Nairn’s London starts with The City, follows it up with Westminster and the West End, then works its way out. A bit contrary, perhaps, to start with one of the very last entries in the book, but I was sent to Enfield for training today and given an hour for lunch. The day return to Enfield Chase is an eye-watering £7.60, so chronology be damned.
Enfield was new to me. I know that as Seven Sisters bleeds into Tottenham the area gets shabbier and shabbier, and I have experienced small boys lobbing bricks at the Stansted Express around Enfield Lock, so in my head the area was a mix of West Croydon and Novosibirsk. I could scarcely have been more wrong.
Parks and greens abound. In parts, it’s so pretty it verges on twee. To Nairn, Enfield “feels like a country town, and not a country town close to London”.
We begin on the traffic-heavy High Street, nothing special in itself. A few charity shops, a smart-looking Polski Sklep, a Tottenham Hotspur store. The one shop unit that does Apple Store swish is of course an estate agent. They are at least doing right by the red phone boxes.
At the Enfield Town end of the High Street is a market that boasts of its “700 year” heritage, but the gluten-free farmers and kangaroo burgers have yet to reach EN2; it’s all cheap toys and whelk stalls (usually a sign of that rarest of species, a native Londoner). The eye is drawn to the bustle in the direction of Enfield Town station, but Nairn instead summons us to the squat, pre-Reformation church at the rear of the market, slightly reminiscent of fortress walls.
Their website tells us that ye olde fresco is a 1920s addition.
Where Nairn comes in very handy is in his instruction to eschew the High Street and wander to the rear of the church, where things get interesting.
When cutting through Enfield, the savant’s route is clearly this alleyway which runs parallel to the High Street, “a pedestrian’s world of trees, school buildings and cosy cottages.” Smoking schoolgirls loiter, disconcertingly in thigh-high white stockings. The alley’s narrowness gives a furtive feel to the many comings and goings, and it feels oddly like a Brewer St to the Oxford St a few yards hence.
We pop out at the other end of the High Street and the beginning of Enfield Chase, dotted with churches that look like Victorians attempting medievalism. Nairn is angst-ridden at plans to put a ring road through this little gem in order to pedestrianise the high street, “To give Enfield an artificial centre, we propose to destroy the real Enfield. Blind.” Happily these plans have come to naught for once, perhaps only because people like him were so exercised by them.
Follow the wonderfully-monikered Gentleman’s Row and you find “Enfield’s West End, one of the best sequences of town houses anywhere near London.”
The houses are very pleasing but I was drawn to a stretch of the New River, a partly subterranean creation that starts somewhere in Hertfordshire and makes its way down to Stoke Newington, my workplace for the past 11 years.
This is proper Garden-of-England stuff. Gentrification has scrubbed up Stoke Newington itself a lot, but London seems very far away here. I felt like Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, half-expecting the baby moorhens to address me with a coquettish “Hi, Eddie”.
The houses towards Enfield Chase station put me in mind of one of the Sussex villages where my girlfriend’s folks sometimes take us for lunch and a drive.
There’s a marked division between Enfield Town’s pound shops and the salubrious Chase. This side could pass for central Cambridge.
Nairn gets excited by the “cantankerous country-town shape” behind the High Street, and where it finishes up. “Many tourist centres would be lucky to have as much to them as this.” Perhaps. Much as they could do worse I don’t think I’ll be directing any tourists here. I’m aware that my expectations started from a very low base, but I reckon I could live very happily in a place like this.
Although it could get slightly “Welcome to your new home, Number Six”.
As a librarian, I can’t resist taking a look at Enfield’s central library, evidently given a lot of TLC in 2010. It’s in a privileged position, at the start of the shopping street and behind a ‘Library Green’ which invites people to stop for a sit down.
The fine and original Carnegie bits are still there but banished around the corner, masked like a birthmark under foundation. The synthesis of an old building with a modern glass-and-steel extension is familiar (Clapton Library does this well, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum elevates it to the celestial). The original may have been spared demolition here, but it is treated like Mrs Rochester.
The rear suggests a substantial extension. It’s certainly a well-used library, I couldn’t find a single vacant seat on either floor. I like the sandy colour of the stone, but it feels like this slab has tried to be Mussolini-era and bottled it at the last moment.
Has the Carnegie been castrated? Perhaps it’s a question of perspective.