Barnet became a natural place to locate a livestock market, deal in horses and hold horse-races (on the site of the tube sidings). And when the railway reached High Barnet in 1872, it became a natural location for a summer Fair – so famous a century ago that ‘Barnet’ was Cockney slang for ‘hair’.
The Dollis Valley is basic to our neighbourhood identity, and its surviving meadows testify to a millennium of human and animal co-existence with nature. Part of it was acquired by the council in 1938, and the threat of its development in 1945 was the catalyst for the Barnet Society’s foundation. Since 1955, land on both sides of the brook as far south as Whetstone has been designated as Green Belt, and therefore protected except in ‘very special circumstances’.
So how well has that worked?
It has certainly prevented major new buildings. Although the Ark Pioneer Academy was within the Green Belt, it replaced the somewhat larger Barnet FC stadium. But there have been constant and sometimes successful attempts to build smaller ones, notably the Exclusive Brethren meeting hall on Mays Lane. Applications have also been made for riding manèges and stables, though their kinship with farm buildings can make them acceptable.
Other structures have had a more detrimental impact, most prominently the 4.5-metre high fences around Hadley Wood Sports Trust, which encloses nearly a fifth of Barnet Playing Fields. In combination with its floodlights, it has reduced the already restricted habitat of bats and small mammals.
That habitat will be further reduced if the Council’s project for new sports and leisure facilities proceeds. On King George V Playing Field, the beautiful hedges of may blossom will be obscured by high fencing. And in the middle of Barnet Playing Fields would sit a new building as big as a primary school plus yet more car parking, high fences and floodlights.
Since the Dollis Valley is already littered with abandoned pavilions and barns, how can it be sustainable to keep building more? Why aren’t Ark Pioneer and The Totteridge Academies’ sport and leisure facilities being made available for community use instead of being replicated?
Green Belt degradation is also a concern of ours. Some may be due to neglect, e.g. where farms are no longer profitable. But in other cases it has been deliberate, as at 56 Hendon Wood Lane, where the owner has been using Green Belt adjoining his new mansion as a builder’s yard since 2014, despite the efforts of the Society and Barnet enforcement officers.
On a positive note, the conversion of two barns at Brent Lodge Farm to residential use – which we opposed at the time – has been unexpectedly sympathetic.
The Barnet Society doesn’t automatically oppose all development in the Green Belt. Where a convincing case can be demonstrated – and if it’s sensitively sited and designed to the highest environmental standards – we can support it.
For example, since traditional agriculture is declining new forms of farming could and should take its place. We welcome the recent Council approval of Sweettree Care Farm off Highwood Hill, where people of all ages and abilities can develop their personal skills by working with farm animals, birds and plants. And we’ve supported The Totteridge Academy’s planning application for a city farm, not only for the education and wellbeing of its students but also for use by the wider community.
We would apply similar criteria to any revived proposals for a burial ground in a field off Barnet Gate Lane. Cemeteries are permitted in the Green Belt, and there are attractive precedents for natural and woodland cemeteries, notably in Scandinavia. Here, our principal concern is about the potential loss of biodiversity.
The variety of birds nesting in or passing through these fields is impressive. In addition to common species, local birder David Martens has recorded lapwing, skylark, whinchat, stonechat, snipe, wheatear, spotted flycatcher, yellow wagtail, meadow pipit, green sandpiper, barn swallow, swift, kestrel, peregrine falcon, buzzard, red kite and hobby – a total of 78 species. As he points out,
Many of these birds are red and amber listed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and have special and legal protection. If the land management of the fields changes, their feeding and breeding sites will be lost.
David’s excellent photos of birds at Whitings Hill, Whitings Wood and Arkley South Fields can be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/130921627@N08/albums/72157674054978891
Our biggest concern is that the loss of fields like these, if coupled with spraying toxins, flaying hedges and clearing ditches, amounts to a biological cleansing of the environment. Only the hardiest native species will survive. Not only will our delightful end of the Dollis Valley suffer, but because it’s a link in a green chain, so will the adjoining natural spaces of Hertfordshire and London.
The Dollis flows on – albeit much diminished by water extraction and global warming. Its thickets are becoming populated by parakeets, but are still home to kingfishers. It has seen off Barnet’s fair and livestock market and numerous post-war developments. Can it continue to do so?
Short walks in Chipping Barnet – no.5: The Dollis Valley
(Approximately 4 miles to Totteridge Fields and back)
This is the last of five short local walks recommended by our longstanding member Owen Jones. (The first four are also on our website.) It partly follows, but is not to be confused with, the Dollis Valley Greenwalk, a 10-mile route from Hampstead Heath to Mill Hill (see below). Owen writes,
Flower-lovers especially should enjoy the meadows that line the south side of the Dollis Brook from Barnet Lane in the east to Hendon Wood Lane in the west.
It is possible to start in High Barnet by walking through The Old Court House Recreation ground, down the leafy alley past the public tennis courts, turning briefly right on Mays Lane then across to Leeside. Car-users should be able to park in the Leeside area without troubling the local residents.
From Leeside, it is a straight walk south away from Mays Lane, across the open grassland with a footpath leading down to Dollis Brook. Ignore the signs pointing left and right to the Dollis Valley Greenwalk, which here follows the north side of the Dollis.
Crossing the footbridge, and after a few yards turning right (west), will take you in the direction of Highwood Hill and these lovely meadows are yours to explore, each bounded by ancient hedgerows. Follow the northern edge of each field close to the brook, and as you reach each hedge look carefully for the gaps through (not always obvious in summer).
After traversing six meadows we join the Dollis Valley Greenwalk, which arrives on our left from across the brook.
If you have the energy, it is well worth walking as far as the junction of Highwood Hill and Hendon Wood Lane. The western end is known as Totteridge Fields, an ancient hay meadow that has, in common with the remainder of the grassland, been allowed to grow free of any herbicides. As I write, the large number of buttercups are in full flower and several butterflies should be seen during a visit here.
The Fields are managed by London Wildlife Trust on behalf of Barnet Council. More information can be found at https://www.wildlondon.org.uk/nature-reserves/totteridge-fields
Owen is the author (with David Ely) of the Society’s publications Rambles Round Barnet – In the Footsteps of EH Lucas (Volumes I & II). For further information, use the button at the foot of this page.