Here be dragons: London’s outer boroughs

By NikitaNemygin, March 11, 2015

Must… Resist… “Tired of London”… Epigraph.

The background
For many people living in London for ages there is a reoccurring theme of finding new “hidden places” to escape the tourists, rekindle their love for the city and ultimately – to feel good and avant-garde about themselves. After all, what can be better than listening to an exсited story from a friend or a colleague who has just discovered this fantastic place you have been following for the last two years?

In the city where early adoption is often a must, the ”secret London” guides are abundant but the more I have read them, the more an oddity came to me – all of them were concentrating on the inner boroughs of London plus Richmond. What on Earth could be “secret” there?
The outskirts of London meanwhile are covered by the fog of war. I have not found any prominent review or book that would concentrate around outer boroughs. Is it rightfully so?

For the past four years I have been exploring London through its great recreational trails:

All do their best to go exclusively through parks and green spaces, all are great discovery tools and a great addition to some localities which are otherwise nothing to write home about.
It is now time to recap.
Below: my walks are in red.

Walking is my favourite pastime. I love to hike or go on a stroll in the park or in the outskirts of the city for a day or so. I also happen to love decentralisation, empowering local businesses and communities by building infrastructure and opening opportunities. I am interested in shareonomics, peer-to-peer global community and crypto-anarchism.

London responds to those centres of interest.
It goes far beyond zone one in things to do, it explores, it fascinates. It has a vision of not just cashing in on central bits, but actually having a policy for every borough and for every locality within. It is diverse not just because it has become a modern Babel, it is diverse because of how staggeringly different its localities came to be what they are and the stories they have to tell. When you know the city well enough, you can adjust your living surroundings according to your budget, your interests in life and the desirable experiences and acquaintances, – all within one city.

The approach
I am no historian and even though I like to look up some historical “why’s” and “how’s”, I would like to concentrate more on modernity. I prefer to think of my job here as a review. After all, if everything in life gets a review, from silly nostalgic flicks to pre-teens unboxing their smartphones, sure London’s periphery deserves one.

What I would like to look at, is this: can a perfect outsider come to one of the outer boroughs and have an enjoyable weekend day? Perhaps, you can go and live there your day-to-day life and spend your precious-precious council tax on them rather than on neighbouring one? Granted, the borough border is not some sort of an international no-man’s land. There is no reason why you actually HAVE to be contained to your municipality; they aren’t surrounded by no-go zones. However, taking them one by one is a good way to compare and contrast and to unveil a bit this land which remains a terra incognita for most of Londoners.

What kind of activities do you have to like in order to spend a day there? Can you learn something? Is it worth going the distance? If you ever get priced out from one of the inner London boroughs, what do you have to enjoy in order to live happily in the outer ones? Are there any museums? Interesting markets? Notable theatres or cinemas for local enjoyment?
I am not going to talk about eating out, quality of local hospitals, schools and similar, otherwise the reviews will get out of control and become lengthy and boring.

Below: Grand Union Canal in Hillingdon

The scope
A borough is a subdivision of Greater London. They care for municipal affairs, such as planning, education, leisure, recreation and social services. They were created by the London Government Act 1963 which established Greater London, absorbing parts of surrounding counties: Middlesex, Kent, Essex, Surrey and Hertfordshire. Usually the newly created boroughs followed the borders of pre-existing localities within counties.

There are two overlapping types of outer boroughs: the ones defined by London Government Act 1963 and the ones defined by the Office for National Statistics. While the lists are mostly identical, the three non-overlapping boroughs are Haringey, Greenwich and Newham.

I am not going to talk about neither of them, simply because they are too prominent, there are many things to do and endless “secret things to do in London” feature them without bothering to catch a breath. There is really plenty to do, you name it:

  • Greenwich has an ever-touristy historical Greenwich, the O2, Thames Barrier, Blackheath village, Thames path and Eltham Palace.
  • Newham has Stratford, the Olympic park, Green Street shopping area, West Ham stadium, the Excel centre, London City Airport, the Greenway and many others.
  • Haringey has a great Turkish area in Wood Green, Alexandra Palace, Finsbury Park, Highgate village and part of river Lee walk.

It would be only self-indulgent to talk about those guys.

The boroughs I will write here are then:
– Barking and Dagenham (part 1, part 2)
– Barnet (part 1, part 2, Barnet Soliloquy, Belarusian Library and Museum)
– Bexley
– Brent
– Bromley
– Croydon
– Ealing
– Enfield
– Harrow
– Havering
– Hillingdon
– Hounslow
– Kingston upon Thames
– Merton
– Redbridge
– Richmond upon Thames
– Sutton
– Waltham Forest

    Now, as we all know, London is a big and non-homogeneous city and some of the outer boroughs are just massive. There will be things that I will miss or over-generalise. This is because these reviews are meant to be entertaining, not exhaustive. Also, these reviews are completely and entirely only my own opinion. If I badmouth your favourite locality, maybe you will be interested in not being easily offended.