diamond geezer

 Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Three East London villages: 2) Cranham

I'll confess it was Ian Nairn sent me to Cranham.
Nairn's London, chapter 7, final entry, just after Romford Market and Upminster Windmill.

"Of all the ways in which London meets its countryside, this is the least credible. When the Green Belt came into force in 1938, the outward swell of building stopped dead, two fields away. So you can look back to the serried roofs from what is still an unspoilt Essex hamlet - farm, house, rectory and church (unhappily Victorian) in a big leafy churchyard."

And fifty years later he's still not wrong.

"There is a terrifying forty miles of solid brickwork behind those demure-looking semis half a mile away. You feel as if Canute might have on the beach, but unexpectedly successful."

To get to Cranham today, head past Upminster and stop on the big estate before the M25. If the District line went one stop further its terminus would be in Cranham, and it's here you'll find an extensive depot for the storage and maintenance of trains. Surrounding this is a considerable residential area, now pretty much merged with Upminster so it's hard to tell where one suburb ends and the other begins. But it's straightforward to spot where both end and the countryside begins, with the medieval hamlet of Cranham now isolated on a low rise to the southeast. Its survival is thanks to a timely coincidence - the local landowner put his estate up for sale in 1937, a year before the Green Belt was introduced and protected the southeastern quadrant in perpetuity.

The only road into ye olde Cranham turns off south just before the railway bridge, this the c2c link line via Chafford Hundred. I say road, it's much more a lane, and soon drops into hedgerow mode once a single house is passed. At first the adjacent grass is a school* playing field, alive with raucous rugger folk as I passed. But then a proper field opens out, all ploughed and muddy at present, and with Nairn's urban edge clearly visible on the opposite side. It's a shame about the metal bollards positioned at very regular intervals along the lane (this purely from an aesthetic point of view - if you live up the far end I'm sure they're essential for avoiding ending up in a ditch after dark).
* The school is Coopers' Company and Coborn School, which until 1971 used to be based in Bow Road.

And people do live up The Chase, in some very large houses indeed. Three are set back behind high hedges to obscure goings on from all those pesky dog walkers who will insist on traipsing past. And from churchgoers, because Cranham's parish church is still housed out here in the fields rather than amid some more convenient housing estate. The original medieval church had a semi-octagonal tower, but the current spire-topped building is Victorian, and hence seen more easily over the trees. A potter in the churchyard reveals little out of the ordinary, but inside is a memorial to James Oglethorpe, a British General who founded the American colony of Georgia and who lived out his later years nextdoor at Cranham Hall. Of this you can see the gates and a long drive, but the remainder is hidden behind a high brick wall of Tudor provenance, and the current tenant likes it that way.

The only other residents hereabouts are holed up in what was once Cranham Hall Farm, now a large quadrangle of converted barn units and livery stables. And all around, a sea of green (or gold, or brown currently, depending). To travel further you can only walk, or maybe trot, following a web of footpaths and bridleways out across the fields. One carries straight on past paddocks to Cranham Marsh Nature Reserve, and eventually the peculiarly named Stubbers Adventure Centre. Another path, well hidden round the back of the churchyard, leads down across the railway to Pike Lane (a mile long and totally undeveloped) and the Thames Chase Forest Centre. And the path that Ian Nairn would have taken tracks west down the side of something ex-agricultural to a small pond and the last hedge before civilisation.

I was fortunate enough to arrive in the hour before sunset as the sky above Argyle Gardens blazed pink and gold. Arriving with muddy boots through an alleyway I found myself on a pleasantly nondescript residential street of broad semis and postwar infill. With paved front gardens and littering leaves, and a boy on a bike passing a group of teenagers heading to the corner shop, it could be any of ten thousand streets across the capital. But as Nairn pointed out it's simply the first, the borderline zone between town and country, the latter paved over from here all the way to Uxbridge. Praise be to the Green Belt, and all who live inside her.

[Today's challenge: write several more paragraphs about almost as obscure a corner of London as yesterday]

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