Penge boundary #7: Fox Hill and Vicar’s Oak

We are on the final leg of our perambulation of Penge hamlet, facing a daunting climb up Fox Hill, a pretty road distinguished by the fact that it has its very own picture hanging in the National Gallery.

Fox Hill

 Fox Hill, Upper Norwood, by Camille Pissarro, 1870:

Copyright National Gallery, licensed under a Creative Commons licence.

‘Fox Hill, Upper Norwood’ was painted by Camille Pissarro in 1870. Pissarro had worked in Paris in the 1860s with other pioneering impressionists, though he himself was not French but Danish. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, he found himself in an uncomfortable position and moved to England, settling in Norwood. For more on his time here, have a look at the excellent Norwood Society site: http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/74-pissarro-and-norwood.html

Impressionism is sometimes discussed as if it were mainly about formal technique, but early impressionists like Pissarro were equally driven by subject matter. They favoured ordinary, demotic, unremarkable landscapes, places belonging to living people rather than classical gods and heroes, and they painted outside rather than in the studio. Pissarro’s South London pictures illustrate this perfectly: his quiet, wintry, slightly rickety rendering of Fox Hill, its three figures paused uncertainly in the snow; the suburban stateliness of ‘The Avenue, Sydenham’ (Lawrie Park Avenue) (http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/camille-pissarro-the-avenue-sydenham), all formal perspective and width and neatness and respectable gentlefolk; and ‘Lordship Lane Station’, in which a train gently makes its way along the long-gone line to Crystal Palace High Level. Pissarro’s vantage point for this work was the footbridge on Cox’s Walk in Dulwich Wood: a deforested bare hillside in his day, now gloriously wooded once more. See Michael Glover’s thoughts on the Lordship Lane painting here: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/great-works/great-works-lordship-lane-station-dulwich-1871-camille-pissarro-2033005.html

I think Glover gets it exactly right: the painting is rooted in “its own sense of its ordinariness”, but it took enormous care and skill to allow that “ordinariness” to express itself.

Back to the boundary. Near the top of Fox Hill, with Church Road in sight, the boundary veers right to follow Lansdowne Place. This seems a bit counter-intuitive: why not carry straight on? Perhaps the answer is that this apparently erratic course was the original path up the hill. Whatever the truth of the matter, to reassure us that we are going the right way, the junction is marked by a boundary post and a nice little plaque from Bromley Council.

Lansdowne Place boundary post #2

And just in case you’re still not convinced: further along Lansdowne Place, close to the junction with Church Road, Belvedere Road and Westow Street, there’s another post. This one is clearly marked ‘Battersea’ to remind us that for most of its history Penge was a ‘detached hamlet’ of that parish. It’s rather poignant to see it here, nestled up against the wall, unobtrusive, miles from Battersea proper, but defiantly re-asserting a connection first recorded in the Domesday Book.

Lansdowne Place boundary post #3

Belvedere Road and Westow Street date from the Victorian suburbanisation of the nineteenth century. But Church Road is much older, part of a road which ran for centuries along the ridge-top, comprised today of Sydenham Hill, Crystal Palace Parade, Church Road, and Beulah Hill. At the end of Lansdowne Place the boundary joins this old road, heading north-east towards the roundabout at the top of Anerley Hill, the site of the Vicar’s Oak.

Vicar's Oak

In the early 1670s, soon after Cromwell’s remarkable republic was replaced by Charles Stuart’s vindictive and corrupt monarchy, John Aubrey was commissioned to produce a Perambulation of Surrey. When he visited Norwood he found:-

“an antient, remarkable Tree call’d the Vicar’s Oak, where four Parishes meet at a point. This Wood wholly consists of Oaks”.

Aubrey’s four parishes were Lambeth, Camberwell, Battersea (represented by Penge hamlet) and Croydon; their modern descendants, whose boundaries still meet at the Vicar’s Oak roundabout, are the London Boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Bromley and Croydon.

Aubrey was one of the last visitors to see the Vicar’s Oak. It was cut down by some vandal, for reasons unknown, in 1678 or thereabouts. But the site continued to be known as Vicar’s Oak, and even in the nineteenth century some locals referred to the road not as Church Road but as ‘Vicar’s Oak Road’. For more on this, go to http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/87-norwood-and-the-vicars-oak.html and http://www.norwoodsociety.co.uk/articles/170-replace-the-vicars-oak.html.

And now we have almost completed the circuit of Penge. From the Vicar’s Oak the boundary runs along Crystal Palace Parade; past the bus station; over the subway from the old High Level Station, now being renovated thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (http://www.cpsubway.org.uk/index.html); and on to Old Cople Lane where the perambulation began several posts ago.

If you want to start all over again, just go to https://wordpress.com/post/pengepast.wordpress.com/9

Alternatively, you’re very welcome to come to my Penge Festival talk about tracing the Penge boundary, on Tuesday 14th June, at 7.30 p.m. in the side-bar of the Crooked Billet, at the junction of Penge High Street and Penge Lane.

And on Sunday 19th June we won’t just be reading or talking about Penge’s ancient boundary, we’ll be walking it, tracing it through today’s streets. Join us if you can: 11 a.m. outside Alexandra Nurseries on Parish Lane.

For all Penge Festival events, go to http://pengetouristboard.co.uk/events/2016-06/

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