Monthly Archives: September 2011


The Welsh Harp had been intriguing me for a while. I’d never been been before. Not long ago, I was coming down the stairs at Willesden Library when I saw inscribed on the wall ‘Bear escapes from The Welsh Harp in 1871’.


So, unusually for me, I looked up the history beforehand. More mundanely the Brent reservoir, it was built in 1835 to supply the Grand Union Canal. The Old Welsh Harp Tavern was the name of the inn on the A5 side of the area – a pub is still there – and apparently, it was so opulent with ornate pleasure gardens that the Prince of Wales used to pop down and do a little pigeon shooting. My dear. It was the height of fashion.

Ah, the bear? The bear escaped from the Welsh Harp menagerie in 1871. Menagerie, a little zoo type affair. So underused as a word these days. I remember my father in the 1960s referring to our household – a 3 storey terrace house in Yorkshire – as a menagerie meaning we were chaotic. We had tortoises, a goldfish and guinea pigs, but I think he was talking about us, the children, rather than the actual animals.

Karen Liebenguth is a Green Space life coach who has offered me a session. Usually, she would choose a green space – park, woods, heath  – in London and you would both meet up there. This time, I have chosen this site of special scientific interest – it’s 17o hectares of open water, marshes, trees and grassland apparently – because I want to know what it’s like. The Welsh Harp, that is.

The idea of life coaching in a green space? “I love the outside,” says Karen, “and people relax and open up more easily when surrounded by trees, grass, water. It also de-intensifies the session. We can stop and breath at times, and appreciate the landscape. It’s good to come to coaching when you are at a point where you want to move on. Often people will have traced the background of the problem, but now they are ready to move on. Life coaching can give you a blueprint for your future. Whereas counselling and therapy focus more on delving into the roots of the difficulty.”

Sorry, but we arrive by car. We park at the Youth Sailing Club on Cool Oak lane. It has the air of having seen better days. Bits of litter, information boards covered in grafitti, but a wonderful view of the reservoir. And no-one around. Karen is looking for somewhere to have a pee. Will she go wild or not?

“I was walking with a group of clients once,” she says, “and they wanted to go to the toilet and there were no facilities. I suggested the bushes and they were shocked and a bit scared. I showed them where to go, and they were fine. It made me realise that there are people who are frightened of green spaces in that way.”

She emerges from a wooded corner, and we set off towards the reservoir. Somewhere here there is a breeding colony of Great Crested Grebes but I have feeling we are not going to find it today. There are weeping willows instead – so deliciously green – and she asks me what my area of focus is today.

I decide to take a risk, and tell Karen, I am having difficulty opening my heart to men. And that’s what I want to change. I’m single. I’m happy and single. But I’d like to be happy and in a relationship with a man, so I want to address whatever it takes in order to allow that to happen.

As we’re passing a noble swan paddles across the reservoir, and a Polish family wander over to feed  him with bread. At that point, Karen asks me what it would feel like if my heart was open. In a quiet, caring voice. She has a very graceful, compassionate presence.

I’m usually good at answering questions, but this is quite difficult. And the start of many similar ones. “Expanded,” I say feeling that is a very limited reply, so I continue, “when I’m camping in summer with a group of friends doing emotional work, I always feel expanded, and because I’ve just done lots of crying and laughing with others, my heart is more open than it normally is.”

I’m circumnavigating her question. She persists. “What would that feel like?” she asks as we notice a sign saying ‘Beware Blue Algae’. Oh dear, not so green after all. The Blue Algae is reflecting my fear of answering that question. I could have said ‘like ice melting’ or ‘like wood disintegrating’, but I can’t quite feel it.

And then we come across the most inspiring sight. A meadow of blue and white vetch. It’s almost unreal, it looks so untouched by fertiliser or gardener. We stand and take it all in – in silence.

This is the point. Difficult questions followed by enough space to reflect a little. We walk on, and talk about what has happened to me in relationships with men. “I’ve been hurt,” I explain, “so I closed my heart to protect myself. I needed to have time to recover and also for my heart to beat gently on its own, without needing another to relate to.”

“What is stopping your heart opening around men now?” she asks. I reply:”Fear and a fierce critic that can find fault with men.”

Are you afraid you are a little too independent now? “Well,”I say, “I know what I want and it doesn’t have to be conventional in terms of a relationship. I don’t need a man to move in. I would be content with someone who has their own projects and passions, but wants to spend some special times with me. I’m at a time in my life where I don’t need to have a relationship but I would like to.”

“So you sound like you know what you want,” she says. And I do.

We stare across the water as moor hens and mallard ducks pootle around. I like that word. It’s an idyllic afternoon.

I wonder where around here the naturists used to gather in their glorious nudity between 1921 and 1930 when some puritanical locals objected vociferously? 200 angry anti-naked voices. This was known as the Sun-Bathing Riot of 1930.

We turn back on ourselves now but via a different route away from the water. We see a group of ancient oak trees and allow ourselves to be truly fascinated by them. In that innocent, wondrous way.

I start to tell Karen about my last true love affair which lasted 5 years, which was torturous and extremely painful. He really couldn’t give in the way that I longed for. “It sounds as though you opened your heart too much to this man,” she says, “and it was wounded for a while, but now you are ready to try again.”

Exactly, I agree. At this moment, we’re walking very slowly and we stop.

Well, I do have a date with an artist this weekend.

This was like manna to a life coach who is eager to give to her clients.

“I’d like you to imagine how your heart would feel if it were really open to this artist?” she says.

I have to close my eyes and really let myself into a situation where my heart is soft. “What does your heart look like?” she continues, refusing to let me off the hook.

“My heart feels like a rose where the red petals are falling off to reveal its centre, and it smells very fragrant,” I say as I sort of sway in an involuntary swoon. Oh gosh, I’m really getting the Mills and Boon of this now.

Will this satisfy her, I wonder. No, no, not quite.

“And how will you know if your heart is open when you meet this artist?” she says.

I have to stop again and really allow myself to feel. “I’ll feel a golden, warm feeling flowing from my heart to his, “ I reply like a true heroine.

Now she seems content. She remarks that I was doing a little dance at the end, and she likes that.

But back to my critic. “What will I do if I feel critical about something to do with him?” she asks.

“I do feel a little critical already,” I say laughing. “because he smokes. And I do smoke but only occasionally when I’m at a party.”

This throws her a little. “Ah, well, there’s criticism and there are value judgements,” she says, “for me, personally, I couldn’t go out with a smoker.”

Ah ha, well, we’ll have to see.

By this time, I can see the Sailing Club car park appearing amongst the trees. “How will you deal with your critic if she raises her head whilst your on the date?” she asks. I suggest I have an internal dialogue to ascertain  how worthy the criticism is, whether it’s coming from a value I hold dear, or is arising from my fear that I will get hurt if I get close to this person.”

Oh good, she’s OK with that. “Yes, remember, an internal dialogue is a great resource,” she says finally.

I want to come back to the Welsh Harp, there are butterfly and moth walks that I’d like to go on. I feel as though that was just the beginning.

And as for Karen’s coaching, I loved being asked lots of questions. Usually, I ask the questions. I revelled in having to reflect, and go through a mini-process with her.

PSThe date was cancelled because the artist injured his back whilst pruning errant roses! So you’ll just have to watch this heart space.

PPS Heard Robert Elms’ on Radio London today declare that he had one of his first jobs cutting grass at the Welsh Harp!

Green Space Life Coaching was set up by Karen Liebenguth. Karen offers life coaching while walking in London’s parks and green spaces, indoor coaching and group workshops to reconnect with nature. The next nature connection country walk will take place on Sunday 16th October in Kent, meeting point at Charing Cross Station. See website for details or contact Karen 07815 591 279


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There are a couple of asides to this tale. Firstly, a minor miracle that happened to me last week. I was in a rush. I went to the Santander cash machine, performed the usual card thing, and crossed Manor Park Road to go home. Three minutes later, it dawned on me that I’d left the cash behind. YES! LEFT THE CASH LYING THERE READY TO BE PICKED UP BY ALL AND SUNDRY. I didn’t even have time to panic. I turned back and there was a woman with a huge smile approaching me with £40 in her hands. Gasps all round. Of thanks and incredulity. A singular act of doing the right thing. In Harlesden. I glowed for the rest of the day.

The second aside is more apposite to the story. I invited Malcolm Barres-Baker, a rather grand, booming gentleman from Brent Archives to look at pubs with me. He’s rather charmingly of another era. When manners and politesse were uppermost in the ‘English’ way of being. Anyway, Malcolm – this is typical, I’m sure – sent me a tract from the nineteenth century author, Arthur Machen’s supernatural short story, The Inmost Light, written in 1894, to read beforehand. Because it mentions Harlesden. Oh, what an arcane delight this is.

Of course, at the time, Harlesden was in fact a prosperous middle-class suburb, so it’s slightly shocking to read Machen as he points out its less salubrious side. “A place of no character,” he writes caustically, “it’s too new to have any character as yet. There are rows of red houses and rows of white houses and the bright green Venetians, and the blistering doorways, and the little backyards they call gardens, and a few feeble shops, and then, just as you think you’re going to grasp the physiognomy of the settlement, it all melts away.”

Dear me! He goes on to describe Harlesden as “like a city of the dead”. Even at midday. The polar opposite is true now, of course. It’s hard to think of anywhere more animated. And I forgot, Machen goes on to set the scene for a certain Dr Black who was suspected of murdering his wife. “I dare say that you have never heard of the Harlesden case?” No, I hadn’t either.

Malcolm Barres-Baker and I had arranged to meet inside the Royal Oak. I’ve only been inside once before. Searching for an alcoholic boyfriend who had escaped from my alcohol-free home to pursue his own vision of how life should be. It was 5pm and this charismatic drunk was on a bender. His focus on beer was unwavering. I couldn’t persuade him to leave.

Today, Malcolm is already ensconced  with his half pint, and his archive photos.There’s a great, quite well-known (it adorns the cover of Traditional Pubs of Brent by Cliff Wadsworth) photo of The Royal Oak Tavern and  Railway Hotel (as it was known then) circa 1880 (but there was a building here before as long ago as 1757) when it was a two storey building with Venetian blinds and a huge, classy gaslight outside, there’s a horse and cart delivery in mid-action. The pub looks distinctly posh. Today’s building is a 1892 re-build. “The irony is,” says Malcolm, “the older pub looks more modern.” Now with its baroque-style – in other words, its got lots of fiddly architectural bits – 4 storeys, and red brick, there are always Irish bands playing there, but at 2pm today, it’s a little bit sad in here. Drinkers who’ve seen better days. Health-wise.

Just how upscale Harlesden was in 1900, Malcolm illustrates with a photo of a garden party in Roundwood Park showing the women in flouncy long dresses and the men in top hats and tails.

He also mentions the ‘original’ (ie 1892) tiles in the hallway, so we venture out there to admire the scene – a Parliamentarian trooper hunting for King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651, Charles hid in an oak tree, hence the name Royal Oark (see first picture)  enshrined in these colourfully painted ceramics. “They’re excellent quality,” intones Malcolm in his own unmistakable way. Posh too.

On the subject of ‘poshness’, Malcolm remarks that there are oodles of old photos and photo postcards of Harlesden in existence. Many more than Willesden. I’m surprised. I’d always assumed that Willesden was richer than Harlesden because there is so much printed coverage of Willesden.  “Harlesden was actually posher than Willesden,” says Malcolm getting into the vernacular.

Ah ha, I really didn’t know that.

And these picture postcards, why are there so many of them? Because the ladies and gents of the area would send them as a way of thanking their recent hosts for tea. “Remember in those days,” says Malcolm, “you could send a card in the morning and it would arrive in the afternoon, there were two post deliveries a day.” Postcards, letters – they were the texts ‘de leurs jours’. Instantly, I want to re-create the sending of postcards and letters in this way. The romance of the postal delivery. And, of course, there were no phones.

Before stepping out on to the High Street – which is rather a daylight shock for Malcolm who is used to being hidden away in  bookish archives – we discuss the contemporary( this being entirely the wrong word for the Royal Oak style) open plan bar. “In many ways, it’s not helping pub trade,” says Malcolm, “because before with a public bar and a lounge one, at least pubs could attract different sorts of drinkers. These days, it’s all-in-one and much more limited.”

We stare up at the sign outside. “What’s wrong with that?” says Malcolm who has a degree in history, and a post-degree in Greek classical archeology. I haven’t a clue. “Well, they’ve put an image of Charles I in the middle of the oak tree, when the king who is remembered for hiding in an oak tree is Charles II.”

We appreciate the mosaic of an oak tree on the side of the building. All gold and green – it is artfully constructed and also from 1892. Looking up is a vital constituent of urban anthropology. “Gladstone said always travel upstairs on a bus if you really want to see London,” says Malcolm helpfully.

This block of buildings including this version of the Green Man – the first one was built before 1778  and was a useful stopping place for stage coaches on their way from Harrow to the City of London – was constructed in 1907. And is pseudo-Dutch. Which I’ve never noticed before. The Green Man has curved gables and even a turret at the side. Malcolm is keen on the architecture and distinctly excited at the turret which he didn’t notice on the plans.

But why Dutch? “It’s in a style called Anglo-Dutch, or sometimes ‘Pont Street Dutch’,” he explains. “Starting in the 1870s, some young British architects wanted to break free from the competing Classical and Gothic styles. They began imitating late seventeenth and early eighteenth century domestic architecture, which in some cases was strongly influenced by the Low Countries, partly because King William III was Dutch. This Anglo-Dutch and pseudo-Queen Anne style was very popular around the time the pub was built. It also turns up in Australia, where it’s called Federation Anglo-Dutch because it was popular around 1901, when Australia became a single Commonwealth.”

Now, the Green Man has become the Portuguese Bi-cafe. Another take over. Or rather a flow from English pubdom to Portuguese eating and drinking location. In the incessant wave of building-use changes.

He stares across the road and declares that the various Somali shops over there had once been a pub too. The Elm Tree. I’m astonished. Again, I hadn’t realised there had ever been a pub there. Afterwards, I find a photo of it, and the building looks Edwardian.

We walk back along the High Street and Malcolm points out a blue sign on the buildings opposite Iceland, it says You May Telephone Here. Not any longer, of course.

We arrive at the newly refurbished Way 2 Save (so much better and cheaper than Tesco’s)  and focus our attention on the other side of the road. “A pub called the Anchor & Cable used to be there,” says Malcolm forever flummoxing me with new information, “which existed in 1670 and it was rebuilt in 1888 and called The Crown.” This building has flounces and flourishes, it almost thinks it’s in a gothic horror story. The more I look at it, the more I see. Additions. Balustrades, terracotta rosettes, grotesque heads, mock tudor black stripes. There’s quite a lot going on. Earlier during archive picture time, Malcolm has shown me a photo of the trade token used at the original pub. “There wasn’t enough small change in 17th century England so tokens helped,” he explained. “On the back you can see the initials of the husband and wife who ran it.”

The last word has to go to the incisive words of Cliff Wadsworth – local history supremo – he writes –’ in the 1990s, the Crown suffered on of the worst examples of re-naming: someone felt it would do better under the title The Rat And Carrot’. Not surprisingly, it didn’t.


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