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In the Lost Land of Middlesex

County of Middlesex: note that this essay does not concern itself with the county of that name in Connecticut, nor with those in Massachusetts, Virginia or Ontario. It is about Middlesex in England.

Middlesex: “Land of the Middle Saxons”. Even at its largest extent, before 1888, Middlesex was the second smallest county in England. Only Rutland was smaller and the third smallest, Huntingdonshire, was 30% larger.

Middlesex: Is or was? Because Middlesex is the “lost county” which “disappeared” in 1965, the great bulk of it absorbed by Greater London, a few bit disappearing into neighbouring counties. As with God and the Loch Ness monster, the debate quietly rages on: Does Middlesex exist?

The debate is futile, because it is pretty clear what the answer is. As with many other minor territorial identities, Middlesex does not exist as a political or administrative entity, but it does in certain legal and ceremonial respects. And it exists in civil society because many organisations use the Middlesex name and (a version of) the boundaries. The most famous of these are Middlesex County Cricket Club and Middlesex University.

But it’s lost in another sense. In the twentieth century the county was transformed by a great sprawl of factories and semi-detached houses followed by the world’s busiest international airport and the M4, M40 and M25. Just about every kind of artefact you can imagine has been laid down upon the earth of Middlesex. It was largely the fate of Middlesex which drove the creation of a relatively strict system of planning and development control.

I have long planned to explore Middlesex on foot, dating back to the days (1979-94) when I earned pocket money writing articles about exploring places on foot. In those days I was always alone, but today, gloriously, I have two companions. They are my friend, Neil Goodban, whom I met when we set off on the Coast to Coast walk on the same day and my brother-in-law (and friend) Peter McDonnell whom I met in 1972 when I gave his sister a lift home. We meet in Rickmansworth, which is in Hertfordshire, but only just, in a car park by a lake and bordered by well laden cherry trees and head south along the towpath of the Grand Union Canal which is also the London Loop and the valley of the River Colne. Somewhere we cross the invisible border to the Lost Land.

To our right, the west, is the M25; to our left is one of the world’s great cities; ahead is the world’s busiest international airport. We know all this from the map; there is no other evidence for it because what we actually see is: to the left rolling hills and meadows, to the right lakes visible through woodland and ahead the canal and towpath, both broader than is the case of the canal I am most familiar with, which is nominally the same canal (they were built separately and linked up later). There are no big planes and we cannot hear the motorway. I am informed that, though we are only a few miles from Heathrow we are at right angles to the flight paths. The whole effect is slightly spooky: a rural scene without agriculture, lakes with no buildings or people, meadows without animals apart from a stout horse being ridden by a man. The lakes are all entirely deserted which is hardly surprising since there are notices prohibiting boating, swimming, fishing . . . . in fact pretty well anything you might wish to do in and around a lake.

In fact, the place seems to belong to the birds. There are the common or garden ones, but also some whoppers – grey herons and a red kite which does its droopy, lazy perusal just over our heads. Swans, of course, and Canada geese. Mallards are the most frequent species, usually in their pairs of flashy male and dowdy female, but several times three males together, just like us. Coots are second and in this, the breeding season, weirdly aggressive (given their total lack of weaponry), noisily warning off both other birds and ourselves. The range of ducks and geese is way too much for our powers of identification. We do a positive I/D on a pochard, for instance, but we aren’t sure of some of the exotica.  We think Muscovy ducks and pink-footed geese, but we aren’t sure and, of course, in busy bird areas like this some strange migrations and hybrids occur. There are also many seabirds including cormorants and terns and pretty well all the normal British gulls with great black-backed and black-headed the most common.

As a result I am going to make a surprising claim about the Lost Land of Middlesex which is that if you want to fill your I-Spy Book of Birds in a short time, something I was desperately keen to do as a small boy, this is the county which would give you the best shot. The Farne Islands or the Broads have wonderful birds, but they are a specialised range and Middlesex is the great all-rounder.

Birds, boats, surprises. Almost all the boats we see are moored and the commonest type is the classic narrow boat, usually highly decorated, often with woodpiles and pot plants on the roof. But there are many other kinds: cabin cruisers which look as if they haven’t moved in decades, working dredgers and dirty British boats of an unknown purpose. The range of registrations is far flung and includes Lancaster and Teesside.

Surprises: I do like a surprise on a walk and the answers to the question, “What did you see that you never knew was there?” Here there is a vast derelict warehouse with trees growing through it and a chute for loading barges. We can’t work out from what now seems to be mainly parkland what might have been loaded. A thatched cottage. Country pubs which look as if they are a hundred miles from a city. A hippy encampment (as a man of my age must think of it) in the woods uninhabited except for teddy bears and inviting us to protest against the HS2. The Chiltern line train  on a bridge; my train for I use it often so I shouldn’t be surprised to see it because I’ve often looked down from that very bridge and wondered what there was in this densely vegetated valley. More surprises later.

At lunch on a rare bench we watch a coot both reconstructing its nest and defending it from a mallard which was not attacking it in the first place. (“Mere curiosity, your honour.”) We are free men and we make the collective decision to change our destination. It had been Twickenham, but now it’s Brentford. This is not because of distance – there isn’t much difference in this respect – but because we can reach Brentford on the towpath and avoid both urban streets and navigational problems. Our route has become a L shape and we are swinging from south to east, much more aware of Heathrow and for a time by the Paddington to Cardiff line which looks much more big-time than the Chiltern line.

From Uxbridge, the scene has been much more urban, often as exquisitely ugly as it was pristine earlier. There are warehouses and factories, often looking semi-derelict, but probably mostly functional. Graffiti and litter are ubiquitous. In Southall the canal enters a kind of Slough of Despond. The water is full of litter, there are (at least a couple of) makeshift dwellings in the undergrowth and, the real surprise, many piles of rotting fruit on the banks, tons of the stuff, mainly the citrus varieties. This is obviously an endemic problem because there is an official notice banning the dumping of foodstuffs, something I have never seen on a canal before. What is going on? Further research reveals that the area is an epicentre for both the drugs trade and illegal immigration and that the fruit dumping is somehow connected. I am not clear about this, but it is pretty serious: a young woman’s body was found in this stretch of canal in 2011.

In all journeys once you have crossed the Slough of Despond things improve and your spirits lift. Around Norwood Green and Osterley Park the canal becomes sparkling and pristine again and the surroundings are verdant. Ealing Hospital (Asylum) presents a grim and fortified boundary to us and there is a brief and irreverent discussion of mental health in which it is agreed that I am not a looney, but merely barmy. There is a cute little railway built by Brunel to connect Brentford docks with the main line at Southall; it actually runs under the main line at one point. There is an area of mini-Alps made out of rock and/or cement – aggregates in the broad sense. There are new types of duck and goose, including the exotic Egyptian goose, pink-footed and apparently bespectacled, the canal is broader than ever and there are many permanently inhabited barges where it is clearly the practice to cycle to work along the towpath. There are many more people on the towpath; few of them could pass for Middle Saxons.

And so to Brentford, making our way among gleaming new office blocks to a pub by the station, an all too brief visit before our incongruous journey, with our sticks and rucksacks, among the commuters back to Rickmansworth. Neil’s calculation of distance, based on maps and signposts, is twenty one miles. Peter’s higher-tec version is twenty five. Either way, it’s a lot and Peter’s little fashionable device has clocked up some 48,000 paces. And so we are fairly pleased with ourselves, the Lost Land of Middlesex having been found.

Lincoln Allison      May 2017