Edgware in north west London used to look like that. But thanks to these, it now looks like this. And a few miles away, Bushey Heath was supposed to look like that. But because of him, it looks like this. That-these-this-this-that-him-what?-this… is the story of a town planning cock up that happened fifty years ago. One of many examples of Unfinished London. (♫♫♫) I’m standing at the rather pointless Mill Hill East tube station. It sits on its own at the end of a branch poking awkwardly out of the Northern line and it’s only wide enough for one train at a time, making the Tube more complicated for everybody. You might wonder why would they put a station in such an awkward and confusing place? The answer is they didn’t do it on purpose and the clues as to why it’s ended up like it has can be seen from up there. If you look on Google Earth, you can see the Northern line snaking through London between the houses up here to Mill Hill East. But if you look carefully, you can see that the thin snaking line doesn’t stop there. It keeps going through this row of trees, under the M1 and between these houses in a dead straight line. Just from looking you can tell that there used to be a train line here. So what was this train line, and why isn’t it a train line anymore? It was a branch of the Great Northern Railway built in 1867 that went from Kings Cross to Edgware. As in, the original Edgware station which has since been demolished and turned into the Broadwalk shopping centre. Some of this old-fashioned steam line became today’s Northern line. But the bit between Edgware and Mill Hill closed in 1964 under the orders of the infamous Doctor Beeching Chairman of British Rail with an incurable phobia of trains. *nrghh-grrrh-grrrh* This station survived the axe because the line was electrified as far as here in 1939. And today this tiny branch to Mill Hill East is all that’s left. The rest of the line is now… a bridge over nothing… this footpath no one ever uses… another bridge over nothing… And this nature reserve I’m currently trespassing on. But the interesting thing about this line is there would most probably still be trains on it right now if it weren’t for a big screw-up that happened 20 years before the line closed. In the 30s there were plans to extend the Northern line from Mill Hill East over the old steam railway to Edgware where it would have met the other end of the Northern Line. Then after that they were going to build three new stations called Brockley Hill, Elstree South and Bushey Heath. This project was called the Northern Heights Plan and on the Tube map it would have looked like this. The architects from back then have left clues all over the place that they were really serious about building this extension. Clue number one: Today in Edgware where the trains terminate here, but the tunnel seemingly for no reason at all keeps going. Clue number two: On Google Earth, we can see exactly where the line would have gone. There’s a trail of dead-end streets and modern houses that don’t quite fit in with their 1930s surroundings. That’s because a gap was left on purpose for the line to go, but decades later when the railway never came they squeezed in these buildings instead. This one’s got a swimming pool. Clue number three: The imaginary line would have come here over the road on a bridge that they started building Then, the line carries on down there to the best clue of all. Clue number four: The car boot sale behind the roundabout at Canons Corner. This was supposed to become Brockley Hill station. Here’s an artist’s impression of what Brockley Hill station would have looked like. Just like the stations we know and love today, it was designed in art deco style with a ticket hall, shopping parade and that bus stop which is still there today as a now useless lay by on the A41. The platforms were to be suspended high up on seven brick arches. They started building the arches, but that’s as far as they got and today all that’s left of the station is these stumpy brick things… Ghostly, aren’t they? As the imaginary line goes further and further north, the clues start to run out. The next station would have been Elstree South which is now a petrol station. Pretty much no evidence here at all but apparently there’s 500 metres of tunnel underneath here. And after that, Bushey Heath which is now a nothing. So they started, but why didn’t they finish the extension? The simple answer is that the War… came along which put an end to all funding for the project. And by the time the war was over, they’d changed their mind. New legislation called ‘Green Belt’ had come in after the war to preserve the countryside and prevent towns from merging into big mutant conurbations. A massive splodge of Green Belt was put right where the extension was going to go which meant no one was allowed to build houses. No new houses, no need for new stations and the Northern Heights plan was officially abandoned forever on the 9th February 1954. So what? They were going to build a train line, but then they didn’t. Who cares? I do, and I’ll show you why it matters. In the olden days a train station coming to the area was big news. In the ambitious inter-war years wherever trains appeared, swathes of suburban housing would follow. Posters like these depicting rolling countryside got people to migrate here in their thousands and as you can imagine it had an enormous effect on the area, transforming rural Middlesex into suburban London. Just look what happened to Edgware. This is a map of the area in 1924, just after they finished building the new Tube station. Within ten years the rural countryside was transformed from this into this. Aargh! And the same thing was happening all over Middlesex in Rayners lane. Eurgh! And in Kingsbury. (groans) Ironically the fields in this poster have all gone as a direct result of the very poster that depicted them. Idiots. So that’s why pretty much all houses in suburbia look the same. They were all built more or less in one go. And I find that fascinating cos it was done on the kind of scale that we simply wouldn’t dream of these days. Imagine… actually imagine what it must have been like for the people that were already living here! (muttering and grumbling) That’s why it matters that they didn’t finish the Northern Heights. It would have meant that from Edgware stretching all the way up to Bushey Heath there would have been a horizon-less sprawl of semi-detached, semi-identical houses. Before the railway, Edgware used to look like this and, had the Northern Heights been finished, where I’m standing now would look like Edgware. That’s what the Green Belt was trying to put a stop to. And by the way aren’t we lucky the architects of the 30s had taste. Imagine if suburbia – as in a third of all homes in London – had been built by the “architects” of the 60s. I think the biggest transformation would have been right here at this roundabout on the A41. Doesn’t look like much, but… If I just zoom out here… turn it around a little bit… ignore the M1, that wasn’t built til the 60s… There! This is where the extension was going to end: Bushey Heath station and there was going to be a whole new shopping parade to go with it. The roundabout would have been surrounded by shops, pubs, restaurants and a cinema. It’s pretty hard to imagine standing here what it all would have looked like. So here’s a visual aid. This is Queensbury, 4 miles to the south. In 1932 this was a big empty field just like Bushey Heath. But by 1934 it had this station and all of these shops. So the roundabout in Bushey Heath probably would have looked a lot like this. I admit it. I’m being nostalgic for a railway I’m too young to remember, and some stations that never existed, but here’s a thought: Are we Londoners is any worse off today because they never finished the Northern Heights? After all, even with the Green Belt, there are still plenty of people living in Bushey and Elstree that might use the line. Like me for example. There are so many journeys that I have to make that would be much easier by tube, especially the bit between Edgware and Mill Hill East. Will they ever rebuild the old railway, reconnecting the two branches of the Northern line? The answer… is no. The old Mill Hill Railway will definitely never be rebuilt because we’ve burnt our bridges and built gubbins in the way like this… this… and this which is actually my grandma’s house. To rebuild the line, we’d have to knock it down. – You don’t want your house knocked down, do you?
– No. Should we have safeguarded the route in case we changed our minds? I think allowing development on the line was short-sighted and they should never have built this stupid house. But what about those stations beyond Edgware? Is it such a bad thing they were never built? I think… probably not. First of all this Green Belt is lovely green tranquil countryside with wildlife and nature and trees breathing lovely fluffy oxygen into our precious atmosphere. Second of all I think London had already done quite enough expanding already. The planners of the 1930s – bless their cotton socks – never imagined that those front gardens they lovingly designed for us would nearly all turn into driveways or that a typical family could have more than two cars. They couldn’t possibly have known the damage they were doing for air pollution and traffic congestion. And if they came out this far, who knows when or where they might have stopped? And third, if they’d built houses here, there’d have been no room for the very very important M1. And where would we be without that? So you could say the war came just in time putting a stop to London’s wild expansion… for now. I love London’s imperfections and I think there’s something mad and exciting about the clues to a whole new dimension: the London that could have been. A truly great city like London gets its character not from how it successfully planned for the future, but how it failed. And obviously the failed plans of the Northern Heights is just one of London’s many failed plans. Only one chapter in the big and ongoing story of Unfinished London.