Living on the Edge

Outskirts by John Grindrod

Like the author, I am a 1970s product of the Croydon/Surrey borders, so I was particularly interested to read this book, which is part memoir, part history of the Green Belt.

Grindrod grew up in a postwar estate that was added to Croydon’s south-eastern outskirts, and in this estate, he lived on the ‘outskirts of the outskirts’ – their family house looking out onto Green Belt woodland. This gave him a rather different outlook on life, and different opportunities for play in comparison to those estate-bound households who didn’t literally share the countryside on their doorsteps.  He begins:

I grew up on the last road in London. At the end of our front garden there was a privet hedge, and beyond the rickety pavement there lay a narrow grass verge, streetlights that glowed a dim orange from dusk, and the road. A tarmac outline to our estate,  that was all there was to mark it from the little wilderness beyond. And that wilderness was the woods. […] In ten steps I could run from our front door and be in the countryside.

We’ll meet Grindrod’s family soon, but first we need to define what the concept of the Green Belt is all about. However, as we’ll see, as the author delves into the history behind it, it’s not straight-forward at all, in fact it’s all rather haphazard, and not easy either to say whether it works or not. I loved this quote which compares proper countryside and the green belt:

If mountains and lochs are the cinemascope version of our countryside, the green belt is the sitcom. Cosy, familiar, cyclical. To be seen in regular short bursts. It is the small, pretty flowers of Laura Ashley wallpaper rather than the awe-inspiring atmospheric excesses of Romantic painting. A frilly green doily around the edge of our cities.

Letchworth Heritage Museum. Photo by Andrew Thurman – via Wikimedia Commons

Of course the green belt’s origins are not just in post-war planning regulations.  Arguably, England’s first green belt was the extra land bought around Ebenezer Howard’s first Garden City of Letchworth in Hertfordshire, as an agricultural market garden belt for the town. Letchworth started building in 1903, and got its belt just over a decade later.

… it meant that Letchworth was 1970s self-sufficiency sitcom The Good Life scaled up to the size of a small town, with, I suspect, more Margos than anyone could reasonably be expected to cope with.

That made me laugh. During the 1980s, I lived in one of the post-war new towns Stevenage, a neighbour of Letchworth, for a while, when Letchworth had become a really desirable place to live for its manicured greeness, but even then there was some urban sprawl on the outskirts, a business park, sports centre etc. I see it’s now got a Lidl right on the edge, last bastion on the road going under the A1 that separates it from Baldock.

Other particularly interesting parts of the green belt’s story included ‘Metro-land’.  The Metropolitan Railway’s way to market the leafy green areas at the end of their railway lines to Londoners, with travel guides full of country walks.  This contrasts against the explosion of golf courses – which ruin the biodiversity of the land they recover with their uniform green. We meet some of the people working to manage these liminal borderlands too, we encounter the nimby movement’s origins and see the results of rafts of planning laws that either protects the countryside or strangles housing needs depending on your point of view. Grindrod achieves a good balance in this respect and his engaging writing makes you think, although his explorations are mainly in the home counties which makes it a little London-centric, (which I didn’t mind, of course!).

Alongside the history is the story of John Grindrod’s family, and his mother in particular. She was wheelchair-bound for many years, which presented its own problems in the 1970s and 1980s, and she very much enjoyed the view from their windows. He deftly weaves parallels in the lives of his parents and brothers into his exploration of living on the edge, writing with wit, pathos and emotion particularly as they get increasingly frail. The sections and snippets of memoir broke up what could be the dry topic of discussing planning law, although to his credit, the author doesn’t overload us with the latter. There is a third smaller strand accompanying the memoir and green belt discussion though, which linked both in another way, and that’s the author’s appreciation of nature. Again I was intrigued by his walks with the chap who looks after Selsdon Woods for Croydon Council – those woods being where my dad walks the dog sometimes!

This was a fascinating book, balanced and non-judgemental which, combined with his family memoir, made it a pleasure to read. Recommended. (9/10)

Source: Review copy.

John Grindrod, Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt, (Sceptre, 2018), paperback, 368 pages.

10 thoughts on “Living on the Edge

  1. A Life in Books says:

    I worked for DuPont in Stevenage in the ’80s. My memories of the place are made up of a drafty shoppping precinct and endless meetings but I did have a fondness for Letchworth.

  2. Laura says:

    I love the description of the green belt as ‘a frilly green doily’! This sounds like it might have some common ground with Luke Turner’s upcoming Out of the Woods.

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