It’s embarassing to take a woman friend to look at an old hay meadow or a remnant of the forest of Middlesex and find you’re in the middle of a dogging area. But the edges of London have always given cover for louche activities. This had always been bandit country: the Benedictine monk Matthew Parris (1200-1259) wrote in his Life of St Alban that the Middlesex forest was home not only to wolves, wild boars, stags and wild bulls, but to ‘bandits, thieves, night robbers, outlaws and fugitives’. More than five hundred yeas later John Middleton, the author of ‘A View of the Agriculture of Middlesex’ (1798) wrote about the poor reputation of London’s approaches: ‘The low inns on the sides of the turnpike roads are, in general, receiving houses for the corn, hay, straw, poultry, eggs, &c, which the farmers’ men pilfer from their master… The poor children, who are brought up on the borders of commons and copses, are accostomed to little labour but to much idleness and pilfering.’ Joseph Tucker wrote in 1755 that ‘so many Heaths and Commons around London can answer no other End, but to be a Rendezvous for Highwaymen and a commodious Scene for them to exercise their Profession.’ Highway robbery was a crime carried out largely on the outskirts of London, especially the heathlands of Hounslow and Finchley. The victims were often drovers bringing livestock into the capital and the robbers themselves frequently came from the same trades.
The first theatres were built outside the City of London, and people have always felt more able to let their hair down in the suburbs, which began with the old ‘Liberties’ outside the city gates.
Middlesex was the home of radicals, such as the celebrated five knights imprisoned in 1627 for refusing to pay forced loans to Charles I. Under Charles II the ‘Five Mile Act‘ of 1665 expelled clergymen who refused allegience to the 1662 Prayer Book. Among those deprived of their livings in this way was Richard Baxter (1615-91), the leading Puritan theologian and author of such hymns as ‘Ye Holy Angels Bright‘ who was exiled to Acton where he was also for a time imprisoned. There, during the Great Fire of London in 1666, he records in his autobiography how he found near his house the charred leaves of books blown westwards from the burning warehouses around the burning St Pauls Cathedral.
In the following century Middlesex repeatedly returned John Wilkes, unelectable in London proper, as its MP. Middlesex has also been the home of artists and free thinkers: people who in Paris hang out in cafes on the boulevards are found on the edge of the countryside: Keats and Constable in Hampstead, the pre Raphaelites in Kensington, and later bohemians in the country suburbs of Bedford Park and Hampstead Garden Suburb.
Hampstead Garden Suburb has a physical link with William Blake, a frequent former visitor to the heath. Blake would come to Wyldes Farm (now a listed building, NW3 7HS) to call on the painter John Linnell (1792-1882) a rival of Constable, and the main who introduced Blake to Samuel Palmer. In 1837 Charles Dickens stayed here with his wife Catherine; the couple were getting over the shock of the sudden death of Catherine’s sister Mary Hogarth aged just 17. Wyldes Farm was later owned by Sir Raymond Unwin (1863-1940) the architect and planner of the Garden Suburb. The Heath Extension between the farm and Hampstead Garden Suburb was once Wyldes’ farmland.
Pop music comes from the suburbs, although South London has been for some reason more productive: the Stones, Bowie, the Jam to set against The Who (Ealing/Acton) and Elton John (Pinner). Appropriately Adam Ant became a musician at Hornsey college of Art, based in what had been one of Middlesex’s ancient villages. And the Middlesex suburb of Hayes is the place to find the world’s biggest collection of recorded pop music: the EMI Archive, which as well as holding master tapes from the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and its extraordinary number of signed artists is also an important museum of the history of music recording. A little closer to London is another collection of monumental importance that’s drawn on everyday for creative purposes: the BBC archive in Perivale. And still in former Middlesex there’s the archive of an older mass technology: the British Library’s newspaper collection in Colindale.