My friend and colleague Nick Papadimitriou has long coveted an oblong of woodland tucked behind some rich villas on a hilltop in north London. Nick knows about woodlands – he’s been a conservation worker; he knows about ecology – he’s written scientific reports on the subject; he knows more about the topography of London than anyone I’ve ever met, and, naturally, he also speaks Polish, having spent a couple of years teaching English literature and language to naval officers in Gdansk. All in all, Nick’s psychogeographic credentials piss on mine from the height of Angel Falls, so when he says “Jump!” I politely request: “Broad?
We rendezvous in a pub car park about a half mile from the wood. “We won’t actually be able to get in,” Nick warns me. “I’ve walked right round the perimeter roads; there’s no possible access.”
“But Nick,” I remind him, “you don’t have the Superplan.” The Superplan is a 1:5,000 Ordnance Survey map, and I have one for the hilltop. “This thing is so detailed,” I tell him as we set off, “that I can see a boil on the arse of a woman in an upstairs bedroom of that house over there.”
“Well, in that case, can you see us as we walk along this road?”
“No, no, now you’re being fanciful. Moving maps – you’ve been reading too much Harry-fucking-Potter.”
It’s a damp autumn morning and we scoff dried fruit as we walk past the opulent detached villas. The best of them are late arts and crafts, all masonry mullions and heavy on the red brick, but the worst are early-1970s neoclassical, featuring wholly un-ironic ionic columns, two storeys high and gilded. Both Nick and I grew up within a couple of miles of this arriviste enclave, but in our youth it was mostly Jewish; now I notice a strong Asian and Nigerian presence. Really, it occurs to me, the nouveau riche – like the black-backed gull – are what zoologists term “a ring species”: they circle the entire globe, but while adjacent populations can mate and produce fertile young, those on the opposite sides of the earth are not so compatible.
My Superplan shows a narrow alleyway stretching down between two garden hedges. We locate it, but instead of it being overgrown – as I suspected – the grass is freshly mown. At the far end, 20 metres away, there’s a padlocked, six-foot-high gate. Beyond it mature-growth trees – hornbeams, elders and sessile oaks (or so Nick tells me) – stand, massy and stately. A vast flock of woodpigeon lifts off from the trees and wheels in the sky, ecru on grey. It’s a weekday midmorning, and we’re about to break into a secret six-acre wood, a fragment of the original Great Middlesex Forest which belongs to these wealthy swine the way their Bentleys and Bulgari do.
Total bliss, property is theft, trespassing is recovering stolen
Once inside we move crunchily through the undergrowth, heading uphill along the backs of the gardens. When I was a kid our school run passed by the wood and the playground myth was that a leprous child lived in one of the big houses. Furthermore, her parents were so rich that they’d had two swimming pools built, one for the little leper and one for their other progeny. My Superplan shows that one of the houses does indeed have a largish pond in its grounds, but swimming pools of any kind – despite my arrogant bullshitting – aren’t marked.
Nick isn’t too bothered with any of this, he discourses elegantly on the character of the woodland, identifying different plants, commenting on the depth of the humus, and how the soil changes along with the gradient from Bagshot sand to London clay. He points out holly, rhododendron, bracken – balancing keystone against indicator species.
The wood is big enough to pretend that we’ve lost ourselves in it. But everywhere we tramp there is evidence of careful husbanding: piles of cordwood, areas of clearance. Yet none of it has that indefinable – and yet oh so concrete – feel of the municipal. Neither Nick nor I can figure out who owns the wood. Is it the richies, and if so do they employ their own urbane back-garden woodsman? Over bottled water and a sticky bun I phone the local council. No, it isn’t theirs, and nor do they believe it belongs to the Corporation of London who manage the adjacent parkland. For a delirious moment I entertain the notion that this arboreal refuge might – through some unprecedented glitch – belong to no one at all; that it might be a fragment of terra nullis lost in the terrible city which surrounds it for mile after mile. Nick and I should go native here, rogue males living off berries and tubers, emerging from tree cover only to bag the occasional international financier and drag him back to our lair.