It is seven years now since, in a rare moment of inspiration rather than perspiration here at Inside Croydon Towers, we launched this website with the tag line: “Living life on the fringes of London”.
That indeterminate, hiatus status, caught twixt and between the grit and grime of one of the world’s great metropolises and yet having the rural tranquility of the North Downs on our doorstep, has now been taken up in the latest book by a locally based writer on the built environment, John Grindrod.
Called Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt, Grindrod’s book attempts to solve a mystery of modern life. Because the Green Belt doesn’t appear on maps, it is not signposted, and it is hard to know where it begins or ends. It also stirs up emotions, as much of the debate over any developments in this borough regularly demonstrate.
Green belts were an early planning concept, to surround built-up areas to stop the scourge of urban sprawl. Outskirts tells the story of the creation of these mysterious tracts of land: the people who dreamt up the idea (from Elizabeth I to National Trust founder Octavia Hill); how and when they came into operation (more recently than you might imagine); and what people get up to in them (everything from golf to dogging, it turns out).
Outskirts is also deeply personal.
As well as telling the story of the vision of the green belt, the complex and divisive position in which it now resides, caught between two worlds, it is also the story of growing up there.
Grindrod grew up in Croydon in the 1970s.
His upbringing mirrored the wider tensions: in addition to the bigger historical picture, Outskirts is the story of his family’s move from the centre of London out to New Addington, and their awkward attempts (a wheelchair-bound mother who’d had so many X-rays her husband claimed she glowed in the dark, a brother who developed agoraphobia in the new expanse) to fit in on the outskirts, between their estate and the countryside beyond. It is the human story of these tracts of land as much as the historical one.
Grindrod’s fascination with the built environment and suburbia led to his previous book, Concretopia, which told the tale of the rebuilding of Britain after the war. It is not difficult to imagine how his Croydon background helped shape Grindrod’s interests and views. The 20th Century Society described that book as “witty and informative”.
And of the latest work,Tristan Gooley, the author of The Walker’s Guide, has said, “What better lens to view the current friction between nature and our engorged cities than the Green Belt? A brilliant idea, brilliantly executed.”
Outskirts is published by Sceptre on June 1 (priced £16.99 in hardback).
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