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 liked the liminal bleakness of Beddington Lane in the 1960s.
“A forlorn, atmospheric place … Six grand cooling towers … pylons everywhere, houses all round the horizon, light industry in the foreground. Yet out of these unexpected ingredients comes a poetry which is missing from most of the preserved villages around London … “
And today? Does Beddington Lane still retain that unexpected poetry? To my mind, sadly, No.
Nairn’s 1960s view was dominated by those enormous cooling towers.
They belonged to Croydon ‘A’ power station, built by the local council in the 1890s. Next door was the ‘B’ station, opened in 1950. And together they sat at the heart of a well-established industrial zone, along Waddon Marsh Lane and the River Wandle.
The First World War gave birth to a second zone to the south, on Coldharbour Lane, where first a military airfield, and then an aircraft factory – the Orwellian-sounding ‘National Aircraft Factory No. 1’ – were built. In 1920 the airfield became Croydon Aerodrome, Britain’s gateway to the world. And in 1925 the Purley Way was built along the line of Waddon Marsh Lane and Coldharbour Lane to create a new, modern road linking the older industrial zone to the north with the airfield and newer industries to the south.
With the Second World War, planning became respectable. In 1944 town-planner Patrick Abercrombie published his Greater London Plan, a blueprint for a prosperous, healthier post-war London. In general he was hostile to siting industrial or manufacturing activity within or close to residential areas, but he was always open to ‘special cases’ and Croydon was one of them:
“Croydon is a suitable area for industries associated with aircraft engineering and maintenance, or industries likely to use air transport for the export of light luxury goods like cosmetics, high quality leather work, including ladies’ handbags, expensive pottery and delicate precision instruments … Most of Croydon’s industry is post-1918 and its expansion was greatly stimulated by the development of the aerodrome and the Purley Way … “.
When Nairn visited Beddington Lane in the 1960s the landscape he saw – power stations, pylons, light industry – was part of the industrial area described by Abercrombie. When he marvelled at the cooling towers he was on its western edge, looking back east across the Purley Way, towards Croydon.
The view today is both recognisably similar and depressingly different. The cooling towers of Croydon ‘A’ have gone, demolished in the 1970s. The chimneys of its neighbour Croydon ‘B’ survive, but their function now is to advertise the Ikea superstore in the retail park.
There could be no better symbol of the change which has occurred, the shift from making stuff to selling stuff. Of course this shift is bigger than Beddington Lane, it’s global; it’s about neo-liberalism; it’s about the financialisation of capital and the re-location of manufacturing. Beddington Lane is just one charmless example of this global shift playing itself out on the local level.
Why charmless? Because despite everything, despite the monotonous and often dangerous work which they demanded, and the contribution to global warming from the millions of tons of coal which they burned, there was a drama, a poetry, to great twentieth-century productive engines such as power stations. And the drama stemmed not just from their monumental scale, but also from function: the making of electricity, the making of something new. Measured against this, a ‘retail park’ is a sad decline, a maze of designed ugliness, a car-friendly abstraction of pre-fabricated sheds. Some sheds claim to be ‘superstores’, others builders’ merchants, or depots, or wholesalers, but all, essentially, are just sheds, dumb and demeaning. ‘Retail parks’ shrivel the soul.
But all is not lost. Continue down Beddington Lane to the south, approaching the River Wandle and, unexpectedly, we enter a hidden historical landscape. Appearances here deceive. Beyond the scrappy hedge and fence is the uninviting expanse of Beddington Sewage Treatment Works:
but beneath the sludge beds lie the remains of a Roman villa. And also near-by is a pre-Roman Iron Age enclosed settlement; and a post-Roman Anglo-Saxon cemetery. And the area has yielded finds from the Bronze Age, Neolithic, and perhaps even Mesolithic, attesting to a continuous human presence going back six thousand years or more, attracted and sustained by the modest River Wandle.
All of which is more than enough to exorcise the demeaning soullessness of the ‘retail park’ up the road, and open us up again to the possibility of poetry.