The Mystery of Mill Hill East

I’ve been visiting Woodside Park, in north Finchley, for over twenty years. It sits up near the top of the tube network, a couple of stops below High Barnet, Chipping Barnet, and the encircling M25 motorway. The station feels like a countryside halt, but walk up to the high road and it’s your usual traffic-choked drag of Starbucks and McDonalds, despite the presence of the winningly named Tally Ho corner.

In all that time of visiting these parts I had always been intrigued by the mysterious Mill Hill East, a one-stop branch of the Northern Line from Finchley Central. It always seemed an expensive mistake, like Brasilia or Premier League Football.

So it was reassuring to read that it never really took off, even after the railway came, as the service to London was indirect and slow. A pub opened; housing was built for workers at the local gasworks. But it remained a backwater.

Our route between the places mentioned in the first two paragraphs was along the Dollis Valley Greenwalk. This follows the path of Dollis Brook, a stream reduced to a mere trickle by our ongoing unusual weather times. My friend had spent years unaware of this blissful green space, which leads all the way to Hampstead Heath extension to the south. But we were heading north, and then west: to the strange almost-countryside that surrounds Mill Hill.

The Geeenwalk was a mere slither of land between semi detached housing, but it felt more than that. Once one escaped the smell of the barbecues wafting from neighbouring fences, one was free – or, at least, semi-free, which was always the promise of suburbia.

Was this path an ex-railway line, like the Parkland Walk between Finsbury Park and Highgate? Why else, I wondered, would a pocket of prime land remain so pristine, unless it was a quirk of rail history or some other kind of happy accident?

Eventually our path opened up and we found ourselves in the vicinity of Finchley Nurseries, and a queue of cars driven by those who lust after plants. But for me, a noob to the area, the main reaction was one of surprise at how countryside-ish things had become. To misquote a popular meme, is this… Barnet?

We followed a footpath past an unexpected number of cricket clubs, before finally heading back towards a main road – once the site of a significant army barracks, now questionable housing – via a gorgeous accidental meadow. Accidental in the sense that it wouldn’t exist had anyone figured out a way to develop it into not being a meadow. But we were grateful for the butterflies, the long grass and the shade of the trees.

We then passed an old chapel in the process of conversion to posh housing, new developments, a park, the suburban house of a friend of a friend, and the Waitrose / Virgin Gym development that has replaced the old gasworks.

Mill Hill East was, at this stage, confirming my arrogant assumption about it. That it was a non-place. Or, at the very best, an almost-place; with new developments that the locals feared would destroy it, but which I suspected would save it.

On the walk back to Finchley we went under the viaduct that carries trains towards this accidental terminus. A magnificent bit of engineering, almost absurd in its ingenuity just to reach a station that no one seemed to want.

But as the tubes rumbled overhead and the cars sped below, I thought – well, this is glorious. This will hopefully stand for another hundred years at least, long since these speeding Audis have turned into so much dust.

Here’s hoping.

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