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The Lure Of The Near

November 2, 2013
Camden House, Chislehurst

Camden House, Chislehurst

Australians who live in London have one thing in common (well, two, if you count our ability to out-drink the English as a thing). And that is our constant state of wide-eyed wonder at how close everything is. When we get together, we list the countries we’ve been to. We feel like movie stars, airily discussing our long weekend in Mallorca or our week in Estonia or how we popped up to Edinburgh for Hogmanay. It’s a source of genuine astonishment to us that we can fly for 50 minutes and end up in a different country. That sort of trip out of Melbourne would get you to Tasmania, and only just.

Not that half of us bothered going to New Zealand when it was as close as Moscow. Not exotic enough when Thailand is a mere eight hours away.

For me, however, an unfortunate side effect of this kid-in-a-sweet-shop mentality has been a tendency to ignore the gems that are a bus ride, or a couple of train stations, away. So here’s my early resolution for 2014: to sally forth regularly into the cornucopia of London’s Southeast with nothing but a loaded Oyster Card and a more-than-passing knowledge of the area’s bus routes. I feel that after nearly three years of living here, I’ve only scratched the fascinating, history-laden and frankly wonderful surface of this woefully underappreciated part of London.

Lesnes Abbey ruins.

Lesnes Abbey ruins.

I’ve made a start. A while back I waved my Oyster Card, like the clever little wand it is, and allowed the 161 to carry me all the way to Chislehurst. The exiled French Emperor Napoleon III sought refuge here with his family in the 1870s. They hunkered down in Camden Place, an elegant early 18th-century pile that is now the local golf clubhouse. Nearby is the house that belonged to William Willett, who in the early 20th century had the bright (pun intended, sorry) idea for daylight savings time while out riding in nearby Petts Wood. I spent a day wandering around Chislehurst and didn’t even get to the famous and mystical caves, where David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Status Quo and others performed in the 1960s.

Closer to Woolwich, I’ve also now managed to take the train the two whole stops to the magnificent ruins of Lesnes Abbey and the woods that flank it. I’m quite ashamed that it took me more than two years to get around to it. I had been expecting a modest collection of low, rubble walls in a field. What I saw was the entire and impressive footprint of a 12th-century abbey nestled into a meticulously-manicured and sylvan landscape. We walked in the nearby woods, a  lush wonderland of majestic trees and ferny undergrowth.

I’ve also taken the 122 to Crystal Palace. The bus rolled and rumbled as we sliced our way through a slate-grey winter afternoon and watched the suburbs roll by. A highlight was accidently stumbling upon the Sardinian delights of Le Querce, a critically applauded family-run restaurant in Forest Hill, on the return journey.

I have a list scrawled on paper, and another one tapped into my phone, of all the things I still need to do before I can say I know Southeast London. It grows every time I talk to a neighbour or exchange tweets with a local. Eltham Palace, Danson Park and House, the Red House, the Horniman Museum, Deptford Market, the Well Hall Pleasaunce, Eltham Farmers Market. And so on.

Moons Green chorizo and saucissons, and a slab of Colston Bassett Blue Stilton, from Brockley Market.

Moons Green chorizo and saucissons, and a slab of Colston Bassett Blue Stilton, from Brockley Market.

Today I ticked Brockley Market off the list. I’ve come home with a bag full of chorizo and saucissons made by Moons Green Charcuterie in East Sussex, using local pork. And a slab of Colston Bassett Blue Stilton. I’ve learned that only five dairies in England are allowed to call themselves Stilton producers.

I’m going to walk it all off tomorrow by showing a friend around Oxleas Wood, a beautiful 8,000-year-old forest complete with its own castle-like folly. I’ve only partly explored the woods, even though I live just down the hill.

My new year’s resolution is going to remain a work-in-progress for some time. I’m glad I’ve made an early start.

  1. Geraldine Moore permalink

    Nick am I are off to Victoria market. I won’t be buying a Stilton, but maybe a Mersey Valley cheddar.

    • You’ll love Brockley Market, Gerry, when you come to visit again. It’s like a miniature Borough Market. Mersey Valley cheddar….yum.

  2. You are inspiring me …. we only stay in Woolwich on an irregular basis but outings like you suggest are definitely on our To Do list – thanks!

    • Thanks and enjoy! Please do let me know of any places you discover that you think I might enjoy. Some of these gems are well and truly hidden!

  3. What a fantastic New Years resolution! I also want to explore this area more and am appalled to admit that I’ve been wanting to visit Lesnes Abbey since I moved to Thamesmead in 2007. I suck.

    • Lol. You’ll get to it. It’s been there since the 12th century so it’s not going anywhere fast. I bet you’ve done lots of ace stuff in the area that I’ve not got to yet 🙂

  4. Terrific post! I feel much the same way when I turn right at the end of my street and go to Warrandyte. You know, I’ve never been to the berry farm there and it’s only about a 10 minute drive away! Sure, it’s not quite as exciting as popping in to Edinburgh for Hogmanay; or to Paris for a shopping spree, but you can’t have everything!

    • Ah yes, Angie, but you can pop into some of Australia’s best wineries, just down the road, and you have beaches on your doorstep that are so lovely, most Brits could not begin to imagine! Grass greener? Nuh. Just different grass 🙂

  5. LondonKiwiEmma permalink

    Love this – it’s why I began blogging, to rediscover everything on my doorstep.
    Ps. Did you make it to New Zealand?

    • Thanks Emma! Er, no, haven’t made it to New Zealand yet. I’m ashamed to say! But I will, I promise.

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