Archaeological evidence suggests that the area that is now called Burnt Oak was once the location of a Roman rubbish pit, dating from c. A.D. 300, located off Watling Street (Edgware Road). This ancient trackway ran from Kent to Wales and became a major route during Roman times.The name Burnt Oak was first recorded in 1754, and probably referred to a burnt oak tree on the eastern side of Edgware Road. Even when "Burnt Oak field" underwent housing development in the 1860s, and a tramway was built along Edgware Road, the occupants only numbered 1000 or so. Dairy farms occupied most of the area - undulating grassland, criss-crossed by a pattern of hedges, farm tracks, ditches and brooks, with a scattering of farm buildings here and there.
Burnt Oak and its environs remained predominantly rural until the early 1920s, when the London Underground station and homes for 4000 people were built. The housing estates continued to expand, and by 1931 the occupants numbered 21,545, many living in the Watling Estate. With the increase in homes came an increase in retail markets, shops and other amenities; the country's first Tesco shop was built on Watling Avenue and opened in 1931.
The area is currently known for its variety of multicultural shops, reflecting the established Indian, Turkish and Nigerian communities. It has recently also attracted a community of Eastern Europeans, mainly from Romania, Poland and Bulgaria.
Due to the rapid development of housing in Burnt Oak, particularly during the interwar period, there are now very few areas of green space to be found in the suburb, and much of the remaining grassland has been developed into public amenities, such as Watling Park. These parks are popular with children, dog-walkers, people playing sports and drug users alike. The best remnants of "countryside" are hidden behind fences, hedges and other barriers, the gates of which are locked shut for most of the time. Here there are still precious examples of bygone habitat and wildlife waiting to be re-discovered.From old railway to nature reserve
Mill Hill Old Railway is a London Wildlife Trust (LWT) nature reserve that lies to the north of the Watling Estate (see the image above). It is a linear reserve, of about 1 km in length, running east to west, from Deans Lane to Lyndhurst Park.
The line originally carried a steam service that ran from Edgware to Finchley. This was closed to passengers on the 11th September 1939, and completely closed in 1964, after which the railway was demolished. Pictures of the site taken in 1921 show an absence of trees and hedgerows along the line, but today the site is largely woodland, with a few clearings kept open by local conservation volunteers.
The reserve is a Site of Borough Importance for Nature Conservation, Grade II. The woodland attracts birds such as woodpeckers and warblers, and in the grassy glades, vegetation that typically colonises railway land, such as the Great Burnet (flowering period June-September) and Burnet Saxifrage (flowering July-August), can still be found. Slow-worm populations have undoubtedly increased since the site fell into disuse. These reptiles are to be found under the sheets of corrugated iron scattered along the length of the site.
Access to the site is very restricted. The LWT website suggests that the reserve is only open for volunteer work days and public events. The fences that surround the site are very effective in protecting it from trespassers.
Rivers (known locally as brooks)
Burnt Oak Brook is a one-mile-long stream between Mill Hill and Burnt Oak in the London Borough of Barnet. It is a tributary of the Silk Stream, which is a tributary of the River Brent, which is a tributary of the River Thames. It arises as a minor spring in The Mill Field, and its course, often just a dry ditch, can be viewed from the footpath that crosses what used to be St Joseph's College Grounds, before it disappears underground. The stream itself is first visible in Simmonds Mead Open Space, a small green open space at the junction of Watford Way and Lawrence Street, but here it is quite heavily polluted. The stream then passes through an underground pipe to re-emerge in the north-west corner of Lyndhurst Park. It goes along The Meads (largely unspoilt grassland) and under Deansbrook Road. In this stretch the water appears to be clear of pollution, and you can sometimes find shoals of Gasterosteus aculeatus (Three-spined Stickleback). The brook then passes through Abbots Road Allotments (where it occasionally becomes heavily contaminated with "foul water" from neighbouring housing, although some of this pollution is removed as it passes over meters of "sewage fungus" before it leaves) and then under Abbots Road into Watling Park. On exiting from the park it goes underground to join the Silk Stream near Silkstream Park.
Edgware Brook is a largely inaccessible river of good water quality that is fed from streams in Bentley Priory Open Space and Stanmore Country Park to the north-west of Burnt Oak. Its headwaters include Cloisters Brook and Stanburn Stream. Edgware Brook proper can first be seen at Stanmore Marsh, which has recently been landscaped to give the area a "facelift", and much of the land has been fenced off to allow the vegetation to regenerate. Here there is an active campaign to stop people littering and throwing refuse into the stream. It then travels east past "The Hive", Barnet FC's stadium. Edgware Brook joins the Silk Stream in the grounds of Edgware Community Hospital .
Deans Brook runs between Mill Hill and Edgware and is another tributary of the Silk Stream. The brook rises on Mill Hill Golf Course, where it is dammed to form a large pond called Stoneyfields Lake. It goes through a culvert under the M1 motorway to Stoneyfields Park , where it is again dammed to form an ornamental lake (this is the most easily accessible part of the brook; here it is fringed by Great and Lesser Reedmace, and breeding water birds such as Coots, Moorhens and Mallards can be found). It largely follows its natural course as it passes through suburban Edgware, where it combines with the Edgware Brook to become the Silk Stream near Edgware Community Hospital. Moorhens can still be found in this region of the river and the river bed is covered with a healthy growth of Blanket Weed.
The Silk Stream is a brook just over 4 kilometres long in the London Borough of Barnet. It is a tributary of the River Brent, which it joins at Brent Reservoir. The Silk Stream runs north-south through Colindale and Hendon. The name Silk is believed to derive from Sulh or Sulc, probably from the Old English for plough or furrow.
Conservation status of brooks and wetlands in and near Burnt Oak
Burnt Oak Brook (the section between Lyndhurst Park and Watling Park), Deans Brook, Stoneyfields Park and wetland south of Edgware London Underground station sidings (an area which is totally inaccessible and only viewable from the train) are Sites of Borough Importance for Nature Conservation, Grade II.
Although the main purpose of allotments is for growing food, they offer other benefits, and their contribution to supporting wildlife in urban and suburban areas is significant. Gardening was once seen to an occupation with the aim of excluding nature or controlling it, but it can in fact be very good for wildlife. In the summer of 2014, the Friends of the Earth/Buglife Bee Count revealed that more bees were seen on allotments than on any other habitat, including parks and the countryside. Deans Lane allotment, just north of Burnt Oak and close to its border, is a Site of Borough Importance for Nature Conservation, Grade II.
Allotments are the modern-day equivalent of the medieval open-field system, with the land still worked in strips for the growing of vegetables and fruit for the tenant and his family. The allotmenteer is often up early, working his land steadily and quietly, using simple hand tools, and often in a very eco-friendly way. Many areas are left fallow each year, sometimes intentionally, but more often than not because working on the land is a lot harder than most people realise. This provides areas where birds, even those considered to be farmland species, can forage for insects and seed on the ground, largely undisturbed, watched by the patient gardener taking a well-earned break.
Abbots Road Allotment lies in the very heart of Burnt Oak suburb, with Burnt Oak Brook flowing through it, linking the Meads to the north with Watling Park to the south. The site has a long agricultural history (the land has never been built on, being used to graze cattle before being cultivated for crops). Today, the allotment is tended by a diverse, multicultural community of gardeners, many of whom are also wildlife enthusiasts. In fact, the tenancy agreement here is written with wildlife in mind, with a clear list of dos and don'ts that benefit wild plants and animals enormously. "Working parties" are regularly held, and some of these are involved in creating and maintaining habitats for wildlife. For example, hedgerows have been planted along the perimeter, which apart from providing privacy and shelter for tender plants, also provide habitat and nest sites for garden birds. The banks of the brook are artificially controlled by a revetment wall, which somewhat reduces their value for wildlife, but there a strip of uncultivated land of varying width, either side of the brook, that is actively managed in terms of nature conservation, which helps make the brook a very valuable corridor for wildlife. In an effort to increase the biodiversity of the site, ponds and wetlands have been created along the banks of the brook. Bird feeders, nest boxes, "bug hotels", log piles, compost heaps, hibernacula for herpetofauna and coppiced hedges are being maintained here and in other parts of the allotment, by tenants on the site. Due to its location, geography, history, and wildlife-friendly ethos, this allotment quietly boasts some of the best wildlife species to be found in this region of North London.