BBC on the Finnish Phoenix
Well that was unexpected. BBC just quoted me.
Way, way up in north-west, along the Barnet branch of the Northern line, lies an airy and leafy region. On the map the place looks like any other suburb. On the ground the vibe is quite different.
The small brook passing through the area is bigger, and more freely flowing, than one would expect. Possibly thanks to that, the air is constantly moving, ever so slightly. Everything around here is decently kept, and the appearances are a mix of modern-at-their-time and genuinely modern.
While there is the unavoidable air traffic, it doesn't overwhelm. Overall, the place feels a bit like Forest Hill, only calmer.
A place for a family, if you can afford it.
Walking south along the tube line one soon gets into ...
The general feel in and around West Finchley is somewhat more mixed. Also, while the place gives an air of having been slightly less well kept, it's still safe and inviting.
If it wasn't for the contrast against Woodside Park, this would still be a first-class family neighbourhood. Now it feels like this is where the reasonably affluent have overflowed when north became too expensive.
As one goes further south, the airy feel takes on an increasingly compact tone.
The high street is a nice experience. It's not too crowded, and feels like a nice village-like place.
Going even further down south, there is ...
This is the forking point of the Barnet branch.
For someone with a Finnish origin, it can be described succintly: Kamppi before the high-end overhaul.
As long as you can find a place slightly off the busiest roads, all of these places should still be reasonable locations to set down with a family.
Towards the south-east edge of Greenwich, in a region that once may have been part of Blackheath, lies a village of Eltham. From the surface it looks very nice indeed.
Patios and front porches remain unwalled, with a fair number hosting tarp-covered scooters. It appears that the village is neither inhabited nor raided by kleptomaniacs.
Reality sinks in when walking around the village. The first thing you notice is the constant lack of silence. Anywhere even remotely close to the train station, one cannot escape a chronic blare of heavy traffic. The ever-present thrum originates from a major bypass, which feeds on the proximity to Blackwall Tunnel. For a Finn: imagine living next to Länsiväylä, with a 24/7 rush hour, and you get the idea. (There's also a surprising amount of air traffic, as if the place required an insurance against momentary lapses of automotive cacophony.)
The second is that above all, the whole place feels compressed. Eltham village must have been once a very desirable place to live in, to cram that many people into so confined spaces.
There is one final observation I made in Eltham. While it is certainly a place of well-off families, it's not abundantly so. Cars are not the expensive models - in general. Houses are neatly maintained but not lavish - in general. And as already pointed out, the plots are tiny - in general. Walking around the village, one sees the occasional corner plot with a lavish mansion, usually with a Jag or Bentley parked in front. These uncanny locations have one thing in common: they are nested in very special spots. As you approach (and pass) these plots, you will soon realise that right at these spots the overall noise level from the heavy traffic somehow gets muted. If this is a result from urban planning, it is a work of a disturbed genius.
In Eltham, the properly rich occupy the quiet places, while everyone else gets to drown in the noise.
Right at the fork of the eastern Central Line lies a village that should, by all accounts, be nice. The place is next to Epping Forest, and has a very well functioning tube connection (considering it is located at the border of zones 3 & 4, the connections are outright spectacular).
But as any statistican or computer engineer will attest, real-world data rarely conforms to an ideal model. The place is not scary, but it is quite run-down. The high street is dominated by betting and pawn shops, interleaved with pound stores. Geographically thinking, the place has every reason to be prosperous, but from the looks of it, the only people prospering from the neighbourhood may be slumlords.
And even then, that is not quite true. There is an almost schizophrenic geographical division in the outlooks of both the properties and the people living in them. The houses right next to Epping Forest or Bush Wood are airier and very well kept. But walk just half a block away from the green spaces, and you could have entered a different town altogether. At least the general air of being cramped remains constant..
The final argument against living with a family in Leytonstone comes from how the houses are kept. While many of the plots have their small gardens, the standard accessory for garden walls is nothing less than a spool of freaking razor wire. People don't tend to fake things like that.
The pub near the tube station is nice though. I can't shake a suspicion that given a chance, people merely opt to visit the place. It's not scary, but it's not really inviting either.
Central line punches through a big chunk of London. At the north-east end it splits into two branches: the main line, and a fascinating curved loop. The village of Chigwell is at the north end of this loop.
Technically the place is not in London. Coming from London, if you find yourself in Chigwell, you've crossed the border of Essex about 2 km earlier.
One of the first things welcoming a visitor near the tube station is a plant nursery. A large one at that. An omen, promising affordable land prices, but one that soon proves to be a lie.
The buildings in Chigwell are a happily mixed bunch. They range from imitation colonial style to classic, almost idyllic British cottages. They seem to range from quite old to very recent but for some reason the overall style is never too much unlike everything else nearby. The happiest finding was that there is very little feeling of picket fences. Lion's share of the houses are quite individual, and it is very rare for more than 4 buildings in a row to share an identical mold.
Somewhat related to this is the proliferation of "Hands off Chigwell" campaign posters on windows. At first one can't really understand why the locals would oppose the addition of 1200 new houses. But then the realisation sinks in: almost all the houses in and around the village are obviously results of individual builders doing what they have felt was appropriate. A mega-constructor, building 1200 houses all at once, could not help but carpet-bomb the entire region with practically identical, soulless constructs.
That could well ruin the identity of Chigwell.
A short walk due east, one encounters a small village of Grange Hill.
There is a quirky division in how houses look in Grange Hill. The lots next to tube station are all generally clean and appear comfortable. Same applies to the buildings inside the Central Line arc.
But go just few hundred meters outside the region cordoned by the tube, and the look changes. Where one expects to see a variety of houses, they are suddenly surprised by collection of all too similar, crunched-up looking locations. Almost like a baby Titan had laid out his toys just to see how many duplicates there were. In a neighourhood otherwise so charming, a sudden spasm of unvitingness is even more striking thanks to the incidental contrast.
On a very positive note the cars in and around Grange Hill show a welcome lack of lavishness. At least people are not paying more for their rides than their homes.
Last fall when I first visited Hither Green, it felt like a non-place. There weren't many stores, and much of the commercial spaces were empty. In just six months, it has changed - for the better.
The place feels alive. The previously empty spaces have new businesses in them, servicing families. On my previous visit, there was a feeling of desolation around the train station. This too has changed.
It's almost as if the proximity to Lewisham is no longer a problem or a hindrance, but an asset. It may be a pre-emptive Crossrail effect - when the Canary Wharf terminal opens in 2018, everything within a decent distance becomes highly desirable. With the DLR, Canary Wharf is just 15 minutes away from Lewisham.
This may be more than just the usual gentrification playing out.
Moving around London is daunting. The Square Mile is one thing, but traveling further out allows to redefine confusion quite quickly.
Make sure you have a relatively modern, SIM-free smartphone. Get a 30-day prepaid, all-the-data-you-can-eat SIM from any of the available operators. (Doesn't really matter which one.) Install the stock maps application and Citymapper. The two complement one another beautifully when trying to find out the sanest way to move around. The small cost of the prepaid SIM will be more than balanced by the lack of headache if you're staying in the City for more than just a day or two.
Invest in a pair of really good walking shoes. Break them in before London, too. The hard streets around the city are not the kinds of surfaces you want to treat your feet to in unfamiliar footwear.
Schedule as much of the inner city travels outside peak hours as possible. The tubes and trains are packed during peaks, and the buses are an outright atrocious experience. Oversized vehicles in one of the most congested cities in the world are subject to the same traffic as everything else around there. Only more so...
Just south of the Greenwich park there is a nice village of Blackheath. And it has a farmers' market! (Okay, just once a week.)
While the streets near the village centre are indeed packed, those slightly off the main road look a lot nicer. The air traffic is identical to Greenwich, which is only natural. There are also more cafés than pubs, which was quite a suprise.
Also present was a clear sign of communal safety: separate clothes lines down in the yard, with some laundry hanging. Nowhere else have I yet witnessed this otherwise familiar phenomenon. Apparently everywhere else the laundry would get prompty nicked, vandalised or both.
Once we get outside the village centre, there is an eerie familiarity. It's like both the Esplanade and Boulevard from Helsinki were merged, tinted to British shades and scaled up to cover a whole village.
All in all, a nice place.
Slightly to the west we find another village, in another borough.
Lewisham is a bit like Blackheath, but only less polished. Where the first place radiated a more or less constantly nice air everywhere, Lewisham oscillates between different vibes from street to street.
There are lots of families, more than in Blackheath. Or they show up better against the background.
Quite a nice place indeed, and mostly I wouldn't mind living here either.
Somewhat further south we come to a slightly[tm] different part of town.
This is a weird place. Something rubbed me the wrong way while circling the area, but I could not figure out what it was until later. It was more than just the slightly unwelcoming general brush of the neighbourhood.
Hither Green is, I feel, a place between places. A kind of place that has sprung up to allow movement from one Place (with a capital) to another, but which by itself is rarely anyone's destination. A place that is trying to apologise for being there at all. A place you pass through, when going from Somewhere to Somewhere Else. Just with the distinction that while there, you wish you were already Somewhere Else.
It is like a (re)tired industrial suburb. The old industry has moved elsewhere, new one has not yet discovered the place, and in the meanwhile, the suburb is merely laying low and waiting. Waiting for something, anything to happen.
Oh, and it has no pubs. Pubs imply happy crowds and living people, but this place did not really portray either. It might not be a place to actively avoid, but it's not a place to aim for either. I wouldn't want to end up in there.
The distance from Hither Green to Lee is roughly 1km, but the most notable change happens right around the railway bridge. On the west side, one is still elsewhere, in a place quite unencouraging. On the east side, in Lee, the streets start to look different.
Soon after the bridge, there is a pub. Only it does not call itself one, it claims to be a restaurant. It's almost as if it's still too close to a place without pubs, and does not want to attract the attention. A nicer place, certainly.
For a family I would still try to find something a bit further due east.
Such a pretty place. Too bad I wasn't deaf. Living here could probably change that, though...
Kew is, above everything else, a conflicted place. For most parts, the houses look nice and the happy families playing with their children in the various parks certainly added to the effect. People were chatty too, and so far this area has had the highest concentration of dogs I've witnessed. It could be so lovely here.
But oh boy, are there flipsides. The number one problem is Heathrow - Kew is directly beneath the Heathrow landing, making it an insanely noisy place. And no, it's more than a mere irritation: it's a constant cacophony of bass frequency blare. Also, I would have expected the tube station next to Kew Gardens to be somewhat more, well, active.
For some weird reason the place gives off an aura of hidden decay. Front yards are not particularly well maintained, the stores in the neighbourhood look somewhat dispirited and even the few pubs appeared more like places where people might go to momentarily ignore where they are. I can only suspect that the constant air traffic noise is taking its toll on the populace.
All in all, the place made me think of both Myllymäki (in Lappeenranta), and San Miguel (in Azores). Such a weird combination. Both of them are cute places to visit, but you probably won't be spending much time in either. You'll be looking for a way out, to see places that are more interesting, more accommodating, or maybe even both.
I just can't see myself moving to Kew, however nice it might otherwise be.
Barking is not the kind of place you would want to bring your family in.
It's not inherently a bad place, but it certainly had a very distinct lack of too many redeeming features. The closest thing from Finland would be the combination of Kaisaniemi and Hakaniemi before the facelifts that gave either of them their current feel.
The place gave off a rather phlegmatic air. If neighbourhoods of boroughs can have a character, Barking is mostly just tired. And even worse, I got a strong sense of joylessness in there. Sadness would be a temporary state, making room for something else; in Barking joy might not be even on the menu. The whole place just reeked of, not desperation, but early surrender.
It was as if the heart of Barking hadn't quite stopped trying, but just couldn't be bothered to make a proper effort.
Perhaps the most worrying detail of the area was the notice in local supermarket: eggs and flour were not sold to anyone under 18. The few schools in the region were a bit on anemic side, and in all the whole place was more a sleeping suburb than anything else.
North of Barking is Ilford.
Ilford was a slightly more energetic version of Barking. People in the area were clearly busy, and I was very happy to find a suitably nice street market there.
The local high street windows showed a very colourful, if repetitive selection of garments.
One could say this was a nicer version of Barking.
Going west, we first pass through...
Wanstead is a much nicer place, although the cleanest lots appear to be those nearby the Wanstead Flats and Epping Forest parks. Some houses even looked as if they had their private gardens.
The houses are surprisingly modern. The people were nice and friendly too, with lot of the activity centered around sports. When it came to the local pub, that had a nice communal feel.
I could think of living here with a family.
However, moving further from the parks, the overall feel and quality both go down. This trend continues towards Stratford, only breaking when we get very near the town centre.
The place is like a metropolitan version of Tampere. The centre is very modern and has a "big city" air all over it.
The lack of green spaces is a bit of a disappointment, though.