Ten years ago this very weekend I found myself a jamjar, dropped the names of London's 33 boroughs inside and picked one at random. As moments of creative lunacy go, it ranks highly. Out of that jar came the borough of Merton, and off I went that very day to explore six of its more interesting sights. I didn't write too much on that occasion, but things swiftly snowballed and before long I was writing three days of posts per borough. Visiting each in turn proved unexpectedly interesting, whether heading for somewhere central or discovering yet another obscure peripheral gem. It gave me an unparalleled overview of the capital, from the backwaters of Bromley to the backside of Barnet. And with each visit roughly three months apart, it took all of eight years to reach my final trip to Barking and Dagenham. A mammoth undertaking, which I pledged I'd never do again.
So, ten years on, it's time to do something similar. We had much discussion at the end of the project as to what I might do next, and the best idea we came up with was "Random Areas Just Outside The London Boroughs". There are 17 Home Counties districts that share a border with London, 17 adjacent local authority areas. So I'm going to visit them all, one at a time, and report back on what life is like just beyond the border.
Clockwise from the Thames: Dartford, Sevenoaks, Tandridge, Reigate & Banstead, Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Elmbridge, Spelthorne, Slough, South Bucks, Three Rivers, Hertsmere, Welwyn Hatfield, Broxbourne, Epping Forest, Brentwood, Thurrock
They're a very motley group of boroughs. Some are small and urban, others sprawling and rural. Some barely touch the capital at all while others share a considerable border. Some stray no more than a couple of miles from London, others stretch considerably further away. Some I've blogged about already, occasionally in depth, whereas others are merely names on a map. Whatever, I'm sure I can find places worth visiting and telling you about - if I could manage it with Sutton, I can do it with this lot.
Four of the 17 districts are in Hertfordshire, three from Essex, two from Kent, as many as six from Surrey, plus one each from Berkshire and Bucks. Towns I won't be visiting include Watford, Amersham and Windsor, because the perverse geography of civic boundaries means that none of their administrative districts quite touch London. But I should be heading as far out as Sevenoaks, Ongar, Reigate and even Welwyn Garden City, plus several villages it's barely possible to commute from. I like a challenge.
I shall be employing the usual shopping list of themes, that's somewhere famous, somewhere historic, somewhere pretty, somewhere retail, somewhere sporty and somewhere random. But I'm not going to force myself to visit somewhere from all six categories - four will do, whichever four are most appropriate. That's partly a transport-related decision. Once across the London border the public transport network thins out a bit, with buses less ubiquitous and trains fewer and further between. Not that out of town is impenetrable, of course, but I can't guarantee to be able to get around so fast in one day flat.
For similar reasons, sorry, this project's not going to be guided by chance. I can't pick a district at random first thing in the morning, research it and then visit everywhere, all before the sun goes down. Thurrock I could probably manage, but Mole Valley goes all the way down to the Sussex border, and that's just not on without adequate preparation. So I'm going to work sequentially around the edge of London in a clockwise direction, ensuring I know which district is coming next, allowing me to plan each visit in advance.
My apologies, therefore, for the lack of jamjar during this particular series. But I will add a frisson of initial excitement by not revealing which of the 17 I'll be starting to explore today. It's probably obvious, and also a little disappointing, but it is the only place to begin. Today I'll be out touring at least four of this particular district's more interesting locations. So come back tomorrow for the first instalment of Beyond London - a continuing series in seventeen parts. Should keep me busy for a few years, I hope.