James Cracknell: Enfield and the joys of outer London

James Cracknell: Enfield and the joys of outer London

Within a mile of my home are a farm, an orchard and a vineyard. Within two miles, an ancient woodland and a secluded area where Eurasian beavers will shortly be reintroduced. At weekends I sometimes volunteer with an environmental charity, planting trees as part of a major rewilding project across a former royal hunting ground.

No, this isn’t another column about the joys of leaving London to live in the countryside. This is a column about the joys of staying in London.

I remember thinking, before setting foot in Enfield, that it seemed a faraway place. A London borough, sure, but most likely a boring one full of 1930s semis and Waitrose supermarkets. I had moved to the capital in 2009 in my early twenties, as many do. And although I couldn’t afford to live in Zone 1 or 2, I felt a nagging need to at least stay within Zone 3 to enjoy the “proper” London experience that draws young people here in their droves.

Then, in 2016, I hit my thirties and it became time to “settle down”. By this point a few friends had given up on London. Some had moved back to their home towns, others to places such as Margate that were a cheaper alternative.

But I wasn’t ready to give up on being a Londoner. I still liked it here, plus I had a job I really enjoyed. After months of scanning Rightmove with my partner, we found a half-decent Victorian terraced house in Southgate. For me it only took one glance at Charles Holden’s glorious art deco Underground station to be sold on the area. This isn’t your average, boring suburb. It has character.

Just up the road is Trent Park, which is more than twice the size of Hyde Park. It boasts a Japanese water garden, a treetop adventure course and a wildlife rescue centre where you can get to know Squeaky, the resident muntjac deer. But that’s not the only magnificent green space in the area. Grovelands Park has a beautiful lake and, every Saturday morning, a Parkrun event with a testing uphill section (trust me). Broomfield Park, which boasts views across London, has a 17th century walled garden and a 21st century wetlands.

Southgate lies at the far western end of Enfield, but we quickly got to know the whole borough. Enfield Town itself is a market town and has managed to retain the feel of being a distinct settlement despite being swallowed by London’s urban sprawl in the 1930s. The market was given its royal charter by Edward I in 1303 and is still going strong.

Forty Hall Estate in the north of the borough includes a Grade I-listed manor house, now a museum, and the hidden remains of a former Tudor palace. At Forty Hall Farm next door a monthly market sells the farm’s own organic produce plus beer brewed in Edmonton, gin distilled in Palmers Green and wine produced from the grapes grown at Forty Hall Vineyard, London’s only commercial vineyard.

A barn at the farm hosts monthly rock gigs, while the farm as a whole is taken over by a music festival – Livestock – each summer (but without the need for camping as this is London where public transport exists). It’s also at Forty Hall where those beavers are set to be reintroduced to London for the first time in 400 years. They could soon be gnawing their way along Turkey Brook.

On the eastern side of Enfield, the glorious River Lea winds its way towards the Thames. The Lea Valley is a major sports and leisure hub these days – you might remember a big event at its lower end ten years ago – but the area previously played a huge role in the development of British industry. In Enfield, it is famous for the Royal Small Arms Factory, where weapons produced included the Lee-Enfield rifle – standard issue in the armed forces through two world wars.

The capital’s last surviving working mill is at Ponders End, where Wright’s Flour has been supplying London’s bakers since the mid-19th century and is today famed for its delicious cake mixes. For some reason, the mill is guarded by a herd of alpacas.

Enfield Chase, a royal hunting ground in the Tudor age, was disbanded and deforested in the 18th century. What wasn’t built on is now Green Belt, much of it farmland, although a long stretch following the route of the London Loop is currently being reforested by volunteers such as myself, working with environmental charity Thames 21. By the end of this winter 100,000 trees will have been planted.

Much like the rest of outer London, it was the arrival of the railways that spurred Enfield’s rapid suburban development, turning former villages like Winchmore Hill into large population centres. Enfield today boasts stations along two branches of the London Overground, the West Anglia Main Line into Liverpool Street, the Hertford Loop Line with services to Moorgate and one station on the Great Eastern Main Line. Pick any one of these to travel into central London in little over 30 minutes. As for the Tube, few would disagree that the Piccadilly Line’s extension to Cockfosters is among the crowning glories of the whole London Underground network.

We’ve made Enfield our home now. After four years in Southgate we moved to a new-build estate in the middle of the borough. From our flat’s balcony we can see the Shard but also we can hear the hum of the M25 motorway a mile to the north of us. My usual jogging route takes me through parkland, woodland and past the entrance to Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground, where I sometimes see dedicated fans desperately waiting for a selfie with a player.

Since the pandemic we’ve hardly ventured into central London. Enfield has pretty much all we need. But it’s good to know that should we ever fancy going to a gig in Camden or a show in the West End, it’s there waiting for us.

During this time the media has been full of reports – varying in veracity – of an exodus of Londoners seeking more space to live as they adopt working-from-home habits and are no longer tied to their offices. But there are now stories of people who have since returned after regretting their decision to leave.

Much of outer London was built a century ago to cater for people who wished to escape the smoke and smog of inner London but still depended on the city for work and socialising. That’s what Metroland was. That’s why the Piccadilly Line was extended to Cockfosters, the Central Line to Epping and the Northern Line to Morden.

The boundary of London was itself moved to encompass this new urban sprawl in 1965 and despite some of its residents (hello, Bromley!) still being in denial about it, outer London is now as much a part of the fabric of this great city as anywhere within the North or South circular roads. Whether it’s farms in Enfield, lidos in Ruislip, or caves in Chislehurst, we should embrace all outer London has to offer.

Photograph: Trent Park by Sam Willis.

On London is a small but influential website which strives to provide more of the kind of  journalism the capital city needs. Become a supporter for £5 a month or £50 a year and receive an action-packed weekly newsletter and free entry to online events. Details here.

Categories: Culture

6 Comments

  1. ANTHONY JOSEPH CORRIGAN says:

    Great overview of Enfield – re Forty Hall, it is now NOT a museum but reinstated back to its former glory following a HLF grant of a Manor House as previously lived in by the Parker Bowles family. The former Tudor Palace is actually beneath the ground of Forty Hall Estate where the remains of Elsyng Palace a former home of Henry the VIII and regular residence of his son Edward VI and daughter Elizabeth I. Probably worth boasting the wealth of Allotments within Enfield, 40 the most of any London Borough.

  2. Jan Duncan says:

    As a born and bred Enfieldian I already knew all the information in the article but enjoyed it anyway. Personally I think it is a great place to live.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.