diamond geezer

 Monday, June 05, 2023

A lot of London's suburbs run into one another creating an unbroken stream of houses and gardens. There are swathes of Ealing, Harrow, Sutton and Redbridge where the streets just seem to go on forever. But the largest unbroken featureless sprawl I'd say exists in the heart of Bexley, just north of Bexleyheath, where the built-up area barely stops and has no focus whatsoever. It could be London's most amorphous suburb.

We're between the railways, which is one reason why a local centre never evolved. Bexleyheath station is fairly close but its influence is mainly on the main town to the south. Out west are Welling and East Wickham (where Kate Bush's family farmhouse is). To the north are West Heath and Upper Belvedere, also Lessness Heath if other maps are taken into consideration, and to the east are Northumberland Heath and Barnehurst. But the splurge in the middle has no name, it's not a 'place', and never has been because that's what happens when you suddenly turn fields into houses.

Note the lack of A Roads and B Roads because this is not the beaten track. The chief roads are mostly country lanes and footpaths repurposed as spine roads when the developers arrived in the 1930s (after the railways were electrified). That central axis cutting through diagonally is Long Lane and the pair heading south are Brampton Road and Pickford Lane. Meanwhile that big loopy swirl is Bedonwell Road, its vertex at the former hamlet of Bedonwell which the developers summarily extinguished, replacing the crossroads by the smithy with a roundabout. The only other historic presences were Brampton Place, a manor house demolished in 1955, and the deliberately-remote Erith Sanatorium, now the site of Belmont Academy. Nothing provided a focus and the developers didn't add one, hence the nondescript nature of the nameless suburb.

It must have a name at some level and I suspect that's probably the default - Bexleyheath. The post town's what you'll find at the end of every local address, and the church on Pickford Lane is officially St Peter's Bexleyheath (although that may just be the pull of the station). But there aren't many more major buildings in the area to check, and with the town centre over a mile away the 'Bexleyheath' vibe is not strong. Even the Co-Op calls itself Long Lane's Co-Op but that's quite peripheral anyway. I checked the signs at the central roundabout and they point towards Barnehurst, Northumberland Heath, Belvedere and Abbey Wood so we can't be in any of those.

The bus that takes you on the biggest sweep through this amorphous suburb is the 422, looping so far round Bedonwell Road that you might be able hop off and board it later further down Long Lane. I sat up front and watched the bungalows and Thirties semis pass by, each broadly-proportioned and set back behind trees and verges and shrubby front gardens. I spotted builders vans sitting idle on their day off, a man giving his Citroën a good wash and a lady hoovering the inside of her caravan. I admired well-tended roses, ornamental brickwork and porches the shape of a giant porthole. And on we sped past nothing but houses, OK perhaps also one end of a playground, for what turned out to be well over a mile.

Most suburbs are broken up by open space or parkland but not here, so dogwalkers take whatever canine respite they can find. There is a small triangle of grass at the end of Little Heath Road, roughly where three country lanes once met, but it's since had the municipal gardeners in and is populated with micro pine trees and shrivelled bedding plants. Interestingly this is where the Municipal Boroughs of Erith and Bexley once met, which maybe helps explain why this liminal estate never gained a proper identity of its own. The Erith side boasts one heritage lamppost, and the Bexley side reminds us that the playing of ball games is prohibited.

What's lacking is a decent shopping centre, assuming the parade at the foot of Long Lane is too far from the inaction. All residents have to make do with is The Pantiles, a broader-than average avenue with two classic sets of shops facing off through the trees. The only nod to convenience is a Londis, branded Londis Bexleyheath, but we know the newsagent also sells milk because they've stuck WE SELL MILK in the window. Alongside it says WE SELL KINGSMILL BREAD and WE SELL FROZEN FOOD, along with numerous mentions of mobile top-ups, suggesting nobody's updated the frontage since the 2000s. The local caff is called Tea On The Pantiles, because genteel goes down better round here than grease, and the existence of another outlet selling cake decorations totally confirms this.

Here at last I found a pub, which I'd never previously spotted because no bus route passes The Pantiles so it's never been on my radar. The Earl Haig is a bold rustic pile with fake Tudor beams and phallic chimneys and was once a proper Charringtons. It's now an Ember Inn with curry nights on Wednesdays and an empty What's On list out front, but at least it's still pumping because elsewhere in London it might be a Tesco Express by now. The only other pubs vaguely in the area are The Yacht on Long Lane (though that's more grill and chips) and The Long Haul micropub (which has twice been Bexley’s CAMRA Pub of the Year, just to prove not everything this side of DA7 is a Thirties throwback).

So OK, this patch of 20th century suburbia isn't entirely featureless otherwise I wouldn't have been able to get half a dozen paragraphs out of it. But it is unexpectedly relentless, just house after house after house, I still think more than anywhere else in London. And nameless too, just a hanger-onto the coattails of nearby Bexleyheath with no identity of its own. If you live within a short walk of a frothy coffee, a park and a community centre you do not live here, in what could well be London's most amorphous suburb.

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