Nairn’s Wimbledon: High towers in parks

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #3

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.

In 1966, when Nairn’s London was published, the ‘tower block’ or ‘point block’ was an exciting architectural statement. It combined style with social mission: modernist in design, modern in materials, and progressive in its ambition to replace inadequate homes with decent ones.

Oatlands Court on the edge of Wimbledon Common was the first tower block built by the London County Council (LCC) Architects’ Department.

Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #2

It went up in the mid-1950s, and ten years later it was still, in Nairn’s view: “one of the best: compact, not too tall (eleven storeys), with one of those plans, immediately lucid, which architects dream of, fuss over, but rarely achieve”: T-shaped, with the stairs and services in the central junction, and a flat on each arm of each floor. And the whole was done, in Nairn’s view, with “charm … humanity and above all … modesty … “.

 Wimbledon - Oatlands Court #1

Oatlands Court is part of the Ackroydan estate, designed from the late 1940s and built between 1950 and 1954. Nairn doesn’t name the architect in his 1966 book, which is surprising because the architect was someone he admired and had praised in print elsewhere. Colin Lucas was a pioneer in Britain of the style which later came to be called ‘brutalist’. In the 1930s he and his partners designed several private houses which explored the practical and aesthetic potential of concrete as a domestic building material, including this one at Bessborough Road in Roehampton.

 Wimbledon - 26 Bessborough Road

Nairn described another of his creations, in Hampstead, as “the best pre-war house in England”.

Lucas joined the LCC in the late ‘40s and stayed there, through its transformation into the Greater London Council (GLC), until the early ‘70s. Oatlands Court gave his LCC career a good start, but it was the next project, Alton West, which made his name. The two Alton estates in Roehampton were built by the LCC in the 1950s, across a rolling landscape, previously a private estate adjacent to Richmond Park. Alton East was built first: its primary material was brick and its style was informed somewhat by Swedish modernism.

 Wimbledon - Alton East

Lucas’s Alton West followed on, built between 1954 and 1958: its primary material was concrete, and its style was brutalist informed by Le Corbusier’s work in France. It was widely praised, won the Royal Institute of British Architects bronze medal, and achieved a Grade 2* listing.

Wimbledon - Alton West #1

In his later years Lucas spoke of his passion for “High buildings in a park landscape”, and of all his projects Alton West best expresses this ideal.

Wimbledon - Alton West #3

But high-rise brutalism also has its dark side. More than a decade after Alton West, Lucas designed the Ferrier Estate in Greenwich. Built between 1968 and 1972, organised around eleven 12-storey towers, it became notorious as a symbol of dysfunctional social housing, characterised by lonely walkways and crime-infested nooks and crannies.

Much of Lucas’s work is still with us. Oatlands Court is still there, modest and lucid. Alton West has celebrated its 60th birthday and still looks stunning. But the Ferrier never saw 40: by 2012 it had been demolished to make way for an emphatically low-rise replacement, Kidbrooke Village.

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Home Front Penge: Allotments

 

GWP Allotment lead 

The single most pressing issue on the Home Front throughout the First World War, in Penge as elsewhere, was food. Britain relied on food imports; if they were cut off, within three months people would be starving. So alongside the naval effort to protect supplies from abroad, a domestic effort took shape, slowly and fitfully, to grow more food at home. And this effort took in not just the countryside but also the cities.

 Urban allotments were nothing new in 1914: Penge’s neighbours in Beckenham could boast several allotment sites dating back to the 1890s. But within the boundaries of Penge – which included Anerley and part of Upper Norwood as well as ‘Penge proper’ – there were none.

 Enter Edward George Hopper.  

GWP Hopper (3)

 

Hopper was a florist, a local councillor (‘Independent’, which in those days was code for Liberal), blessed with green fingers and boundless enthusiam. From the summer of 1915 he argued that Penge Urban District Council should take the initiative on allotments, and at a public meeting at the Co-op Hall in August many would-be plot-holders agreed. 

Penge was densely housed, but not as densely as it is today. In principle there was plenty of open ground which could be used for allotments, especially in the largely-undeveloped area bounded by Croydon Road, the High Street, Ravenscroft Road, and Elmers End Road. This map from 1909 shows the potential. 
GWP Allotment potential map

 But even where land was undeveloped, it was still privately-owned, and the Council had no powers of requisition or compulsory purchase. Some landowners acted voluntarily – Mr. and Mrs. Grose made land available at Chesham Park for allotments – but most didn’t.

Things changed when the Government brought in the Land Cultivation Order in December 1916. This gave local councils not just a right, but a duty, to identify and take over ‘unused’ land and make it available to local residents as allotments; in effect, allotment-holders became tenants imposed on the landowner, under the protection of the local council. Significantly, the Order was introduced under the auspices of the Defence of the Realm Act or ‘DORA’, the catch-all law passed in 1914 which gave the Government emergency wartime powers. In other words, allotments were officially defined as part of the war effort.

 In the early months of 1917 Penge Council identified and took over six sites. In Anerley there were two small sites at Stembridge Road and Bourdon Road, with room for 12 plots. In Upper Norwood there was a single 13-plot site at Milestone Road. But the large sites were in Penge proper, in the open area described above: 7 plots at Oak Grove, 41 at Chesham Park and 43 at the ‘Royston Estate’. The whole effort was overseen by the Council, and especially by Councillor Hopper. He presided at monthly Plot-holders Meetings at the Town Hall on Anerley Road, dispensing practical advice to first-time growers; co-ordinated bulk purchase of seed potatoes and other basics; and organised Summer and Winter Shows at which allotment holders could show off their produce.

The Council also negotiated water supplies for the different sites – though this provoked an angry debate about who should pay. Some councillors argued that allotment-holders should pay since they were the beneficiaries. Others argued that their efforts were benefitting the whole community, so that the cost should be met from the rates.

Today there are two allotment-sites within the old Penge boundary, at Upper Chesham, and Lower Chesham. Penge Green Gym’s impressive online history suggests that the modern Upper Chesham Allotments are on the site of the old Chesham Park, 

GWP Allotment Upper Chesham

 with the further implication that they are directly descended from the First World War allotments donated by Mr. and Mrs. Grose. Lower Chesham Allotments, meanwhile, are a few yards from Royston Road and Royston Field, and clearly within the old ‘Royston Estate’.

 
GWP Allotment Lower Chesham

 All of which suggests that they too owe their existence to the First World War, to Penge Urban District Council, and to Councillor Edward George Hopper.

Home Front Penge: Conshies

GWP Recruiting Officer

 May 15th was International Conscientious Objectors Day, which makes this a good time to look back to the First World War, when the concept of the ‘conscientious objector’ first appeared. I’ve been researching the home front in Penge during that War, when ‘conshies’ stirred up real passions.

Penge’s population in the early years of the twentieth century was mostly skilled working class, and lower middle class. It was a dormitory suburb for clerks in the City, with regular trains to Blackfriars (then called ‘St. Paul’s’) and London Bridge; and for workers in the West End, catching the train to Victoria. There was also the Crystal Palace, whose visitors spent their money in local shops and pubs. There was poverty, but far less than in other South London districts such as Lambeth or Greenwich. With an Urban District Council dominated by the Conservatives, Penge was quietly respectable.

Respectability was closely linked to religious observance. Active church attendance across London was notoriously low, but this co-existed with a widespread passive acceptance of Christian religion and morality. Most of Penge’s local worthies, councillors and community leaders, declared allegiance to one or other of the area’s churches or chapels, and this was clearly regarded as both normal and creditable.

GWP Congregational Church

But, as in previous eras, there was a tension between respectable church attendance, and the radical potential of the Biblical message. The sixth commandment did not say ‘Thou shalt be respectable’ but ‘Thou shalt not kill’. With the advent of the First World War this tension was exposed. So far I have only found evidence for a handful of men who identified themselves as conscientious objectors in Penge, but all of them rooted their objection in their Christian faith.

In early 1916, soon after conscription (compulsory military service) came in, Mr. A.W. Oakley of Cintra Park appeared before the Penge Tribunal, established by the District Council to deal with local men who objected to being called up. Oakley was a self-employed tailor, with a wife and an elderly mother. He could have argued that he was their only means of support: it was an allowable argument, which sometimes won a reprieve if not an exemption. But he argued on the grounds of his faith. He was a Christian, a Baptist, and “he could not take part in warfare … he would rather go to prison”. The Tribunal gave him non-combatant status.

John Hill, of Station Road in Anerley, was also declared non-combatant when he argued that military service was incompatible with his Christian principles. He was required to join the ‘Non-Combatant Corps’ with the rank of Private. This was an Army Corps set up specifically for conscientious objectors: its members wore uniform and were subject to regular Army discipline, but they were not required to fight, and worked instead in support roles, building, cleaning and so on. Although distant from the killing fields, they were in the Army, and liable to court martial if they made trouble. John Hill made trouble. Once in the Corps he refused to obey orders on the grounds that he had never agreed to be a soldier. In November 1916 he was court-martialled and sentenced to hard labour.

Finally, H. Woodbank and G. Stephenson, lived at Lime Villas in Oakfield Road. They were members of, and may even have been employed by, the Bible Brotherhood. They argued that their Bible work was “essential” and therefore they should be exempt from military service. The Penge Tribunal gave them the benefit of the doubt, but this was over-turned at the next level up, the West Kent Tribunal in Bromley, which ruled that they must fight.

These decisions were taken in an atmosphere of overwhelming hostility to conscientious objectors. By 1916 it was widely understood that this was a war of mass slaughter, but the effect of the slaughter was not to undermine the willingness to fight, but to strengthen it. Because so many had already been lost, the majority view seems to have been that the country must press on so that they would not have died in vain. Hence the hostility to conscientious objectors, who seemed to put their own private principles before the lives of others. And this hostility was expressed not just in the press, or on political platforms, but also within the Christian faith from which the objectors drew their inspiration.

In March 1916 the Reverend Ernest J. Barson, minister at Penge Congregational Church, used his weekly sermon to attack conscientious objectors who claimed that war was contrary to Christianity.

 

GWP Conscientious objector

Theirs was not true Christianity, Barson argued. True Christianity was about fellowship, but conscientious objectors betrayed their fellows and comforted their enemies. True Christianity was about honour, and this was an honourable War. And true Christianity was about sacrifice, and the War had “lifted the manhood of the nation to a higher plane of service and sacrifice than any of us have known before”.

Barson wasn’t particularly reactionary: politically, if anything, he was a progressive. Nor was he the sort to send others into danger while staying safely at home himself; for several months he served as a YMCA volunteer on the Western Front.

GWP Barson in uniform

Barson – who continued as minister at Penge for another 30 years – was simply giving voice to the version of Christianity to which most people in the country subscribed; a no-nonsense, patriotic and utterly respectable version of Christianity, which supported the War and regarded conscientious objectors with contempt.

 

Text images are taken from various editions of the Penge and Anerley Press from 1916.

Nairn’s Sydenham Hill: A Private World

Sydenham Hill #3

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 was clearly taken with Sydenham Hill railway station, hiding away in its deep woodland cutting, when he visited in the 1960s. I think what most appealed to him was its innocent artifice. It was, he said:

“ … the quintessence of true suburbia, the illusion of rurality more effective here than the real thing would be”.

It was:

“ … a complete private world …  the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding-in”.  

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about a railway cutting. Much of the drama of railway engineering – bridges, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts – stems from the mundane imperative for trains to run on level tracks which natural landscapes tend not to provide for. A cutting is essentially a slice taken out of an inconvenient piece of countryside to allow the trains to run. Over time, as shocked vegetation recovers, a cutting may reinvent itself as a woodland dell, which is what has happened at Sydenham Hill. But it is no accident that Charles Dickens’s most effective ghost story, The Signalman, is set in a new railway cutting, where the violence done to the landscape is stark and raw and inseparable from the tale’s atmosphere of dread.   

Sydenham Hill #4

The cutting at Sydenham Hill, however, is neither stark nor raw. The scars made more than a century and a half ago are healed. But I take issue with Nairn. Its ‘unlikeliness’, its appeal, lies not in the site itself but rather in the means of access to it.

There are several stations in South London where the platforms are significantly below the level of the surrounding land: Denmark Hill, for instance. But at Denmark Hill you never forget that you are in a conventional Victorian railway station: you enter through a station house, walk down covered steps, and emerge onto a platform where you are surrounded by Victorian brick.  

At Sydenham Hill however, approaching from College Road, you enter a portal which ushers you down a rather wonderful little walkway.  

Sydenham Hill #1

As it twists and turns, dropping down the hillside in stages, the foliage presses in from both sides. Nairn whimsically imagined wild beasts crouching in hiding, and leaping out to snatch unwary commuters.    

Sydenham Hill #2

Officially, of course, this is simply the way down to the platform, but official purposes can be misleading. The Sydenham Hill walkway transcends such dumb functionality. It is an experience in itself. It is a brief woodland encounter inseparable from, but not reducible to, the presence of the railway station. 

Sydenham Hill #5

 And once you find yourself at the bottom, on the platform, you are confronted by the looming presence of Penge Tunnel, its elliptical entrance hard up against the station. The portal is rather grand with its classical side piers and cornice, though today its dignity is compromised by wear and tear and graffiti.    

Sydenham Hill #8

 For over 140 years this was the longest railway tunnel in London, an honour snatched away as recently as 2007 when the new Eurostar tunnels opened on the line out of St. Pancras. However, Penge Tunnel may still hold the record as the Longest Tunnel That Members Of The Public Can See Through End To End which, if true, is I suppose some compensation.  

Sydenham Hill #6

 

Penge by Design: Railway Picturesque

LCDR Penge East #2 (2)

 

Catching the train to work each day can be grim, and it’s understandable if this grimness attaches itself to the station where we do the catching, reducing it to merely a site where we must wait and endure. This is a pity, because railway stations are intriguing places, with a special place in London’s townscape.

Consider Penge East railway station. Consider it not as a place to be endured on the way to Brixton or Victoria, but as an example of mid-Victorian railway design.

 

LCDR Penge East #3

 

The station house has a domestic feel, with its homely brickwork and pitched roof. Gently asymmetrical, a short central range with wings at each end, but the wings don’t match: that on the left is taller, with gable-end windows set deliberately at odds with each other, and the chimneys are set differently.

 

LCDR Penge East #4

 

Multi-coloured brickwork, yellow stock with recessed horizontal bands, red brick ornamentation under the eaves, and red and black rows defining the bluntly-pointed arches over doors and windows. The arches have cream base-stones, and cream key-stones with neat little moulded trefoil logos.

 

LCDR Penge East #1 (3)

 

It’s a nice jumble. The multi-coloured and textured brick harks back to Tudor and Renaissance styles. The pointed-arch doors and windows are vaguely Gothic. The deliberate asymmetry was a very Victorian thing, seen in many churches. If we need a label, then I think ‘Railway Picturesque’ hits the mark.

‘Picturesque’ is usually taken to refer to certain whimsical buildings of the eighteenth century, but architectural historian Carrol V. Meeks maintained that it was a much broader and longer-lasting phenomenon. In his 1957 study of railway architecture ** he argued that the picturesque was the railway industry’s dominant style in the nineteenth century. It was characterised by asymmetry, variety, irregularity, and for its detail and ornamentation it happily raided various architectural traditions. The aim was to facilitate the business of the railway while achieving a variety of pleasing, perhaps mildly surprising, visual effects. Penge East railway station is a modest illustration of this.

But Penge East was not a standalone design. It was one of several stations built by the London Chatham & Dover Railway Company (LCDR) in 1862 and 1863 along its new commuter line.

Since the 1850s the South Eastern Railway Company had operated a line from Bromley and Beckenham to London Bridge. The LCDR aimed to compete by building a line from Beckenham to a new junction at Herne Hill, from where travellers could go on either to Victoria, or to St. Paul’s (the original name for the station we know as Blackfriars). Herne Hill was therefore the lynchpin in the project.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #5 (2)

 

The LCDR’s chief engineer was Joseph Cubitt, nephew of Thomas Cubitt, Victorian London’s greatest builder, responsible for Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Clapham Park; and of Lewis Cubitt who designed Kings Cross Station. But Joseph Cubitt was an engineer rather than an architect, and the job of designing the railway stations along his new line fell to a young man called John Taylor. Taylor had a long career and eventually became Sir John Taylor, a safe pair of architectural hands, responsible among other things for the main staircase in the National Gallery. But in 1862 he was just starting out, and his design at Herne Hill station was rather impressive.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #4

 

The station house at Herne Hill is much grander than Penge East, but it has the same asymmetry, the same yellow brick and recessed horizontal bands, the same red brick ornamentation under the eaves, the same pointed red and black arches, and the same trefoil mouldings on cream key-stones. Herne Hill was the prototype for all these design elements. It set the style which was faithfully reproduced a year later at Penge East, and which informed the subtly different, slightly Byzantine variant at West Dulwich.

 

LCDR West Dulwich #1 (2)

 

Among this little group of stations Herne Hill stands out by virtue of its priority, and its size, and – crucially – by virtue of its tower.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #1

 

Square and chunky, with five high arched false window-recesses on each face, and a shallow pitched roof, the Herne Hill tower has an Italianate look – or would have if it were not for the very English chimney stack sticking out of its top. We might be forgiven for assuming that the tower was built purely for visual effect, but in fact it contained and concealed the station’s water-tank, which makes it quintessential Railway Picturesque: mundane industrial function masked by form; a form which is eclectic, arresting, and just off-balance.

None of this prevents the daily commute from being grim. But at least it’s picturesquely grim.

** Carroll V. Meeks, The Railway Station: An Architectural History, London, Architectural Press, 1957.

 

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.

 

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.