Here be Dragons: Barnet Soliloquy

By NikitaNemygin, April 21, 2015

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can.
J.R.R. Tolkien

You know, I like the Romans. They were a tough bunch, not to be messed with. They liked to keep their solutions plain and simple:
Do those tribes up north causing us trouble and we cannot make peace with them nor conquer them? – Duh, let’s just find a geographical bottleneck and build a giant fortified wall from coast to coast to keep those barbarians out!
Do we need to build a road that would connect Londinium to other distant places? – Let’s just build a road of hundreds of miles in perfectly straight line, making curves whenever we meet water!

Because, why complicate simple solutions? Next time you see a route in the UK that is straight as an arrow, big chance it is a Roman road. You can go from Marble Arch in Central London to Edgeware next to M25 on the edge of the city without making a single turn by A5. This section of the road network is called “Watling Street” and is an ancient Roman Road towards what is modern Carlisle via many other Roman settlements.

Unlike today, back then, a lot of people actually wanted to get into Carlisle, not out of it. Seems bizarre, I know! The folk of yesterday did act in mysterious ways.

The biggest chunk of Watling street in London goes through Barnet, this is where this borough has its border.
When searching for work of art relating to Barnet, I have stumbled upon Mark Isaacs’ documentary “Road: a story of life and death”. In this great piece he explores how to this day, this road, once compared to celestial Milky Way, sees the tragedy of humans arriving to London, hoping for a better life. Just like in Roman times. His heroes – all lonely, all possessed by the unsettling relocation decisions – are vulnerable, profound and painfully humane.

Loneliness, unexpected life twists and distance between us – even as we are standing next to each other – all have a date on Watling street. It has been a site of human drama 2000 years ago – and it still is, all without changing its course.

A new parallel addition to the road network in the Mediaeval times was the road to St Albans, what we now call A1 and A1000. Even though Watling street goes through this town as well, apparently the people at that time needed a more direct route from markets in what is now Smithfields. They also needed a route to Barnet market, which was very prominent and many counties traded there.

As time went by, life has sprung out along those roads, with stages, pubs, towns – all found their raison d’etre around these roads.

And now, Barnet is in a large way a weird derivative of this road-centered life. Take a look at the map and observe:
Still today, the borough build-up forks into two distinctive branches, shortly after North Circular Road following these two ancient paths divided by a hill in the middle.
Still today, the Northern line shadows them: the initial Edgeware branch track was running from Finchley via Mill Hill. It was later changed to fork from Camden town.

How many stories have they seen, these tracks?
No-one can tell.

It has witnessed so much and can tell so little to a passer-by behind the shop facades and glittery advertising, akin to humans, who have gone through much sorrow and learned to deal with it with a shrug. And maybe that’s good – this drama will vanish into abyss of time as it should, allowing for future to flourish.

Barnet’s road-centrism has its downside as well. Most of the cultural and trading life is still along along A5 and A1. The development dies pretty quickly – off the course the scenery immediately becomes heavily residential. At the same time it allows the communities that are centred along the road to thrive, turning both into big centres of local activity.

One of the often-cited examples of human advancement pre-determined by our past is the anecdote of the design of the Solid Rocket Booster (SRB) engines to pull the space shuttles in the US. The engineers had to keep in mind the restrictions made by the tunnelling on the way from the factory when designing the SRB. The tunnels were designed to accommodate standard gauge width, derived from British tunnelling and gauge width restrictions which in its turn derived from the width of the carriages pulled by two horses shoulder to shoulder.

Space conquest is still dependent on what transport people used centuries ago.

Our brains are hard-wired to look for the causes and consequences, as we try to explain our decisions by something that happened in the past. However that past also has a past, going down as far the Big Bang and beyond. Pin-pointing the ultimate cause of why the things are as they are will always fail.

The way these roads have shaped Barnet is very similar to how our life gets shaped. The way how seemingly arbitrary course of those two has come rule the life of humans along it, even such minor things as a hilly landscape – our own life gets ruled in a similarly arbitrary way. We are at the mercy of coincidence.

The past is happening right now. Every our decision is based on the limitless sequence of causes and consequences started billions of years ago. And whither then? I cannot say.

We are conditioned by our past. But also empowered by it.