diamond geezer

 Saturday, October 29, 2016

The M25 was officially opened 30 years ago today. On Wednesday 29th October 1986 Margaret Thatcher cut a ribbon north of South Mimms, wagging a finger at "those who carp and criticise", and millions of vehicles set off on their orbital jaunt. It's now one of Europe's busiest motorways, and an icon to boot, and to many the unofficial boundary of London. But that would be wrong. At least a couple of million people live inside the M25 but outside London, including the whole of Watford, most of Dartford, all of Epsom and Ewell and a considerable chunk of Surrey. Indeed the M25 generally runs a few miles beyond the Greater London border, in Hertfordshire up to seven miles distant, so adopting it as a new boundary would be geographically ridiculous.

From Junction 1 at the QE2 Bridge round to Junction 14 near Heathrow the M25 and the capital never meet, coming closest near Orpington and north of Leatherhead. Motorway and border are perfectly aligned between J14 and J15, bar a little wiggle where the River Colne used to run (and which is destined to end up under Runway Three). A much longer overlap runs between J24 at Potters Bar and nearly-J26 at Waltham Abbey, and again from before-J28 to after-J29 in Essex, where legislation has matched the edge of London to the line of the motorway. But there is one significant corner of the capital which pokes out beyond the M25, roughly eight square kilometres in size, and that's around North Ockendon.

North Ockendon is London's most easterly village, a medieval community amid the fields and forests beyond Upminster. Neighbouring Cranham had been similarly undeveloped, but in the early 1930s extensive housing estates were built and it was widely assumed that land around North Ockendon would be next. The parish was therefore assimilated into Hornchurch Urban District, which thirty years later became part of the borough of Havering, even though the avenues of semis never came. Hence today we see the anomaly of a tiny village sticking out beyond the obvious city perimeter, a mismatch made all the more obvious by the M25 slicing through the fields inbetween.

North Ockendon is of village of two parts, one clustered and one linear, separated by a large field. I started in the younger part, the majority, a scattered run of houses along the Ockendon Road where some of the cottages date back to the 1700s. They're charming but not everything else is, for example the old post office is now a hideous Towie-style uber-chalet perched on a double garage with an ostentatious portico. No shops have survived, but there is a well stocked garden centre, and Steak Night at The Old White Horse is on a Wednesday. This being London there's a very good bus service which belies the size of the population, every quarter of an hour to Lakeside or Upminster (plus yes, the least frequent bus service in the capital, the runty 347). Entirely unserved is Fen Lane which leads down past a somewhat smug golf course, a full mile to the easternmost point in London, a gloriously remote spot by the Mardyke.

To reach the older part of the village I slipped up the side of the pub's garden and crossed the intermediate field along a line of telephone poles. This cut through to the foot of a dead-end lane, the original heart of North Ockendon, surrounded by manor, moat and church. The church is St Mary Magdalene, a flinty number known to have existed in 1075, and then under the direct ownership of new-fangled Westminster Abbey. It's typically Essex-looking, which is to say charming, although likely to be securely locked if you're hoping to look inside. One exterior point of interest is St Cedd's Well, a baptismal spring beside a lilypond, accessed down a set of stone steps from a gate in the corner of the churchyard. I didn't realise at first it was OK to go down, so missed seeing the low kennel-like structure below the wall, eyes fixed only the remains of the medieval moat beyond.

A handful of houses line Church Lane, two of them formerly the village school, and another still with a blue roundel out front advertising 'Coal Merchant'. Some of the other homes are seriously large affairs, gabled hideaways with long drives and outbuildings, plus one farm that keeps the surrounding area in trim. It felt odd seeing wheelie bins labelled London Borough of Havering in the front gardens, indeed North Ockendon and Romford might as well be different worlds. A warning however not to hang around this part of the hamlet for too long else you'll arouse the suspicions of the locals. I aroused the suspicions of the vicar, who drove up (potentially tipped off by one of his flower arranging ladies), said hello briefly, drove off and then drove straight back to see what I might be up to. With his eagle gaze upon me I decided against revisiting the well, indeed probably against revisiting his fiefdom ever again.

I fled instead towards the motorway, which proved convenient for anniversary reasons. The footpath emerged immediately alongside a line of queueing lorries, and a sign warning of no hard shoulder for 230 yards, the traffic separated from me only by a wooden fence and some autumnal undergrowth. I got a much better view further up the hedgerow (and across a very basic stile) from the bridge on Ockendon Road. I think this is the only bridge across the M25 which is in London at both ends, once a few knotted twirls at junctions are excluded. The bridge has ridiculously wide pavements, given that there aren't any along the lane to either side, but all the safer to look down over the gantries and the eight-lane cutting. In one direction traffic was whizzing through, but in the other all was congestion, with trucks and cars and the occasional caravan backed up as far as I could see. How very typical, how very M25.

Just to the north of here, at the Thames Chase Forest Centre, is my favourite scrap of Outer Orbital London. Most of this modern nature reserve lies within the motorway, its wooded paths and scrub heavily frequented by gambolling families, dogwalkers and mildly amok kids. But one triangular segment lies on the far side of the motorway, accessed though a culvert barely six foot high, and prone to flooding if the tiny stream running through fractionally rises. And nobody ever seems to walk this way, at least when I've been - they peer through the dark tunnel and decide against, leaving the umpteen acres on the far side delightfully uninhabited.

This entire triangle has been planted with trees to make driving along the motorway more interesting, bar a few interlocking clearings, regularly mown. Break away from the spine footpath and you can explore the nooks and crannies of this manmade environment, past young spinneys and junior copses, to ascend to the plateau of Clay Tye Hill. At this time of year the leaves are turning gold and red, and edging on gorgeous, and without a single bleating child or bouncy dog to intrude. I like to stand on the hillside near the oakleaf sculpture and look down towards the motorway snaking away across the fenland, with several sequences of blue signs to confirm its presence. I give thanks that I'm not down there in the traffic, instead somehow outside, serene and unspoilt above the snarl and fumes. The M25 may encircle London, but it does not define it.

» If you'd like to follow in my footsteps, Thames Chase Walk No 1 can be downloaded here (or it's available to pick up for 10p at the Thames Chase Forest Centre)

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