There are two Harrows, as different as chalk and cheese. During my years in Cambridge I noticed a strong segregation between the cloistered university, with all its wealth, expertise and fine things, and the small-to-medium fen market town that had to share its streets, shops and pubs. But compared to Harrow, Cambridge seems like one big happy family. Step out of Harrow-on-the-Hill station and you will stand at a crossroads; one exit leads to Windsor, another to Doncaster.
I came out here having been invited to lunch by friends who have moved out in search of space for their young children, and spent an hour having a quick look around town beforehand. Harrow was a bit of a blank canvas and I came having done no research at all and carrying only the vaguest received ideas. I had been once, and this must have been 11 years ago, with a couple of friends. My main memory, apart from a great panoramic view onto London, is of the friend who lived locally ruefully remarking that she was a Gujarati with Sikh features, and the other friend urging her to get out of Harrow and live somewhere where stuff like this was of no importance. I’ve read so many books where people will bend backwards to keep an Old Harrovian out of trouble, though, that I expected something rarified. On the journey out, I remembered that the last time I had taken the Metropolitan line, the train had been one part tweedy suburbanites to four parts inebriated Millwall fans, lustily singing “Fuck ’em all” on our way to a defeat at Wembley. I felt slightly sorry for the locals.
Following my nose, I take the exit leading to the town centre. It leaves you on a dark, low-ceilinged precinct with independent sandwich shops, a bus station, and across the road a huge and quite dreary 1990s shopping mall/car park. The sculpture on the office block next door looks more befitting of the architecture favoured by those oil-rich tyrants in Turkmenistan or Uzbekistan.
Figuring that this is the rear of the shopping mall and the front might face onto a nice square or park, I cut through the mall with its donut-and-cookie stalls, and find myself on a road with more drearily faceless modern buildings, that leads to a slightly more upmarket giant shopping mall/car park. Inside it’s mostly more of the same but with nice coloured lamps, and some ersatz arts and crafts friezes of St George and the dragon. What was on these streets before 1983? If this is an improvement, I don’t want to know. The whole area looks and feels deprived.
Coming out of the second mall at a side exit I find more concrete. Viewed from distance the mall has a bit of a Lego Forbidden City vibe going on, but the rest is flyovers, flyover ringroads, more multi-storey car parks and building sites. There are attempts to brighten up a desolate area; an underpass is kitted out with coloured tiles, Seurat watching cricket on the village green, which tries to conjure a different Harrow to the one around us. With their large clock-face, a Morrisons holding up the usual cramped, overpriced new builds for commuters is trying to act as a Palazzo della Signoria, but the message being transmitted is that we’re behind the Iron Curtain.
Coming to the edge of the town centre I start to see houses; and in the distance, a spire on top of a verdant hill, presumably the one that gives the station its name. It seems a good idea to try and get over there. On the way I pass a synagogue in yellow brick with clusters of long, narrow windows like Adidas stripes. It’s not bad design at all, but thinking of the gorgeous synagogues in Trieste and Budapest I reflect on how even the oldest Abrahamic religion is rendered dour post-war functionalism by Harrow, and take a photo. A security man with a walkie-talkie marches out, crosses the road and runs after me, asking for my ID. The more I stress that I mean no harm and explain what I’m up to, the more annoyed he gets, repeating that we take attacks on our community very seriously, and we end with him saying that even if I have no intention of doing anything with the photo of the building, he’s very unhappy about me having it and I must delete it. Now, I am not appraised of the background to this. From the bits and pieces that make it into the news, it would not surprise me to learn that some skunk-addled loser has been emailing threats to every synagogue in London. For me to state that even thinking about attacking a synagogue makes you a dickhead would, of course, be an insult to your intelligence. There’s a certain black humour in this man’s insistence on seeing me as an enemy when I’d spent the preceding week reading Primo Levi’s Periodic Table and Howard Jacobson’s J, but I suspect that the story here isn’t my little hard luck tale. The story is that whatever is going on right now, it has spooked the Jews to the point where obscure synagogues in the middle of nowhere employ guards to sit by the window all day, and operate on the assumption that anyone who stops to look at the building for five seconds is doing so with a view towards burning it down. This should not just worry Jews, it should worry anyone who aspires to live in a civilized country.
Ruminating on these matters, I reach the actual hill and find it a breath of fresh air. Houses instead of small glass cages, green space instead of car parks and spaghetti junctions. The small, double-naved chapel comes with a cute rectory bungalow. I feel like I’ve just crossed a frontier.
On the way to the summit I pass an atmospheric overgrown graveyard, before finding that spire attached to St Mary’s church. This excellent little church is part C11th, mostly 1450s, part George Gilbert Scott (of Battersea Power Station fame). They started building this in William the Conqueror’s lifetime.
It’s open, and there is much to enjoy inside. Low gothic arches line the aisles and there are memorial slabs from down through centuries. The carved eagle pulpit and the effigies of people at prayer make it feel a halfway point between an old countryside church and one in the City. The velvet ceiling over the altar is an interesting touch.
The stained glass is lovely and I even like some of the contemporary additions, such as the somewhat loud robes that put one in mind of Fellini’s ecclesiastical fashion catwalk in Roma.
Exiting the churchyard at the opposite end I find I have walked into the centre of the school buildings and it’s startling. At the bottom of the hill is a wide staircase, and all around are different tints of Gothic revival, most of which have been fed steroids and sent down the gym. Polychromatic brickwork arches, polygonal spires and little conical turrets abound. It feels like a stretch of hotels in an unspecified spa town.
The oldest building is mostly Jacobean and its features are familiar from Charlton House and the little that is left of Holland House. Protruding bay windows on the two wings, topped with ziggurat gables and a little white cupola with clock at the centre. The double staircase, the gate and the elevation of the house all carry themselves with as much self-assurance as the boys they churn out. Establishment, authority, the accumulated wealth and wisdom of the past. It is, quite literally, Old School.
The school leads to a sort of village high street, with tourist shops and blazer outfitters serving the school and its visitors. There are inscriptions in Latin everywhere. It feels like The Prisoner and I bet it’s one of the most expensive places in the UK, but it is beautiful and much closer to the sort of thing I had been expecting. Like a hilltop fort town, you have the always enticing perspective of winding roads splitting in two paths; one up, one down.
The curving street opens onto a village green, dominated by a curious sort of scaffold with a painting of Henry VIII. According to ye Internet this is an extremely early gantry sign, of the type that now hang over motorways and tell you the next city is 86 miles away. It was put here by an old hotel and the choice of monarch is informed by his having had hunting grounds on the hill.
That’s about the size of what I found. If anyone’s interested, there followed more school buildings and very exclusive houses.
By now I’m running late for my appointment, so turn back through the grandiose surroundings of the school and try to find my way downhill, in the vague hope it’ll take me to the town centre. There’s the odd panorama of NW London, made recognisable by the dutifully modern arches of the new Wembley, with some famous shapes in the distance.
Mr. Nairn is not a lot of help to us in Harrow; of his two entries one, Grimsdyke, is a few miles away. He doesn’t have much time for the school. “Eton College strikes a balance with its high street: Harrow swamps its village with Victorian buildings as ponderous as company reports… far from ugly, it has muddled the genius loci to a point where it will never be sorted out… there is always a haunting might-have-been”. He does however tell us to head down Football Lane; I coincidentally come across said lane in my rush to get un-lost, and can’t resist that fabulous name.
Something called Basil Champney’s Butler Museum (!) is worth a glance, according to Nairn: “the oriel windows are a fine bit of buccaneering”. At the foot of the hill, before a million playing fields and a busy road that’s actually quite far from town, is the school of music, the only building worth seeing in Nairn’s view. “Quiet integrity and bricky solidity… from the first glimpse of it you can see what is wrong with the others; they are just large shapes with curly detail stuck on.” It’s an odd shape with a sort of ship’s prow facing the foot of the hill. Don’t tell him, but I think I preferred the oriel windows.