London – but not as you know it

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.

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There be farms (Damien Carr)
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Big skies over Middlesex (Damien Carr)

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.

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So long buster. A mini pet cemetery in a filled in chalk quarry (Damien Carr)
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St Mary’s church, Harefield (Damien Carr)

This is not Metroland

When social historians talk of London’s westward expansion, they tend to think of John Betjemen’s comfortable Metroland which sprung up along the Metropolitan Line through Harrow, Pinner, Ruislip, Northwood and on out to Ricky and Chorlywood; areas that by-and-large retain their solid middle-class commuter roots. Not so semi-rural Harefield or the suburban wastelands of Hayes, Uxbridge and Yeading to the south.
For just as their East End counterparts moved out along the A127 to Southend and the south Essex badlands after the war, so the natives of Shepherds Bush, Ladbroke Grove and Acton migrated along the A40 to Hillingdon and beyond to Bucks and Herts.

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.

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John Twomey

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.

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It’s not always a green and pleasant land in these parts (Damien Carr)
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Low rider (Damien Carr)

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.

Showcards and ticket writers

Just north of Oxford Street is Marylebone Passage, a narrow secluded alleyway that helpfully cuts the corner off Wells Street and Margaret Street.

It’s typical of the many passages that crisscross central London – grime blackened walls with the faint smell of urine. Block out the hum of traffic and it’s easy to imagine a London of the peasouper and Hackney Carriage.

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The building that dominates this scene is an old workshop belonging to ‘Pring & Rose. Showcards, Ticket Writers & Printers‘.

Illustrated showcards were used to advertise goods and services and mounted in shops and restaurants. Showcards, and their theatrical equivalent, the bill poster, were produced by ticket writers, like the man appropriately nicknamed ‘Tickets‘ shown below who eked out a living in Brighton.

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Marylebone is famous for the elegant grid of streets and squares developed by Edward Harley, Earl of Oxford and the Portman family in the 18th century. But Marylebone Passage is a reminder of a less well known past; one of ordinary working people, of the workhouse, the doss house and of families crammed into single rooms. And also of crime.

The clearance of the St. Giles ‘Rookery’, the infamous crime-ridden slum between Bloomsbury and Covent Garden was blamed for shifting its thuggery and poverty to neighbouring areas, including Marylebone.

The excellent Proceedings of the Old Bailey certainly shows that Marylebone had its fair share of pick-pocketing, burglary and sometimes even murder.

Perhaps the most notorious murder was that of a local retired builder by his former employee, John Devine in 1864. Devine killed the old man for two gold sovereigns and was hanged a month later.

And maybe a ticket writer was employed to write up a poster of his execution similar to this one, circa 1800-1860.

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