Caught by the River

Outskirts: an extract

27th July 2017

An extract from John Grindrod’s Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt, our competition prize on tomorrow’s newsletter. Make sure you’re subscribed for the chance to win.

Introduction – The Last Road in London

I grew up on the last road in London. At the end of our front garden there was a privet hedge, and beyond the rickety pavement there lay a narrow grass verge, streetlights that glowed a dim orange from dusk, and the road. A tarmac outline to our estate: that was all there was to mark it from the little wilderness beyond. And that wilderness was the woods. It wasn’t like all the other streets on the estate, where a row of identical council houses would stare back. Here we lived opposite a wall of old trees, the gentle slope of a valley and a cantankerous family of crows. In ten steps I could run from our front door and be in the countryside. On Sundays folk emerged from somewhere riding horses along the strip of land opposite, and if the council was feeling flush it would send big tractors to mow the first few feet of it. In their oak tree facing us the crows hopped and cawed and stretched their inky black wings. Owls that we never saw hooted at night. Every year the cow parsley and nettles, elm and ash were furi- ously growing up and dying back. They were constant reminders that, even without human intervention, the woods were quite busy enough thank you. There was life here that didn’t need us. And yet here we were, so close, watching it all from across the road.

Behind our maisonette the housing estate stretched back in the direction of the town for a couple of miles, but from our front garden there was little evidence of any of that. We called it the woods, but in reality it was a valley of farmers’ fields surrounded by trees, with dense woodland in patches round and about. Our lives were dominated by the wildlife in this valley, green in spring and summer, red and yellow in autumn, brown and black in winter. While little of it seemed to venture to our side of the street, I made sure I headed across there as often as I could. If it was a dry summer, the long school holidays meant I could play over the road until late in the evenings. There were crab apples, tree stumps and barbed wire, and as the year progressed, conkers and acorns. Not that I saw any of that. In my imagination I was in space, on another planet, or fighting off invading forces. The woods were whatever I wanted them to be.

We take for granted whatever we grow up with outside our homes. This is just how it is. I lived on this road for most of my first thirty years. Since then I’ve never lived anywhere less than entirely urban, and I miss it. Not the housing estate. Nor, if I’m honest, the countryside. What I miss is that strange sensation of the collision of both: living on the edge of somewhere, where the town stops and the country begins, on the brink of something that feels unknowable, whether that’s the country or the town. ‘I live in the last road in London,’ I used to tell people. It wasn’t strictly true, even though it felt like it might be. The last road in London. And opposite us, where the crows lived, the woods. The wild. The peculiar outer limits.

Despite our best efforts, on the small island of Great Britain there are still ancient wilds, woodlands and moors where few people venture, remote and apart from the towns and cities where most of us spend our lives. Places where nature still flourishes, red in tooth and claw, green in stem and shoot, pale in frond and fin. But much of the open space in Britain is not found in rugged highlands or spectacular National Parks. It is nearer the towns and cities where most of us live. A tame vision of the country, with little of that edgy glamour that people seek out for rambling treks, wild swimming or getaway weekends. It even has a name that suggests mere practicality; vanity, even, as opposed to mystery and grandeur. The green belt.

If mountains and lochs are the cinemascope version of our countryside, the green belts are the sitcom. Cosy, familiar, cyclical. To be seen in regular short bursts. They are the small, pretty flowers of Laura Ashley wallpaper rather than the awe-inspiring atmospheric excesses of Romantic painting. A frilly green doily around the edge of our cities. Here the wildlife is the grey squirrel, fox and wood pigeon rather than the beaver, otter or wildcat. City folk might go here for a weekend cycle, but for a proper break seek adventure in the real wilds beyond. Highland or North Welsh folk might find this tame landscape almost funny. It is the place where cross people meet to try to put a stop to the modern world, whether it be wind farms, fracking or road-widening schemes. Yet it’s also full of commuters building extra bedrooms and adding value, and farms with hillsides of yellow oilseed rape or golden barley. Where developers win some and lose some. And, of course, there’s much that’s more surprising than any of this too: strange small towns, landfill sites, abandoned military facilities, motorway service stations, follies.


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