Head 20 minutes west along the A40 from the Hanger Lane gyratory and the ranks of suburban semis that occupy the ancient Anglo-Saxon hamlets of Greenford and Northolt, start to give way to larger patches of useless green and scrubby fields.
Press on and at Swakeley’s Corner -the last exit before you leave the capital – swing north west towards Harefield. Here you enter the Green Belted horn of Greater London, jutting out peninsula-like into the Hertfordshire countryside, below it a neckless of lakes forming a natural border with South Bucks.
To call this London is like calling a BMX a Harley Davidson; both have two wheels and handle bars but there the similarity ends. A more accurate name is Middlesex, a Middlesex that would have been familiar to a traveller 150 years ago and less. A place of rolling fields and woods, rather than the bricks and mortar ghost county of Harrow and Hayes, revealed only by postal address and county cricket club.
Middlesex is an ancient county, its name deriving from the early Middle Saxon bands that settled here having rowed up the Thames from their footholds on the east coast and blazed trails through the dense forest, which surrounded ancient Londinium and which still survive in pockets around here in the form of Ruislip Woods.
These people are still dimly remembered in the emblem of Middlesex – three curved knives or ‘seaxes’ – from which the Teutonic Saxons took their name. By the time Alfred the Great had resettled Roman London in 886, the Middle Saxons had been long-subsumed into the more powerful Kingdom of Wessex.
Hillier and more heavily wooded than the alluvial flatlands by the Thames, the northern part of the county was dominated by dairy farming, hay production, orchards and market gardens serving the great capital.
Walking the streets of Greater London north of the Thames, it’s hard to imagine that fact. Hackney for example, was famed for its market gardens, attracting genteel day trippers escaping the crammed and dirty streets of 18th century London. Meanwhile for much of the 19th century, present-day Angel was given over to pasture to feed dairy cows that would provide milk to the City as late as 1879.
Harefield is Middlesex’s last true village, surrounded as it is by a swathe of greenery. But despite first appearances this no rural idyll, for like most areas that exist on the edge of towns and cities there is that hint of the industrial about it. The Grand Union canal brought with it industry, including a copper mill that manufactured the copper sheets nailed to the wooden hulls of Royal Navy ships. Later in the late 19th century, asbestos would be manufactured from lime quarried on the site.
The land today is punctuated by pylons, and the remnants of old chalk and brick earth pits litter the landscape still; even the tranquil fishing and sailing lakes that form the Colne River Valley are flooded gravel pits used in the construction of the original Wembley and the M25, and is still extracted today, albeit at a smaller scale than before.
This is the land described in the book ‘The unofficial countryside’ written by Richard Mabey, most famous for his foraging guide ‘Food for free’. An often forgotten borderland; a ‘liminal’ landscape, the neither-countryside-nor-urban landscape, described by writers such as Will Self, Ian Sinclair and relative local boy Nick Papadimitriou.
This is not Metroland
And with them hard men like Irish-born John Twomey, career criminal and leader of £1.75m Heathrow heist gang (which he vehemently denies) who grew up in Paddington before moving to Ruislip and finally Hampshire, before finding himself at the Old Bailey and being sent down for 20 years.
But Harefield has a particular reputation among its neighbours for lawlessness, bad behaviour and inbreeding. In this neck of the woods, you are as likely to find scrap yards and weed farms as you are diary farms; sink estates as you are country manors; and fly tipping as you are fly fishing. Walk the footpaths and you may stumble across a blacked-out beemer parked on the side of a country lane, motor running waiting for someone or something. In America they call areas like this the Boondocks.
Harefield is London’s very own Wild West, where as the evenings get lighter, the local Irish Travellers and Gypsies – and there are many – take to their pony and traps. A place where certain extended families still command respect; whether they are traveller, gypsy, straight up London, it’s hard to tell.
On maps this may be London, but not as you know it.