Nairn’s Addiscombe: Obsession

St Mary Canning Rd #2 (2)

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years. 

Who would have thought that Addiscombe – modest, unpretentious Addiscombe – would contain a church as wonderfully weird as St. Mary Magdalene and St. Martin? (Which, for brevity, I will refer to simply as St. Mary Magdalene). But it does, and it attracted Ian Nairn’s attention back in the 1960s.

The architect was Edward Buckton Lamb, who in the 1850s and 1860s designed three eccentric neo-Gothic churches: Christ Church, West Hartlepool in 1854; St. Martin, Gospel Oak in 1865 (shown here);

St Martin Gospel Oak

and the Addiscombe church in 1868. All were commissioned by unconventional clients: at Christ Church, the West Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company; at Gospel Oak, a wealthy evangelical philanthropist. But Addiscombe was the most unusual of the lot: here, the guiding spirit was the Reverend Maxwell Macluff Ben Oliel.

Ben Oliel was a fascinating figure, a Jewish convert to Christianity who embraced  Anglicanism, landed the post of curate at a church in Croydon, built up a personal following with his dazzling preaching, and in 1866 led his followers out of the Church of England to found their own independent evangelical congregation. The church in Canning Road was the result: Lamb was engaged to design it, and the money came from Ben Oliel’s wealthy brother-in-law. While this independent congregation survived, the church was named for St. Paul, but before long Ben Oliel had fallen out with his own followers. After the inevitable period of mutual recrimination during which the building stood empty, he sold it to the Church of England which promptly consecrated it as the Anglican church of St. Mary Magdalene.

Given his record of building deviant churches for unusual clients, Lamb has acquired a reputation as a “rogue architect”. In fact, much of his work, and many of his clients, were entirely conventional. But his three churches, and above all the Addiscombe church, are proof that although he knew how to play the respectable architectural game, he also had a gleeful hankering to ignore its rules and do his own thing.

The eccentricity of the Addiscombe church derives from two of Lamb’s great architectural obsessions: roofs, and timber. These obsessions figure at West Hartlepool and Gospel Oak, but it was at Addiscombe, which he completed just one year before his death, that he pushed them to the limit.

St Mary Canning Rd #5

In Nairn’s London in 1966, Ian Nairn had this to say:

“… (Lamb) was obsessed with a huge timber roof … what he was after was a colossal cruck construction with no walls at all … in the transepts there is open war … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #3 (2)

Given that Nairn celebrated architectural boldness, and delighted in seeing rules successfully broken, I interpret terms like “obsession” and “open war” to signify praise, not horror.

And yet, just four years earlier, St. Mary Magdalene had been described in rather different terms:

“ … this east front … cannot be sufficient preparation for the nightmarish interior, a debauch of High Victorian inventiveness … purposefully composed cacophony … ruthless individualism … “.

St Mary Canning Rd #1 (2)

This is from the 1962 Surrey volume in The Buildings of England series, written jointly by Nikolaus Pevsner and … Ian Nairn. In the ‘Foreword’ Pevsner briefly summarises their division of labour, but without clarifying which of them would have visited St. Mary Magdalene. However, judging from the language, I think it must have been Nairn. Pevsner’s entries are clipped and constrained, sometimes little more than lists of architectural features, whereas Nairn always seeks to convey an overall impression, his language expansive and florid. Phrases like “nightmarish interior” and “debauch” are definitely Nairnian rather than Pevsnerite. But, unlike the 1966 commentary, they  hardly sound like praise.

It looks as if Nairn changed his mind about St. Mary Magdalene between 1962 and 1966, and shed his earlier nightmarish vision. If so, then he was right to do so. I’m backing 1966 Nairn against 1962 Nairn. I think St. Mary Magdalene is just great.

As 1966 Nairn says, there is a certain restraint in the relation of stone to wood at the west end, and in the apse at the east end.

St Mary Canning Rd #7 (2)

But it all breaks loose across the nave and transepts where there is a glorious chaos of timberwork, magnificently gloomy, overwhelming, great beams leaping from far down near the floor to far up in the high roof, crossing and clashing with each other. But it is chaos with a purpose, because its effect in daytime is to draw the eye through the dark web of timbers to the lantern, a single, high, concentrated source of light poised above the centre of the church. As 1966 Nairn says:

“ … the timber lantern, the real centre of the church, looks down, unwinking, on it all … ”

St Mary Canning Rd #6 (2)

This focus on a high, central point was a Lamb trademark, represented at West Hartlepool too by the lantern, and at Gospel Oak by the crossing. Whether Lamb intended this as an aesthetic effect, or whether it had some spiritual significance for him, I cannot say. But at the magnificently eccentric St. Mary Magdalene in Addiscombe, it’s rather wonderful.

 

Advertisements

Nairn’s Waterloo Bridge: Effortless

Waterloo Bridge #5

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn described Waterloo Bridge as:

“One of those structures which make the whole complicated process of designing look absurdly easy. It is effortless, making its small slam without a qualm …”

The bridge is now well into its seventies, but still it retains that appearance of elegant ‘effortlessness’. And yet, as Nairn implied, appearances can be deceiving.

Waterloo Bridge #2

The first bridge

The bridge we know is the second at Waterloo. The first was designed by one of the industrial revolution’s great engineers, John Rennie. When work began in 1811 its intended name was ‘Strand Bridge’, but by the time it was finished in 1817 Napoleon had fallen and the bridge was re-named to commemorate his world-historic defeat at Waterloo. We now refer vaguely to this whole area of riverside South London as ‘Waterloo’ and assume – wrongly – that the name derives from the railway station. But Rennie’s Waterloo Bridge pre-dated the station by more than 30 years.

Rennie’s bridge was a handsome classical affair with nine arches and Greek Doric columns on the piers, and was well-known to thousands of soldiers in the Great War, a century later, as they milled around the station, off to the front or back on leave. And not coincidentally, throughout the War, Waterloo was one of London’s most notorious red-light districts. Most business was done on Waterloo Road itself, but it spilled out in all directions, including the bridge. One of the soldiers who passed through was Robert E. Sherwood, an American, passionately pro-British, who hadn’t waited until his own country entered the War but instead had crossed the border and came to fight with a Canadian regiment.

Sherwood survived, and returned to the USA and a career as a writer and playwright. By the late 1920s he was highly successful, a name on Broadway and attracting attention in Hollywood. And one of his plays, made into a feature film not once but twice, was Waterloo Bridge. It deals with a romance between Roy, a soldier, and Myra, a prostitute. It was based on a brief, real-life encounter in Trafalgar Square, but when Sherwood came to write his play he re-located it to Waterloo Bridge, using its reputation to signal his theme. The two film versions were James Whale’s 1931 film with Mae Clarke, Douglass Montgomery aka Kent Douglass, and, in a cameo role, a very young Bette Davis; and Mervyn LeRoy’s 1940 version starring Vivien Leigh and Robert Taylor. LeRoy’s 1940 version is better known: Leigh came to it fresh from her triumph in Gone With The Wind, and it was a box office hit. But Whale’s 1931 version is the better film, more honest about Myra’s work as a prostitute, and more sensitive in its handling of sexual morality, personal integrity and class privilege.

Rennie’s bridge was declared unsafe in 1923. A ‘temporary’ iron bridge was erected (and was still there almost 20 years later) while rival proposals for a new bridge were endlessly debated by Parliament, press, and the London County Council. The design that we see today was finally agreed in October 1934, to be built by construction company Rendell Palmer & Tritton, which had just successfully built the new Chelsea Bridge; and architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, who had just successfully designed Battersea Power Station.

Design

When Nairn referred to the bridge’s “effortless” appearance, the point he was making was that appearances are misleading, that design is always difficult and intricate. But why and how does Waterloo Bridge appear to be ‘effortless’ in the first place?

Waterloo Bridge #3

The key, I think, is the horizontality of the bridge’s design. Its five elegantly shallow arches, and plain facing of light Portland stone, and low parapet, and elongated hand-rails, and the absence of visibly-vertical features or obstructions, all combine to create the impression of a cool and confident horizontal leap across the river; the sort of leap we associate with an arched bridge.

Waterloo Bridge #4

But despite appearances, Waterloo is not an arched bridge. It is a box-girder bridge. Behind the appearance of five elegant arches the real work is being done by reinforced concrete box-girders, cantilevered on the piers, relying on the sheer brute strength of their material: high quality concrete, and thousands of reinforcing steel bars held together by 1.5 million welds. The effortless-looking arches are, as Pevsner says, “disguise”. None of this makes Waterloo Bridge any less elegant in appearance. And yet, absurdly perhaps, I find it disappointing. The effortless simplicity of the form is so striking that we want it – or at least I want it – to be matched by a similar effortless simplicity of function. But it isn’t.

Construction

When construction began in 1937, it was carried out by thousands of regular building workers – men, of course. When war broke out in 1939 labour shortages started to appear, here as elsewhere, as men joined the forces. The new bridge might, in principle, have been abandoned or mothballed, but wartime had transformed it into a strategic priority, a key river-crossing. In other priority sectors – agriculture, munitions – labour shortages were met by drafting in women workers. Did the same happen at Waterloo Bridge?

Waterloo Bridge #1

There is a longstanding conviction in London that it did. For years the bridge has been known, to some at least, as ‘The Ladies’ Bridge’ in memory of the women workers who were said to have helped build it. Until recently there was no hard evidence to back this up, but now there is. Historian Christine Hall has found witnesses and photographs which confirm it, and film-maker Karen Livesey has made a short film about it: you can watch it online at http://www.theladiesbridge.co.uk/. The Women’s Engineering Society is also on the case: more info at http://www.wes.org.uk/content/ladies-bridge

A majestic colonnade

Waterloo Bridge’s clean, elegant, apparently ‘effortless’ leap across the Thames is therefore deceptive. Behind it lies a hard-working, muscular feat of engineering; plus complex histories and memories of this bridge, and of its predecessor.

I have indulged in a certain disappointment that the ‘effortlessness’ of the bridge’s form is not matched by a similar ‘effortlessness’ of function. But this is of course entirely naïve, because if all that hard work were not being done behind the elegant façade, there would be no bridge, and therefore no façade to beguile us with its elegance. Nairn was right: the point about Waterloo Bridge is that it looks effortless, but isn’t.

The bridge opened to traffic in August 1942, amid much excitement. The local press reported that the first person to cross was 16-year old Leonard Mitchell from Balham, on his bike. It’s clear that the opening fuelled a real sense of London pride, partly because the job had been done during and despite the worst of the Blitz, and partly because it was just so handsome.

One feature in particular caught the attention – a feature which is only possible because the arches are essentially cosmetic. The Builder (14 August 1942) described it like this:

“An unusual effect results from the employment of twin piers and arches … enabling a view to be obtained underneath the bridge along its entire length”.

Nairn was just as enthusiastic, twenty years later:

“ … the arches don’t run the full width of the bridge; there is a deep channel between them, which gives a breath-taking view from directly underneath … looking down what seems to be a majestic colonnade”.

This majestic view is still there for us today, just outside the entrance to the National Film Theatre, next to the second hand book-stalls.

Waterloo Bridge #5

 

Nairn’s Streatham – English Rundbogenstil

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Christchurch #3 (2)

 When Ian Nairn admired Christchurch, Streatham, back in the 1960s, it was as we see it today: handsome, striking, refusing to be discomfited by the endless flood of traffic on the South Circular Road. Nairn was effusive in his praise: he found the church:

“ … noble strong and sensitive … unselfconscious style … incredibly delicate and completely original”.

And he was right.

Christchurch was designed by John Wild at the age of just 28, and completed in 1842. Nairn accuses Wild of allowing his talent to “curdle” after this job, which is a bit unfair: he went on to supervise the architectural section of the 1851 Great Exhibition, and then to teach. But in terms of his surviving works, it’s true that Christchurch is his greatest achievement.

Christchurch #7 (2)

Its design has been variously described as Italian (it has been called both Italian Romanesque and, bizarrely, Italian Gothic); German (Pevsner regarded it as English Rundbogenstil, of which more below), and Byzantine.

Let’s start by agreeing that Christchurch is not, by any stretch of the imagination, Gothic. It doesn’t have a Gothic brick in its body. In Nairn’s view, its significance lies precisely in its un-Gothic character:

“This is how nineteenth century church architecture could have gone if Pugin had not dashed in with his inspired lunacy”.

The lunacy in question was, of course, Pugin’s frantic advocacy of all things Gothic, and Nairn’s comment has a ring of truth. But it still invites us to celebrate Christchurch for being not-Gothic, rather than for being what it is. Which brings us back to the question: what, architecturally, is it?

Let’s break it down. The main body is a basilica: rectangular, aisled, with an apse at the eastern end.

Christchurch #4

The building material is brick – London stock mostly – not stone. The windows, both along the aisles and in the celestory, are round-arched.

Christchurch #5 (2)

All these features refer to Romanesque and Byzantine variations on the classical tradition.

And yet: Wild himself described his cornices as “Egyptian”, and there is also perhaps something “Egyptian” about the two brick obelisks outside the main west door.

Christchurch #6

On the other hand, his use of alternating red and yellow bricks in the window arches (voussoirs) is a lovely detail which is all his own.

Then there is the tower, the campanile, the single most powerful feature of the whole composition, the feature which draws the eye.

Christchurch #3 (2)

But the tower is neither Romanesque (too slim, too elegant) nor Byzantine (Byzantine churches prefer ballooning bulk to towers, they crouch but do not spring). In its placing – not central at the west end as English tradition would suggest, but asymmetrical at the south-east corner – the tower is rather Italian. But in its structure, in its clean brick height, it anticipates modernism. It was designed in 1840, but the vertical simplicity of its pilaster strips seems almost to belong to the 1920s or ‘30s.

What then should we call a church which is a bit Romanesque, a bit Byzantine, a bit Egyptian, a bit Italian, a bit modern, and yet whole and integrated and comfortable in itself? We should call it Rundbogenstil. The term is commonly associated with Pevsner, but he didn’t invent it, he merely introduced it from his native Germany, where it was coined in the nineteenth century. It refers collectively to those European styles which favour the round arch over the Gothic pointed arch: Rundbogenstil simply means ‘round-arch style’.

Christchurch #7 (2)

This notion of eclectic round-arch design was important in Germany from the 1820s, and insofar as Wild was subject to any single influence at Christchurch, this was surely it. But, despite the clean clarity of his essay in English Rundbogenstil, it remained a one-off. The future lay with Pugin and his aesthetic-theological campaign for a revival of the Gothic.

Christchurch #6 (2)

Finally: if you approach Christchurch from the South Circular/Streatham Hill junction, you cannot fail to see the prominent six-pointed star, the Star of David, above the west door. We in 2017 may wonder what this symbol, resonant today of the state of Israel and of Zionism, is doing on an Anglican church. But back in the 1840s, the six-pointed star was treated as a venerable religious symbol not just by Jews, but also by Christians and Muslims. It appeared over many centuries in Christian churches, especially Orthodox churches. At Christchurch, like the basilica with its round-arched windows, it would have been intended to hark back to the early church, to conjure up a sense of Christian antiquity. The fact that its meaning has shifted since then is a sobering reminder of our interesting times.

 

The Roman road to Brighton: South of Croydon

Brighton Rd - Riddlesdown road

My previous post interrogated the route of the Roman road from London to Brighton as it heads north from Streatham. This time we are looking at the same road as it heads south from Croydon.

From Streatham Hill down to Broad Green the A23 follows the route of the Roman road. Beyond that point, it has two options: a high way along the line of North End and Croydon High Street leading to the modern Brighton Road; or a low way down Handcroft Road to Old Town and Croydon Minster.

In favour of the North End/High Street route is the fact that it stays on higher ground, away from the River Wandle. And there is a cluster of Roman burials in the High Street/George Street/Park Street area, vaguely reminiscent of the roadside ‘cemetery zones’ outside Londinium: if the Romans were happy to bury their dead alongside Ermine Street, maybe they did the same alongside Croydon High Street.

As for the other route, Handcroft Road’s descent towards the Wandle seems to count

Brighton Rd - Handcroft Rd

against it, because in general Roman road-builders sought firm dry ground. But the Wandle at this point is close to its spring, and hardly a formidable obstacle. It’s even possible that the spring provided a religious or ritual attraction. Certainly this area was settled: it was part of Roman Croydon (occupation sites have been found at Rectory Grove and Old Town) and later on it was the centre of Saxon Croydon and a major ecclesiastical estate.

Brighton Rd - Croydon Minster (2)

Manning & Bray, in their 1809 History of Surrey, reported a local tradition of the Roman road passing through Old Town; and Ivan D. Margary, twentieth century Roman-road-hunter extraordinaire, agreed.

Between Croydon and Caterham, Margary admits that “ … we can only trace the probable course … for it is represented almost throughout by existing suburban streets which have covered all traces of ancient work”. Nevertheless his suggested route is rather compelling, consisting of a series of terrace-ways along the hillsides, avoiding the damp valley bottoms. Much of this route is not only walkable, but enjoyably walkable, and certainly not confined to suburban streets.

So: from Croydon Minster and Old Town, if you go up Duppas Hill and through the underpass, you will come out near the northern end of Violet Lane.

Brighton Rd - Violet Lane 3

This is a residential road about half a mile long, and is the surviving fragment of the original Violet Lane which ran for two miles to Russell Hill above Purley. Margary suggested that it may represent a survival of the Roman road. It’s clearly visible on John Rocque’s 1768 map as the track heading south-south-west out of Croydon, brushing the western edge of Haling Park.

Rocque Croydon (3)

Rocque’s map also shows it meeting another road at a Y-junction: this other road used to be called Coldharbour Lane, and is now the Purley Way.

Walk on down Violet Lane as it is today, follow it round to the junction with Waddon Way, and turn left. You are now facing Purley Way playing fields stretching away into the distance.

The original Violet Lane, and (if Margary’s hunch was correct) the Roman road, run underneath the football pitches. Assuming nobody is in the middle of a game, if you head south-south-west across the playing fields, aiming to hit Purley Way in the far corner somewhere near the reservoir, you’ll be roughly on the right line.

A short way beyond the Violet Lane/Purley Way junction, the Roman road would have swung round south and east to head downhill into Purley. We don’t know its precise line: maybe it is represented by the sole surviving scrap of Coldharbour Lane, a bridle path which runs down Russell Hill.

Brighton Rd - Coldharbour Lane

But whichever way it came down the hill, the Roman road would then have crossed the line of today’s Brighton Road, to head south-east along the line of today’s Godstone Road.

You are now down on the valley floor, but not for long. After about a third of a mile you will reach Downs Court Road, climbing up the valley’s eastern flank towards Riddlesdown. Margary suggested that this may have been the way taken by the Roman road, and there is general agreement that Riddlesdown’s main north-south track represents the Roman route.

Brighton Rd - Riddlesdown road

After a mile or more you reach a bridge over a railway line. Here, the modern track heads down to the valley bottom, but this does not represent the Roman route which would have stayed higher up on the hillside. In fact the railway line may give a fair idea of the course of the Roman road for the next mile and a half – so long as we remember that the railway runs low down in its cutting, while the Roman road would have been higher up on a hillside which no longer exists, having been excavated away to accommodate that same cutting.

Brighton Rd - Riddlesdown railway

Further on, where the railway line swings away towards Woldingham, Margary thought that Court Bush Road may lie along the Roman route.

Just as it was obliged to come down to the valley floor at Purley before shifting to the south-east and climbing up again onto Riddlesdown, here again the Roman road comes down in the vicinity of Wapses Lodge Roundabout before turning south, and climbing up Tillingdown Hill, and on towards Godstone.

Brighton Rd - Tillingdown Hill

We are now well outside London – we crossed the Surrey county boundary back in Whyteleafe –so maybe it’s time to call it a day. Caterham town centre is close by, offering coffee and cakes, and trains back to South London, home and glory.

Brighton Rd - Croydon map (2)

 

The Roman Road to Brighton: North of Streatham

 

Brighton Rd - Rocque (4)

The Roman road from London to Brighton – or to be more precise, to Pyecombe or Portslade outside Brighton – was an industrial road like the Lewes Way, as opposed to a military highway like Stane Street or Watling Street. It linked London to the rich farmland of the South Downs. And like many Roman roads, it followed straight alignments where possible, but adjusted to local conditions where necessary. This is an important point to remember as we chart its route through South London.

Firstly, let’s deal with the straightforward bit. Since the 1930s, it’s been widely accepted that the modern A23 between Streatham and Croydon follows the line of the Roman road. Ivan D. Margary, doyen of Roman road scholars, put the evidence together. He pointed to reliable eighteenth century antiquarian reports of Roman paving visible at Broad Green on the northern edge of Croydon; to nineteenth century builders who found Roman material at various sites close to the road in Streatham; and to twentieth century Post Office engineers (remember them?) who reported regular encounters with ancient hard-packed gravel along the line of the modern road. He also pointed to the straightness of the modern road, apart from a wiggle just north of Norbury Station to accommodate the crossing of Norbury Brook.

Margary fails to mention the more significant shift in direction, from NNW to NNE, at St. Leonard’s Church in Streatham. But here the presence of the church may itself signify that we are still on the Roman route. There is a pattern of medieval churches being located at junctions, turning points and river crossings on Roman roads. The present St. Leonard’s is fourteenth century, and may well be on the site of an early medieval chapel recorded in the Domesday Book. And further north on the A23 a 1967 excavation found signs of a Roman road at the top of Telford Avenue, opposite the bus station on Streatham Hill.

So Margary was right. For something over four miles, from Broad Green in the south to Streatham Hill in the north, the modern road follows the line of the Roman road.

The question is: where did it go next, north of Streatham?

Margary argues that it stuck with the modern road down Brixton Hill, along Brixton Road, to meet Stane Street opposite the Oval, at Kennington Park. In support of this he points out that Brixton Hill used to be called Brixton Causeway. He says this is “most suggestive”, since ‘causeway’ means a paved or pebbled road. But ‘causeway’ also implies a raised track over wet or marshy ground – which brings us to the River Effra.

People argue about the upper parts of the River Effra, but it’s an established fact that once it hit Brixton, it ran along the line of Brixton Road up to Kennington. It is clearly shown on Rocque’s map of 1746

Brighton Rd - Rocque Effra (2)

where it is called not the Effra but ‘The Shore’. At Kennington it turns west to enter the Thames near Vauxhall Bridge.

 

Because of the Effra, Brixton Road was notorious for being water-logged: it used to be known as the ‘Wash Way’, and it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the river was contained within the new network of sewers. If the area around Brixton Road was water-logged as recently as the nineteenth century, it is likely to have been even wetter in Roman times, because the climate generally was wetter.

Roman road engineers hated wet, boggy, marshy places, and took drastic steps to avoid them. For instance: they built Stane Street along a lovely straight alignment down Kennington Road and Clapham Road – but they cheerfully abandoned that alignment in order to stay on dry ground at Newington Causeway, and then again at Clapham Rise. So: if we imagine Roman engineers standing at the top of Streatham Hill, looking north, arguing about the best way to link up with Stane Street and reach Londinium, we would expect them to choose the driest option.

The driest option was not Margary’s route, by Brixton Hill,  Brixton Road and the River Effra. The driest option was along the line now followed by Lyham Road and Bedford Road, heading down to connect with Stane Street at Clapham North tube station.

Brighton Rd - map

This would avoid the Effra entirely, while keeping to the east of another boggy area which Stane Street avoided by veering to the west at Clapham Rise. This Lyham-Bedford line has a long and continuous history in the landscape. A thirteenth century charter confirms it as the boundary between Clapham and Lambeth manors, and Michael Green suggests in Historic Clapham that it may have been a property boundary as far back as the seventh, eighth or ninth centuries. The connection between Roman roads and medieval property boundaries is well-known: Margary himself makes frequent use of it. The Lyham-Bedford line also served continuously as a road or track, and appears in Rocque’s map as ‘The Back Road’, which meets Stane Street at ‘Babilon’.

Brighton Rd - Rocque (3)

For all these reasons, it seems to me that the Lyham-Bedford route makes more sense than the Brixton Road route. Of course, I may be wrong. Someone, at some point, did run a road down Brixton Hill, River Effra notwithstanding, and that someone may have been the Romans. The old name ‘Brixton Causeway’ does suggest a paved or pebbled road, whose builders may have been the Romans. And there is no direct archaeological evidence for the Lyham-Bedford route, any more than for the Brixton Road route.

All I’m saying is that it would surely have been peculiarly perverse for pragmatic Roman engineers to run a road into a river, and condemn it to regular flooding, when they had a drier alternative.

Nairn’s Loughborough Junction: Promise and Perform

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

 

Loughborough #4

Ian Nairn’s 1966 comments on Loughborough Junction are ambivalent. He liked the area’s visual drama, railway bridges in all directions, but couldn’t quite bring himself to praise it:

“No performance, so far, but tremendous promise”.

But he didn’t like the Loughborough Estate:

“ … all artificial relationship … an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place”.

Hmm.

First things first. Why “Loughborough”? What has a midlands town to do with this patch of South London? It’s all down to Henry Hastings, seventeenth century aristocrat, incorrigible Royalist, ennobled as First Baron Loughborough by Charles I during the Civil War. Hastings eventually joined the younger Charles Stuart in exile, and came back with him in 1660 for the orgy of intolerance and vindictiveness generally known as the Restoration. From then until his death a few years later Hastings lived south of the river, in what was then London’s semi-rural hinterland. His home was about here:

 

Loughborough #9

in the triangle now formed by Evandale, Claribel and Akerman Roads on the edge of the Minet estate. He called it Loughborough House.

Fast forward to the mid-eighteenth century and Loughborough House was still the most significant property in the area. In Rocque’s map from the 1740s, there is a hamlet or scattering of smallholdings called Coldharbour. The road on the map which runs to Loughborough House through Coldharbour is today’s Loughborough Road; and the road on the map called Camberwell Lane is today’s Coldharbour Lane.

Loughborough #10 (3)

 

Fast forward another century and things changed utterly. Loughborough House was demolished in the 1850s, brick terraces were going up everywhere, and within a few yards of Loughborough Road several new thoroughfares – Flaxman Road, Herne Hill Road, Milkwood Road – were all emptying themselves into Coldharbour Lane.

In other words the area was already a road junction before the railways arrived. But it required the railways before it was referred to as a junction.

Although South London had some early commuter lines – London Bridge to Greenwich, London Bridge to Croydon – much of its early railway history focused on longer-distance lines to the south coast and south-west. By the 1860s, however, the commercial value of urban commuter traffic was clear, and railway companies were eager to cram South London – and the rest of metropolitan London – with new routes. The London Chatham & Dover Railway Co. (LCDR)

LCDR

already had a profitable long-distance line, and was now intent on breaking into London’s urban commuter market. In the 1860s the LCDR built an elevated north-south line, on embankments and viaducts, from Blackfriars and Elephant & Castle down to Herne Hill; and, in partnership with another company, an elevated east-west line linking London Bridge to Victoria.

At the point where these lines crossed the company built a railway station in 1864, and called it Brixton Junction. It was briefly renamed Loughborough Road in July 1872; and then Loughborough Junction from December 1872.

The visual drama of Loughborough Junction is created not just by the railway junction above, but rather by its superimposition on the road junction below: a convergence of brick and tarmac, crouched beneath a convergence of steel and concrete; a grubby confusion of urban energy, impatience in all directions and at two levels, hemmed in, compressed and intense.

Loughborough #6

Loughborough #8

Loughborough #5

 

If Nairn was cool about all this, his comment on the Loughborough Estate – “an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place” – is positively unfair. This was a London County Council project, approved in 1952, opened in 1955. The principal housing architect was Whitfield Lewis, also responsible for the famous Alton Estate in Roehampton. Roehampton, however, had a natural setting with all sorts of possibilities – rising ground, proximity to Richmond Park – which Lewis and his colleagues fully exploited. By comparison, the site at Loughborough offered nothing more than a flat patch of South London basin. Perhaps the estate’s geometry, to which Nairn objected so strongly, was an attempt precisely to create a sense of place, an identity, a quiddity, on an essentially featureless site.

If so, it was an emphatically modernist sense of place, and the Loughborough Estate wears its 1950s social democratic heart on its sleeve. Nine eleven-storey slab blocks, fifteen four-storey blocks, one six-storey block. Acres of reinforced concrete and glass. Sixty years on, it looks remarkably good for its age.

Loughborough #2 (2)

And let’s not forget that each flat, each maisonette, would have seemed like paradise to its first residents, after the slums and bombed-out neighbourhoods from which they came.

 

Loughborough #1

 

Nairn’s Deptford: Surrealist Sandwich

 

Deptford St Nicholas #6

 

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Deptford Town Hall

When Ian Nairn came to Deptford in the 1960s, he waxed lyrical over its town hall: “the jolliest public building in London … infectious topsy-turvy composition“. Pevsner liked it too, describing it as “one of the most florid of Edwardian public buildings”.

Deptford Town Hall #1

It no longer functions as the Town Hall – it now belongs to Goldsmiths College – but is still worth a visit. The basic form of the building is nothing special, a neo-classical box and pediment. But the completely inappropriate clock tower sticking out at the top hints at a spirit of cheerful excess which is best seen in the carved ornamentation.

I especially like these two figures above the entrance, straining to support the balcony above.

Deptford Town Hall #2

These are ‘male caryatids’. A caryatid is, strictly speaking, a draped female stone figure acting as a column or pillar – as at St. Pancras Church on Euston Road. These Deptford figures are emphatically masculine, and would probably object to being called anything as girly as a caryatid, but they’re doing (roughly) the same job, and there isn’t an equivalent male name for it, so caryatid it is. Mind you, their upper-body human masculinity is somewhat compromised by their birds’ wings, and their fishy nether regions.

The caryatids’ fishiness is part of a broader sea-going, naval theme. On the first floor, in niches between the windows, we find statues of famous admirals, including of course England’s darling, Nelson himself.

Deptford Town Hall Nelson

And above them, below the pediment, is a man-o’-war in full sail. All of which is entirely appropriate, given that Deptford Dockyard was a crucial centre of shipbuilding from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

And yet these references to the river and the Dockyard are a bit awkward, because Deptford Town Hall is nowhere near the river. In fact it isn’t really in Deptford, it’s in New Cross. But there again, perhaps this is just one more of those cheerful incongruities which Nairn found so jolly. 

St. Paul’s Church, Deptford Church Street

The majority opinion on St. Paul’s Church is that it’s a triumph: “one of the major architectural thrills of London” (Blatch); “the finest church in London south of the river” (Leonard); “one of the most moving churches in London” (Pevsner).

Deptford St Paul #1 (2)

Enter Ian Nairn, party-pooper: “forceful enough … but nothing behind it … rhetoric where there should be poetry … towering but empty … one of London’s least accommodating places”.

St. Paul was a product of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, established by Act of Parliament in the early eighteenth century in response to London’s ballooning population. The Commission didn’t get anywhere near its target of fifty churches, but it did put up quite a few, most of them designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The architect at St. Paul, however, was Thomas Archer, a member of the Commission, who also built St. John’s Smith Square, and Birmingham Cathedral.

According to Pevsner, Archer’s great achievement at St. Paul was his solution to “the eternal English west tower and west portico problem”. That is to say: the problem of how to reconcile the centuries-old English tradition of a tower at a church’s west end, with the classical tradition of a grand porch at the west end incorporating a row of columns, roof and (usually) pediment.

The most notorious failure to solve this problem is James Gibbs’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which Pevsner describes – generously I think – as “illogical and aesthetically painful”. Let’s speak plainly: St. Martin is stupid and ugly. It fails to get the tower and portico to work together, and it fails even more blatantly to get the two of them to work with the rest of the building. Tower and portico are simply bolted onto the west end of an otherwise elegant basilica in such a way as to throw the whole composition off balance, as if threatening to tip it over into Trafalgar Square. If you don’t believe me, go and have a look.

Archer avoided repeating Gibbs’s failure through two complementary moves. Where St. Martin is all straight lines and angles, he embraced curvature; and where Gibbs conceived tower and portico as separate items and then rammed them together, Archer approached tower-plus-portico as a single rounded conception, balanced by a rounded apse at the church’s east end. The result is a semi-circular porch and round tower with its own clear centre of gravity, opening into a square interior which is also balanced and centred.

Deptford St Paul #7 (2)

I’m no great enthusiast for the classical, and even less for the baroque, which tends to strike my puritan soul as simply silly. But St. Paul’s Church at Deptford is very fine. On this occasion, Nairn got it wrong.

St. Nicholas Church, Deptford Green

St. Nicholas on Deptford Green is the original parish church. However,  despite its medieval foundation, the only remaining medieval fabric at St. Nicholas is the lower part of the tower.

Deptford St Nicholas #2

The body of the church was re-built in red brick in 1697, only about twenty years before St. Paul went up. 250 years later it was all but destroyed in the Blitz. The church which we see today is an amalgam of the medieval tower, surviving seventeenth century fabric at the west end, and (shown here) a thoughtful post-war reconstruction at the east end.

Deptford St Nicholas #4

However, what caught Nairn’s attention back in the ‘60s was the accident of place which produced a bizarre encounter between early modern macabre and grim industrial modernity. On arrival, he was much taken by the stone skulls on the church-yard gates: “the sharpest memento mori in London”.

Deptford St Nicholas #5

But beyond them, hard up against the church-yard and looming over it, he found to his delight “a whopping power station”. Nairn loved the sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing, and clearly took great delight in relegating poor old St. Nicholas Church to “the filling in this surrealist sandwich”.

But the power station is no more. And it wasn’t just any old power station: it was Deptford East Power Station, on the site of the world’s first-ever station generating at high tension for long-distance transmission. Built from 1887 and operating from 1889, this original station generated power for the West End – which may not seem ‘long-distance’ to us, but was back then. There’s a class angle to this of course: the affluent residents of Mayfair and St James’s got their clean modern electricity, while the working class residents of Deptford lived with the coal and dirt and smog involved in producing it. The station grew steadily over the decades, until in the 1960s Nairn found it casting its giant shadow over St. Nicholas. The CEGB (remember them?) closed it down in 1983, just short of its centenary.

With the power station gone we can no longer share Nairn’s surreal encounter. The church survives, with its church-yard, charnel house, and endlessly grinning skulls. But where once a mighty power station stood, now we find a quiet little housing estate.

Deptford St Nicholas #3

 

Nairn’s Catford: Brutal Honesty

Nairn

 

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

When Nairn came to Catford in the mid-60s, the building that caught his eye was only two or three years old. Eros House, the Brutalist tower at the junction of Rushey Green and Brownhill Road, was designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership, and finished in 1962. Nairn loved it. Now that Brutalism is all the rage and terribly fashionable (there’s even a ‘Brutalist London Map’ retailing at around £8), it’s time for a second look.

Brutalism erupted in the 1950s as a sort of modernist rudeness, in rebellion against modernist politeness.

Modernist architecture of any kind had been rare in Britain before the War. Post-war, there was more ambition and creativity, especially in public building authorities such as the London County Council. Many of these architects and planners were on the left and saw their work, quite literally, as part of the construction of socialism. But – as Owen Hatherley has pointed out – their design inspiration came not from Moscow but from Stockholm, the showcase for a style of elegant modernist classicism which has variously been called ‘New Empiricist’ or ‘New Humanist’ or ‘Welfare State’ architecture. Stockholm Public Library exemplifies the style.

 

Stockholm (2)

 

Here in London, similar forces were at work at the Royal Festival Hall.

If the Stockholm style was uplifting and consensual, Brutalism was rude and contrary. If the Stockholm style celebrated a people united in the pursuit of a better tomorrow, Brutalism celebrated a people arguing, pushing and shoving in the here and now. But perhaps what was most astonishing about Brutalism was its Britishness. Suddenly Britain, having been sullenly behind the modernist curve for decades, was at the cutting edge of a whole new school.

Despite this, the origin of the term itself – or at least the origin-story that I like best, the one that rings most true – is French. It derives from the French béton brut meaning ‘raw concrete’, rough concrete, concrete straight from the tin, concrete to scrape your knuckles on. Brutalism expressed a sort of bleak honesty about the act of throwing up a building, a ‘truth to materials’. It didn’t have a monopoly in this regard: the Arts & Crafts movement made the same claim. What distinguishes Brutalism from Arts & Crafts is that they chose different materials to be true to.

This raw material honesty was what Nairn liked about Eros House:

“ … rough concrete put through all its paces … done from real conviction, not from a desire for self-advertisement… The gaunt honesty of those projecting concrete frames carrying boxed-out bow windows persists”.

 

Eros House #1

Fifty years on and Eros House is now the proud possessor of a Grade II listing, but I have to say that at ground level, when I visited, its pride wasn’t evident. It’s difficult to look proud with ‘To Let’ signs on your shop fronts.

Eros House #3

Looking up, the original raw concrete intent has been muted by the addition of bland off-white cladding. The projecting concrete window frames which so excited Nairn with their gaunt honesty are still evident, but (to me at least) not terribly exciting.

Eros House #4

Maybe the windows’ impact has been blunted by the cladding. Maybe I am simply unable to think myself back to a moment around 1960 when this gesture was genuinely innovative. Or maybe my sensibility is blunted by having seen too many mediocre tower blocks built since then, unimaginatively recycling the same idea.

I do however like the stair-tower.

Eros House #5

Nairn doesn’t mention the stair tower, though Pevsner (also an Eros fan) gives it a nod of approval. For me, it works by playing off glass against concrete. The fluting in the glass gives it height, and works nicely against the horizontal and pitched bands of concrete, tracking externally the staircases within – truth to materials and truth to function too. The no-nonsense porch is also good, as is the unadorned raw concrete frontage above it.

By the way – why Eros House? Why this erotically-named tower in the middle of Catford? Is something phallic going on? Not really. It turns out that Gordon’s tower was named for the Eros Cinema which was demolished to make way for it.

The Eros Cinema was the last gasp of what had been Lewisham Hippodrome, originally a 3,000-seat music-hall, which hit hard times in the 1920s and was regularly reinvented thereafter – music-hall, cinema, music-hall again, cinema again. Badly damaged in the War, it limped through the ‘50s as the Eros Cinema before the whole site – including the rival Gaumont Cinema next door – was demolished in 1959 to make way for Brutalism. I suspect that the Gaumont was Catford’s respectable cinema while the Eros was somewhat less so, but I may be doing both of them a disservice.

Eros House was only one – and not the most famous – of the Brutalist projects erected by Gordon, Luder and their partners in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They put up the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth in 1966 – voted Britain’s most hated building in 2001 by Radio 4 listeners. And they put up Derwent Tower and Trinity Square in Gateshead, just across the Tyne from Newcastle. I lived in Newcastle and worked in Gateshead in the ‘80s, and both were local landmarks. Derwent Tower, a standalone stunning high-rise block of flats stranded by a sea of low-rise housing and industry, was affectionately known as the Dunston Rocket, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Derwent Tower 2

 

Trinity Square included the all-concrete multi-storey car-park made famous by the 1971 Michael Caine film Get Carter. By the ‘80s, I think most local people regarded it as an eyesore – but at the same time they rather liked the reflected glamour of its brief film career. Glamour was a rare commodity in Gateshead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so if a multi-storey car-park was the only way to grab a bit, no-one was going to turn it down.

Tricorn Centre, Trinity Centre and Dunston Rocket were all demolished before the current nostalgia for Brutalism set in. Maybe if they’d survived they would now be vying for a listing, just like good old Eros House.

A Modest Way: South-East London’s Roman road (part 2)

Lewes road Blythe Hill 2

In the previous post I walked the first part of the Roman Way from London to Lewes, from the New Cross/Peckham area to Blythe Hill – or rather, I tracked it at a distance, because what’s special about this Roman road is its stubborn refusal to conform to modern roads or paths. But that will change, as we shall see.

The engineers who built the Lewes Way shifted its alignment fractionally to the south at Blythe Hill, aiming across Stanstead Road and Catford Hill for a crossing point on the River Pool. Rather wonderfully, that crossing point is still in use 2,000 years later. The modern bridge is at exactly the same place, in the River Pool Linear Park.

Lewes Road Pool River bridge 2

In the 1930s our intrepid archaeologists, Davis and Margary, revealed the line of the Way here on the eastern bank of the river

Lewes Road Pool River bridge 1

where it cuts diagonally from right to left to cross the railway line and head into Bellingham.

Here its course runs through houses and gardens as it heads south-south-east towards Beckenham, but we can still identify certain marker points. For instance, this is where it crosses Stumps Hill Lane

Lewes Road Stump Hill 1

before continuing over Southend Road, and hitting the old London Chatham and Dover railway line a couple of hundred yards’ east of Beckenham Junction Station.

Lewes Road Beckenham Junction

From here the Way tracks the course of the River Beck, before cutting across the south-east corner of Kelsey Park, conveniently close to the café where I reckon I had earned the right to a refreshing cuppa.

Lewes Road Kelsey Park

I was now deep in leafy suburbia, and the next marker point was St. Dunstan’s Lane which wanders quietly through a landscape of sports grounds and playing fields and golf. Just where the Lane turns from a south-westerly to a near-southerly direction, the Lewes Way comes through, still on its south-south-east trajectory.

Lewes Road St Dunstan's Lane 1

It ploughs straight through the golf course – no bad thing in my opinion – to cross the Charing Cross to Hayes railway line almost exactly at West Wickham Station.

Lewes Road West Wickham station

The next marker point was Sparrow’s Den, at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill, south of West Wickham, where the road cuts across the playing field. Here we are close to a Roman settlement just across the road, near St. John the Baptist church.

Lewes Road Sparrows Den

This is one of many sites in South London to be nominated as the ‘lost city’ of Noviomagus, which lay somewhere on an imperially-endorsed route from London to Rochester. Clearly there was a Roman settlement here – excavations prove that. But as I’ve argued at length in a previous post, the notion that West Wickham is Noviomagus makes no sense. Who would travel from London to Rochester via West Wickham?

The course of the Way meanwhile carries on, south-south-east, across the fields, gradually approaching the New Addington estate. And here at last, after all those miles of hiding in suburban gardens and scuttling across railway lines, the Lewes Way deigns to correspond to a modern way in the modern landscape.

From Addington Road I took a foot-path which climbs south-east through Birch Wood towards Castlehill Ruffs. It was not marked on the OS map as a public right of way, but neither was it marked on the ground as private or with warnings against trespass. It is  clearly regularly used as an informal way up to the New Addington estate. After a bit less than a mile the path crossed a rough vehicle track, and I turned left for a couple of hundred yards along this track towards an electricity sub-station. Just before the sub-station I turned right again onto a new foot-path heading south-south-east through Rowdown Wood.

I was now, finally, walking the line of the Lewes Way, the first time I had been able to do so since leaving Watling Street.

Lewes Road New Addington path 2

The path continued through the woods, not arrow-straight by any means but not deviating wildly either, edging closer to New Addington’s eastern border. It hit this border right at its most unattractive point, next to the industrial zone. Suddenly, what had been a pleasant enough woodland walk became a grim urban edgeland slog, pinned between an ageing concrete fence to the right, and shabby undergrowth to the left, littered and scattered with rubbish and debris of all kinds.

Lewes Road New Addington path 4 (2)

This grubby scramble didn’t last for ever. Once it got beyond the industrial area and backed onto housing, the path became more pleasant. And even when it was at its worst I tried to remind myself that I was walking the line not of a pristine Roman military highway, but of a working industrial road whose job was to link the manufacturing zone of the Weald with markets and barracks in Londinium. So maybe the waste scattered along the path was fitting, a grim nod of recognition from one industrial era to another, expressed in refuse.

This grubby scramble is also, by the way, the line of the modern borough boundary between Croydon and Bromley, which follows the much older county boundary between Surrey and Kent. And this in turn suggests that the course of the Lewes Way across this particular landscape was very clear in early medieval times, offering itself as a ready-made marker just when these two English counties were defining themselves and acquiring firm borders.

The path finally emerges on the southern edge of New Addington, a few yards from Fairchild School, and opposite a Bromley Borough post to confirm that we are indeed right on the old county boundary.

Lewes Road Bromley boundary

That’s as far as I intend to follow the Lewes Way. If you fancy carrying on, I suggest you try to get hold of a copy of Margary’s 1948 classic Roman Ways in the Weald.

margary-roman-ways-weald

It is of course out of print, but there were copies available through abebooks.co.uk last time I looked, and if that doesn’t work, we still – just about – have libraries. Of course Margary was at work many decades ago, and his arguments have sometimes been superseded by more recent scholarship. But for me, none of this alters the fact that the book itself is a sheer delight, and with a bit of interpretation to make allowance for seventy years of suburban growth, its brilliant maps are still surprisingly useable.

A Modest Way: South-East London’s Roman road (part 1)

Lewes road Blythe Hill 1

Most of South London’s Roman roads coincide, roughly or in part, with modern roads: Watling Street with the A2; Stane Street with the A3; the Brighton road with the A23. But there is one Roman road which is positively modest, self-deprecating, leaving no visible mark on the modern townscape, remembered by no modern highway. This is the London to Lewes Way which cuts through South-East London, from Peckham through Nunhead and Brockley and Beckenham and West Wickham, and onwards to the south.

Lewes road map

One practical result of its modesty is that for a walker, following this route on foot is a far more pleasant experience than following the others. Rather than a charmless tramp along busy main roads infested with exhaust fumes and bad temper, the Lewes Way offers quiet streets, footpaths and parks.

This was not a military highway but a working road, connecting Roman Londinium with the industrial zone in the Weald: charcoal-burners and iron-works. But this doesn’t mean that it was a cart-track, or that it took shape in a casual manner. It was constructed by professional engineers, along straight alignments where possible, using high ground as a vantage point to alter those alignments where necessary. At Blythe Hill for instance, the alignment shifts from a south-easterly to a more southerly direction.

Blythe Hill also serves as a break-point in my own walk along the Lewes Way as it progresses through South-East London. This post records the first stretch from Peckham. The next will carry on from Blythe Hill to the south.

The Lewes Way heads north to south, and its starting point is its junction with Watling Street, the Roman road to Kent, which goes west to east.

In broad terms it makes sense to think of the Old Kent Road or A2 as the successor to Roman Watling Street, but only in broad terms, because the Old Kent Road does not follow the line of the Roman road. In this part of London, the line of the Roman road is about 260 or 270 yards to the south of the Old Kent Road. Consequently its junction with the Lewes Way is not on the A2, but in a residential street running off it.

The junction is, in fact, somewhere around here:

Lewes road Asylum Road

This is Asylum Road, named after the very large and impressive almshouses built by the Licensed Victuallers Association in the 1820s/30s. (As reported in a previous post, at one point Penge’s Watermen’s Almshouses were going to be located here as well, and were only re-routed to Penge after a timely intervention by a wealthy local resident).

The view above is looking north-east, so we must imagine Watling Street cutting across in front of us to meet the Lewes Way behind the houses, with the Way itself setting off to the south-east, to our right.

It would be nice if the route of the Lewes Way ran neatly down the middle of Asylum Road, but it doesn’t. Instead, it runs through the back-gardens of the houses on its east side, and for much of its passage through South-East London it is equally self-effacing. It rarely coincides directly with a modern road or path. The best way to follow it, therefore, is to identify a few ‘marker points’ where we know that we are on its track.

For instance, after running down behind Asylum Road, the Lewes Way crosses Queens Road about here, at the junction with York Grove, a few yards east of Queens Road Peckham station:

Lewes road York Grove

It then cuts uphill to the east of Nunhead Station, to run through some more back gardens, this time behind the houses on the east side of Ivydale Road:

Lewes road Ivydale Road

The line of the Lewes Way runs eerily parallel to the line of the northern section of Ivydale Road, and this was noticed by the archaeologists – messrs. Davis and Margary – who first established its route in the 1930s. Some Roman routes are ‘remembered’ by parish or county boundaries, but this is not the case with Ivydale Road. Instead, the line of the Lewes Way may have been ‘remembered’ as a property boundary, carried down through the centuries as the plot of land was bequeathed and sold on, until eventually a commercial builder acquired it and unwittingly reproduced the old Roman line in the form of a nice new residential street.

Our next ‘marker point’ is the footbridge which crosses the railway line just east of Camberwell Cemetery, between Brockley Way and Eddystone Road:

Lewes road Brockley bridge

A bit of imagination is required here. The cutting through which the railway now runs was first made for the Croydon Canal in the early nineteenth century. When the Canal Company went bankrupt in the 1830s, the canal was drained and a railway was run along its bed. But this is all recent history compared to the age of the Roman road which we are trying to follow. We must try to forget the cutting, the canal, the railway, and the footbridge, and imagine this site as an unblemished woodland ridge. From Queens Road onwards the Lewes Way has been coming up a gentle slope, and this site marks its top. From here, the Way heads downhill towards Brockley Rise, running straight through the middle of St Hilda’s Church:

Lewes road St Hilda's Church

From St Hilda’s it ploughs on, up the hill on the other side of Brockley Rise, heading for the top of Blythe Hill. From here we can look back along the line of the Lewes Way, with St Hilda’s in the foreground, and the glass towers of the City beyond:

Lewes road Blythe Hill 1

And if we turn around to the south we can see where our modest way will take us next time, guided of course by the new alignment prescribed by the Roman engineers when they stood here two thousand years ago:

Lewes road Blythe Hill 2

Next time: Beckenham and beyond.

Main sources for this post:

Bernard F. Davis, ‘The Roman Road from West Wickham to London’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. XLIII, 1935.

Ivan D. Margary, Roman Ways in the Weald, Phoenix House, London, 1948.