Yesterday I ended up on the western edge of London in the randomly selected borough of Hillingdon. It's a long way from the centre of town, tucked up against the fringes of Herts, Bucks and Surrey, so it took me ages to get there. And it's a vast borough, the second largest in the capital, stretching a full twelve miles from north to south, so I had my work cut out trying to travel around. Hillingdon's a very suburban borough, really quite rural in places, but with a less glamorous hinterland along the A4 corridor. The council's official list of local attractions suggested I was in for a dull old time, but actually there was plenty of interest to see. Inbetween the dull bits.
Somewhere pretty: Ruislip Lido Much of the northern swathe of Hillingdon lies within the green belt, so it's more like proper countryside than part of Western Europe's largest city. Ruislip in particular has the air of a small market town, though admittedly one populated by stockbrokers. By common consent the prettiest spot in the area is Ruislip Lido, a 150-acre lake nestling amid ancient woodlands (and the odd golf course). At first glance it looks like a place of purely natural beauty, complete with wooded banks and resident waterfowl (I was charmed by a couple of amorous crested grebes, and got quite close to a large swan). But look again. Most genuine lakes don't have a child-covered beach with proper golden sand, do they, nor a low dam blocking one end. That's because this is really an artificial lagoon, constructed in 1811 as a reservoir to feed the Grand Union Canal. The place was astonishingly popular in the 40s, 50s and 60s, the beach packed by eager kids who'd never even seen the sea, let alone the Mediterranean. Today the crowds have passed and the sailing club and water skiiers have dispersed, but Ruislip Lido remains a much cherished spot for local people to pass a couple of hours. The tarmac path around the edge of the lido is just long enough to make you think you've done some valuable exercise. Alternatively it's the perfect length for walking the dog, or for jogging round (once) or for taking your toddler out for a ride on their mini tricycle before they get bored. And there's a proper miniature railway right around the lake too, with trains departing from 'Ruislip Lido' station for 'Woody Bay' every 40 minutes, although I arrived too early in the day to see them in operation. No doubt the place is packed with divorced dads on Sunday afternoons, maybe topping off their visit with a meal at the Harvester-style restaurant next to the big car park. All still just the right side of charming, but I hope bird flu paranoia doesn't keep the crowds away in the future. by bus: H13 by train: Woody Bay
Somewhere retail: UxbridgeHigh Street I must confess that Uxbridge doesn't normally spring to mind when I think of London's great retail centres. But the Hillingdon council website assured me that Uxbridge was home to not one but two marvellous shopping centres. And, as you may have noticed by the lack of photo in the report above, I'd managed to leave home without my camera's memory stick so I was in urgent need of a replacement purchase. So I went. Good old Dixons in the Chimes Centre had a memory stick for a bargain price, plus they were only too happy to fetch a pair of scissors so that I could rip open the ludicrously well sealed plastic packaging and start taking photos again. Elsewhere in the two-level mall the families and youth of Hillingdon were partaking of their Saturday shopping fix. Some ripped jeans and glitzy gold chains for the younger consumers, perhaps, or a restful muffin and coffee for the more mature purchaser. I had to fend off a particularly keen woman trying to get me to switch my electricity supplier, twice, and carefully avoided the gangly pierced alternative types signing up at the bottom of the escalator for the Ministry of Paintball. Across the street the Pavilions Shopping Centre proved to be just as large, but slightly more downmarket. There were a few faux market stalls clustered round a central staircase (now I know where to come for all my mobility scooter needs) and several not quite brand-name stores (like Secrets, Purelife, and Popiandy's cafe). Outside a few large traditional stores lived on, like Randalls furniture & carpets store (the family business of the local MP), but shopping in Uxbridge is generally as 'clone town' an experience as you might expect. I didn't stay long. by tube: Uxbridge by bus: anything starting with a 'U'
Somewhere sporty: Hayes FC I suppose, given that I was exploring the heartland of deepest Middlesex, that I should have visited somewhere cricket related. But the MCC are based some distance away and only deigned to play a single one day match at the Uxbridge Cricket Club last year, so I decided against. I was very tempted to write an in-depth report from a local bowling green, this seeming to be the official sport of Hillingdon borough, but thankfully the season doesn't seem to be properly underway yet. So instead I hunted down a top local football team, Hayes FC, from the Nationwide Southern Conference no less, Although maybe not for much longer. The team are languishing in the relegation zone at the moment, so yesterday's match against Lewes was a crucial points-gathering exercise. I tracked down their mid-suburban Church Road ground a couple of hours before kickoff to view the first stirrings of pre-match preparation. The huge car park was still nigh empty, bar the odd souped-up motor or white van. A shaven headed bloke in a suit arrived and lugged a heavy kitbag through the side entrance towards the changing rooms. The groundsman stood by the red-painted turnstiles and waited. Local residents walked, or drove, past without giving the old part-time stadium a second glance. It came as no surprise later to discover that official attendance at the thrilling two-all draw had been only 167. I hope the club survives potential relegation to the Isthmian League - it's a long way down. by bus: 195, H98
Somewhere random: Yiewsley Rearrange all of London's placenames into alphabetical order and Hillingdon boasts the last name on the list - Yiewsley. Which seemed a good enough reason to visit. This small town owes its existence to two great 19th century endeavours, the Great Western Railway and the Grand Union Canal. I arrived via the former (happy 200th birthday - today! - to chief engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel) and went for a short walk up the towpath of the latter. The flooded gravel pits of the Colne Valley are really rather scenic, but alas much of this stretch of the canal skirted several warehouses and a patch of post-industrial wasteland instead. A giggly gang of four schoolboys hung from the ironwork off the footbridge leading to the Slough Arm of the canal, and proud barge owners sat looking out from their improvised gardens on the banks of the Packet Boat Marina. Yiewsley High Street, running parallel, was a different world. A long string of shops ran down to the station, featuring such retail delights as Sweet Dreams discount bed showroom, Dades electrical store and Gordon's - one of those slightly musty independent ladies fashion outlets that exist only in suburban parades. Architecturally the only point of note was brick-built St Matthew's Church, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott who was also responsible for the gothic excesses of St Pancras Station. And a warning to any reader tempted to book into the 'Heathrow Guest House' prior to a flight out of the country. You might be expecting a homely hotel close to the airport, whereas what you're really getting is a block of first-floor rooms above an opticians, a bakery and a unisex salon. In Yiewsley. You can do better. by train: West Drayton