Travel Finding happiness in Britain’s most miserable town

Finding happiness in Britain’s most miserable town


- Advertisment -

Hillingdon, the long West London borough stretching from Heathrow to leafy Northwood and Harefield, including Boris Johnson’s former constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, came dead last. A bleak 218th in the entire country, behind Oldham, Greater Manchester (206th), Luton, Bedfordshire (211th), and even the infamous Slough, Berkshire (217th).

Trying to work out the happiest or “best” place to live is a curiously British pastime, and it is, almost invariably, nonsense. I should know. I grew up in South Ribble, Lancashire, which in 2017 was named by Channel 4 as the best place to live in the UK. It is a wonderful place and somewhere I’m immensely proud to be from, with beautiful countryside, delightful people, and rich history. It also has areas that suffer from deprivation, crime and underdevelopment.

All this to say, we should be careful before we deride Hillingdon as the UK’s most miserable spot. There is certainly joy to be found in the borough for those who know where to look.

Open countryside, plus the Tube

“From here in Ruislip you can walk to open countryside, all the way to Birmingham if you want to, but we’re also on the London Underground, so you can get to the centre of the capital within an hour,” enthuses retired children’s book author, Jackie Marchant, out for a walk around the lido with her husband, Andrew, and their dog, Loki.

“We’re lucky because we’re densely populated, and there’s a lot of employment, so I believe it’s one of the richest boroughs,” continues Marchant. “That money has been spent on good public services. We have some brilliant libraries here, for example.”

I came across two such libraries. Uxbridge’s is a bright, welcoming building in the centre of the high street with big windows inviting people in, while in Ruislip the library is located in a barn dating back to the 17th century, awash with colour and light.

According to the Trust for London, the unemployment and poverty rates in Hillingdon are lower than the London average. Houses are also significantly more affordable than the average (the average house price was £483,556, nearly a quarter of a million pounds cheaper than the London average, according to Rightmove.)

Marchant points me to Ruislip Woods, just behind the lido – the first national nature reserve in Greater London where woodpeckers, squirrels and badgers can be found in abundance. I’ve scarcely heard so many “good morning”s from strangers in the entire five years I’ve lived in London as I did in my ten-minute wander through the woods.

The scenic woods are the remnants of a prehistoric forest that covered much of Middlesex. Its timbers have been used in the construction of the Tower of London, Windsor Castle, and many local buildings, including Manor Farm House.

Built in 1508, for dignitaries from King’s College Cambridge, the Tudor barn, which acts as a wedding venue, and also contains displays of artefacts about the borough’s history, while the other barns on its 22-acre grounds have arts and crafts shops, as well as the aforementioned library.

There’s also the Winston Churchill Theatre, which, according to the lady who saw me looking through the windows, “has a brilliant amateur group – I saw The Wizard of Oz recently and it was great. The quality of performance was very professional,” she said proudly.

Finally, I took a short drive out of Ruislip up to Eastcote House Gardens, featuring a beautiful walled garden, and a well-attended café where every table was filled with locals enjoying bacon sandwiches and cups of piping hot tea.

Hillingdon has had plenty of royal visitors, thanks to the local air base at RAF Northolt, which the Royal family tend to depart from on tours. Legend has it that once Prince William was so desperate for chips that he bounded into a Hillingdon chippy the very second he got off the runway. Though I couldn’t ascertain which chip shop he visited, the nearby Aquarius in Ruislip has won awards from the National Federation of Fish Friers’ and offered a fine lunch.

From there it was down to the south end of the borough. Bisected by the A40, there’s no doubt that Hillingdon has its own North-South divide. In Uxbridge there is certainly room for improvement. The Chimes shopping mall is a cookie-cutter version of every medium-sized town’s equivalent. The nearby Christmas market felt particularly bleak.

Even so, the high street was bustling, even on the weekday I visited. Almost all the shops were open. The death of the high street, it seems, hasn’t come to Uxbridge quite yet.

The town is also home to the Battle of Britain Bunker, which certainly deserves a spot on a guide to London’s most underrated museums. During the Second World War, the bunker was home to the RAF’s command and, as the name suggests, it was here that the Battle of Britain was plotted out. Visitors can find a replica Spitfire hanging from the ceiling and see the technology that helped win the war.

“I’m not a big WWII nerd,” laughs Phil Appleby, who is visiting with his grandson, “but this place does pull the patriotic heartstrings.”

Further south, Hillingdon has an array of green spaces, including Harmondsworth Moor, Lake Farm Country Park and Stockley Park. In fact, the borough has 67 parks that have been awarded with a Green Flag, recognising how well managed they are.

“The canal to walk along from Uxbridge to West Drayton is a must if you want to get a bit of fresh air,” says Emily Cleary, a writer who grew up in Hillingdon.

At the bottom of Hillingdon is Heathrow airport, and because planes tend to fly in along the east-west axis, most of Hillingdon isn’t interrupted by the noise either.

Boarding the 40-minute Tube back to central London from the cavernous Uxbridge station – a monument to pre-war Brutalist architecture – I can’t help but reflect.

My first philosophical thought is that happiness is a hard thing to quantify. It ebbs and flows. Ask a man if he’s happy as he boards a commuter train on a Monday morning, he’ll give one answer. Ask him as he sits in the pub with his mates on a Friday night, he’ll give another. How can an entire borough be labelled as “unhappy”?

My second thought is that yes, Hillingdon has its difficulties and it doesn’t take a detective to spot them, but isn’t that true for many corners of the country? Over my years writing for the Telegraph, I’ve had the privilege of travelling all over the UK, visiting plenty of small towns and villages I wouldn’t have looked at twice on a map.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Latest news

- Advertisement -

Must read

Lady Gaga and Cardi B Meet at the Grammys

What was expected of her was the same thing...
- Advertisement -

You might also likeRELATED
Recommended to you