In the dreamy, poetical suburb that gave us Michael Portillo

This is aspirational London. Get out and get on. Going through Enfield, I could navigate from Tesco store to Tesco store. The newest has just been opened by the town crier, on the site of an old ABC cinema.

The low hills are crested by wave after wave of modest suburban houses. Late Victorian terraces, handy for the cheap-ticket train ride into Liverpool Street station. Then pre-war semis, handy for the bright new Art Deco stations of the Piccadilly Line. (If you have always wondered where Arnos Grove and Cockfosters are, they are in Enfield). And now the yellow-brick, garden-less apartments and town houses of the 1990s, handy for the M25.

The Great Cambridge Road, the A10, slicing through Enfield, was a milder, less showy version of the Great West Road that Priestley drove out along, at the start of his English Journey. The A10, too, was lined with radio manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies. (Its evolution is chronicled in the latest Buildings of England volume, London 4: North, published this week, Penguin, £30.) The demolition cranes moved in. You have B&Q and Safeways instead.

But this is the wrong moment for cut-price musings about the replacement of production with consumption. Of all the London boroughs, Enfield has the highest proportion of people with jobs in manufacturing.

On the eastern edge of Enfield, you see why. Here is the Lee Valley - the traditional frontier with Essex - with its row upon row of industrial estates. In one direction, the skyline is a flickering column of lorries trucking along the M25. In the other direction, the autumn leaves of Epping Forest.

Stevie Smith lived in the Enfield suburb of Palmers Green. When she eventually became famous, friends suggested she move somewhere more chic - away from "a poor man's Muswell Hill". She said: "I am not chic." Her house is now divided into two flats. A child peers out of an upper window. The privet needs cutting. A boat on its trailer is wrapped in black plastic outside the row of four garages opposite. She would have savoured all that.

Her suburb, she said, was "very dreamy and poetical and the people are very helpful in a non-interfering way - rather like the politeness of the ancient Chinese".

Round about the streets I slink

Suburbs are not so bad I think.

Just along the road is the leafy park where General Pinochet is tucked up, behind thick rhododendrons, in a private psychiatric hospital. Two bored policemen stand by the gate. Metal barriers are festooned with pink anti-Pinochet posters. But there are no actual protesters, only a news cameraman on his duty roster.

Enfield has always gone in for keeping its madness discreet. The Enfield suburb of Colney Hatch gave its name to one of the biggest Poor Law lunatic asylums. It had a thousand beds, strung out along the longest corridor in Europe. Euphemism set in. The suburb changed its name to New Southgate, to erase the taint. The asylum became "Friern Barnet"; then it was closed.

Enfield gave us hard-nosed Michael Portillo, and then soft-voiced Stephen Twigg. It also gave us the Lee Enfield rifle and the Bren gun. The Royal Small Arms factory was at Enfield Lock, on an island between the river Lee and the Lee Navigation canal. Most British soldiers in this century carried a Lee Enfield rifle. And the Bren gun? "Br" is for the Czech town of Brno, where this lightweight machine gun was first made; "en" is for Enfield, where production was shifted.

I go out, past another Tesco's, towards Enfield Lock. The works shut in 1987, when Portillo was a lowly parliamentary under- secretary for social security, the MoD only a distant aspiration.

This is Edge City, Enfield-style. A drive-thru McDonald's. A truck-driver instruction school. Chipboard makers. Magazine printers. A FedEx depot. A huge shed called The Brand Centre - open seven days a week - for discount clothes. An even bigger shed called Fashion Logistics, for trucking dresses from east London to every high street in Britain.

They are constructing a new bridge into the old works. Fairview New Homes plc is busy converting it into Enfield Island Village, "a unique community". Apartments in the converted arms factory blocks are all sold. New blocks surround them. At the pretty canal basin in the intended centre of the new village, a barge is moored with "Royal Ordnance" painted white on its sheeting.

Swans and coots cruise along the river, next to the new village. A young black couple go off from the sales office to check out an apartment with a water view. (Unfinished, a £300 deposit secures.) A terrace of arms workers' houses is called Government Row. The pub and night club is called Rifles.

It is too late for the "USA Karaoke" heats (first prize a holiday for two in Florida). But you can still put your name down for "Blast 99", the New Year's Eve rave, or for the Christmas Special Hen Night. "One for the ladies. Top strippers and compere. Basket meal. £15."

Paul Barker writes about Edge City in "Town and Country" (Jonathan Cape), edited by Anthony Barnett and Roger Scruton