The Parkland Walk runs for four miles from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace, following the path of a disused railway line that passed from Finsbury Park to Highgate and had a branch off towards the palace. Though some parts of the line have since been swallowed up by building works and developments, much of the original route is still walkable, providing a mixture of both surprisingly leafy cuttings and a long viaduct with panoramic views of London. Although the walk is mostly flat between Finsbury Park and Highgate, the closure of both the tunnels at Highgate and some of the path between there and Alexandra Palace means that some sections involve uphill and downhill slopes, along with a detour away from the original route which can be confusing without proper directions. One final point before we begin - the path is not lit except by mild amounts of sunshine or moonlight, and it is not advisable to walk it alone or at night.
In the years before the Second World War, the London Passenger Transport Board decided to begin a New Works Programme, the aim being to vastly improve both the London Underground and other public transport in London. One part of the plan was the electrification of the old Northern Heights lines, which in 1935 were running quite happily with mainline steam engines, to allow their incorporation with the Northern Line. First opened in 1867, the main section of the Northern Heights ran between Finsbury Park and Edgware via Highgate and Finchley, with a branch leaving at Finchley Central to head towards High Barnet. After the construction of Alexandra Palace had begun, a second branch was built from Highgate to the palace1, opening in 1873, and this was also to be electrified and added to the Northern Line. Meanwhile, the Northern Line, which had at that stage only reached as far north as Archway, would be extended through an Underground stop at Highgate to meet up with the Northern Heights line near East Finchley. There were even plans for the line at Edgware to be extended northwards, and the Northern City Line between Moorgate and Finsbury Park was soon connected to the Northern Heights line via a ramp between Drayton Park and Finsbury Park.
However, the small matter of war was enough to scupper these plans, and only the High Barnet branch was electrified, along with a small spur off towards Mill Hill East2. Both these are now part of the Northern Line as was planned, but the rest of the Northern Heights remained steam-driven, with the Northern Line having reached its modern-day layout and work having stopped by May 1941. This left the line from Finsbury Park to Highgate, the branch from Highgate to Alexandra Palace and the line between Mill Hill East and Edgware on a list of postponed works, but despite being displayed on tube maps until 1949 these sections were never converted for tube trains. By the time the war had ended, the Alexandra Palace branch was being served by only a handful of trains, and during the winter of 1950/51 services were suspended altogether to save coal. The last passenger trains ran from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace via Highgate in July 1954, with the stations soon closing to goods traffic in the years that followed. The only traffic that remained after the 1950s was that of tube trains being transferred between the Northern Line at Highgate and the Northern City Line3 at Finsbury Park, which continued until September 1970.
The tracks were soon lifted, the stations and their buildings already having started to disappear since the line's closure to regular traffic during the 1950s. What little that remains nowadays is pointed out in the guide to the walk below, but the only part of the line that truly remains intact is Highgate station, although this too is trackless and overgrown with weeds.
Finsbury Park to Highgate
Though the line would have started opposite platform one and opposite platform six at Finsbury Park station4, the very start of the route has now disappeared and so the Parkland Walk begins a little way north of here. The most pleasant way of reaching the start of the walk is via Finsbury Park, the entrance to which lies north of Finsbury Park station along Seven Sisters Road. Simply follow the western edge of the park, which runs parallel to the railway lines, until you reach a footbridge across the lines. The start of the walk lies on the opposite side, starting quite abruptly and a little higher up than would seem to make sense - this is because the disused line would have crossed over the other lines below and then passed through the park roughly where you have just walked. All traces of the bridge are now gone, the bridge having become disused once the line to Highgate stopped being used to transfer tube trains onto the Northern City Line in 1970. If simply finding the start of the walk is too much effort, there's a bench only a few yards further along the path. This part of the walk also contains the first of several maps showing the route of the walk - this guide describes the official Parkland Walk as defined by these colourful-yet-absent-when-you-really-need-them maps.
For the first half a mile, the path runs along an embankment amongst the trees, the path being formed of either sand or light-coloured mud depending on the weather. The line soon crosses a bridge over Upper Tollington Park, just to give walkers the definite impression that they are now on something which, although it may appear to be natural, is in fact an entirely artificial work of man. The second bridge of the walk crosses Stapleton Hall Road, which in turn sits on a bridge over the railway line between South Tottenham and Gospel Oak, thus providing a view which is mildly unsuitable for those who suffer from vertigo. Just after this crossing lies the spot which used to harbour Stroud Green station, and although the station house on the road below has since been refurbished, the original wooden ticket office, steps and platforms have since rotted away, necessitating their removal. There is, however, a set of wooden steps concealed amongst the trees, which must have been added at some point to allow continued access to the tracks.
The line continues a little further by way of embankment and a bridge over Mount Pleasant Villas, but it soon becomes apparent that the ground is beginning to catch up with the elevation of the line, and eventually the walker ends up deep inside a rather leafy and squirrel-filled5 cutting. Here it is possible to spot both a variety of wildlife and various relics of the attempt to make the railway into a tube line, and although it is a shame that the New Works Programme was never fully completed, the deficit is made up for by the beautiful walk that is possible even in the middle of London. Besides, for those who are still upset that they cannot ride the tube along this leafy green route, there is a surprise up ahead.
After passing a large disused substation6 on the south side of the path and a series of arches which support the other bank to the north, the path heads through an underpass beneath a collection of roads to reach Crouch End station. Though the station building and the steps down from the roads above have long since gone, the platforms themselves still remain, providing a rather eerie ghost station which appears almost from nowhere. The platform covers were removed in the 1960s and the tracks have since been replaced by mud and weeds, but it is still not a good idea to jump off the platforms onto the gap in between - over the years it's become quite a drop. However, walking along the platforms is almost inescapable, and the atmosphere is completed by a concrete footbridge on the western side of the station, making the cutting in which it lies seem very isolated and remote. For those who are simply walking to or from Highgate, this is a good place to stop for a quick bite to eat, although the lack of any amenities means you'll have to bring your own picnic.
Highgate to Cranley Gardens
Having come so far westwards along a pleasantly flat footpath, the route will now quickly start to disappoint those who expected to stroll all the way to the outskirts of Wood Green without encountering some form of obstacle. Well here it is - the path ends abruptly in front of a pair of tall tunnel mouths, which lead straight to the disused Highgate Upper Level station but are too dangerous for the public to venture into. The disused mainline station actually sits directly above Highgate Underground station7, and lies in a cutting between two sets of tunnels. Standing at the end of the long path from Finsbury Park you can see into the southern pair of tunnels, but sadly the path doesn't simply start again after the line passes through the northernmost pair of tunnels. Instead, the route of the disused railway is occupied by sidings off from the Northern line, which surfaces nearby on its way towards Finchley. Though the Parkland Walk could in theory begin again from the point at which the branch off towards Alexandra Palace leaves the line towards Finchley, this section is occupied by woodland, followed by school buildings and housing developments. Instead, the path restarts at Cranley Gardens, with the Parkland Walk taking a detour through the woods and along the pavements in order to reach there.
A Walk In The Woods
From the end of the path from Finsbury Park, walkers are forced onto Holmesdale Road and must walk uphill to reach the main road above. To follow the 'official' Parkland Walk, head north along the main road to the traffic lights and look to your right along Shepherds Hill Heights. From here you should be able to see the library, next to which is a public footpath which heads rapidly downhill onto Priory Gardens. Once on the road turn right and walk about 300 metres until you reach another footpath, this one being signposted as part of the Capital Ring path towards Hendon. Head up the slope which lies slightly to the left and then follow the path until you come onto Queens Wood Road. Cross the road and continue through the woods, keeping left so that eventually emerge onto Muswell Hill Road, which is easily recognised as being a busy road with woods on either side. If you somehow manage to end up on another road, simply stay on the side near the woods and keep turning left until you reach Muswell Hill Road. From Muswell Hill Road, the walk then continues in Highgate Wood on the opposite side of the road - simply cross at the traffic lights, enter the woods and turn right, keeping quite near to the road so that you emerge back onto the road at the northeast corner of the woods.
It is also possible to avoid walking through Queen's Wood and Highgate Wood altogether. After walking up Holmesdale Road, follow Archway Road past Highgate Underground station to reach the junction with Muswell Hill Road. Turn north and walk along Muswell Hill Road between the two woods until you reach the junction with Cranley Gardens, which lies on the right hand side about 3/4 miles along the road. Note that the walk through the woods isn't particularly designed for cyclists, and so the road route might be advisable for those looking for a nice relaxed cycle instead of a cross country bike-push.
Finding Hidden Highgate
For those interested in having a look at the high-level platforms at Highgate, there are several ways. Actually trespassing on the line at this point is inadvisable, but views of the buildings can be found both in the car park of The Woodman public house and from the western end of Priory Gardens, where the platform buildings can just be seen behind the entrance to the Underground station. A view of the Underground sidings which cover part of the route of the line can be obtained by walking along Archway Road, heading past Muswell Hill Road until you come to the last entrance into Highgate Wood. After heading a little way into the woods you will be standing right above the northern pair of tunnels through which the disused line used to run, and you should be able to see a pair of sidings through a fence - the point where the disused line would branch off towards Alexandra Palace lies just before the small bend in the sidings.
Cranley Gardens to Muswell Hill and Ally Pally
After reaching Highgate, the disused line would have curved round towards the northeast to head towards Alexandra Palace, but as mentioned above the section up until Cranley Gardens is no longer set aside as a public footpath. Instead, the Parkland Walk reappears out of a fence of wooden boards to head underneath Muswell Hill Road, continuing northeast towards Muswell Hill itself. Just like the route of the line from Highgate to this point, nothing remains of Cranley Gardens station, which originally sat where sheltered accommodation and a home for the elderly now exist. The original wooden station building had perished and was burnt out in the 1960s, but the platforms survived until 1973 when buildings replaced a pair of concrete shelves similar to those at Crouch End. Slowly rising up behind the roads next to it, the path now heads up from an embankment onto a 17-arch brick viaduct, which slowly but surely yields amazing views of the City and East London similar to those seen from Alexandra Palace up ahead. Though Alexandra Park provides a good place to eat your picnic, it can be both tempting and rewarding to stop at the bench on the viaduct and eat your cheese ploughman's sandwich while watching the world go by.
End Of The Line
Next, however, comes another disappointment. The disused railway did in fact once run right up to Alexandra Palace via the north edge of Alexandra Park, terminating behind the buildings. However, the placing of Muswell Hill School where the old Muswell Hill station used to be means that, after having descended from atop the viaduct, the path ends abruptly once more, this time just after having passed under Muswell Hill itself. A footbridge to your right allows access to the park from here, and those still interested in following the course of the line should skirt the northern edge of the park until they reach the car park at the other end. The bridge passing over the small road just north of the car park is the last one on the route of the line, but is now on private land.
In fact, the final part of the railway sits right next to the palace, and can easily be missed as it fits in so well with the surroundings. Walking uphill from the car park next to Alexandra Park will take you behind the palace, where a small brick building sits, easily overshadowed by the main building but having been constructed from matching bricks. This used to be the ticket office, behind which a pair of tracks would terminate either side of a wide concrete platform. A footbridge would link the ticket office to an entrance into Alexandra Palace several metres above the ground - this entrance still exists but the footbridge and the entire station save the ticket office do not. Don't forget to then head round to the front of the palace to admire the views and to look at the television broadcast tower, and remember that there is in fact a token pub built into the south end of the building.
Having admired the views from in front of the palace, walkers can easily return to Finsbury Park by making use of the mainline stop down the hill at the only remaining Alexandra Palace station. This can be found simply by wandering eastwards down the road that runs past the front of the palace until it bears north, and then looking for the footbridge that crosses over the railway tracks on the right-hand side of the road. Having walked all this way, the train journey back is surprisingly brief, provided a train turns up a short while after you arrive. Trains generally stop at Alexandra Palace station at least every half an hour, and single tickets to Finsbury Park won't cost an arm and a leg. Trains can also be caught all the way to the London termini at Moorgate and King's Cross as well as destinations to the north such as Barnet, Welwyn Garden City, Stevenage and even Cambridge, though some journeys require changes of train. Alternatively, Wood Green can be reached by crossing the footbridge over the railway, turning right and then following Station Road until you reach Wood Green tube station on the Piccadilly Line. A good bus service also operates from Wood Green, with buses heading south towards Green Lanes and Finsbury Park, and north towards Palmers Green and Edmonton.
Walking It Backwards
If you really want to be different, there's always the possibility of starting at Alexandra Palace and heading southwards to Highgate and then Finsbury Park. The route this way is different both in that the mere act of heading in the other direction gives you a different view of the walk, and that the path is generally more downhill this way, although undulations are unavoidable at the point where the path is diverted through the woods. The instructions for following the route 'backwards' are thus:
- Start at Alexandra Palace, and walk westwards through Alexandra Park. Cross the footbridge from the southwest corner of the park to reach the route of the line towards Cranley Gardens.
- At Cranley Gardens, pass under the bridge to reach the end of the path and then turn left onto Muswell Hill Road.
- A walk through the woods is optional, but is possible by heading into Highgate Wood to your right but sticking close to the road, and then crossing the road into Queen's Wood and keeping right until you reach Queen's Wood Road. Head straight on through the last section of woods to reach Priory Gardens, and then turn right along the road, looking out for a footpath heading uphill on the left side of the road. At the top of the footpath, cross the road and then turn right and follow the pavement round to reach Holmesdale Road, upon which lies the entrance to the other part of the Parkland Walk.
- Alternatively, walk along Muswell Hill Road, turn right onto Archway Road, and then look out for Holmesdale Road sloping downhill on your left.
- Follow the path through Crouch End station and then up onto the embankment to finally reach Finsbury Park. Cross the footbridge over the lines and then turn to your right. Turn right onto the road through the park, as this will lead you to the park entrance. From here, turn right once more onto Seven Sisters Road, and Finsbury Park station isn't far away.
For more information than you could ever possibly need on the history of the line, see the sections on the Edgware and High Barnet lines and the section on the lines to Alexandra Palace in London's Local Railways by Alan A Jackson.
For good coverage of the disused parts of the Northern Heights project along with pictures of what was and what is now left, see Northern Wastes: Scandal of the Uncompleted Northern Line by Jim Blake and Jonathan James.