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Love letter to suburbia: Croydon's buried treasure

In contrast to its staid, soulless reputation, the outskirts of Croydon brim with life

Saxon Croydene, the crocus valley, traded saffron for tarmac and concrete. The broad endless boulevards unfold at the feet of mirror-glass fortresses. The lost sister of the heroic Royal Festival Hall was stranded here on the banks of the Fairfield roundabout. Cars cruise the scaly back of the serpentine flyover, writhing across a churning ocean of hipped roofs and patches of green into the mouth of a beached Manhattan. 

This gently undulating sea of suburbia, rolling between motorways and snaked with commuter train lines, is where most of us live, were born and will die. After I was born, I was brought back to a house at the end of a cul-de-sac in the shade of a giant sycamore (the ‘bottom of the sack’, a dead-end). I played out an oblivious childhood here in the suburbs, sheltered by the boughs of the sycamores and horse chestnuts and the weeping willow rustling at the bottom of the garden. During misted autumns, my pockets bulged with parkland treasure: glossy conkers and toothed pinecones. It was a childhood of pink grazed knees, girl guides in the church hall, wheezing bouncy castles. Salty crisps and sausage rolls on sagging paper plates.

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Richard Seifert’s NLA Tower

Richard Seifert’s NLA Tower – a crenellated stack of 50 pence pieces (it arrived after decimalisation) rendered in white concrete – joined Croydon’s alien landscape in 1970

I knew this landscape by heart: the shrieking playgrounds, freshly cut grass, hot asphalt, the sugar-sweet cornershop and used-car garage. Garden centres and Tudorbethan semi-detacheds, with Jaguars guarded by concrete lions on gravelled driveways, stretched into the unravelling green belt – a silky green cummerbund. The hard, corrosive thrum of Croydon’s arteries rumbled beyond the treetops. I learned to hold my breath in the darkness of the underpass, to walk quickly through the deserted shopping parades, to look over my shoulder.

Eager to escape the flabby manacles of comfortable childhood, I fled days after my 18th birthday, to dwell with ghosts and cold stone. Among the spires and gowned cadavers, I hungrily devoured architecture’s histories, pale and elderly as the pages I anxiously thumbed. I grew acquainted with Unwin, Ebenezer Howard, Abercrombie and Ruskin, Morris and Parker Morris. Felt the warmth of familiarity tracing the city’s ragged green Greater London Plan halo with a trembling finger.

With an open heart, I turned to greet Ian Nairn, recognising too his dead, dark, bloodless Subtopia, both frightened and in awe of his brilliant fury. I swapped Croydon and Purley for Rome and Florence, denounced the staid conservatism of the 1930s semi-detached. I diligently absorbed lectures berating the soulless, steady niceties of suburbia and wrote blistering essays condemning Unwin and Howard’s corrupted Garden City, resurrected in the ulcerated edges of the bloated city. A tranquil wasteland created for the human rituals of birth, marriage, the commute and death. 

The ink blurred in front of my eyes. My suburban secret burned in my chest. I reached out to feel the comforting green skirts between my fingers, scoured Abercrombie’s finely penned maps fruitlessly for the bulging pockets of treasure. The horse chestnuts and sycamores, the fat wood pigeons and quick blackbirds, the Modernist Manhattan, crystal palaces and fearsome concrete sphinxes. Suspended in Croydon’s strange magnetic forcefield, I haven’t strayed far, just swapped the cul-de-sac’s sycamore for Blake’s oak tree on Peckham Rye, ‘bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. The trees dance with parakeets.

There are stories here, in the soft loose peripheries, the in-between, the gaps. It is a place of lucky finds, contradiction, lions, birdsong. Memories knot and tangle in its sprawling threads. I would like to write to Croydon, write her a love letter. I would ask for forgiveness, see if we could start afresh. Break her heart (if she has one?), then mend it again. Apologise for the insults, betraying her to friends and teachers. I look back over my shoulder. She stares back. 

 This piece is featured in the AR May 2019 issue on Periphery – click here to purchase your copy today