Our mental picture of London has become dominated by its lurid, teeming centre; Londoners see it as their shared heritage (however depopulated and sterile feeling much of this old centre may have become.) Peter Ackroyd’s many readers love to immerse themselves mentally in the old slums – places like Seven Dials off St Giles or the Old Nichol just east of Shoreditch – or among the crowds at Bartholomew Fair or at the Tyburn hangings. For most of the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth London was the world’s largest city. It’s not surprising our image of London should be of its teeming streets. But Londoners have always been intensely fond of the fields and forests that were never more than an hour’s walk out of town.
The suburbs weren’t enviable — many of these settlements just outside the control of the city were the very worst slums. But people have been constantly moving through and beyond them to enjoy the countryside and, if possible, to build housing in it. One of the earliest printed views, in the Chronicle of Englonde produced by the master printer Richard Pynson in 1510, shows Old St Pauls and the Tower nestling under a skyline dominated by trees, bushes and a single large bird. Wenceslaus Hollar (or in Czech Vaclav Hollar) (1607-1677) who struggled to make a living selling prints to Londoners, and who gave us famous images of London’s skyline before and after the great fire of 1666, concentrated on views of what were then the suburbs: the royal district of Westminster, Lambeth Palace, and a series of images of a recent novelty: the waterworks in Islington into which the newly-constructed New River poured water from Hertforshire for the benefit of London consumers (you can see Old St Pauls in the background).
The arts and crafts-era art historian William Lethaby describes medieval London as the original ‘garden city’, and in his own era Londoners created the world’s first garden suburb, at Bedford Park in Middlesex. This helped inspire Brentham in Ealing from 1901 onwards, the pioneer garden suburb of the co-partnership housing movement and Hampstead Garden Suburb six years later, as well as the less well known Roe Green Village in Kingsbury.
The Danish town planner and architectural historian Steen Eiler Rasmussen. saw London as the model of the type of city that disperses itself into its surrounding countryside. He describes London as ‘scattered’, even from the middle ages, when it included not just the city with its Roman walls but Southwark south of the river, Westminster, the old Danish settlement on Fleet Street (giving its name to St Clement Danes church) and the centre of the Knights’ Templar that became the nucleus of the lawyers’ Inns of Court, midway between the court at Westminster and the London merchants. He tried to replicate the London sprawl with the fingers of green space he designed to reach into central Copenhagen and it was this quality that made him call London, in the title of his most famous book, ‘The Unique City’.