I grew up in the Green Belt just outside London. We liked to call Croxley Green a village, even though it had a tube station, not least because it was entirely surrounded by fields. To the west was the pastoral Chess Valley where the sticklebacks twitched, to the north rolling arable land as far as the eye could see, and to the south and east a protective strip of woodland and moorland along the Grand Union Canal. The village green ran for almost a mile from a farm and a duckpond to the parish church, and every summer the residents came together to garland a Revelsprincess with a crown of flowers.
In truth rural life was an illusion. Only a handful of Croxley's ten thousand residents worked on the land, the rest of us leading cosy suburban lives along Metroland avenues with a library, two secondary schools and five parades of shops. The parish church was late Victorian, thrown up to serve a few streets when Dickinson's paper mill opened, and the Revels (as Betjeman cruelly observed) was "a tradition dating back to 1952". And yet our lives were subconsciously coloured by the presence of an agricultural envelope - the knowledge that in whichever direction you walked you'd always reach unbuilt-up land before you reached either of the towns nextdoor.
The Green Belt is the subject of a new book by John Grindrod, called Outskirts, in which he explores the evolution and influence of the city fringe. John's previous book Concretopia focused on post-war planning, whereas the follow-up starts a little earlier and concentrates on the setting, not the buildings. Within its 300-odd pages John dissects the British obsession with the countryside, unpicks the secrets of the Green Belt and muses on what it was like to grow up in Croydon on the last road in London.
Specifically John grew up in a gabled semi in New Addington, in Fairchildes Avenue, where one side of the road was housing and the other was the Green Belt. A long wedge of mid 20th century estate covers the upland, whereas the adjacent land remains fields and deep wooded valleys, occasionally scarred with the detritus that urban fringe dwellers throw away. This had once been the landscaped grounds of a great mansion before being pencilled in for housing, but Green Belt legislation was enacted in the 1950s and the vista was saved. John tells how civil servants were sent out in cars around London to mark on maps the precise edge of all existing development, and this became the sacrosanct green belt boundary we know today.
I went to listen to John last night in conversation at Waterstones in Piccadilly, reading extracts and discussing themes with Catherine Croft, Director of the Twentieth Century Society. He touched on how the idea of a Green Belt came about, and the awkward legacy it leaves today. He rued the decline of town planning as a career, as councils now rely (surreptitiously) on private developers to extend their housing stock. He explained how the peripheral nature of his upbringing had affected family life, in a home where cats and comedy were the staple basis of conversation. And he signed my copy of the book on the way out. I read the Croxley chapter on the journey home.
As is John's style, the chapter weaves three narrative threads to tell a complete tale. There's John's visit to Croxley to meet a former resident, born when the satellite town was new and planning rules were lax and laissez faire. There's a summary history of the London County Council's early investigations into the preservation of an outer undeveloped zone, and similar moves around other UK cities. And there's a series of anecdotes from the Grindrod backstory, because this is very much a partial autobiography, observing how the family's everyday life related to the built and unbuilt environment. As with Concretopia, it makes for a fascinating and often humorous read.
I will at this point declare an interest, and say that John interviewed me for the book as well. He mentioned he was trying to base a chapter on Croxley, and I mentioned I grew up there, and we met up in Foyles cafe for a chat. I recalled what it was like to live in a pseudo-village, and some of the quirks of the neighbourhood, and John recorded our conversation to play back later. We're both children of the outskirts, so we had plenty to say. John also interviewed other residents, and it's one of these whose reminiscences form the backbone of the Croxley chapter, not me. But I'm still chuffed because my Dad was a friend of this particular family, and they lived in the same road as us, so the whole thing still feels unexpectedly personal.
I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the book, and finding out more about Letchworth, Chelmsley Wood and John's mum Marj. If you're reading this you're probably target audience too, whether your interest is policy, property, place or a prosaic portrayal of a 70s childhood. A lot of us grew up in the Green Belt, and its legacy continues to affect us all.