Havering's on the eastern fringe of London, where the residents still wish they were part of Essex. It's big, the third largest borough in London. It's mostly Green Belt and packed with parkland. It's very suburban, very 'estate', very white. It's precisely where EastEnders should be set, full of Mitchells and Brannings who fled inner London two generations ago. And it's a borough without a Tourist Information Centre, which suggested that finding things to see might be a challenge. No such worries, I was kept more thanbusy throughout, from top to bottom.
Somewhere to begin: Havering Museum Yes, there's a Havering Museum, not that most folk outside the borough would know. It's new, only been open a year, tucked in on the site of the old Romford Brewery. And it's all here thanks to the devotion of a bunch of volunteers who put the paperwork together for a Lottery grant, assembled a collection with the proceeds and now staff the galleries four days a week. This museum was Big Society before the phrase was even born. And, unlike Wandsworth's lame attempt out west, I'm pleased to say that this place has got it right. There are two main galleries, exploring local history through a collection of objects ranging from Roman shards to old football programmes. Pubs and brewing take centre stage in one part, as you might expect, but it turns out that Havering had its fair share of proper history well before industrialisation and commuting came along. Each part of the borough gets a look-in, while around the walls are more thematic displays covering education, waterways, industry and the like. It's informative, it's modern, and it doesn't go too over the top with touchscreen interactivity. I was pleased to see there were more visitors than volunteers, which was impressive for a Saturday morning in a facility you might think most would overlook. And I especially enjoyed the temporary exhibition in the gallery out back, even though it was little more than several printed sheets stuck on display boards, so much so that went off and investigated the geographical subject further later in the day. You're very unlikely to visit, I realise that, but for two pounds fifty Havering has a engaging community resource of which it can be justly proud. by train: Romford[website][blog][twitter]
Somewhere pretty: Havering-atte-Bower Triple-barrelled, no less, Havering-atte-Bower is a delightful little village in the northeastern corner of London. A proper hilltop village with a green and a twisty street, plus royal connections going back almost a millennium. Edward the Confessor established a timber lodge here, which became the centre of hunting grounds known as The Royal Liberty of Havering. Later a proper palace grew up (to which the 'atte-Bower' suffix relates), and several monarchs including Henry VIII stayed overnight here. It's all vanished now, every last stone, but the parish church is built on the site of the old palace chapel. [photo]
I had precisely twenty-five minutes to explore Havering-atte-Bower. It's served by one of London's least frequent buses, the 375, so I had only the time it takes for the bus driver to reach the first roundabout in Essex and turn round. Off by the village green, start the clock, go. A sweet row of cottages looks out across the grass, which is not quite round enough for a game of cricket, hence the cricket club is tucked up a lane on the way to Harold Hill. There's a great view from the boundary, as the hillside tumbles down towards Romford, intermediate suburbia and the Thames. A white-painted water tower rises from a nearby field [photo], but there was no sign from the lane of the Round House beyond. This unusual 18th century home once belonged to Joseph Pemberton, one of the UK's foremost rose growers (and isn't round, it's elliptical). A little further on is PyrgoPark, site of the estate where Tudor princesses Mary and Elizabeth spent much of their childhood... but I didn't have time to get that far (and only two gateposts remain, so I didn't miss much). Back on the village green I nearly missed the stocks and the whipping post - not the medieval originals but still most unlikely survivors in a London village. The village sign is new, Boris came to unveil it last autumn, just across from the pond which may or may not have been used to dunk witches. I couldn't get inside St John's, only through an arch beneath the tower and round the back of the churchyard. Here I found the Havering Park Riding School, so busy on a Saturday that it merits its own greasy spoon trailer (Den's Nosh) frequented by horsey folk and welly-wearers. There was no sign of any other shop in the village, only twopubs and an Indian restaurant, but maybe I'd have found one if I'd ventured further down the main street towards the Essex border [photo]. No time, twenty-five minutes up, bus due. Next time maybe I'll come back and do the full walk, as recommended in this council leaflet, and see how much of this charming village I can fit in before the next-but-one bus arrives. by bus: 375 on foot: London Loop 20 and 21
Somewhere sporty: Romford Greyhound Stadium They take dogging very seriously in Havering. Romford has one of London's three last greyhound stadia - the only one north of the river now that Walthamstow's looking increasingly like flats. Come on a Saturday evening and the place is heaving, the streets too, as punters from all over make their weekly pilgrimage to the hare-chasing circuit. One of the best views is from a passing train, looking directly into the heart of the stadium, although only for a couple of fleeting seconds. For the proper experience, and to discover which dog won, you need to walk surprisingly far back from the station and find the turn-off past the bath showroom. Or drive - they drive a lot in Havering - and troop with the rest of your extended family down the lane to the stadium. It's a great Saturday night out, I can attest, so long as you enjoy a flutter, a beer and all your food served with chips. Stake a few coins on a hunch, or study the form seriously and gamble on win or place. The atmosphere by the trackside is electric as twenty-four legs race past to a chorus of raucous encouragement. Who's in the lead... no, who won... now who's got a lucky winning ticket? Not so on a Saturday morning. The stadium is silent, with only the front door at reception swung open revealing staff inside. I can stroll right up to the Main Stand and Chase Restaurant doors, or peer through a gap in the blue gates at the deserted arena within. Not a bark, not a cheer, not even the low hubbub of blokes in sportswear discussing latest form. And yet when I got home later, I discovered that a fourteen-race meeting was indeed underway, with victories for Regal Prince, Taxi Boss and Scrubit Maurie, amongst others. This was a made-for-TV occasion, satisfying punters in betting shops up and down the land, with only a handful of Romford locals entering through reception to watch events live. A free taster solely for those in the know, who can't wait until evening to properly go to the dogs. by train: Romford by bus: 86