Park Life: Nudity, death and bears in West Hendon

Sailing boat on Brent reservoir, Wikicommons

Some parks were created for the rich, some parks were created for the poor, but Brent’s Welsh Harp Open Space is different: it was created for THE CANAL. Why that should be the case may not immediately be obvious from a map, the Welsh Harp reservoir that gives the green space sits in the middle of the River Brent, which is notably not a canal – but if you look closely at where the river leaves the reservoir, there’s a thin blue strip labelled Canal Feeder.

By the early 19th century Britain’s canal network was growing so quickly that they’d actually run out of water to fill it well, at least in Camden, where the level of the Regent’s Canal kept dropping below what was actually necessary for e.g. a boat. There was only one thing for it: dam the river Brent and flood a farm in Hendon. The resulting reservoir could then be used to top up the canal, and no more boats would have to risk the unenviable fate of getting trapped outside Camden Market.

When the reservoir was created in 1834, it was actually significantly bigger a return to that level today would see it flood Brent Cross Shopping Centre, which is certainly an interesting idea to consider if you’ve ever been to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. Back in the 19th century, the most significant bit of local commerce was, inevitably, a pub - the new Kingsbury Reservoir (as it was then) had an inn called The Harp on its shoreline.

This eventually became known as The Welsh Harp – it’s not entirely clear whether the reservoir gained its unofficial name (from which the green bit above it in turn gained its official name) from the pub, or vice versa. It’s occasionally claimed that the name stems from the reservoir looking a bit like a Welsh Harp from above, which I guess it sort of does if you squint while really, really wanting it to look like a Welsh Harp for some reason. But the existence of loads of other pubs called The Welsh Harp that aren’t next to plausibly-shaped reservoirs would seem to be a point against it.

Anyway, what is true is that the pub was what made the shores of the reservoir a visitor attraction in the 1850s a bloke called William Perkins Warner returned from fighting the Crimean War to buy The Welsh Harp AND the reservoir’s fishing rights, which at least suggests that Drunk Fishing may have been a more popular Victorian sport than is mostly supposed. Other sporting attractions on offer included: shooting at birds, racing greyhounds and boxing (humans, presumably). The inn itself incorporated a music hall, and at one point a menagerie containing at least one bear, except in 1871, when it escaped (they should bring that back to liven up All Bar Ones).

Popularity waned as London suburbia took hold of the area and people’s option for a fun day out had broadened enough that Hendon was no longer near the top of anyone’s list. But as the 20th century rolled around other activities were offered, at least if you were in the army: testing a brilliant new World War I invention called “the tank”, for one. And, then, after the war: nudism!

From 1921 the area around the reservoir was a regular haunt for members of various exciting new naturist organisations along the lines of the “The Sun Ray Club”. The club’s founder Captain HH Vincent was a fierce advocate for nude sunbathing and had made bold threats of 2,000 strong marches of naked protesters through Hyde Park; in the event it appears the reality of this was him getting arrested for taking his top off, one time, but still.

The relatively secluded fields around the reservoir proved to be safer ground until June 1930, when locals lost their minds over the fact that nude and semi-nude men and women had been spotted NEAR EACH OTHER and there was a small riot, the end result of which was the nudists buggering off to St Albans to leave the residents of London to be angry and confused about something else instead.

The Welsh Harp pub was demolished to make way for the M1, but much of the immediate area around the reservoir has managed to survive various development plans. There was a persistent attempt to build a cemetery on the north western side they even got as far as building a chapel and some nearby allotments are apparently theoretically on ground which was consecrated and no-one had got around to de-consecrating. The attempts to prevent the creation of the cemetery led to the 1965 designation of much of the area north of the reservoir as the imaginatively named Welsh Harp Open Space, which persists today as a bit of a slightly unloved bit of greenery, but one where you can at least definitely count on being unmolested by the bears, the dead, or the nude.


Does it matter that TfL are renaming White Hart Lane station Tottenham Hotspur?

New White Hart Lane. Image: Getty.

Pretend for a moment that you’re travelling in the London of 1932. You’re taking the Piccadilly Line northbound and alight at Gillespie Road station. The name should be obvious: it’s inscribed in bespoke brown tiling on the platform.

But that 31 October, following an intense campaign by the eponymous football club, the London County Council changed the station’s name to Arsenal (Highbury Hill). The area’s growing association with the name “Arsenal” ended in a lengthy negotiation that changed maps, signs and train tickets alike. Football had acquired so much power that it changed the name of not just a Tube station but an entire suburb, even before the era of Wenger or the Emirates.

Now the spectre of name changes is on the horizon once again. As Tottenham Hotspur FC inches closer to completing its new stadium, the club is clamouring for a renamed Overground station. Despite the fact the new stadium is located on almost exactly the same site as the old just off White Hart Lane, and fans have long been calling the scaffolding-laden mess “New White Hart Lane”, the club’s executive director is adamant that the station’s existing name cannot stand. White Hart Lane station, on the Overground line leaving Liverpool Street, is set to be renamed “Tottenham Hotspur”, at a cost to the club of £14.7m.

Little has been made of the fact that this peculiar PR kerfuffle is tied to Spurs’ failure to convince Nike to sponsor the venue. Some sources have even claimed that the sponsorship is yet to be finalised because it is somehow contingent on the renaming of the Overground station; beyond the ridiculous Johnson-era vanity project that was the Emirates Air Line, it seems improbable that TfL will allow any more corporate-flavoured information pollution. There will be no “Nike Stadium” station on the way to Enfield, much as there is no “Emirates” on the way to Cockfosters, especially if public consultation gets a look in.

The scene of the crime. Image: TfL.

But there’s a problem with the new name, all the same. “White Hart Lane” already means “football stadium”, in the same way Loftus Road or Stamford Bridge do. Changing it to “Tottenham Hotspur” risks opening the floodgates to an “O2 North Greenwich” or a “Virgin Euston” at some point in future, names as banal as there are dystopian. The Greater London Authority has promised to spend the £14.7m fee on community programmes in the local area – but that’s not much money to set the precedent that a private company can mess about with the Tube map.

What’s more, as CityMetric has often observed, there are plenty of station names across London that could do with a tidy up. Picking one that’s perfect already and asking for £14.7m to change it is adding insult to injury. How much would it cost a community group if they asked to change the name of Goodge Street to Fitzrovia? Why does a vast corporate entity backed by international sponsors and thousands of season ticket holders get to set the standard?

Back in Arsenal’s day, changing names on the Tube must have been easy; changes could be accommodated gradually without bothering the every day traveller. But in our world of online information, maps and apps, name changes are rather more complicated.

The question is – if TfL can bring itself to balefully accept this particular proposition, why can’t it accept ours? Why sort out a single non-issue on the Tube Map when you can catch lots of real ones in one go? A day’s pandemonium might just be a price worth paying to fix the Bethnal Greens problem once and for all.