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”.
“ … 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.