Every year at about this time, I go for a London wander - taking me somewhere unfamiliar, serendipitous, a purposeless and route-less ramble.
Today I went for a walk which had a purpose. I was given for Christmas a copy of Kamila Shamsie's excellent new novel Home Fire, and in this she makes passing reference to a canal that crosses the North Circular.
A canal going over one of London's busiest roads? I had to check this out. So I went in search of it, walking for three sometimes fairly soulless miles along the Grand Union Canal from Harlesden to Alperton.
Where exactly? I'll show you -.
So let's take it step-by-step - out at Harlesden station, and on to the canal towpath at a vast (and empty) pub appropriately called the Grand Junction.
As you can see, there are a small number of residential moorings, but the greater part of the canal here is lined by anonymous, vast, metal-clad warehouses and industrial buildings. They turn their backs on the canal. It's not an amenity for them, but simply what has made this marginal land and so cheap and available for these impersonal structures. What a pity!
About twenty minutes in, you get there - the canal is divided by the sort of concrete structure you might get at a canal lock, I guess to reduce the volume of water, and as you walk on, you realise you are on a bridge, looking down on the traffic on the A406 or North Circular.
I took some photos, but the fencing along the towpath makes it really difficult to get canal and road in the same shot. So better to post a short video clip -
This is not simply an aqueduct - the canal is navigable by narrow-boat. And there's a story behind this canal-that-goes-over-a-main-road.
In 1939, the IRA staged a sabotage campaign - bombings and the like - on the British mainland, with post offices, railways stations, bridges and canals among the targets. An excellent local history site gives details of how on 2 March 1939, the IRA planted bombs on either end of the aqueduct, but the explosions failed to bring the anticipated huge cascades of water down onto the North Circular. There was some leakage, however, and this part of the canal was drained into the river Brent so that it could be plugged and repaired. There's contemporary Pathe newsreel of the incident here.
Heading on towards Alperton, the canal starts to feel more homely. Housing estates line the waterway not simply industrial premises. There are families of swans, which head towards towpath strollers hoping for titbits of food -
By the time I got to Alperton, I was ready to get out of the cold and return to the familiar climes of north London - but I enjoyed my sojourn along the Grand Union. Thank you for joining me!
So there we were this afternoon, making our way to a friend's place in a mews street near Lancaster Gate and what should we see ... horses!
Four horses with mounts made their way at a fair clip out of the mews, and off towards Hyde Park. Your normally fast fingered blogger was too slow to take a photo. But it transpired that the mews where my friends live, Bathurst Mews, is home to not one but two stables.
Hyde Park Stables takes novices and experienced riders alike for saunters round Hyde Park - as long as they are over four years old, under thirteen stone in weight and can manage the prices which start at £99 an hour. This is - says a website devoted to London mews streets - the only mews in the city still with working stables. Glad to have chanced across it!
Well, who knew! Ethiopia is, I discover, 'one of the most vegan-friendly cuisines in the world'. And Fortess Road, near my NW5 home in north London, now has a newly opened vegan Ethiopian cafe, Engocha, just a few doors down from Tufnell Park's long-running and distinctly non-vegan Lalibela.
I popped in this lunchtime with my daughter - we were both well impressed. That's me with the house special among the hot drinks: turmeric and coconut milk. They have, of course, Ethiopian coffees, including a latte with coconut milk. Not bad!
The food is tasty and excellent value - for £4.99 you can have your choice of three 'wots', that's lentil or vegetable stews, with either rice or injera, the wonderful sour and unleavened Ethiopian bread. I'm not vegan but I'll definitely be going back.
Engocha used to be a small, and not all that welcoming, Ethiopian food store - selling freshly-made injera (I was told they've been baking injera here for twenty years) and a small selection of meats and similar. Well, the meats have gone - the space has been opened up - and its friendly and welcoming, with good service as well as tasty food. And they do take away too!
And what does 'Engocha' mean? It is - I learn - a small piece of bread the size of a biscuit particularly connected with Ethiopian Jewish cuisine and baked mainly for children, who dip it in honey.
When I first watched the Town, almost half-a-century ago, the Cowshed - a fairly accurate description of the structure's design - was the rough, tough end of the ground where the hardest and hardiest of fans stood. I was in the main stand, and never ventured near.
When the old Leeds Road ground closed in April 1994, and was demolished to make way for a retail park (there's a plaque, apparently, in the B&Q car park marking the old centre spot), the Cowshed went with it.
Earlier this year, the stand at the new John Smith's Stadium behind one of the goals - the end which is shared with away supporters - was re-designated the Cowshed. Quite by chance, that's where I managed to get a ticket for yesterday's home game against Brighton and Hove Albion. Not just that, I was seven rows from the front - and had a great view of how the Cowshed operates.
Those flags that you see waved - I've always wondered how fans get them in to the ground. But they are already there. Provided by the club. And when the game starts, there are three "choir masters" on the front row - one with a megaphone - and another guy with a large drum, and they orchestrate the chants. They don't see much of the match, but they make sure the fans don't lose voice. And Town's fans are famous for singing their hearts out - with their very own 'Smile a While', and some player specific chants:
"He's here, he's there. he's every fucking where - Johnny Hogg, Johnny Hogg" ... 'He's got no hair, we don't care, Aaron - Aaron Mooy"
And the football? Town won 2-0. We were comfortably the better team, and both goals were scored by the club's Benin international, Steve Mounie. They weren't elegant, but they did the job. At the close, the Town team came to take bow - in front of the Cowshed, of course.
So Huddersfield Town are approaching the mid-point of their first season in the Premier League in mid-table. Bloody brilliant!
And a footnote: much of the match day advertising at the stadium is in Chinese/Japanese/Korean - I guess it must be because of the TV audience in East Asia. But it does look a little out of place ...
I came across this truly remarkable Viking sculpture this week at an excellent 'Vikings' exhibition at the University of Nottingham. It's ninth century and depicts a Viking warrior (in kilt-like dress) with a fairly formidable sword in one hand and a woman he has abducted in the other. The display is labelled as below - and there's a little more detail here.
Was this the work of a Viking sculptor celebrating the warrior, or of an English sculptor recording Viking depredations? I'm not entirely clear. It's reasonable to assume that this warrior - whether converted to Christianity or not - was being depicted as valorous rather than criminal. And that there was among Vikings no social sanction against abducting foreign women. It's of course difficult to know if this woman was destined to be sold as a slave, or to become a domestic slave, or to be forced into marriage either with her abductor or with someone else.
It brought to mind the large-scale abduction of women which accompanied Partition and the independence of India and Pakistan.
I also thought back to a visit to Iceland a few years ago during which a tour guide casually mentioned that research into the DNA of the first generations of Icelanders suggested that while the bulk of the men were from Scandinavia, most of the women were from the British Isles. I checked - that's true. What we can't know for sure is whether these were women the Nordic setters had married while stopping at Scandinavian settlements in Scotland and Ireland on their way to Iceland - or whether these were women they abducted on their way. I imagine that many of these initial women settlers in Iceland were unwilling migrants.
Iceland is regarded as one of the most feminist-minded nations in the world - but it's likely that its national origins lie with the mass abduction of women. A startling irony.
Similar work on the DNA of the Faroese - residents of that small Danish-ruled island group between Shetland and Iceland - shows an even more stark and remarkable finding: 'Recent DNA analyses' - it's reported - 'have revealed that Y chromosomes tracing male descent are 87% Scandinavian. The studies show that mitochondrial DNA tracing female descent is 84% Celtic.' This has to suggest that the early Scandinavian settlers of the Faroe Islands picked up - that is, abducted - women from Scotland and Ireland while on their way to their new home. What an astonishing and unsettling revelation!
One of the finest London novelists, Alexander Baron, was born a century ago today. He is the author of the classic The Lowlife and another handful of wonderful London novels, and he also in From the City, From the Plough caught the raw, infantry experience of the D-Day landings and then fighting across Europe.
Baron was born Alec Bernstein. He is something of an enigma - a very private person. He became active in the Communist Party as a teenager in north London and - although his party membership was never publicly acknowledged (he was active in the Labour Party too) - he became a figure of influence at the CP headquarters. During the war, he moved away from communism, but in his writing repeatedly returned to the ideology which ensnared him in his youth.
His part of London was Hackney and the East End. He grew up in Dalston and Stoke Newington and his family were from Spitalfields and Bethnal Green. Here's how his unpublished memoirs open:
I was born on December 4, 1917 at 30, Penyston Road, Maidenhead, in Berkshire, eleven months before the end of the Great War. My mother went there to get away from the air raids. She stayed with relatives of Mr and Mrs Simmonds, a couple whom she and my father knew in London. Mr Simmonds was a policemen. She arrived in Maidenhead a week before I was born and went back to London with me three weeks later.
My father, Barnet Bernsgtein, was born in Poland. He came to London when he was thirteen. My mother, Fanny Levinson, was born in Corbet's Court, Spitalfields. She was twenty-one and my father was twenty-three when I was born, a little more than a year after their marriage.
My father worked as a fur cutter. We lived for a year with his parents above their cobbler's shop in Hare Street, Bethnal Green. Whenever there was an air raid at night my mother carried me a few hundered yards to the railway arches in Brick Lane. People came in crowds to shelter under the arches until the All Clear sounded. Sometimes her younger sister Hetty was with her; and since I was a very fat baby they had to take turns to carry me the short distance. I was only in my first year, but they told me that I used to point at the searchlights that combed the sky and shout, "Up! Up!"
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