‘I grew up on the last road in London.’ These are the opening words of John Grindrod’s exploration of the ragbag of scenery that characterises the outskirts of London and many other British towns and cities. The shorthand for all this is the ‘green belt’.
Grindrod’s ‘last road’ – his slice of green belt – was the vast New Addington estate on the edge of Croydon. A line of privet announced where the garden of the family’s council house ended. Then there was the dim orange of street lights and, beyond, a little wilderness of old trees: ‘In ten steps I could run from our front door and be in the countryside.’ Owls, which young John never saw, hooted at night. There were crab apples, tree stumps and conkers. It was, in some ways, an idyllic life for a child and, later, for a young man.
Much of our so-called open space, Grindrod notes, is not in rugged highlands or spectacular National Parks. In a characteristic metaphor, he argues that ‘if mountains and lochs are the cinemascope version of our countryside, the green belts are the sitcom. Cosy, familiar, cyclical … A frilly green doily around