From lofty palaces and cosy pubs to sequestered suburbs and sedate woodland, Turnpike Lane serves up a refreshing thali of North London charm.
I arrived at Turnpike Lane in high spirits – not only was I embarking on my first Beetle’s Eye View for a month, but London Underground was blaring out some Handel in the atrium, which I think should be mandatory for all Tube stations. It was just as well that I suffered such a paroxysm of joy, as this was immediately counterbalanced by the boring grey day I was confronted with. Not that the day was boring, but the grey. That mild, bland, flat light that promises nothing. Not the hope of Elephant’s Breath, the foreboding of Gun Metal or the mystery of silver, but one that at best offers a slim chance of drizzle.
In this weather, there’s nothing better than a stroll up a random high street, so it was lucky that Turnpike Lane is at the crux of one. The high street to Wood Green is one of those Poundland, Poundworld Extra and Mighty Pound types. Corners sprinkled with florists, grocers and fresh shellfish stalls were a nice touch, but there was an increasing inevitability about an impending megaplex. The vast, unsightly and imaginatively-named ‘The Mall’ fitted the bill perfectly.
Not one for shopping at the best of times, I spied a sign to Wood Green’s ‘Cultural Quarter’ and soon found my way disappearing from the populace. After walking through the tranquil, but frankly unassuming, Barratt Gardens, I found myself face-to-face with the Decorium, a neo-classical complex with overtures to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory; needless to say, I was intrigued. With no indications on what occurred within its depths, I decided to pop in: wedding venue. Whilst perusing the brochure, which informed me that the Decorium “unravels an epitome of elegance beneath a striking façade”, the receptionist recommended that I head to the Alexandra Palace as it was ‘the only thing to really see round here’. ‘What about the Cultural Quarter?’ I asked. She’d never heard of it.
Meandering my way under footbridges and over sewage canals (actually the New River), I eventually caught sight of the ‘Ally Pally’, which is nothing short of spectacular. Having always thought of it as just a darts venue, I had never appreciated the ‘Palace’ aspect of its moniker. Perched atop a hill, overlooking its kingdom, the vast structure reeked of feudality.
I traversed across a former-racecourse-come-boggy-marsh in shoes clearly not designed for such arduous pursuits given the osmosis occurring between my socks and the nearby grass, before traipsing up the incline. Like so many places in London, the view stretches for miles, but this lofty summit had a unique quality: traffic. Was this the highest bus stop in London?
Opening as the ‘People’s Palace’ in 1873, the Ally Pally has been at the forefront of London entertainments ever since. From hosting the All-England Pigeon Races in 1875 to being the home of the Haringey Racers Ice Hockey team, the Palace seems to have built-up a reputation for championing ‘lesser-known’ sporting contests – of which I no longer include the almighty world darts championships. Spectacles such as the 2002 version of Miss World, Brooke’s Great Monkey Show of 1889 and an 1878 re-enactment of the last days of Pompeii have all taken place here, but, perhaps just eclipsing all of those feats, was a humble television broadcast by the BBC in 1936 – the world’s first.
I left the birthplace of television and set off towards Highgate Woods, as, according to the effusive Ice Rink attendant, a stroll amongst its boughs, followed by a coffee in Crouch End, is the ideal way to spend a day.
To get to Highgate Woods, my route took me through Muswell Hill, which I was very much looking forward to see. Synonymous with affluence and affability, Muswell Hill should also be known for its remoteness, as the nearest Tube or Overground station (Highgate) is over a mile away. The Tube is the beating heart of London’s transport system and most of us yearn for access to its arterial network, but as you get closer to this cloistered community, you get the feeling that Muswellites rejoice in their distance from it. Perhaps that is why it is so affluent and affable.
Signs for a local gluten and sugar free delicatessen were proof that I’d finally made it onto hallowed ground, but, I must admit, I was a tad disappointed: Muswell Hill is not as jaw-droppingly serene as you might expect for a place that is near impossible to get to. True, the high street is more Planet Organic than Planet Pizza and the O’Neills (converted church) and Wetherspoons (converted tea room) masquerade as upmarket drinkeries, but I was not blown away. I suppose that’s the problem with expectations. Much better to go in blind.
Luckily, I’m a fickle man and was in awe of the area soon after: Highgate Woods are pure escapism. There may not be ‘much to see’ – bar the smattering of submerged cottages, which would easily beguile even the most uppity Hansel – but that was the most refreshing part. They are actual woods. After leaving the shrieks and shrills of a nearby schoolyard behind, the cacophonous tweets of songbirds and the occasional crackle of branches were all you could hear. What’s more, which is a rarity for London’s ‘green’ spaces, the Woods were completely devoid of Lycra. Priceless.
I segued from Highgate Woods to Queen’s Wood, which was more of the same with the added bonus of a woodland café. Sloping walkways and homemade log swings conjured images of the Blair Witch Project – in a good way – before I ventured out into the open on the Wood’s eastern edge. I didn’t have to stay in suburbia for long, as almost immediately I was offered the chance to divert down a bramble-strewn path; an offer I gladly accepted. Skulking round the back of tennis courts and an old cricket pitch, I felt a little self-conscious of my perceived voyeurism and I was buoyed by finally coming to yet another park. Priority Park, however, isn’t going to knock your socks off.
The Philosopher’s Garden promised a sliver of distinction, only to be no more than a cordoned-off section of uncut grass, meaning that by far the park’s best feature is its proximity to Crouch End: surely the jewel in North London’s crown. Stocked full of welcoming pubs and quirky boutiques, Crouch End is what I expected Muswell Hill to be. I wandered up and down the arms of this Y-shaped enclave, admiring the 19th century clock tower at its centre, its arthouse cinema and the Grade II listed Hornsey Town Hall, before deciding to give into the splenetic rumblings of my stomach.
With such a wide range of establishments to choose from, I was chuffed with the butcher’s suggestion. The Queens Hotel really is a fantastic pub. Ornate Victorian décor? Check. Great value lunch menu? Check. Wide ranging selection of craft beers and ales? Check. Armchair in the corner? Check. Classic rock on the jukebox? You know it. I tucked into a delicious moules frites (£5.50) and a pint of Five Points Brick Field Brown (£3.90) and gave myself a metaphorical pat on the back for no reason at all.
Time: 3-4 hours