Book review: Outskirts by Croydon’s John Grindrod

By - Monday 31st July, 2017

John Grindrod, a writer from the outskirts, on his New Addington boyhood in ‘the last road in London’

Forestdale: climb over the fence and you’ve left London.
Photo author’s own.

Ostensibly the first book to tell the tale of Britain’s green belts, Outskirts depicts how growing up living in ‘the last road in London’ was inevitably a formative experience for John Grindrod that gave him a unique vision of the conflicts and contradictions intrinsic to the creation of green belts, areas of open land around cities upon which development is restricted.

As I read the book, I found many personal resonances. I’m sure many in Croydon will also feel a connection. The edge of Croydon is also the edge of London and easily accessible by a single bus or tram ride. Both New Addington and Forestdale reward exploration, the latter having the added bonus of being the best part of Croydon to be in during a Dalek invasion. It’s impossible to reach any property without tackling a flight of steps.

Whilst green belts are perceived to be a post-war invention, they’ve been around since at least the reign of Elizabeth I. The main focus then was public health and securing supplies of fresh food. In 1580, Queen Elizabeth I decreed that no building should be constructed within three miles of the city walls in order to contain the spread of the plague.

New Addington sits alone, surrounded by a sea of green

After the Great Fire in 1666, architect Christopher Wren proposed an agricultural belt of twelve miles around London with John Evelyn suggesting landscaped gardens and plantations. In 1682, scientist and economist Sir William Petty calculated population growth in the next 200 years rising from 670,000 to over 4.5 million, which turned out to be pretty accurate. He imagined a city limited to four miles in diameter. None of these schemes came to fruition. Landscape architect John Claudius Loudon then proposed a ‘simple’ scheme with a band of London, a mile and a half from St Paul’s cathedral, being cleared to provide a half mile belt of countryside. Unfortunately these areas were already built up and inhabited. Loudon was undaunted by this and suggested that the government buy up the properties and demolish them. Although none of this happened, Loudon’s thoughts did have some influence in Britain’s colonies where planners could start with a clean sheet. Adelaide in South Australia is one example of a city planned along these lines.

It seems I can’t escape the green belt. I’m writing this while sitting in a cousin’s garden in Marple next to the Macclesfield Canal, which is a literal stone’s throw from Manchester’s green belt. As a predominantly Victorian town that developed from the Manchester cotton trade, it’s very different from New Addington. Marple is also only a few miles from the Peak District National Park and the moorland nature reserve, Kinder Scout. The latter is referenced in the book with regard to the mass trespass of 1932, which was considered a turning point in the right to roam movement, although it took more than sixty years for this right to become enshrined in law.

Eventually, after a number of false starts and the disruption of World War Two, green belts, which began to be formally recognised in the 1930s, were given greater structure in 1955. Intrepid surveyors were sent to document the extent of the cities and draw lines where no further growth was to be permitted. This came too late to halt the growth of New Addington, which to this day sits in isolation surrounded by a sea of green. Its elevated position emphasises its otherness. Outskirts keeps returning to Fairchildes Avenue, where John’s parents and two brothers had moved from Battersea before John himself was born. The book is a delight to read. The past and present of the green belt is seamlessly interspersed with anecdotes relating to John’s family.

Maybe it’s too early to foresee a future where new developments spring up in the green belt

In April this year, my friend Lucy and I went on a spur of the moment Saturday afternoon walk in Selsdon Woods. Neither of us had been there before and for some reason, rather than walking the relatively short distance from her home in Forestdale, we drove to the car park on the far side of the woods. There we got to see the information board illustrating the various species living in the woods. Prominently featured was an illustration of a deer. Cynically we didn’t believe for a moment that we would actually see any deer.

Selsdon Woods.
Photo author’s own.

However, after we had traversed the length of the woods and were trying to work out how to get back to the car, I saw a flash of white. Frozen for a minute, I motioned to Lucy to keep still and quiet. As we edged forward, one deer ran off into the distance whilst another stopped and stared for a minute or two before following its companion. I mention this because John describes a trip to Selsdon Woods to meet with Croydon Council’s trees and woodlands officer. Unaware of the existence of deer in the woods, he wonders why the coppiced area is fenced off, and he’s told that it’s to protect the vulnerable hazel from the deer. This solved a mystery for me too. The image to the right is of the gate providing entry to the coppice.

What becomes apparent in John Grindrod’s book is that whilst some parts of the green belt are indeed ancient forest, much of it is unremarkable, including a plethora of golf courses. A line was drawn at some point in the last hundred years beyond which no development is to take place – but with increasing pressure to provide more housing, some reassessment of green belts is now taking place. This is addressed in the book too, although perhaps inconclusively. Maybe it’s too early to foresee a future where new developments spring up in the green belt.

Outskirts is a thoroughly enjoyable book, combining personal anecdotes with well researched material on the subject matter presented with a charming wry humour. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in the history and geography of Croydon and beyond, or simply to anyone in search of an informative and entertaining read.

Outskirts by John Grindrod is available in hardback, paperback or on Kindle. His first book, Concretopia, is likely to interest those wishing to find out more about the history of Britain’s post-war architecture, notably including Croydon’s concrete. 

Ian Marvin

Ian Marvin

Ian is a product designer who moved to the borough in 2003. His interests in all things Croydon stretch from being on the committee of the Constructing Excellence Croydon Club to active membership of the Croydon Clandestine Cake Club. During the day he works on his interior lighting businesses which are also based in Croydon. In the unlikely event that he has any leisure time, he enjoys creating ceramic pieces and playing bass guitar. Any opinions expressed here are personal.

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  • Anne Giles

    This is incredibly interesting! Thanks.