Waiting for the District Line Tube out to Becontree, I gazed at the poster curving up the sooty wall. “Wake up to the Wild”, a slogan daubed on a stylised piece of driftwood read, and beneath it, hovering over an illustration of a rocky, sandy beach, was this come-hither: “With one of the largest tidal ranges in the world, Guernsey’s coastline offers a new experience each visit.”
This I didn’t doubt – I’ve been to Guernsey and walked its entire coastline (not difficult: it takes a long morning), but then surely visiting anywhere in the world a second time entails a different experience? Also, to make even this strictly accurate claim about Guernsey’s “wildness” seemed to be stretching things; true, it is the thinking person’s Jersey, but with a population density of 840 non-taxpayers per square kilometre – most of whom, so far as I could see, spend their days roaring along the lanes in their Porsches – it’s hardly the Yukon.
Or Becontree, for that matter. This humongous east London council estate was built in the interwar period, and in 1935 it housed 100,000 people in 26,000 homes. The largest public housing development in the world at the time, it was a byword for mod cons that didn’t altogether work, and a civic pride that kept every privet hedge clipped at precisely the same height. I’d never been to Becontree, unlike Guernsey, so I was intent on remedying the deficiency. The Channel island’s public relations flacks should understand this much: any old Prince Harry can take a well-organised trip into the wilderness, but the true contemporary adventurer strikes out for the known.
For this kind of expedition it’s a good idea to have a qualified guide, and mine was one of the pre-eminent: Nick Papadimitriou, the self-styled “deep topographer”. I’ve known Nick since the mid-1980s, and seen him change from a markedly eccentric urban wanderer into a still more markedly eccentric urban wanderer. His has been a life spent kicking his heels along neglected suburban verges and rummaging through the 50p-or-less boxes outside remote charity shops. At his council flat off the Finchley Road, Nick has spent 30 years assembling an astonishing archive of London’s hinterland, the fruit of which was his amazing book, Scarp (published in 2012), an account of his intense – even mystical – relationship with a landmass called the Middlesex Tertiary Escarpment.
I liaised with Nick in Parsloes Park and we strolled through the leafy roads of Becontree and into Valence Park, where we found Valence House, the only manor house still extant in Barking and Dagenham and now a rather fine local museum. The best thing about walking with Nick is that he resists anything as obvious as a defined route or objective; he is the arch-flâneur, impelled from one place to the next because he wishes to compare the concrete flanges of manhole covers, or the kinds of trident fencing used to segregate waste ground. At Becontree we were both taken by the ornate stone cladding that had been added to many of the houses, together with uPVC window frames and sections of aluminium siding sprayed white to resemble clapboard. Where one of the semis had not been altered, we admired the granolithic façades and curved, recessed porches, which together gave the buildings a curiously organic feel.
The museum was full of interesting stuff, such as a Neolithic wooden idol dug up from the Thames mud, but it being four in the afternoon on a weekday the place was closing. We didn’t mind; Nick had a vague desire to visit the riverside at Dagenham Dock, so we trudged back south through streets teeming with manumitted schoolkids, stopping for a tea at the Castle Green Leisure Centre before crossing the A12 by a footbridge. Alongside an arterial road being hammered by lorry traffic, we observed a particularly rich collection of wild flowers. Nick, knowing his botany, reeled off the names of the plants; I, being an ignoramus, immediately forgot them. Nick speculated about whether the meadow had been seeded, or if these had been dormant seeds germinated once the earth had been churned up preparatory to the establishment of the SUSTAINABLE INDUSTRIES PARK (“Over 125,000 Square Metres of High-Quality Business Space”), a phenomenon that thus far consisted solely in this stentorian hoarding.
Towards Dagenham Dock, the roadway grew quieter and the air of desuetude greater – off to either side stood lowering steel hangars and semi-defunct industrial buildings; buddleia burst from walls; two men struggled with a giant socket wrench and a gianter lorry wheel. Hemmed in by corrugated iron walls, we were funnelled towards a couple of enormous dumps (or “waste treatment centres”, as they’re now euphemised), and it became clear we couldn’t gain the riverside in this direction. Nick didn’t mind; he’d landed on a small traffic island, and so began to rhapsodise, “Isn’t it amazing – perfect in its way, and utterly without a discernible function.” He was right: the lozenge-shaped island was marooned at the edge of a roundabout that no one much ever circumnavigated. With its filthy-white bollard, tidal wrack of automotive wreckage and beaches of compacted dust, it offered me an experience quite as novel as anything Guernsey could. I liked it so much I went back again the following day.