I’m a child of suburbia. Born just outside Zone 6, I spent my pre-teen years just inside it and the subsequent decade or so another few miles outside, in Kent, before choosing as my own first home with my then fiancée a house again back in Zone 6, with an easy walk to Crayford station and, at that time, an easy drive to work.
Indeed, driving was as much a fact of my life to that point as eating or latterly having an internet connection: it was just something that I and those around me did; a means to an end, with little apparent alternative.
The recent demonstrations outside the BBC about its plans to close 6 Music reminded me of Demonstration X in the late 1990s, when Capital Radio bought Xfm and ripped the heart out of it, installing high-rotation playlists and blander DJs. The demo didn’t change much about Xfm, but some cunning person from the BBC’s Greater London Radio turning up to hand out cheaply photocopied leaflets about how GLR was the capital’s ‘real alternative’ for music did change my listening habits. I gave the quirky station (which inspired 6 Music several years later) a try and soon became hooked on its mix of new music, haven’t-heard-that-in-ages music and, most relevantly to this post, intelligent talk about everything that’s great about London.
Up to that point, like a lot of suburbanites round my way, I’m sad, if not ashamed, to say that I didn’t see London as the wonderful, welcoming place I now know it as, where I like to go at any opportunity for a walk, an arts event, a catch-up with friends, a hang-out at the Southbank Centre – any of the dozens of appealing things happening there every day. Instead, it was the nearby city that people grudgingly went into to work or study, and I only occasionally went into in my leisure time for specific events like gigs.
In essence, GLR opened my eyes to the city as a thing to love rather than live next to, a place to discover and fall in love with every corner of rather than to nip in and out of based on which tube station is nearest to which specific destination.
GLR was soon killed off by the same man who’s trying to kill 6 Music now, but the passion it inspired in me for London continued to grow and I shared this with my now wife when we got together and she became similarly enthused herself.
The exception to the ‘drive everywhere’ rule of the suburbs was when it came to going to London for leisure (or occasionally work). This was (in part because of the Congestion Charge, I suppose) always done by train, after a drive to a station, so as our love affair with leisure time in London blossomed, our choice of home in 2004 was influenced by our wish to walk to the station instead.
We’ve now had almost six years living at that home in Zone 6, and it’s been a period of discovery and transition for our relationship with London, even beyond that in the five years previous.
I began to tire of using the tube to travel around in London, always disappearing down below London’s streets, missing out on the sights and sounds of the capital and instead entering what can often be an unpleasant environment, be it overcrowded, uncomfortably hot or simply dirty enough to ensure a day or so’s black nose-blowings afterwards.
Accordingly, I started familiarising myself with good walking routes, and finally tackled what is perhaps one of the most daunting steps for previously car-dependent suburb-dwellers on the path to London enlightenment: getting to grips with the capital’s breathtakingly comprehensive bus network.
With the benefit of hindsight and subsequent experience of other European cities’ buses, I must acknowledge that Transport for London do make casual bus use considerably easier than most other cities seem to manage, particularly thanks to their beautiful ‘spider’ bus route diagrams, which show all available buses in any area using a simple tube-map style with easy-to-follow mapping of exactly which clearly labelled bus stop to use – and iBus, the on-bus stop announcements.
Properly discovering and beginning to use the buses was a real revelation: they perform well, provide far more insight into London’s geography (and better views!) than the tube, and for many journeys are no slower than the tube would be – sometimes faster. Suddenly, taking the tube seemed a poor second choice for travel within London.
And gradually, the penny began to drop. These buses – frequent, reliable, reasonably priced – weren’t something for use only when in central London. They were operating day in, day out, here in Bexley borough, with Bexleyheath – where I work – having one of the most comprehensive bus networks in the south-east of the capital. If I liked using them in central London, why didn’t I make more use of them in suburbia?
With that in mind, and for both health (it’s a 13-minute walk to our nearest bus stop) and environmental reasons, my New Year’s resolution in January 2009 was to use the bus to get to work more often – specifically, I set a target of at least one day’s bus commuting a week.
In the first few months, I felt virtuous each time I made the effort to leave the house that little bit earlier and walk down to the bus stop rather than getting in the car. By the summer, I felt like I’d failed on the odd days when I *didn’t* take the bus – and not just to work, but to just about anywhere that could be accessed via London buses. It was a rapid and surprising adjustment of perspective which I hadn’t expected at the outset.
There was just one problem. The incremental cost of a journey by bus, while (I think) lower in London than anywhere else in the UK, was still higher than the incremental cost of a car journey in our small, efficient vehicle. The up-front and fixed annual costs of having a car – servicing, MOT, tax, depreciation… – make the overall costs far more comparable, but were already being spent, just to have a car sat on the front drive, barely ever being used. Without it, it would be much harder (and far more expensive, e.g. over £5 for a return bus ticket to them from Dartford) to visit my parents a few miles away, beyond the reach of the London bus network, but our switch to public transport meant we couldn’t continue to justify owning a car for use only once or twice a month. When we retaxed the car in October, we did so only for six months: we sold it a month ago, once we’d finished using it to clear rubbish out of our house.
In the past decade I have made the transition from what could perhaps best be labelled ‘London-curious’ to Londoner, and in recent years the transformation has been all the more profound from a car-driving visitor to the city to a TfL-dependent member of London’s community.
What living in Crayford has done is allowed us to make that transition. This part of suburbia, which is more urban in nature than many other parts of Zone 6, has allowed us to sample, to experiment with and to become comfortable with a more ‘central London’ way of life. It won’t be for everyone, but no-one can really know how they’ll get on with it until they give it a go, and that’s what the suburbs can allow, indeed have allowed.
Some people from inner London sneer somewhat at the suburbs, talking about suburban residents not being ‘real Londoners’. The London Transport Museum’s recent Suburbia exhibition showed how people saw the suburbs as a way to escape the centre of London and live a more wholesome life. Suburbia can be different things to different people, and undoubtedly many use it as a compromise position when on a journey from city centre to countryside. For us, it’s been a great way to make a mental transition in the other direction.
Inner Londoners would do well to remember that there *are* those of us in the suburbs who are just as engaged (if not more engaged) with the centre of the city – its politics, its development, its transport system – as those in SE1 or N1. There are plenty out here who want to see the city thrive and feel every bit as much a part of it as those living more centrally: we just have a longer train journey home.
Accordingly, I pay tribute to the corner of suburbia that we’ve lived in since 2004, and how it has helped us change our lives for the better over that period, and convinced us that we’re ready for a life in Zone 2 rather than Zone 6.
Because, indeed, we are: we’re ready to the point of having a Sold sign outside our house, and an offer accepted on a flat in Lewisham. After a fraught buying and selling process we’ve finally exchanged contracts today and are due to make the move on Thursday. I’ll still be working in Bexley, but I won’t be living here any more, so I’m afraid that I’ll also be moving on from this blog as well (it was, after all, supposed to be about living in Bexley, although my inability to find much to say about that due to spending all our leisure time in central London did contribute to wondering whether perhaps we should move!).
At one point we were mulling a move to Woolwich and ‘Woolwich-minded’ seemed a good name for a blog to replace Bexcentric. I’ve been struggling with ‘Lewisham’ for some time and the best I have so far is Lewishful Thinking, which isn’t exactly snappy. Better suggestions are welcome; I’ll keep you posted.
For now, though, it’s goodbye to Crayford, Bexley and Bexcentric. Thanks for reading.
Photos all © me, except ‘Buses in central London’ © my wife 🙂
Edit: Nine months later, I’ve finally launched a new blog in Lewisham: SE13URE.