On The Edge

I've discovered a constellation of magical transition points. They lie between the conflicting impacts of landgrab and the resilient indifference of nature. Dotted across the map where thunderous arterial roads have severed land mass, where sprawling estates meet ancient woodland and where train lines burst from housing densities out into the open, there are lush patches of growth living parallel lives at the very edge of human populations. This is news to me. Having spent most of my adult life in London, I am accustomed to there being no secrets left. The city's dark concrete corners and overgrown gardens have occasionally served up a surprise: facey foxes, crow mafiosa, blackbird infant abuse - nature anthropomorphised by my urban perspective. There are, perpetually, some meadowy stretches of tall weeds across terraced gardens, demob-happy shrubs scratching at three-storey windows and creeping up on blind old sheds. But developer cleansing is never far away. Enjoying nature in the city has mostly been boiled down to The Park and The Zoo. Our more recent homes on the Thanet coast have shown its seaside towns to be similarly lacking in opportunities for wildness. Their position offers a binary of land or sea with little intermediate space. While tiny sparrow families populate the thin strips of green above Westbrook Bay, and a few cormorants can be spotted practicing their skim above the Sunken Gardens, most locals’ encounters with nature involve seagulls divebombing for chips on Margate's promenade. The only real 'escape' is into the water, where you are more likely to be ringed by seaweed than seals. Maybe my discovery is the silver lining of our unexpected homelessness. The past month has involved moving from bed to bed every few days as we begin, once again, the purchase process while relying on friends and family to give us temporary shelter. These transient homes have all been suburban, and as newcomers to these areas, we have walked and cycled to the very edge of each town to get our bearings. It's here that the magic happens. One of our stays, in a Surrey market town that people now tend to drive through or around, required us as pedestrians to constantly negotiate the bisecting roads of heavy, noisy traffic. We were quickly introduced by insiders to Life Behind The Ring Road (not a euphemism for dogging). A hidden track to an unfarmed field alive with butterflies in numbers imagined only by Disney animators. An entire hill of nascent vine rows. A warren of narrow, mulchy passages running behind and between the hundreds of edge-of-town houses. Wildflowers grow abundantly right up to their boundaries, swathes of poppies and bluebells separated from trim beds of peonies by only £230 per panel hardwood fencing. The white noise of vehicle flow remains close and pervasive yet the brambly hedgerows are pounding with birdsong. In east London, just before the A12 hits greenbelt at Junction 28, I wandered away from the dwindling houses and watched the footpath turned bridle. Westbound intercity trains to Liverpool Street charged by as the air swarmed with insects and pollen. Suddenly, I emerged into a miniature Watership Down. Lolloping around were fat rabbits enjoying rich, damp grasses within roar radius of articulated lorries. My first thought was, how did you get here? My second was to realise that they - or at least, their ancestors - were probably here all along, part of an original community of wild animals established long before new trunk roads began destroying natural habitats in the fifties. Then, while walking back from an Essex Lidl on a scorching afternoon we passed through a vast council estate backing onto a belt of woods within hearing range of the M25. We squinted sympathetically at the yellow-coated builders working on some scaffolded blocks of flats. They must be suffering in this heat, we said. But clearly, that other lot are not. A herd of deer were enjoying the tree shade alongside the construction site. This was not a lockdown phenomenon. Apparently they move in from the estate edges whenever it heats up, seeking fresh grass and a carrot lunch, palm-fed to them by delighted locals. The experience is probably now up there with the time a giraffe gently scuffed my hand with its lips, looking for more banana. Only this time, no entry fee.