File this one under ridiculously rural, at least by London standards. We're in deep country to the east of Orpington, somehow a mile before the boundary of Kent kicks in, far from anything that might be described as a major road. This nomansland contains two 1km×1km grid squares I'd never visited before, and as I meandered down two miles of remote country lanes I could easily see why.
The northwestern corner of TQ4866 narrowly clips the bungalowed edge of an interwar housing estate, a bolthole for pensioners with tiny terriers and bronzed blokes who overwash their cars. It also has a regular bus service, but you'd have to be a local resident or an end-to-end fetishist to have made it out this far. The R4 is one of TfL's more charitable public service routes, here on a contorted peripheral loop before wending back round the Ramsden Estate into Orpington town centre. Originally the R8 terminated here, which I mention only because the blinds used to say Cockmannings and that's almost as funny as Cockfosters if you're a Man Who Likes Buses.
The bungalows stop dead as the Green Belt kicks in, and so does the pavement so best take care from here on. Within a minute the hedgerows start, the speed limit increases to 40 and the city is far behind. Another minute takes us to Cockmannings Farm, a flinty homestead at a T-junction of narrow lanes. Over the years its barns have been converted to housing and its farmyard to a luxury enclave called Lime Tree Place, but these half dozen homes don't officially form a hamlet called Cockmannings because they arrived too late.
The telegraph pole here has one of the most bittersweet cat posters I've ever seen in the capital. When I saw the hand-drawn tabby and child's handwriting I was prepared for the worst, but not prepared for this.
Dear neighbour is this your cat?
If yes can make shure that she or he dusnot bully are cat plese?
from merilouisebarn Cockmannigs Lane
A short way down Cockmannings Lane is Cockmannings Lane, the home ground of Orpington Rovers Football Club. Alas there's not much to see unless you like dry grass and a distant changing block, and for good reason. Signs on the gate proudly state Founded 1979, but fail to add Folded 2021 because the club sadly threw in the towel last season after a middling year in the Supreme Trophies & Engraving Premier Division. I had intended to follow the public footpath across the road into Griff's Wood, but round here they like to make access dubious and unfriendly so I thought better of it, returning to the grid square's main artery which is East Hall Road.
East Hall was a large red-brick Georgian building set back from the lane, which in autumn 1939 was taken over by the Southern Divisional Centre of the Sun Life Assurance Society in wartime flight from the City. They set up departmental offices in the stables and outbuildings, cycled in each morning from digs in Derry Downs and endured a stink from the surrounding chicken sheds and rotting cauliflowers. Alas on the evening of 18th September 1940 a land mine hit the main house killing all seven workers inside, and destroying a substantial amount of important paperwork to boot. And I mention this not because there's anything to see but because Sun Life's year at East Hall is the only scrap of history I've uncovered within either of these two grid squares, and all in enormous unnecessary detail.
The road climbs and bends between a mix of paddocks and golden fields. Occasionally there are tractors to step aside for and car drivers wondering what the hell anyone's doing on foot out here. Occasionally the hedgerows break and you can see across acres of some of London's finest arable land. Occasionally there are buildings that were once piggeries, but don't smell like they still are. And occasionally there are houses, some fortified to the teeth and others with welcoming wide-open gates because we're so far out of town that security can be lowered. Remote rural properties with no gates are my least favourite housing type because they could own a dog and it could be out loose because nobody ever walks by. But somehow nothing burst out of anywhere along East Hall Road, thank god, not even the shabby house (shudder) with the kennel by the front door.
The next road junction is called Lone Barn on an Ordnance Survey map, which gives you some idea how far away from anything this is. Here we find Lone Barn Farm, which today has more than a few sheds, and also Lone Barn Cottages and also what must be one of London's least used postboxes. Residents live right on the edge of the LEZ, and maybe the ULEZ if Sadiq succeeds in enlarging it, because they get to vote for him too. OK, time to switch grid squares...
This square's even emptier than the previous one, essentially two country lanes and a heck of a lot of fields. I followed Skibbs Lane which runs north-south, and here's the sole crossroads where it intersects (mostly silently) with Skeet Hill Lane.
Along the first section are multiple dilapidated greenhouses, a paddock with a rusty oildrum in the middle and the obligatory line of telephone poles, but mostly it's all fields. The weird bit isn't that the woods on one horizon are in Greater London, it's that the woods on the other horizon are too. Again a handful of people have chosen to live here, some in converted farm buildings, some in modern monstrosities and some in both. One prime plot currently has several supertanned workmen standing kneedeep in fresh foundations, and a view of just the top of the skyscrapers in Docklands because their lower half is obscured beneath the brow of the hill.
And then the houses stop, indeed the next mile down to Chelsfield is entirely front-gate-free. This helps make it feel even more like deep countryside, although in reality the edge of suburbia isn't so very far down the hill. The only feature beyond the crossroads is a coal tax post, positioned just before Skibbs Lane emerges from woodland and funnels straight ahead between high hedges. I only had to dodge out of the way of one car, an Audi whose young driver paused to ask if I knew where the Five Bells pub was. I did, because it was at the end of the lane in TQ4864 and I'd already been there. It pays to explore the outer limits.