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)