car and the bypass and the orbital road.
   
I also get a sense of purpose from a green lane that I don't get from a footpath. Perhaps droving is in my DNA. It wouldn't be impossible for my own Shepherd ancestors to have come this way. It doesn't really matter - they knew lanes like it in the hills outside Oxford. Perhaps part of my enjoyment comes from the pleasurable illusion that the green road feels like work to one who has spent most of his life avoiding it.

I felt vindicated when I discovered later that my sense of time travel was not entirely unjustified. The old south Hertfordshire/Middlesex borderlands are officially an ancient landscape - which is not to say unchanged or unchanging, but that a more patient archaeologist than me has identified traces of pre-Roman land divisions in the  modern day fields and hedgerows. It is not just a paper exercise - the feel of the place is small scale - the antithesis of  the modern arable farms near King's Langley that I passed through this morning. And I like the fact that it is a landscape that repays inspection and study - it doesn't give up its secrets easily. You have to work at it - or rather you don't: there is a sign the other side of the hedge telling you that the lonely cottage is the last survivor of the hamlet of Saffron Green which disappeared at the beginning of the twentieth century. The name possibly refers to the poisonous plant, meadow saffron, rather than the expensive culinary herb.
   
But long straight lines - even pre-modern ones - can have a soporific effect: and the transmitters peeping above the trees remind me that I've listened to the radio on this bit before now.  Today I'm too apathetic to even do that. I am a drover without drive. I feel I am not moving at all  in any meaningful way. I am simply stuck, restrained above a trap door whilst my whole green life is wheeled past me in its monstrous greedy gob smacking boredom.

Then the lever is pulled, and I'm falling. I feel the wind on my face and the tug of silk like a ship's sail. I can see the curve of a river far below and a lorry parked next to the North Orbital road.


Descent


At Totteridge - where my grandmother lived as a child - I sit on a bench by the Long Pond on the common to finish my coffee before setting off down a narrow footpath between fields with views to Mill Hill and Alexandra Pallace. There is something on at the cricket club. A blues band are playing and the sound carries across the cricket game, the tree fringed brook and pasture fields, up to the ponds and the footballers' villas with electric gates and the traffic noise on the insanely busy A5109 Barnet to Edgeware road.

My great grandmother's Cousin Addie ran a school in Finchley in the early decades of the twentieth century. She and her pupils would walk across fields up to Mill Hill for a summer outing. Most of the path became a suburban road but it resurfaces near Mill Hill and with it my dreamscape. But I'm getting tired as I walk up Burtonhole Lane. The last part of the walk reduces itself to green corridors through grey suburbs.

At Henlys Corner the neurons marked "road" and "walking boot" briefly flicker together in my mind like the sun reflected off the windscreen of a  brand new JCB into the broken window of an abandoned paper mill. It is difficult to escape the feeling that I have exhausted myself going absolutely nowhere. 
   
I've missed the window to cut through Kenwood but it is a short enough detour to get on to the Heath at the radio mast past iron posts marking the London County Council boundary. This was the highest point in the old county at 440 feet (134m). It is all down hill from here.

A thirty six mile graveyard. An aspirational slug trail. A broken potsherd. A butterfly wing. A man parachuting to his death. A walk, midsummer, from Berko to Kentish Town. Home from home.


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richardshepherd.net, 2013