I wander the backstreets of Wimbledon and Morden, on my way to the train or underground station, going to the post office or just ambling, and am struck by the row houses.
Space is at a premium this close to London, but I’ve seen row houses in small villages where there would be room to spread. I do not see the sprawling subdivisions that are so ubiquitous in North America, where privacy seems to be the ideal.
Yet the row houses, like the English themselves, have both a public and private side. The fronts are close to the street, the yards often nothing more than a place for the rubbish and recycling bins, a few plant pots. Perhaps they are large enough to park a car.
Despite being in a row, there is no uniformity here. Perhaps the only difference may be the type of garden fence, or how well kept the house is. In other cases, the paint colours differ. Brick may have been covered with stucco, the windows changed, a skylight put in. I marvel at the renovations across the street, where a middle house is getting a new roof- but that one only. I think of the civility that must be required to be so independent while still connected.
The back gardens are where the English let their hair down, so to speak. They are fenced and private, and you do not see them unless you are invited, or peek from the raised rail bed as you go by on the train. The only uniformity here is a love of gardening, but they may be expressed by beds and greenhouses, or just a few pots on paving stones.
I see this English combination of civility and independence on the streets as well. Four lane roundabouts and two way streets barely wide enough for one car are navigated at high speed, weaving in and out, yet I have only heard a car horn once in several weeks. On the underground, crowds funnel slowly onto escalators, but no one thinks to speed things up by standing on the left side; everyone is single file on the right, leaving a clear path for those who need to sprint past.
Perhaps my impressions are coloured by where I stay and travel in this country, in the preserves of the middle class. But the English seem (Brexit aside) to do this form of cooperation without conformity very well.
I will keep that in mind as I continue my travels.