At the beginning of the year new residents in my street carried out “improvements” on their property. They remodelled the interior, painted the exterior, replaced windows and the original front door. The most obvious change was in the front garden, left as lawn since the house was built in the 1920s. A piece of ground a few metres square that had never been built on was sealed over with a layer of concrete, with a narrow space around the edge for something to grow in. It was intended as a labour saving measure, a pragmatic approach to maintaining a garden they don’t really want and cannot use as a parking space because of its position near a junction. Water pooled on its surface when it rained and froze when the temperature dropped. After a while it cracked as the ground beneath it dried out and shrank. Weeds grew in the space that were pulled up occasionally.
It didn’t seem much of an improvement to me.
A few months later Ealing Council made some residents aware of its plans to “improve” a space that, unbeknown to most of us, had been designated as “Horsenden Recreation Ground”. This small field is a remnant of agricultural land close to homes in Berkeley Avenue and Greenford Road. A canal, houses and roads have been built around it, allotments and sports fields have been maintained within sight of it but the grass has been mown and grown for centuries, warding off the scrub that edges it. Screened by trees from Greenford Road in the angle with the Grand Union Canal this quiet place is known to dog walkers, fishermen and those taking a short cut to the streets beyond Berkeley Avenue. Steep, narrow concrete steps probably put off all but the brave from descending from street level but those who risk it find the space glowing with buttercups in the summer and bronzed with fading grasses in the autumn. Until recently you could stand at its heart and imagine you were in open countryside, but the rising tower blocks of Greenford Quay can now be seen in the distance and that gives us a clue as to the sudden desire for “improvement”.
“Improvement”, in this case, means the tidying up of the meadow and the imposition of useful and appropriate things. Paths. Benches. Play equipment. Exercise equipment. Many of these have sprouted in existing parks across the borough in recent years, none of which we could use during the Covid pandemic. Playgrounds were roped off during lockdown. Something that terrible and sobering episode brought into focus was our tendency to take for granted what we already have until it appears to be denied to us. In some parts of the UK those taking the limited amount of exercise they were allowed found themselves being moved on by officials. They could not sit on benches. They could not wait while their children played on swings. They could not take in the view. One of the things we came to value was the right to stand still… and do nothing.
There is something insulting in the suggestion that we are so incapable of entertaining ourselves usefully that we need toys to play with, that we cannot burn off fat without exercise equipment, that we cannot enjoy ourselves without the right tools. We have to sit on benches, the grass isn’t good enough. It is an unfortunate fact that many designated play areas are places you don’t want to take your children to because they’re being used by those with less healthy inclinations as places to congregate. Broken bottles, beer cans, balloons and those little silver canisters that clink as they roll around on the ground embellish many of them despite the best efforts of an under resourced police force.
Another proposed “improvement” for this existing natural space is a pond designed to attract wildlife. I realised that the muddy scrape I had seen in Cayton Green park was the beginning of an artificially created water feature. Whoever thought that a small fake pond was a good idea here must have been unaware, as they made these plans in an office somewhere in the borough’s administrative centre, that the meadow is next to a canal, and that it is a habitat already rich in insects including glittering sapphire damsel flies that dart around during the summer. They must have been unaware that the slight scruffiness that we are being encouraged to allow in our now much more valued gardens is what attracts small mammals and reptiles. The thought that the council might take a space that offers this already and replace it deliberately with something less is extraordinary. It is appalling. It is absurd.
This is the latest example of the box ticking that comes in the wake of large developments in the borough. Those who will inhabit the tower blocks that have begun to loom over the Grand Union Canal on the former GSK and British Bakeries sites must be provided with leisure facilties. I’m sure there will be some shared spaces created within Greenford Quay that will be suitable for all who live there eventually but it was reported in the press in 2019 that in developments where affordable housing was provided alongside those who paid a premium for certain facilities it was the youngest in our society who were most conscious that some had and others had not. I realised that the rather uneasy group of women I had passed at another canal side development were waiting with their children to be let in to the playground that other residents had the keys to because they could afford access.
Perhaps it is less awkward if those simple things that make very young children happy, being pushed on swings or caught at the bottom of a slide, are provided by the local council off site. Some residents in the surrounding area have expressed concern that Greenford Quay may begin to focus its marketing on single transient tenants rather than those with families who might stay for good. They are the kind of resident who prefers not to hear the sound of children playing noisily until those children are their own. Better, perhaps, if that sound is on the other side of a wide road, in this case Greenford Road. Plans are already in place (consultations tend to mean that the matter is already decided) to put a pedestrian crossing by the meadow to connect it with Greenford Quay and there will undoubtedly be a ramp to enable cyclists to speed into it and across it on their way to central London. A space that has known only the slow pace of the seasons will be a blur to them.
At a time of year when we pause and exercise our right to stand still and remember the sacrifice made by those who fought and fell in the service of this country it is worth remembering that there is another piece of ground in Greenford that has never been built on, the triangle at the junction of Oldfield Lane South and Greenford Broadway. The only improvement was the addition of a war memorial in 1921. You might think of it as the village green, except that it isn’t that big. A century ago almost everyone who walked past it during the course of the day would have known some or all of those named on it. At least two of them had families that lived almost within sight of it.
At the time it was built Greenford’s landscape was about to undergo great changes. Houses were beginning to appear along existing roads and new streets with smart new homes built in a style that celebrated the past, “Tudorbethan”, were built to house the generation that had risked their lives in the First World War and their children who went on to take part in the Second. A new road, Greenford Road, was built through the area, from north to south, defining that little field and shielding it by rising up to cross the canal over a new bridge. The Red Lion pub, founded centuries ago, relocated to a new building accommodated by the new street layout, next to it. New shops were built, new factories, libraries and clinics, a new police station, all providing opportunities and facilities for the people who moved here. Yet that tiny triangle of land, where the eighteen names of those who had known Greenford in a more rural age and left for war were now carved in stone at the base of a cross, was preserved and maintained. The families of at least two of those men lived close to the new memorial. Eventually their homes gave way to new housing, the farms where some of them had worked disappeared under those new streets. But that small patch of land remained.
As I stood by it last night I watched the cars and buses wait at the lights, their brake lights and the bright signs over shops glowing in the darkness of a November evening, I wondered how many who pass it now know the names on it. I wondered how their families would feel if they knew that few walk up to it or even notice it now. That the names of their loved ones are known only to those curious about local history, who know that one was a boy who died aged seventeen at the Somme, that another survived four years before dying of wounds received at Ypres. Those young men were neighbours and they lived just out of sight of the place where their names can be seen. They would be reassured to know that we still gather there to remember them and those of the war that followed. I have concerns that acts of remembrance have become too focused on those world wars. Many of our military personnel have died in service around the world since then, in the Falklands, Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan. They are survived by comrades whose wounds are not always visible.
I have wondered if an opportunity has presented itself in the form of that small meadow, if we could use it to create a practical and relevant memorial that would bring benefits to those survivors. I believe that we could use it to remember a man who moved here from Jamaica with his family, went to school here, joined the army and went to war from here, whose grave is now here. Lance Sergeant Dale McCallum was killed in Afghanistan in 2010 and the only memorial he has is his headstone. What if his memorial was not just in stone but was a quiet place where veterans could gather to take part in therapeutic activities inspired by the natural environment around them? What if it was designated a “Veteran Space”, the first of many in the borough?
There is now a petition supporting that proposal and it needs as many signatures as possible from residents of our borough. We can do something positive and memorable for those who have risked their lives for our security. They are the ones most entitled to stand at ease, to be at peace and just stand still. A signature is a small thing to ask for. Let us act now to remember someone who passed Greenford’s war memorial many times during his time here. Let’s name that meadow “Dale’s Field”.