On our trip around the ancient boundary of Penge hamlet we have reached Alexandra Nurseries on Parish Lane, on the site of the former Porcupine Farm.
The road system here looks like a set of cricket stumps with the High Street as the ground; Penge Lane, Green Lane and Kent House Road as the stumps; and Parish Lane sitting on top as the bails. This road system is old, clearly visible on eighteenth century maps. It may not be the geographical heart of Penge – it’s tucked in the south-east corner – but it is certainly its historical heart. This is where most of the hamlet’s small population used to live, at least until the 1830s when Upper Norwood started to develop as an affluent suburb.
The boundary we are following is still a double-boundary: the boundary of Penge hamlet, and also the ancient county boundary between Kent and Surrey. It follows Parish Lane from Penge Lane, across Green Lane and down to the junction with Kent House Road, where it turns south-west to head towards the High Street.
This stretch between Parish Lane and the High Street is now simply the final part of Kent House Road as it heads down from Bell Green. But on Rocque’s map of 1746, this stretch is called Willmore Lane, and it meets the High Street at Willmore Bridge. So who or what is Willmore?
The Willmore is a river, one of the three tributaries of the River Pool. It marks the southern boundary of Penge hamlet and, remember, the county boundary between Surrey and Kent. Hence its alternative name, the ‘Boundary Stream’. Today it flows underground, but back in the eighteenth century the main road required a bridge to cross it, more or less where Tesco stands today.
Given its historic role as a county boundary, we might expect the Willmore to be well known, but it seems to be largely forgotten. The 1:50,000 Ordnance Survey map ignores it. The 1:25,000 OS map shows a wiggly line between properties which reflects its course, but isn’t shown as a waterway. Some A-Z maps do show part of it, but describe it incorrectly as the River Pool. And an otherwise useful website about London’s lost rivers – http://www.londonslostrivers.com/river-pool.html – states baldly that the River Pool only has two tributaries, the Beck and the Chaffinch, thus writing out the poor old Willmore altogether.
But anyone who cares to visit Cator Park can see for themselves that the Willmore is alive and kicking. The River Pool is formed in Cator Park, first by a meeting of the Beck and the Chaffinch
and then, a few yards to the north, by the advent of the Willmore.
To get to this point from Willmore Bridge, the river has flowed alongside Kent House Road before turning sharp east to pass under Reddons Road and Aldersmead Road and so into the Park.
So: having reassured ourselves that the River Willmore does actually exist, we are now walking upstream (south-west) from Willmore Bridge. The river flows between Royston Road (in Penge hamlet) and Ravenscroft Road (in Beckenham parish), so if we’re staying inside Penge we need to go along Royston Road, turn right into Westbury Road and immediately left into Percy Road, and then carry straight on as it becomes Chesham Road and Ash Grove.
The River Willmore is parallel to us, at the bottoms of the gardens of the houses on our left. The best place to convince ourselves of this is at the junction with Avenue Road, where a quick glance to left and right shows that we are in a river valley. The river bank on the left rises to the footbridge at Avenue Road tram-stop. The bank on the right rises to Croydon Road – the ‘Green Way to Lewisham’ – with the Crystal Palace transmitter photogenically placed beyond.
Beyond Elmers End Road – or Clay Lane as it was known in the eighteenth century, when it ran only as far as the junction with Croydon Road – the course of the river becomes uncertain. But the line of the Penge boundary is clear enough: it runs just north of Marlow Road as far as the junction with Cambridge Road.
At this point the hamlet of Penge encounters the parish of Croydon, which is also in Surrey, which means that Penge’s boundary ceases to act as the county boundary. Which makes this a good point to pause.
But not before paying tribute to Walter De La Mare. The poet and writer lived in this area, where he produced much of his best work, from about 1900 to 1925. Personally I prefer his short stories to his poetry: his ghost stories in particular have a fine, subtle chill. More info at Penge Tourist Board at http://pengetouristboard.co.uk/walter-de-la-mare-a-penge-poet/