The weather over the last few days had proved to be drab and depressing, which was not unusual for London at this time of year. When I awoke, I opened the curtains with trepidation. Would I have to dig deep to create the sunshine within, or would the skies illuminate a city of possibility and opportunity? Pulling back the material, the naked tree outside my window protruded with a promise to bloom soon, and thankfully behind it lay a clear blue sky. Having been uncomfortably reclusive over the Easter weekend, the sight of the sun inspired me to try and shake off the isolation and head into the city to explore.
Deliberating over which coat to wear, I put my sturdy winter Parka on, grabbed my camera, a bottle of water and descended the hill to Queen’s Park tube. Immediately I regretted my choice of clothing as I began to swelter in the late morning sun. Never one to admit defeat, I continued down Brondesbury Park, past families, lovers and friends who emitted a vibrant, positive glow in the expanse of the holiday weekend. I’d decided a while ago that the next destination for the Uncover London series would be Cockfosters, the end of the Piccadilly Line, miles away in God-knows-where. I knew nothing about the area, and this was an integral part of my trip. I had not looked it up online, and had shut my ears when anyone I’d discussed my idea with had a story to offer about Cockfosters. All I knew is that I’d heard the name on the Underground’s speakers for many years, that it was far away, and that the name was an unattractive mixture of body-part slang and a tasteless English beer.
The further the train moved from central London, the emptier the train became. I sat on an almost vacant carriage except for an old man insistently picking his nose a few seats down. Eventually we arrived in Zone 5 at a beautiful 1930s station, hinting back to an era of sleek lines and elegance.
Passing through the ticket gate, my imagination was dragged swiftly back into the 21st century, when to my right, in between two stair cases lay three wooden phone booths, void of any communication device. Their utility had been eradicated long ago and the booths’ barrenness a reminder of the ubiquity of and our reliance upon the mobile phone.
Leaving the station, I turned left, towards a small selection of shops. I went to the ATM, where remnants of someone’s over indulgences the night before lay sprawled, smelling on the floor. Welcome to Cockfosters! Passing restaurants filled with hungry customers, I found a small Co-operative supermarket where I purchased the ingredients for a humble picnic for one. Staff slunk slowly around the aisles, probably wishing they were outside with everyone else that was fortunate enough to have the choice not to work. Leaving the shop, I pondered my direction. Walking right, I peered down a road, filled with detached houses and parked cars. I had a feeling that something far more beautiful lay around another corner, so I returned to the cluster of businesses, past signs like Dapper, Mens Formal Wear, which both amused and beguiled. All sign makers should be forced to undertake a course in the correct use of the apostrophe or I was going to end up an old, frustrated single woman with a house full of irritation at how poorly pronounced our streets were.
Returning to the station, I walked down its side, entering a muddy pathway that ran next to a cemetery. Trees folded over, arching the path. I saw occasional decaying bunches of flowers, tossed from a grave over the fence. This struck me as peculiar, seeing as only a few bars separated the rubbish from the deceased. Thinking too much about people’s behaviour, the pathway ended and suddenly I found myself in what looked like the middle of the countryside. It might sound terribly cliché, but literally birds sang, blossom trees buzzed with insects, radiating a sweetness that I hadn’t associated with Cockfosters.
Beaming with happiness, I walked left through a parting in the bushes. In the distance I could hear screams of joy above the treetops. Confused and intrigued I entered the woods to find out the source of the excitement. Above my head lay an impressive network of adventure, as people flew along wires, through trees to a platform that presented their next challenge. Craning my neck I immediately thought of my goddaughter. Could I return with her and fly? Judging by everyone’s height, I think not for at least five years.
Out of the woods I decided to sit by a small pond for a bite to eat. Alone, I watched families play, friends banter and couples embrace. I promised myself that this summer I would return with friends as this place was too special to keep to the pages of my blog, and the annals of my mind. Whilst eating a crusty white role stuffed with pre-sliced cheese, I observed the various ducks dotted on and around the pond. A very handsome duck with a burnt orange neck started to taunt a less attractive bird and a minor scuffle broke out. Two large demure-looking female ducks, the pond’s lifeguards, were unimpressed by the friction.
They fluffed up, flapping their wings, casting their judgments loudly across the water. Silence and peace soon ensued and I left feeling content that they were firmly in control of the situation.
With such a huge expanse of nature before me, I could turn 360 degrees and see verdant hills, woods, flowers blooming and all with an orchestra of insects and birds. I walked down the hill into some woods, and hopped through brambles and over a small stream. A while ago, in the depths of winter, a friend told my roomie and I many stories about water, in particular natural springs and something called stream clearing. Having recently decided to cast off the shackles of scepticism and immerse myself in the expansive world of spirituality, I drank her stories with an open mind. Since that evening, whenever I stumble across a stream, which isn’t that often in London, I feel compelled to clear it of its blockages, and it is this experience that I would like to share with you.
The area of water I set upon, for this is the initial attitude I took, was around fifteen metres in length. It was situated at the edge of the woods, where many people and their dogs were walking. At first, I saw a huge v-shaped branch that had blocked the flow and I attempted to drag it out. I had half-heartedly approached the task, with my bag still on my back, and my camera swinging over my shoulder. After a few minutes of futile pulling, I decided that if I were going to make this stream flow again, it would take patience so I placed my things on the leaf-covered ground, removed my winter coat and set to work.
For some reason, perhaps the second half of the picnic that awaited me, I didn’t want to get my hands dirty. This is contrary to my stream clearing experiences in Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath, where I’d immersed my bare in hands in the freezing cold winter water without any hesitation, slinging clumps of rotting leaves asunder. Instead of getting to the heart of the blockage, I tip toed around the edges, using a large branch to prod and fling the offending obstructive materials. I had only intended on clearing one part of the stream, as I was on some kind of mission to have an experience and one that was worthy of recording for my blog. However, on hearing the newly formed steady trickle of the now muddied water flowing, I moved up the water to the next blockage. Nearly slipping in, down the steep banks, I realised that I was missing the point of stream clearing. I was rushing it, tackling it, and focusing on a part, rather than the whole. I wasn’t being present, or setting a positive intention that would hopefully actualise through unblocking the stream.
I moved erratically up and down the water. I was far from methodical. I slowly realised that if I wanted to transform the flow, I’d have to approach the whole, rather than a curve or a bend here or there. This was starting to distinctly resemble my own life. Eventually, I managed to drag the massive awkwardly shaped branch that had caused me to temporarily give up half an hour before, and what had been stagnant began to surge softly. The act of physically clearing the stream had become a deeply philosophical journey for me. As I worked away, I imagined the process to unfurl blockages within me. The stream was a metaphor of me, and my journey was replicated in how I approached the experience. As I eventually relaxed, I got properly hippy and asked the stream, as it bubbled and poured into the woods, to let my life flow more freely too. I felt liberated, present, and cleansed, even if the water was mud-brown!
Satisfied with what I had achieved, I picked up my things and emerged back into the sun. Wandering along bushes and trees that bloomed pinks and several hues of green, I decided to lie down on a grassy knoll. Removing my shoes, I ate my second cheese roll, some fruit and lay blissfully, basking in the warm day. For the rest of the afternoon, I explored what I later learnt was Trent Park. Carpets of daffodils covered woods, puncturing the ground with their radiance. Eventually I stumbled upon an old dilapidated estate, which hinted at former pomp and glory. It now lay shut, with guards patrolling its parameters. Ugly 1960s style square buildings littered the old manor, resembling a kind of pimple on a beautiful face. They screamed polytechnic and looked like badly decorated cardboard boxes, flimsy and lacking thought or effort in their design. Still not knowing where I was, I asked a lady who was busy capturing photos of the yellow lawn on her phone. This is Trent Park, she replied. It used to be a school, but the council ran out of money, so they sold it to the Malaysians. How telling of contemporary times.
Curious, I walked around the back of the manor, where I was told I should not go. Whilst taking pictures of a distressing sculpture, a security guard asked me kindly what I was doing. I stated the obvious, and politely asked him what he was doing. He kindly ushered me along, away from the unfortunate mish-mash of old and new architecture, towards ponds with waterfalls. In the distance, in between two woods, I saw what could only be an obelisk. Was this really London? Could Cockfosters really be this spectacular? Starting to feel a little tired from the hours of walking, stream-clearing and sunbathing, I decided to leave the obelisk for another day. This park required much more exploration, perhaps with a friend and if I were lucky, a dog or two. Plus I had a date later, and I needed to get home to at least have a shower and change from my muddied clothes. The ellipsis of the obelisk would have to linger for now.
Passing the pimpled manor, I eventually found the small road that led to Oakwood tube station. Commencing the descent, along a tree-lined path, I heard a voice behind me. Is this the way to Oakwood? Replying that I hoped so, a middle-aged English man and his partner joined me. Steve, clad with a brown leather jacket and an honest smile told me that it had been thirty-seven years since he’d trodden this path. With his partner walking behind us along the narrow pavement, he filled me in on the estate’s history, and a context of my surroundings began to emerge. There had once stood a teachers’ training college on these grounds, which explained the presence of the aberrations that clung unhealthily to the sides of the feudal home. We petitioned for street lights along this road, for the female teachers, as it was dangerous for them to come home in the pitch black, said Steve, who reminded me a little of Derek Trotter from Only Fools and Horses. In 1909, Sir Philip Sassoon bought the estate. He dreamt of the grounds being planted with every tree native to the country, and so his multi-million pound wealth enabled this vision to come into fruition. Sassoon remained a bachelor all his life, and having fathered no children he left the estate to his head maid. She also bore no children, so when she died Enfield council inherited the land. It was then turned into a thriving place of study, however, due to a lack of funding, it fell into a state of decay, and was shut down a few years ago. And now the Malaysians have bought it, said his partner, Marguerite. All of us pondered on what they would do with it, hoping it would provide a space open to the public.
We continued along the road, chatting about their cats, their initial boredom on entering retirement and how life had been changing over the last few decades in England. They had moved somewhere up north, and didn’t miss London at all. Once we retired, we had to get counselling for a while, as we weren’t used to spending so much time together, Steve informs me as we embark on the tube. Marguerite doesn’t look hugely impressed with him divulging this information. She tells me about her life in Germany, and how she had been headhunted in London as one of Europe’s leading gynaecologists. Their demeanour was calm, and they were very much in love. As the noisy train filled up the closer we got into central London, they asked me about work, my studies, my aspirations. Just as they got off the train, Steve said it had been a surprise to meet someone so open to conversation in London. He then said go and change the world into a better place Layla. I smiled, and we shook hands and they disappeared into the Saturday evening throngs.
My trip to the end of the Piccadilly Line had presented a whole new dimension to London, and an expanse of nature far larger then my usual stomping ground in Hampstead Heath. How I had never heard of such a beautiful place before baffled me. Clearing the stream in the woods had prompted me to look at how I approached life and the various challenges it presented. I was reminded to immerse myself softly in life as a process, rather than rushing towards some illusive end, that would never materialise. The beauty was in the journey, and my attitude towards that journey that was all that mattered. Cockfosters showed me that there are a hundred Londons, brimming with a multitude of potential experiences, pullulating my desire to uncover more of my own back yard.