Ruislip and Pinner, linked by the River Pinn, have been almost engulfed in the tide of suburbia that began advancing in the early 20th century, but they retain some remarkable features of their rural past.
Ruislip and Pinner have been almost engulfed in the tide of London's suburbia that began advancing in the early 20th century, but they retain some remarkable features of their rural past. They are connected by the River Pinn.
I had never been on the Metropolitan Line further north of Wembley Park until this year (2017). In the early 1960s, when I was at the Hall School in Swiss Cottage, we made occasional trips to a sports field (not Wembley Stadium!) close to Wembley Park Station. For many decades, I felt the need to travel further out of London on the Metropolitan to see places to which it led. So, on a very hot July day, I travelled to Pinner Station. My aim was to follow the River Pinn as far as Ruislip, which is also on a branch of the line. This essay describes what I saw on my walk between the two stations located on separate branches of the Metropolitan Line.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, both Pinner and Ruislip were small country places in Middlesex, quite separate from London and not part of ‘suburbia’. Ruislip was connected to the Metropolitan Line (Uxbridge branch) in 1904, and to the Piccadilly Line in the early 1930s.
Pinner’s station opened in 1885. Unlike other companies building railway lines, which were to become incorporated into London’s Underground system, the Metropolitan was not required to give up land surplus to its requirements (see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metro-land). This excess land could then be offered to developers for building purposes. In 1915, the Metropolitan coined the term ‘Metro-land’, and produced booklets with this name. These aimed to associate in peoples’ minds rustic pleasures of the countryside with suburban living, and thereby encourage folk to move out of inner London to inhabit the remoter places served by the railway. As John Betjeman (1906-1984) put it in his poem “Middlesex”:
“Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta’s and Pardon’s
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt’s edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural Middlesex again.”
In another of his poems, “Baker St Station Buffet”, he summarises Metroland’s promises of idyllic life in rural suburbia perfectly:
“And sepia views of leafy lanes in Pinner –
Then visualize, far down the shining lines,
Your parents’ homestead set in murmuring pines.”
Metro-land’s success was responsible for converting out of the way places, difficult to access before the advent of the Metropolitan Railway, from quaint rural settlements to sprawling London suburbs. Fortunately, the results were not totally disastrous, not a complete obliteration of London’s countryside. I saw that even though both Pinner and Ruislip have grown significantly, parts of rural Middlesex near them have escaped urbanisation, and remain as rural spots where Londoners may enjoy the countryside without having to move beyond the city’s boundaries.
When my train reached Harrow-on-the-Hill station, the view from the train window was disappointing. The station is away from the picturesque part of Harrow, upon its hill. Instead, it is in the heart of an urbanised area that reminded me of central Croydon: badly-designed office blocks, supermarkets and shabby car-parks. From Pinner station’s platform, I had no idea of what delights were just around the corner from it.
I had travelled from Baker Street to Pinner, where I began a walk that lasted several hours, all of which was delightful despite the intense heat. I decided to follow part of the ‘Celandine Route’, which follows the River Pinn as closely as possible. The River Pinn rises near Hatch End, and then flows in a generally south-westerly direction, passing through Pinner and Ruislip, before merging with Fray’s River just west of Yiewsley. Fray’s River is a tributary of the River Colne, which flows into the Thames at Staines.
Pinner’s name first appeared in records in 1231, where it is noted as ‘Pinnora’. This is derived from two words: ‘Pynn’ (meaning unknown, but might be a Saxon first name; the River Pinn gets its name from this) and ‘ora’ (Old English for ‘river bank’). Its High Street is so well-preserved that it is easy to imagine what the village was like long before the arrival of the Metropolitan Railway. It slopes gently upwards towards the Church of St John the Baptist. Although some of the buildings along the street are newish (post-Victorian), many of them are old, and well-preserved. At number 6, the current occupier of an old building, half-timbered, bearing the date 1580 (although it might have been modified since then), which used to house the ‘Victory’ pub, is a branch of the Zizzy’s restaurant chain.
Number 32 is an elegant red-brick house with a centrally placed pediment on its classical façade. It is currently the premises of EM Collins & Co, and was built in 1763 by its then owner the brickmaker William Bodimeade (see: https://www.harrow.gov.uk/www2/mgConvert2PDF.aspx?ID=60281). Its neighbour, number 34, is one of several 16th century buildings in the High Street. Across the road from these buildings, there is an early 16th century building that now houses the Friends Restaurant.
For almost 100 years until 1915, this house had been home to three successive Parish Clerks. Up the hill from this, stands The Queen’s Head, also in a 16th century building. It has been an inn since 1635. A notice on the pub suggests that there was a pub on this spot as early as 1540, and conjectures that there was one there since the 14th century. The beam (carrying a sign) and post projecting over the pavement have been present since before 1820.
With these and so many other equally old buildings, it is unsurprising that the High Street was designated a Conservation Area under the Civic Amenities Act of 1967. A drearily designed WW1 memorial stands just at the top of the High Street beneath the church, whose tall flint covered tower dominates the short street.
The existing St John the Baptist Church was dedicated in 1321. Its tower and some other features were added in the 15th century. Its pleasant gothic interior contains a stone font with an elaborately crafted wooden cover, and memorials including one to Trooper Edward Russell Apps, who died aged 21 in May 1900 at Bamboo Creek (now ‘Nhamatanda’ in Mozambique) in South Africa during the Second Anglo-Boer War. The monument to this young bank clerk, who worked for Glynn Mills & Co, was erected by his fellow parishioners because he had volunteered “… for active service in a time of national emergency … for Queen and Country”.
Another monument, which caught my eye and roused my curiosity, was that commemorating the Reverend Charles Edward Grenside, Vicar of Pinner from 1886 to 1910. What interested me was that he was born in Moscow (Russia) in 1849. When he entered this world, his father Christopher Grenside (1837-1885) was British Chaplain in Moscow, a post that he held from 1847-1853, having previously held that position in Archangelsk from 1843. Charles died in Kensington in 1933.
There is a small graveyard outside the church. This contains a huge grey stone pyramid with two small (apparently empty) sarcophagi stuck near its apex. This peculiar monument was designed by John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843), the Scottish-born botanist, garden- and cemetery- designer. It was erected to honour his parents.
We catch our first glimpse of the Pinn from a small bridge with cast-iron railings behind some shops on Bridge Street at its southern end. This street, in contrast to the High Street, looks like most north London suburban shopping areas.
Nearby, in Love Lane there stands the Roman Catholic Church of St Luke. Although built between 1957 and 1958 (to the designs of Francis Xavier Velarde: 1879-1960), this unfussy brick construction with its airy interior retains a remarkably contemporary feel (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1429922).
Bridge Street crosses the wide but shallow Pinn, which flows under a wooden bridge connecting two parts of a small park with a few benches. Chapel Lane leads off Bridge Street and heads towards the larger Pinner Memorial Park. Before reaching it, the lane passes Chapel Lane Chambers. These were built in the 1840s, and greatly enlarged during the last century.
Pinner Memorial Park was set up in the grounds of West House on land bought by the people of Pinner in order to honour the dead of the two world wars. There has been a house on the site for over 500 years.
West House was once the home of Nelson Ward (1828-1917), a grandson of Admiral Horatio Nelson. His mother, Horatia (1801-1881) was the illegitimate daughter of the Admiral and Emma Hamilton. Horatia was conceived on board the “Foudroyant” during a cruise in the Mediterranean on which Emma’s husband was also a passenger (see: “The Pursuit of Victory…” by R Knight, publ. 2005). She married the Reverend Phillip Ward (1795-1859), and Nelson Ward was their fifth-born of ten children. He became a Registrar in the Court of Chancery.
Little remains of Ward’s West House. It is now joined to new buildings including a café and a small museum dedicated to the memory of the inventive cartoonist W Heath Robinson (1872-1944; he lived in Pinner from 1908). The complex of buildings overlooks a lake which contains one tiny island and a small fountain. It is also close to a small aviary containing colourful budgerigars. Dotted around the park, there are several attractive carved wooden sculptures.
To the west of the car park outside West House near to West End Road, a group of five small, tilting, gravestones with mainly illegible inscriptions stand in a circle. One of them marks the final resting place of ‘Effie’, who died aged ten years in 1903. These are all that remain of a Victorian dog cemetery. If you wish to see a larger and better-preserved dog/pet cemetery, you need to visit the one near Victoria Gate on Bayswater Road (see: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/news/Inside-Hyde-Parks-secret-pet-cemetery/).
South along the West End Lane with its well-spaced twentieth century houses and gardens – a better part of ‘Metro-land’ that approaches its ideal, Rose Cottage stands, contrasting with its neighbours. It was built in the 1850s when West End was a hamlet separate from Pinner. Further south at the corner of West End Lane and Lloyd Court, there is a bridge over the Pinn. Its waters flow beneath this and then north-westwards through some private gardens to Cranbourne Drive, from where a footpath leads between the stream and some allotment gardens before entering a densely wooded area. The path follows the meandering Pinn through the woods before reaching a broad meadow, which has been preserved for nature conservation reasons.
At Cheney Street, which crosses the Pinn over a small bridge, I spotted a sign that pleaded with people not to scatter the ashes of their loved ones in the woods and green open spaces. Apparently, the ashes of cremated bodies contain high concentrations of minerals that are deleterious to the plants, which made the place so pleasant for the deceased before they died. The Celandine Route path continues to follow the Pinn, which winds through a corridor of grassland, wild flowers, and trees.
After a while, the path, which had been heading westwards, turns southwards and crosses the Pinn over a wooden bridge. This bridge, the Sheila Liberty Bridge (named in honour of a local community leader and conservationist, Sheila Liberty: 1937-2010; see: http://www.getwestlondon.co.uk/news/local-news/sheila-champion-eastcote-dies-73-5991693) leads into the grounds of the former Eastcote House.
Eastcote House stood on a site, where there had been a dwelling since at least 1507. “About the year 1525 Ralph Hawtrey left his parents’ home at Chequers in Buckinghamshire, now the country house of the Prime Ministers of this country, and settled in Eastcote” (see: http://www.eastcoteparkestate.org.uk/WP/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Eastcote-House-Gardens.pdf). The Hawtrey family built a house, which dated back to the 16th century. This fell into neglect, and was demolished(!) in the 1960s. Although, it is not possible to visit the house, we are indebted to the 1936 inspection by the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England, which reported:
“… the considerable amount of moulded wooden panelling and the fine main early 18th century staircase with its twisted ‘barley-stick’ moulded balusters. One of the ground floor rooms with extensive panelling was known as the Cromwell Room because of an unsubstantiated story that Oliver Cromwell had stayed at the house” (see: http://eastcotehousegardens.weebly.com/history.html).
Fortunately, some buildings of the Eastcote House estate remain intact, and open for visitors to examine. The tall, square-based dovecot, which replaces one built in the 16th century, was constructed in the 18th century. Inside, a brickwork structure of (literally) pigeon-holes climbs up the tall walls, and were accessed by ladders. At this point, I will quote extensively from a source already mentioned (http://www.eastcoteparkestate.org.uk/WP/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/Eastcote-House-Gardens.pdf):
“Until the development in the 18th century of root crops, winter feed for cattle was scarce and as a result only breeding pairs could be kept and the rest were slaughtered and salted down. It was soon realised that the fresh meat deficiency could be made good in some measure by the keeping of pigeons and this led to the building of dovecotes some of which date from an early age … The building of dovecotes was heavily restricted and normally only permitted to the lord of the manor. One of the early Hawtreys built himself a dovecote at Eastcote House without permission but, presumably because of his standing with Kings College Cambridge, the lords of the manor at that time, he was forgiven and a licence for the building was granted in 1601.”
The dovecote stands at one corner of a walled garden. Its walls were probably built in the 17th century, and repaired frequently since then. It contains many thin red bricks typical of those made during the Tudor period (i.e. late 15th century and most of the 16th). The garden within the walls is beautifully maintained and is laid out attractively. Close to the garden, there is one more building that has escaped demolition. This is the well-restored brick and timber coach house or stables. It can be dated back to the early 17th century. Now, it is used for both community functions and for private hire. It can hold up to fifty people.
When I crossed the Pinn into the grounds of Eastcote House, the first thing that I noticed was an area fenced off for archaeologists. They had unearthed the flint-based foundations of what had once been a timber-framed building. The friendly archaeologist supervising the dig told me that each year, he and his volunteers dig up different parts of the estate where they expect to find remains, and then after recording their finds they replace the turfs.
A chatty man, who was taking five dogs for a walk, led me from Eastcote House back to the Pinn, where it flowed in a narrow, wooded corridor sandwiched between Eastcote High Road and Mount Park Road. At Fore Street, a substantial brick and stone bridge carries the road over the river. A short distance south of the bridge, where Fore Street meets the High Road, we reach the appropriately named Pretty Corner, which is now a triangular patch of grass. Until the 1930s when the grass was laid, there was a small pond, ‘Guts Pond’ on this site and Fore Street was then called by its 19th century name ‘Frog Lane’.
A half-timbered building is visible from Pretty Corner. This is ‘New Cottages’ built in 1879 to the designs of Sir Ernest George (1839-1922; he designed the current Southwark Bridge) and his business partner Harold Ainworth Peto (1854-1933; a well-known garden designer as well as an architect), whose father was a tenant at the now demolished Eastcote House.
After crossing Fore Street, I followed the Pinn to Elmbridge Road, which crosses the river by a white stone (or concrete) bridge. The river then flows westwards through a wide open-space, mostly grass-covered but punctuated by lines of trees that probably follow old field boundaries. The open space is called ‘Pinn Meadows’. It is all that remains of the home farm (‘demesne’) of the historic estate of Ruislip, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book. After 1087, the lands became owned by the Benedictine abbey of Bec in Normandy. In the 15th century, the lands were handed over to the newly established Kings College in Cambridge, which still holds much land in London today.
Another bridge carries Kings College Road across the Pinn, which then flows south of Kings College Playing Fields. Close to the road and lying between a race-track and the river, there is a rectangular concrete structure with a complexly curved surface – an interesting sculptural form. This is the ‘King’s College Skatepark’ for skate-boarders.
North of the racetrack, there are three neighbouring white painted buildings with a design that reminded me of architecture inspired by the pre-WW2 Bauhaus in Germany. They were built between 1935 and 1938 to designs by Amyas Connell (1901-1980), Basil Ward (1902-1976), and Colin Lucas (1906-1984). It is lucky that they were ever constructed because “The original plans were strongly contested by the Ruislip and Northwood planning authority, but eventually passed…” (see: http://www.modernism-in-metroland.co.uk/97-101-park-avenue.html). Surrounded by brick houses of the type that populate most of London’s extensive, mostly architecturally unexciting, suburbia, spotting these exceptional houses was a pleasant surprise for me.
Where the bridge that carries St Martins Approach crosses over the Pinn, the river appeared to be very narrow or clogged with weeds. The presence of a flood gauge near the bridge suggests that the Pinn does occasionally increase in depth. For example, in December 2012, flood warnings were issued for places along the Pinn including Pinner and Ruislip (see: Evening Standard, 20th December 2012). But, that was difficult to imagine when I saw the river on a sweltering July afternoon.
Leaving the Pinn and the Celandine Route footpath that follows it, I crossed Pinn Way, and then entered Ruislip’s Manor Farm. The former farm and its buildings were ranged around the site of a small motte and bailey castle of the type imported by the Normans. The one at Manor Farm was built just after the Norman conquest.
With a little imagination and the knowledge, provided by informative notices, that the castle once existed, one can just make out two separate low grassy mounds that are all that remain of the motte and its associated bailey. Raised above the surrounding terrain, the former castle would have commanded a good view of the River Pinn.
The half-timbered and brick building that stands to the east of where the motte met the bailey is Manor Farm House. This was built in the 16th century, probably on the site of an earlier house built by the prior of the Benedictine Abbey of Bec (see above), which owned the land on which the farm stood until it was taken over by the Cambridge college. It houses a small museum, which I was unable to enter because on the day I visited it, it was being used to hold music examinations.
Close to the farm house, but west of the former castle, stands the Winston Churchill Theatre. Built in the 1960s, this building’s external appearance is unremarkable, even boring. I have not entered it, but photographs of its interior, which I have seen on various websites, make it seem far more attractive than its exterior. It can seat almost 350 people in its flexible-use auditorium. It was designed by the firm of Mackenzie Wheeler.
Just south of the theatre, there is an exciting ensemble of buildings. These include the Manor Farm Library, which is housed in the former Little Barn. This 16th century building was converted into a public library in 1937. Most of the reading room is under the superb hammer beam ceiling that can be easily seen above the suspended clusters of neon tube lamps.
The Little Barn is at right angles to the Great Barn, which lives up to its name both in size and historical interest. Under one vast roof, this huge wooden barn measuring 120 by 32 feet and reaching a height of over 15 feet, was built of oak in about 1280. The outside of the barn is weather-boarded, and its roof is tiled. Built to store the crops and other products of the farm, it is, according to a notice beside it, “…is the oldest timber-framed barn in Greater London.”
I tried entering this barn, inside which there were noises of people working, but all of its doors were locked. The librarian in the neighbouring former barn told me that it was only ever opened to the public for special events. As I left the library, a little despondent, I noticed a workman leaving the Great Barn. I asked him if I could take a look inside it, and he said: “feel free, I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”
I am very grateful that this kind man let me see inside the barn. Its hammer beam roof is a remarkable feat of hand-crafted engineering. Although not as ornate as, for example, the one contracted much later at Middle Temple Hall, its scale and complexity are awe-inspiring.
A few yards south of the barns, there is a village pond surrounded by bushes and some weeping willows. An 1896 map shows that there was a blacksmith’s house by the western shore of the pond and a post office by its southern shore. The quaint brick building that was once the post office now houses a branch of the Prezzo restaurant chain.
A war memorial in the form of a white stone cross bearing Christ crucified stands a few steps east of the pond. This was unveiled in 1921, and now commemorates the dead of two world wars (see: https://www.hillingdon.gov.uk/article/21117/War-memorials-in-Ruislip). Facing the monument across Eastcote Road, there is a terrace of cottages made in brick with half-timbering.
These were formerly alms-houses, built in the 16th century (built 1570; see: https://historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/education/educational-images/ruislip-almshouses-ruislip-8292), but now converted into flats controlled by a housing trust. They back onto the older part of the cemetery surrounding St Martin’s Church. Along with a couple of pubs, ‘The Swan’ and ‘The George Inn’, there was little more to Ruislip village in 1896 than what I have described in the last few lines. Before the advent of the Metropolitan Line, this tiny village was the whole of Ruislip. Ruislip station opened in 1904. A 1914 map shows that then there was hardly any building between the village and the railway station. A map published in 1936 shows that not only was the High Street almost completely lined with buildings between the church and the station, but also the surrounding terrain, which had been fields in 1914, was nowmostly covered with built-up suburban streets. Ruislip had become absorbed into ‘Metro-land’. Miraculously, the old village centre of Ruislip has maintained something of its pre-Metropolitan Line character.
Ruislip’s Parish Church of St Martin is built in flint and stone. Its construction began in the 13th century, but much of its fabric dates from the 15th and early 16th centuries. The pillars supporting the nave are from the earliest construction era. Above them, the walls that they support display some barely visible frescoes. One of these wall paintings, which is in better condition than the others, depicts the Seven Deadly Sins. The 15th century chancel has a hammer beam roof, whereas the nave is covered with an almost semi-circular barrel-vaulted wooden ceiling.
There was a flower show in progress when I visited the church. There were lovely flower arrangements everywhere, even around the Norman stone font. Refreshments were being served in the bell-ringers room at the base of the square bell-tower. This room contains a lovely group of six framed hatchments, each one bearing the coat-of arms of someone who died in the area.
In the chancel on its northern wall, I spotted the Hawtrey family monument, an elaborately carved piece of stonework, sculpted by John and Matthias Christmas (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1285697), containing two male busts and four crests. Matthias, Master Carver of His Majesties Shipyards at Chatham, was about 49 years old when he died in 1654. His son John, also a Master Carver at Chatham, died in 1694, aged 31 (see: “Registrum Roffense, or, A collection of antient records, charters, and instruments of divers kinds : necessary for illustrating the ecclesiastical history and antiquities of the diocese and cathedral church of Rochester”, by J Thorpe and others, published in 1769). The Hawtrey family of Eastcote (see above) farmed the area in the post-mediaeval period. They leased the Ruislip Manor from 1669 until the 19th century.
There is an old hand-operated water pump on the High Street. It is separated from the church by a row of old houses set back from the road. One of these at its southern end is marked as a ‘Police Station’ on the 1896 map. The cast-iron pump was originally placed over an artesian well sunk in 1864 near the old post office (now ‘Prezzo’) at the junction of the High Street and Bury Street, in the heart of old Ruislip. It was moved to its present location in 1982.
A few yards south of the pump, the old village ends, and modern (i.e. 20th century) Ruislip begins. Just south of the old village, there is a what looks from the street like a flat-roofed building with two rows of sash windows above the modern shopfronts at street level. This mid-Georgian house, once ‘Ruislip Park House’, has been used as a British Legion hall. As the High Street descends towards the station, so does the visual interest of the buildings along it.
Before leaving Ruislip, you might be interested to know the derivation of its name. The place appeared in the Domesday Book, named as ‘Riselepe’. This is believed to mean, according to a Wikipedia entry, ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow’, the river being the Pinn. A historian of Middlesex, Michael Robbins, believed that the name ‘Riselipe’ is derived from the words meaning ‘rushes’ and ‘leap’. In the days of the Domesday book, the area was a hunting park, that is in Latin “parcus est ibi ferarum silvaticarum” (i.e. ‘it is a park where there are wild beasts’). The wild beasts no longer leap amongst the rushes. They have long since departed, and have been replaced by crowds of commuters and their families, who enjoy living in ‘Metro-land’, where (to quote Betjeman once more):
“… a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium – rural