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In Metro-Land

Ruislip

Ruislip is a pleasant suburb in north west London, with an ancient village at its heart which was mentioned in the Doomsday Book. It is also the town where I grew up, and where my parents continued to live until old age and ill health necessitated a move away for the last few years of their lives.

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Domesday Book info in the library

When the Doomsday Book was written, in 1086, Ruislip was known as Rislepe, ‘leaping place on the river where rushes grow’, and (as I was always told as a child) had more pigs than human inhabitants. These pigs roamed the extensive woodlands, and Ruislip Woods remain to this day, although smaller than they once were.

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With my sister by Ruislip Duck Pond
- I am on the right

The village grew up around the 13th century parish church dedicated to St Martin. The barns belonging to the former Manor Farm, just to the north of the church, still stand. Nearby is the village duck-pond, where as a child I loved to throw bread to the ducks.

Ruislip remained quite small, and rural, until the coming of the Metropolitan railway at the start of the 20th century. At first the new line and station were used mainly by Londoners wanting to escape to the country for a day, but soon the charms of living here lured many to move out to the suburbs, and development in Ruislip mushroomed. The population rose from 6,217 in 1911, to 72,791 in 1961, and growth was especially fast in the 1930s, as the many houses from this era testify.

This was the period of Metro-Land, a vision of a suburban idyll developed as part of a Metropolitan Railway advertising campaign designed to lure workers away from their cramped homes in Central London and out to a supposed ‘paradise’ that was rural in appearance and lifestyle and yet was in easy reach of their jobs in the capital.

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Metroland poster
- (from wikicommons)

The notion was simple: the railway would buy the farmers' fields that lay either side of the newly expanding railway line and build on them. But while the posters that formed the bulk of the campaign showed a sylvan landscape where ladies in hats picked flowers and drifted through sun-speckled meadows, and families picnicked in perpetual sunshine, of course the building programme destroyed the very landscape that these posters seemed to sell. Meanwhile, the occasional attractive mock-Tudor house shown in those same posters was the exception rather than the norm – most of the construction being of functional brick and pebble-dash terraces.

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Typical 1930s terraced housing

I lived for ten years of my childhood in such a house – a comfortable if uninspiring family home in a street of many more such. But we were happy there, and it was a vast improvement on the tiny flat in Regents Park where my parents had started their married life together. The Metro-Land lifestyle was later immortalised by the poet John Betjeman:

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Ruislip Gardens station today

‘Gaily into Ruislip Gardens
Runs the red electric train,
With a thousand Ta's and Pardon's
Daintily alights Elaine;
Hurries down the concrete station
With a frown of concentration,
Out into the outskirt's edges
Where a few surviving hedges
Keep alive our lost Elysium - rural Middlesex again.’

Ruislip Gardens was my home from the age of four to fourteen, and I would often watch those red trains (or the 1960s maroon equivalents) from my bedroom window, as I waited for my father (not Elaine!) to alight and come home from work.

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Our (2nd) Ruislip home

Later my parents were able to buy a house in Ruislip proper that more closely fitted the mock Tudor poster image, an attractive early 1930s house. Living here as a teenager, and starting to take an interest in the history of Ruislip (now that we lived nearer to its historic heart), I was fascinated by the anecdotes of a neighbour, a woman then in her seventies, who had lived here since the street was first developed. She remembered having to wear rubber boots to walk across the fields that separated her house from the station, changing there into smart ‘town shoes’ and leaving the boots and a lantern with the station-master, to be collected on her return for the night-time walk home. Those fields have long since been covered by other streets and other houses, and even today development is on-going, with some of the larger houses built in the 1930s being pulled down to make way for modern apartments or smaller family homes.

But something of that earlier sense of living a little apart from the hustle of the city remains, and the modern-day equivalents of Betjeman’s Elaine still alight from tube trains each evening and breathe, no doubt, a sigh of relief at being somewhere calmer and quieter. For me, a city-lover, Ruislip now seems too quiet and remote from the action to appeal as a possible home, but I still have that same sense of a slower pace of life whenever I visit and I can understand why Ruislip still lures people to move here with a desire to experience that Metro-Land lifestyle.

And the ancient heart of the former village is still there...

St Martin’s Church

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St Martin's Church

The church of St Martin’s was built in 1245 and probably stands on the site of earlier wooden and Norman stone churches. A stone from the latter was found in the grounds, and some Norman stones appear to have been incorporated in this structure, as well as Roman tiles indicating that prior to all the churches a pagan temple may have stood here.

The name St. Martin is believed to have been given to the church by the Benedictine monks of the Bec Abbey, after Martin of Tours, a saint in Normandy. Ruislip had been given to the Abbey of Le Bec-Hellouin in 1087 by a Norman lord, Ernulf de Hesdin, who himself had acquired this land after the Norman Conquest. The present structure is of flint and stone, and has a bell tower added in the 15th century. This houses eight bells which are still rung every Sunday, I believe.

Inside there are some medieval wall-paintings, a priest’s door and two ancient wooden chests. The pulpit is from the 17th century and the stained glass from the 19th and 20th. I always look too for the memorial to Lady Mary Bankes, which bears this inscription:
‘To the memory of LADY MARY BANKES, the only daughter of Ralph Hawtry, of Riselip, in the county of Middlesex, esq, the wife and widow of the Honourable Sir John Bankes, knight, late Lord Chief Justice of his Majesty's Court of Common Pleas, and of the Privy Council of his Majesty King Charles I, of blessed memory, who, having had the honour to have borne with a constancy and courage above her sex a noble proportion of the late calamities, and the restitution of the government, with great peace of mind laid down her most desired life the 11th day of April 1661. Sir Ralph Bankes her son and heir hath dedicated this. She had four sons: 1. Sir Ralph; 2. Jerome; 3. Charles; 4. William (since dead without issue), and six daughters.’

My first school in Ruislip, which I went to from the ages of five to eleven, was named for Lady Mary – Lady Bankes School. The school’s crest bears an image of a castle, intended to represent Corfe Castle in Dorset. Lady Mary Bankes grew up in Ruislip as a member of the local ‘big’ family, the Hawtreys, and married into the Bankes family who owned the castle in the small village of Corfe. Following the death of her husband during the Civil War, she bravely and successfully defended the castle during a siege in 1643. However, during a second siege in 1646 an act of betrayal by a member of her garrison led to the castle’s capture by the Parliamentarians. They allowed her to go free out of respect for her bravery, but deliberately demolished the castle resulting in the dramatic ruin which today dominates that village.

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St Martin's Church details

St Martin’s was substantially restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1870 and the lych-gates added at that point, which do set off the building rather nicely. It is today a protected building, having received Grade B listed status as an Anglican church in 1950. Located at the top of the busy High Street, both it and its churchyard are a peaceful haven from the bustle of shopping and well worth turning aside to visit. Unfortunately when I was last there a small weekday service was in progress (this is a very active parish church as well as a historic site) so I had to content myself with just one shot of the interior taken from the porch. I will have to go back!

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Inside the church, and detail of the lychgate

Almshouses

Backing on to the churchyard of St Martin’s Church is a row of 16th century almshouses. Originally this was a single dwelling, built in 1570 and serving as the parish house. It was converted in 1616 into ten small alms- or church houses (five at the front, five at the back, each with one room downstairs and one up) to provide accommodation for the poor and needy of the parish.

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The almshouses from the churchyard

The block was known as the Church House, and there are many old references in the parish accounts to its inhabitants, which give an idea of the need for such a facility:
'June 1665 – Widow Fearne of the Church House, several times in her sickness, 13s 0d
Mar 1666 – Paid to John Bates for carrying 50 bavins (bundles of kindling) to Widow Fearnes, 1s 9d
1726 – Moving three women to the Church House, my cart horse, 15s 0d
Paid the carpenter taking down the beds and setting them up, 3s 0d.'

In 1787 the vestry agreed to give poor families living in the Church House ‘a bed and bolster, a pair of blankets, a pair of sheets and a rug each’. In 1789 it was decided that more room was needed to accommodate the poor and destitute, so a purpose-build workhouse was constructed on a site near Copse Wood. But poor families continued to live here too, for some time at least.

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The almshouses from Eastcote Road

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Window detail

In 1938 four of the tiny cottages were knocked together to form a house for the verger, and in the 1950s the middle four were also knocked together, this time to accommodate the curate. These were used until the mid 1970s, but the buildings were by then in a bad state of repair and threatened with demolition. They were saved however, modernised, and now form four flats and a maisonette owned by a Housing Association.

Manor Farm: the Great Barn

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West side of the Great Barn

There was a farm on this site (at the northern end of what is today Ruislip High Street) from the 9th century until relatively recently, and several buildings remain from various periods in that farm’s existence. Of these the Great Barn is the most impressive and the most noteworthy. It dates from the latter part of the 13th century, around 1280, and is the second largest barn in Middlesex (the largest is in Harmondsworth, near Heathrow Airport), being 120 ft (36.6 metres) long and 32 ft (9.75m) wide. It was built with oak, probably from nearby Ruislip Woods, in a design known as an aisled barn, with smaller out-shoots running alongside the main supports under a single roof.

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East side of the Great Barn

The barn has been very well-preserved over the centuries and, along with the rest of the Manor Farm site, was restored with Lottery funding in 2007/2008. It is regularly used for local events, including crafts and farmers’ markets. It makes an impressive setting and the bustle of human activity is dwarfed by, and therefore serves only to emphasise, its great size. But we are very lucky to have it. At the start of the 20th century there were plans to develop this site for housing and all of Ruislip’s historic buildings, with the exception of St Martin’s Church, would have been lost. Amazingly (even for those days I think), no one seemed to oppose these plans, and it was only the intervention of the First World War that halted building work before it had barely begun. When, in 1919, work was able to resume, it was significantly reduced in scale owing to the poor economic situation of those times, and before the historic buildings had been affected the Royal Society of the Arts had stepped in and designated a number of buildings in Ruislip that should be preserved, including not only this barn but other buildings on the Manor Farm site and beyond, such as the old post office.

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The great doors of the Great Barn

Manor Farm: the Little Barn

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The raised threshing floor

Very near the Great Barn is another, somewhat smaller but still impressive. This is the Little Barn or Tithe Barn, and since 1937 has been the unusual location for Ruislip Library – a library I once worked in (many years ago!)

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Old beams in the Little Barn roof

This barn is of more recent origin, having been built in the 16th century, and is a Grade II listed building. Despite its conversion into a library, and the further modernisation that took place in 2007, its original role is still very apparent in its high beamed roof (with many original timbers) and other features, such as the slightly raised floor at one end – the former threshing floor. The windows have heraldic shields, one of which is of Kings College Cambridge, the estate’s earlier owners.

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The library from the bowling green

Just south of the Little Barn is a bowling green, on the site of the farm’s former rick-yard. Looking across this towards the library it is not too difficult to imagine the rural scene that was the norm here until just eighty or so years ago.

Manor Farm: the house

The third of the larger buildings on the Manor Farm site is Manor Farm House itself. This is an early 16th century house that was built of the site of a motte-and-bailey castle. The latter is thought to have been a wooden structure dating from soon after the Norman Conquest, built for Ernulf de Hesdin who had been given control of the manor of Ruislip in recognition of his loyalty to William the Conqueror. This castle in turn was built within an earthwork, possibly from the 9th century, that has been traced in an almost complete circle round the old village of Ruislip.

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Manor Farm House and moat

The castle does not appear in the 1086 Domesday Book and so could have been demolished or changed significantly by that time. But it is known that at some point a priory was also built within the moated area, under the aegis of the Benedictine Bec Abbey of Normandy. The Abbey had been granted Ruislip by Ernulf de Hesdin around 1087 and held it for 300 years.

The site was appropriated by the Crown and granted to King’s College in 1451, and the priory abandoned, falling into ruins. Those ruins would still have been here, however, when the Manor House was built between 1506 and 1511 over a number of building seasons, from Easter to Michaelmas. The house was built in the latest style of the period and was designed to showcase the wealth of the owner, with a decorative frontage and moulded ceiling beams.

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Manor Farm house seen from the cow byre

The house served two purposes: courthouse and farmhouse. Courts were held here until 1925, and the farm remained until the 1930s. Court cases were heard twice a year in the main hall of the house. Two types of court were held:
Court Leet – cases involving land disputes, assaults and minor offences;
Court Baron – administrative matters, deeds, wills etc.

Of course the house has been somewhat altered over the years. In the 18th and 19th centuries the windows and doorways were replaced and an extended kitchen was installed, with the latter being replaced in 1958 when the house was modernised. Today it serves as a meeting place for various community groups, such as the Women’s Institute, and can be hired for conferences. The line of the old moat can still be traced around the garden.

The Duck Pond

At the southern end of the Manor Farm complex is the duck pond. I have many happy memories of coming here as child to feed the ducks – a valued treat.

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The Duck Pond

The pond though was not originally intended for ducks but for the farm’s horses, who would have been washed down here. Today the pond has given its name to the twice weekly Farmers’ and Food markets that take place in and around the Great Barn – the Duck Pond Markets.

The River Pinn

The River Pinn gives Ruislip its name, albeit indirectly. Ruislip derives from "Rush leap", a reference to the rushes that lined the river and the fact that here it was just narrow enough to be leapt over – although I have to say that I would not attempt such a feat! Maybe it has widened over the years?

The River Pinn rises on Harrow Weald Common and flows through Pinner and Eastcote before reaching Ruislip, and from here flows on to Ickenham and Uxbridge, where it passes through the grounds of RAF Uxbridge and Brunel University. It then continues on to Cowley where it joins the Frays River (a branch of the Colne) at Yiewsley. In total it is about 12 miles (19 kilometres) in length. In the past it has been prone to flooding (I remember one year in particular, probably around 1973 or 74, when several nearby streets were closed because of it), but some work has been carried out in recent years to reduce this.

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River Pinn, Kings College Fields

In the centre of Ruislip it flows through a fairly narrow strip of green space, with a pleasant walk alongside it, and to the east through the open spaces of King’s College Playing Fields (named for the former owners of the land in this part of Ruislip). This walk is part of the longer Celandine Walk, which follows the entire length of the river. But even if you don’t want to do the longer walk, a stroll by the river is a relaxing way to spend an hour or so in Ruislip.

Ruislip Woods

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Park Wood

Ruislip may be largely a built-up area today but a significant vestige of its rural roots remains in the large tract of woodland to its north. This is the largest block of ancient semi-natural woodland in Greater London and is important enough to have been designated a National Nature Reserve.

These woods are the remnant of ancient woodland after land was cleared for settlement and crops in medieval times. They consist of four separate woods: Park Wood, Copse Wood, Mad Bess Wood and Bayhurst Wood. The woods were mention in the Domesday Book of 1086, when they provided foraging for pigs and timber for building and firewood. Later, timber from these woods was used in the construction of the Tower of London in 1339, Windsor Castle in 1344, the Palace of Westminster in 1346 and the manor of the Black Prince in Kennington. They were coppiced on rotation throughout the years with the timber sold to local tanneries. By the time King's College took ownership of the manor, after it was confiscated from the Abbey, the woods were let for sport, with pheasants kept for shooting.

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Park Wood

Today the woods are crisscrossed with footpaths and bridleways, and many locals (and some from further afield) enjoy walking and riding here. There is a large variety of tree, plant and animal species. The most common trees are hornbeam, oak and beech – in particular, the mixture of hornbeam and beech in Bayhurst Wood is considered unusual. The information board below gives some idea of the extent of the woods still standing here.

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Sign in Park Wood

Modernist houses

In Park Avenue, near the woods, a row of three houses stands out from the rest. A whole estate of these Modernist style houses was planed for this part of Ruislip, but these three were the only ones to have been built. They were designed by the partnership of Connell, Ward & Lucas and completed between 1935 and 1938. They are now Grade II listed, meaning that they are considered of special architectural and historic interest.

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Modernist houses in Park Avenue

The Polish War Memorial

If a local is giving you driving directions to Ruislip it is quite likely that they will tell you to leave the main A40 road out of London ‘at the Polish War Memorial’. This impressive memorial has stood at this junction since 1948 when it was erected to commemorate the contribution of the Polish Air Force to the Allied victory in the Second World War, and to honour those who died. Many of those Polish airmen had been based at nearby Northolt Airport, and many chose to stay on in west London after the war, not wanting to return home to Soviet-occupied Poland.

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The Polish War Memorial

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The memorial was designed by Mieczysław Lubelski, who had been interned in a concentration camp during the war. It is made from Portland stone and Polish granite, with bronze lettering and a bronze eagle, the symbol of the Polish Air Force.

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I hope you have enjoyed this little wander through my one-time home - a typical and unremarkable London suburb at first glance, but with plenty of history for those who seek it out.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:03 Archived in England Tagged churches buildings trees architecture london history river houses woods family world_war_two Comments (18)

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