Hiking the suburban wild places

Rupert Barnes

Endless rows of identical semi-detached houses on roads laid down by compass and set-square built for the station – get up, get the train out, work, get the train home, sleep. The Victorians hated the new suburbs their industry created:  the “Dark Suburbs”, a metaphor for a land separated from culture doomed to ignorance; but then those left in the towns would say that.  What were these new, amorphous neighbourhoods obliterating the green fields?  No seats of learning, no theatres, no ancient churches – all the necessities of civilisation – and only the means to get out.

That is not true though, is it? The rivers are still there, and the little countryside brooks, and village greens, if hemmed in by habitation, and the churches and the theatres which have sprung up.  The pretty, well-tended park is not a gift of municipal benevolence, but a reserve surviving from what was always there.  The foxes that run though the end of the garden did not come in from the countryside:  it was the town which came into their countryside.

Create your walk through the suburban countryside: this is what the Middlesex Greenway is about, the walk which I will be reopening at the weekend, and there is room for many more explorations to find the suburban wild places.

The suburbs everywhere took a pattern from the planned development of “Metro-Land“, where the ideal was rus in urbe:  the countryside in the town, to each house a preserved plot of meadow as its garden; and between the houses the countryside remains.  Of those footpaths that strung the old villages together, many remain, but you have to go to have a look.  If you are missing all this, you are missing the very point of the suburbs.

Switch off Googlemaps and satnavs and whatever: they are only interested in drivers and roads.  Step into the open and breathe, and find those little paths that were here long before the encroaching suburb. Locked in a charging steel box you go from town to town, but a good map, a paper, Ordnance Survey map, shows the actual landscape, deep in the conurbations.

Even in unrelenting streetscape, there is variety and detail to be found on foot that a driver misses, and yes you can take joy in the presence of your fellow man, in all his quirky variety. Those once identical houses are not identical any more, after generations of individualisation.  The bland conformity is found in cheap, concrete council estates – a pile of bricks, a slab of concrete, a square of scrub grass behind a two-foot plastic-coated chain-link fence – but even they have not blunted the human spirit and those who have bought their houses have shown that they can be made beautiful.

This is what the Middlesex Greenway explores in the most suburbanised county of them all; Middlesex. It finds the green western edge of the county by rivers and farms, but then plunges into the suburbs, finding the parks, the paths by hidden country streams, even farms in the conurbation, and many forgotten places. It then steps into the relentless streets but not to rush by, so they too can be appreciated in their variety, from the ground. There too are parks and pocket-parks known locally and there for you to walk. Eventually the Middlesex Greenway emerges by the River Lee, canalised for industry but where its banks are bursting with fragrant nature which will not submit to the slide-rule. All this is there to be found.

Follow my route on the Middlesex Greenway

I am told that it can also be followed on Twitter: @wildthing_uk

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Rupert Barnes

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