Wednesday, 16 March 2011
Greenacre Times, Spring 2011
The House On The Hill
Church Farmhouse Museum Faces Closure,
by Mike Gee
You know, I don‘t normally believe in coincidences, I prefer to think that everything in life happens for a reason. But in this instance I think it may really be a coincidence, for at the very same time as Lindsay Bamfield was writing her article on Harry Beck for the last issue of the Greenacre Times, Gerrard Roots, Curator of The Church Farmhouse Museum, was preparing a Harry Beck exhibition for display there.
A fine day in early March. It seems like an early spring. Daffodils are already out in places. It’s a mild, hazy, sunny day and just perfect for exploring. Today - Church End, Hendon and the Church Farmhouse Museum. As I approach the bend of Church End, NW4, I see a picture that hasn’t changed all that much in 100 years. True, the row of Edwardian shops has been replaced by the architecturally dire Meritage Centre and the timber framed and clad Clerk’s cottage was rebuilt in the 1930s but the scene is still dominated by St Mary’s Parish Church and the three-storey Greyhound Pub. As I round the bend where Church End becomes Greyhound Hill another building comes into view, a fairly large, old-looking red brick house with a hipped roof, massive chimney left of centre and three windowed gables on the front. I have arrived at Church Farmhouse, the oldest surviving house in the parish of Hendon.
It was built around 1660 and most of the main building is actually original. The rear addition was built in the late 19th century and there have been other small additions such as ‘lean-to’s over the years. Following the outbreak of several disastrous fires, including the Great Fire of London, in the 17th century, brick building began to take over from timber building. The walls of the original building are three bricks thick (14”) and the bricks are the same size as modern bricks. In fact as early as 1477 a statute had been passed standardizing the size of bricks. John Moxton, wrote in 1680, “The common bricks that are made here in England, are 9 inches in length, 4 inches and ¼ in breadth, and two and a half in thickness: and sometimes 3 inches thick.” If you can be bothered, go outside with a tape measure and see for yourself, exactly the same size today.
Although most of the brickwork is fairly plain and standard on this old building, there are interesting little parapets built between the front gables, and the tall chimney stack is quite intricate. The front porch is a relatively modern, a 19th century addition. Originally, the ‘front door’ to the farmhouse opened onto the farmyard which is now the rear of the building. If you look closely, you can see evidence here and there of windows having been moved, bricked up or added. Not much of the original exterior woodwork will have survived and there have, of course, been many additions, changes and replacements to doors and windows over the last 350 years. There is a mix of sliding and hinged sashes and if you look up at the rear you can see examples of oak mullioned windows in the gables. One thing you can’t tell from looking, is that the large bay on the western end, suffered bomb blast damage in WWII and had to be rebuilt. The original timbers such as the rafters and flooring beams are in oak (there are exposed beams on the ceilings), but the floorboards have been replaced and the staircase to the exhibition rooms looks, to me, like an early 19th century replacement. All in all, a charming old building.
The history is just as interesting as the architecture. The village of Hendon was mentioned in the Doomsday Book and there was a church on the site of St Mary’s around 950AD. Parts of the current church go back to the 12th century though much of what’s visible on the outside is early 20th century additions. Church Farm once had 200 acres devoted to hay-making and dairy cattle. Hendon village was a thriving community and most inhabitants were employed in agriculture or associated crafts. In 1796 there were four carpenter’s shops, three blacksmiths, a wheelwright, collar maker, plumber, butcher and baker. The village commanded a good view of all the surrounding woods and fields, a sight that would remain largely unchanged until the onset of London’s creeping sprawling suburbia. An 1876 guide book said that Hendon, “…used to be rural and somewhat picturesque…Recently a great number of villa and cottage residences have been built …and the number seems likely to be largely increased.” The London Underground arrived in 1924 and then, of course we had the motor car and the property developer, say no more.
By the end of the 19th century, demand for hay had dwindled as mechanised transport progressively took over from the horse, and in the early 1900s much of Church Farm’s land was sold for housing development. Dairy farming continued to the late 1930s, but in 1944 the farmhouse, outbuildings and what remained of the land were sold to Hendon Borough Council and the house was turned into flats to accommodate families whose homes had suffered bomb damage. The building was opened as a museum in 1955 and carried on as such after Hendon Council was incorporated into the London Borough of Barnet in 1965.
The ground floor of the museum is laid out to represent a mid 19th century working farmhouse, with a laundry, kitchen and dining room all fitted out with period furniture and accoutrements. There is a baking oven and a massive fireplace in the dining room (under the huge chimney) that backs on to a fireplace in what is now the shop. Sometime after their construction a passageway was opened up and you can now walk between the fireplaces. The ground floor is the most popular part of the museum for school visits with over 1,200 schoolchildren using the facilities each year. This is a most valuable education resort, the children learn a lot and have a lot of fun in the process. The curator is very supportive of schools; there are boxes of artefacts and notes available for teachers and he will often do outreach work, regularly attending schools to lecture or give advice on setting up mini school or classroom museums. Popular school presentations have included ‘Victorian Home Life’, ‘The Home Front in WWII’ and ‘Old Toys’.
Gerrrard Roots has been the curator since 1979 and perhaps his most remarkable achievement has been the staging of a quite fantastic number of wonderful exhibitions on the first floor of the museum, sometimes as many as six a year. The subject matter has been far-ranging but always fascinating and having some connection to the borough. I can give but a few examples that have been staged in recent years; ‘Weird and Wonderful Contraptions‘, ’The Explosive History of Fireworks’, ’Do You Believe In Magic?’, ‘The Festival of Britain: 50 Years On’, ‘The Phoenix Cinema: 100 Years’, ’The Sound of the Suburbs - Pop and Rock Music in the Borough of Barnet’, ‘Sidney Paget’s Sherlock Holmes’, ‘Lewis Carroll in Wonderland’, and the list goes on.
One of the most controversial was ‘Images From The Spanish Civil War’ staged in autumn 1996. This exhibition displayed the photos of Bill Williamson who had left Finchley to join the International Brigade in the fight against fascism. Our Tory councillors were apparently not happy with the communist connotation. How silly! This was a very important 20th century conflict that had far reaching implications, some say that if the allies had properly supported the Republicans, the Second World War may not have broken out. And this was the only exhibition to mark the 60th anniversary of the Spanish Civil War in this country. Of all the exhibitions staged over the years, I am gratified to learn that one of Gerrard’s personal favourites is ‘A Century of Bears’ from 1999, because this is one of my favourites too - I lent my entire collection of Rupert Bear Annuals for the display and I have every one from 1936 to 1986 (after this period the style changed as Alfred Bestall, who had drawn all the illustrations since 1936, retired). The rest of the display space was devoted to a fine collection of old teddies and the whole exhibition gained a lot of media attention also proved to be very popular with the public.
Despite the sun and the early spring, my visit is a sad day, a very sad day. I have come to Church Farmhouse Museum to see the current exhibition, ‘Harry Beck and The London Tube Map’. Gerrard happens to be at the door to greet me, he is putting on a brave face, he is dealing with all the visitors as normally as he can, but they are sad too, and his daughter Harriet, sitting at the computer, is sad. There is sadness all around me for this Harry Beck exhibition is to be the last ever. Church Farmhouse Museum has been axed from the council budget for 2011/12 and after 56 years is set to close its doors for the very last time at the end of this month. There is to be no reprieve, they are quite determined of that, for our council does not care about history and heritage, culture or education, or the important things in life, for they are Philistines of the highest order, Machiavellians who scheme to change everything that’s just and decent and important in our society, under the fashionable smokescreen of cost-cutting. What will we save? The cost of one curator’s salary, routine running costs and buildings maintenance and publicity costs.
The present round of council cuts are draconian in the extreme - we learn that all youth clubs and centres are to go completely, and this despite council officers’ own warnings in their written reports of possible increases in anti social behaviour, vandalism, drug taking, theft and unwanted teenage pregnancies. The secondary-school pupils’ careers advice service is to be cut, artsdepot (our community arts centre) will have its grant axed, library services will be reduced, everything, including old people’s wardens, gone or about to go. Things that we now view as essential as food and water, things that were often a great struggle to get established in our society in the first place, things that were once treasured and valued, are now discarded as if they are worthless pieces of trash on their way to landfill.
Of course people protested; over 600 marched from Finchley Central to arts depot in February, armed with banners and placards. 150 descended on the council chambers when the budget was set. Does the council listen? Does it compromise? It does not.
There is huge controversy surrounding our council and the way it administers local democracy. Our council have tried to ban filming of council meetings, despite the fact that most other councils not only allow filming, but screen proceedings themselves for the public to watch. Local government minister, Bob Neil, was forced to write to Barnet Council to ask councillors to allow bloggers and journalists to be allowed to tweet and film sections of meetings to make them more transparent. He said; “Bloggers, tweeters, residents with their own websites and users of Facebook and You Tube are increasingly a part of the modern world, blurring the lines between professional journalists and the public. There are recent stories about people being ejected from council meetings for blogging, tweeting or filming. This potentially is at odds with the fundamentals of democracy and I want to encourage all councils to take a welcoming approach to those who want to bring local news stories to a wider audience.” Despite this edict from government the leader of our council, Cllr Lynne Hillan, remains adamant that anyone caught filming will be asked to leave the public gallery.
How will they be asked to leave? Well, I’ll be brief, but at a council meeting earlier this week, our council showed what they thought of the public and their rights to democracy. Some 20-30 police-officers were in attendance but they were not in control, for Barnet Council had employed its own private army of black-shirted, pseudo-military clad, muscle-bound bouncers to keep order. There are 45 places in the council chamber public gallery, and on this night there was a long queue of people trying to get in, but not many got through the bag searches and security checks. Seventeen seats were kept empty. Large notices had been erected, THE PUBLIC MUST REMAIN SILENT AT ALL TIMES, but mid way through the proceedings a cry erupted, ‘LET THEM IN, LET THEM IN, LET THEM IN’ amid cheering and foot-stamping. Labour Councillors asked the Mayor to let people into the empty seats, the Liberals demanded too, and the Mayor agreed and then…nothing happened. This evening was filled with stories of intimidation, people escorted out of the building, a confiscated camera, people having to ask permission to go to the toilet. The private security company is called Met Pro and their website displays a winged badge with a serpent coiled around a sword and flames leaping in the background. One can’t help thinking of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Brave New World or 1984. Make no mistake about it, this oppressive regime we have right here in Barnet is slowly but surely steering us into a full-blown police state, the sort of horrific, totalitarian, dystopian nightmare that George Orwell dreamt up over 60 years ago.
Anyway, let’s leave our future world and return to the present - our day out in Hendon. Church Farmhouse is closed for lunch between 1 and 2pm so I take the opportunity to tour the grounds, take photos and have lunch. I take photos of the old Model Dairy that’s now part of Middlesex University and a row of picturesque houses built in 1908, that are partly hidden behind hedges. Although Gerrard doesn’t recommend the beer, I go to the Chequers. I’m not drinking beer, the food’s fine and there’s some lovely stained glass there. There was a beer retailer and grocer on this site in 1850 and local folklore has it that it used to be a penny bank for local people. It was known as the Chequers by 1870, chequer being a place where money is deposited. The existing building was built sometime between 1890 and 1900.
Back to Church Farmhouse, fully replete, and Gerrard is ready to give me a guided tour of the exhibition. Maps of all descriptions and many other tube artefacts such as large enamelled signs and period postcards are on show, all generously loaned by one collector. Everyone who visits is talking of the impending closure, no one can quite believe it. There is to be a three-month ‘discussion period’ from April 1st to try and work out a future. There is talk of setting up a trust, The Hendon and District Archaeological Society (HADAS) is keen to save the museum but a new management group would have to be formed. There are other problems too, there seems to be no goodwill from the council, Cllr Robert Rams, Brian Coleman’s ‘Mini-Me’ pint-sized axe wielder supreme, has said that any proposal must be zero cost to the council and furthermore they will expect a ‘commercial’ rent of £40,000 per year to be paid. Can HADAS go through all the cost, trouble, legal complications and find £40,000 for rent alone in the allotted time? Even if the bid were successful we would, in all probability lose the first floor exhibition rooms as the new trust would surely need to rent them out as meeting rooms to raise revenue.
The alternatives are far from clear. Who could take over this building on a commercial basis? It’s a Grade II* listed building, the rooms are small and wibbly-wobbly with no disabled access, and every little bit of maintenance or modification needs to be discussed with English Heritage in great detail before works can proceed. You certainly can’t change the structure in any way, demolish or add on, and as for residential use, there’s no proper bathroom and the listing restrictions would disallow that. There is, of course, the fear that a developer could build a block of flats in the gardens. Anything’s possible in this climate.
If you haven’t visited the museum, you’d better get your skates on, there’s only a few days left. I shall attend the leaving-do on 24th March and the local press may take photos and run a story on the last day but it looks very much a case of the now all too familiar adieu - FAREWELL OLD FRIEND. I’ll leave the last words to Gerrard Roots, Museum Curator 1979-2011.
“This is the last real physical remnant of Hendon’s rural past. Where we’re standing people have been living for 2,000 years - 2,000 years of continuous settlement. In the midst of all that’s changed in Hendon you still get a sense of a village here. The museum is one of the most interesting buildings in North London. It would be absolutely tragic if it were lost.”