Nairn’s Loughborough Junction: Promise and Perform

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the 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.


Loughborough #4

Ian Nairn’s 1966 comments on Loughborough Junction are ambivalent. He liked the area’s visual drama, railway bridges in all directions, but couldn’t quite bring himself to praise it:

“No performance, so far, but tremendous promise”.

But he didn’t like the Loughborough Estate:

“ … all artificial relationship … an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place”.


First things first. Why “Loughborough”? What has a midlands town to do with this patch of South London? It’s all down to Henry Hastings, seventeenth century aristocrat, incorrigible Royalist, ennobled as First Baron Loughborough by Charles I during the Civil War. Hastings eventually joined the younger Charles Stuart in exile, and came back with him in 1660 for the orgy of intolerance and vindictiveness generally known as the Restoration. From then until his death a few years later Hastings lived south of the river, in what was then London’s semi-rural hinterland. His home was about here:


Loughborough #9

in the triangle now formed by Evandale, Claribel and Akerman Roads on the edge of the Minet estate. He called it Loughborough House.

Fast forward to the mid-eighteenth century and Loughborough House was still the most significant property in the area. In Rocque’s map from the 1740s, there is a hamlet or scattering of smallholdings called Coldharbour. The road on the map which runs to Loughborough House through Coldharbour is today’s Loughborough Road; and the road on the map called Camberwell Lane is today’s Coldharbour Lane.

Loughborough #10 (3)


Fast forward another century and things changed utterly. Loughborough House was demolished in the 1850s, brick terraces were going up everywhere, and within a few yards of Loughborough Road several new thoroughfares – Flaxman Road, Herne Hill Road, Milkwood Road – were all emptying themselves into Coldharbour Lane.

In other words the area was already a road junction before the railways arrived. But it required the railways before it was referred to as a junction.

Although South London had some early commuter lines – London Bridge to Greenwich, London Bridge to Croydon – much of its early railway history focused on longer-distance lines to the south coast and south-west. By the 1860s, however, the commercial value of urban commuter traffic was clear, and railway companies were eager to cram South London – and the rest of metropolitan London – with new routes. The London Chatham & Dover Railway Co. (LCDR)


already had a profitable long-distance line, and was now intent on breaking into London’s urban commuter market. In the 1860s the LCDR built an elevated north-south line, on embankments and viaducts, from Blackfriars and Elephant & Castle down to Herne Hill; and, in partnership with another company, an elevated east-west line linking London Bridge to Victoria.

At the point where these lines crossed the company built a railway station in 1864, and called it Brixton Junction. It was briefly renamed Loughborough Road in July 1872; and then Loughborough Junction from December 1872.

The visual drama of Loughborough Junction is created not just by the railway junction above, but rather by its superimposition on the road junction below: a convergence of brick and tarmac, crouched beneath a convergence of steel and concrete; a grubby confusion of urban energy, impatience in all directions and at two levels, hemmed in, compressed and intense.

Loughborough #6

Loughborough #8

Loughborough #5


If Nairn was cool about all this, his comment on the Loughborough Estate – “an arid geometrical exercise masquerading as a place” – is positively unfair. This was a London County Council project, approved in 1952, opened in 1955. The principal housing architect was Whitfield Lewis, also responsible for the famous Alton Estate in Roehampton. Roehampton, however, had a natural setting with all sorts of possibilities – rising ground, proximity to Richmond Park – which Lewis and his colleagues fully exploited. By comparison, the site at Loughborough offered nothing more than a flat patch of South London basin. Perhaps the estate’s geometry, to which Nairn objected so strongly, was an attempt precisely to create a sense of place, an identity, a quiddity, on an essentially featureless site.

If so, it was an emphatically modernist sense of place, and the Loughborough Estate wears its 1950s social democratic heart on its sleeve. Nine eleven-storey slab blocks, fifteen four-storey blocks, one six-storey block. Acres of reinforced concrete and glass. Sixty years on, it looks remarkably good for its age.

Loughborough #2 (2)

And let’s not forget that each flat, each maisonette, would have seemed like paradise to its first residents, after the slums and bombed-out neighbourhoods from which they came.


Loughborough #1



Nairn’s Deptford: Surrealist Sandwich


Deptford St Nicholas #6


Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the 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.

Deptford Town Hall

When Ian Nairn came to Deptford in the 1960s, he waxed lyrical over its town hall: “the jolliest public building in London … infectious topsy-turvy composition“. Pevsner liked it too, describing it as “one of the most florid of Edwardian public buildings”.

Deptford Town Hall #1

It no longer functions as the Town Hall – it now belongs to Goldsmiths College – but is still worth a visit. The basic form of the building is nothing special, a neo-classical box and pediment. But the completely inappropriate clock tower sticking out at the top hints at a spirit of cheerful excess which is best seen in the carved ornamentation.

I especially like these two figures above the entrance, straining to support the balcony above.

Deptford Town Hall #2

These are ‘male caryatids’. A caryatid is, strictly speaking, a draped female stone figure acting as a column or pillar – as at St. Pancras Church on Euston Road. These Deptford figures are emphatically masculine, and would probably object to being called anything as girly as a caryatid, but they’re doing (roughly) the same job, and there isn’t an equivalent male name for it, so caryatid it is. Mind you, their upper-body human masculinity is somewhat compromised by their birds’ wings, and their fishy nether regions.

The caryatids’ fishiness is part of a broader sea-going, naval theme. On the first floor, in niches between the windows, we find statues of famous admirals, including of course England’s darling, Nelson himself.

Deptford Town Hall Nelson

And above them, below the pediment, is a man-o’-war in full sail. All of which is entirely appropriate, given that Deptford Dockyard was a crucial centre of shipbuilding from the sixteenth century to the nineteenth.

And yet these references to the river and the Dockyard are a bit awkward, because Deptford Town Hall is nowhere near the river. In fact it isn’t really in Deptford, it’s in New Cross. But there again, perhaps this is just one more of those cheerful incongruities which Nairn found so jolly. 

St. Paul’s Church, Deptford Church Street

The majority opinion on St. Paul’s Church is that it’s a triumph: “one of the major architectural thrills of London” (Blatch); “the finest church in London south of the river” (Leonard); “one of the most moving churches in London” (Pevsner).

Deptford St Paul #1 (2)

Enter Ian Nairn, party-pooper: “forceful enough … but nothing behind it … rhetoric where there should be poetry … towering but empty … one of London’s least accommodating places”.

St. Paul was a product of the Commission for Building Fifty New Churches, established by Act of Parliament in the early eighteenth century in response to London’s ballooning population. The Commission didn’t get anywhere near its target of fifty churches, but it did put up quite a few, most of them designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor. The architect at St. Paul, however, was Thomas Archer, a member of the Commission, who also built St. John’s Smith Square, and Birmingham Cathedral.

According to Pevsner, Archer’s great achievement at St. Paul was his solution to “the eternal English west tower and west portico problem”. That is to say: the problem of how to reconcile the centuries-old English tradition of a tower at a church’s west end, with the classical tradition of a grand porch at the west end incorporating a row of columns, roof and (usually) pediment.

The most notorious failure to solve this problem is James Gibbs’s St. Martin-in-the-Fields, which Pevsner describes – generously I think – as “illogical and aesthetically painful”. Let’s speak plainly: St. Martin is stupid and ugly. It fails to get the tower and portico to work together, and it fails even more blatantly to get the two of them to work with the rest of the building. Tower and portico are simply bolted onto the west end of an otherwise elegant basilica in such a way as to throw the whole composition off balance, as if threatening to tip it over into Trafalgar Square. If you don’t believe me, go and have a look.

Archer avoided repeating Gibbs’s failure through two complementary moves. Where St. Martin is all straight lines and angles, he embraced curvature; and where Gibbs conceived tower and portico as separate items and then rammed them together, Archer approached tower-plus-portico as a single rounded conception, balanced by a rounded apse at the church’s east end. The result is a semi-circular porch and round tower with its own clear centre of gravity, opening into a square interior which is also balanced and centred.

Deptford St Paul #7 (2)

I’m no great enthusiast for the classical, and even less for the baroque, which tends to strike my puritan soul as simply silly. But St. Paul’s Church at Deptford is very fine. On this occasion, Nairn got it wrong.

St. Nicholas Church, Deptford Green

St. Nicholas on Deptford Green is the original parish church. However,  despite its medieval foundation, the only remaining medieval fabric at St. Nicholas is the lower part of the tower.

Deptford St Nicholas #2

The body of the church was re-built in red brick in 1697, only about twenty years before St. Paul went up. 250 years later it was all but destroyed in the Blitz. The church which we see today is an amalgam of the medieval tower, surviving seventeenth century fabric at the west end, and (shown here) a thoughtful post-war reconstruction at the east end.

Deptford St Nicholas #4

However, what caught Nairn’s attention back in the ‘60s was the accident of place which produced a bizarre encounter between early modern macabre and grim industrial modernity. On arrival, he was much taken by the stone skulls on the church-yard gates: “the sharpest memento mori in London”.

Deptford St Nicholas #5

But beyond them, hard up against the church-yard and looming over it, he found to his delight “a whopping power station”. Nairn loved the sheer unlikelihood of the whole thing, and clearly took great delight in relegating poor old St. Nicholas Church to “the filling in this surrealist sandwich”.

But the power station is no more. And it wasn’t just any old power station: it was Deptford East Power Station, on the site of the world’s first-ever station generating at high tension for long-distance transmission. Built from 1887 and operating from 1889, this original station generated power for the West End – which may not seem ‘long-distance’ to us, but was back then. There’s a class angle to this of course: the affluent residents of Mayfair and St James’s got their clean modern electricity, while the working class residents of Deptford lived with the coal and dirt and smog involved in producing it. The station grew steadily over the decades, until in the 1960s Nairn found it casting its giant shadow over St. Nicholas. The CEGB (remember them?) closed it down in 1983, just short of its centenary.

With the power station gone we can no longer share Nairn’s surreal encounter. The church survives, with its church-yard, charnel house, and endlessly grinning skulls. But where once a mighty power station stood, now we find a quiet little housing estate.

Deptford St Nicholas #3


Nairn’s Catford: Brutal Honesty



Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against the 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.

When Nairn came to Catford in the mid-60s, the building that caught his eye was only two or three years old. Eros House, the Brutalist tower at the junction of Rushey Green and Brownhill Road, was designed by Rodney Gordon of the Owen Luder Partnership, and finished in 1962. Nairn loved it. Now that Brutalism is all the rage and terribly fashionable (there’s even a ‘Brutalist London Map’ retailing at around £8), it’s time for a second look.

Brutalism erupted in the 1950s as a sort of modernist rudeness, in rebellion against modernist politeness.

Modernist architecture of any kind had been rare in Britain before the War. Post-war, there was more ambition and creativity, especially in public building authorities such as the London County Council. Many of these architects and planners were on the left and saw their work, quite literally, as part of the construction of socialism. But – as Owen Hatherley has pointed out – their design inspiration came not from Moscow but from Stockholm, the showcase for a style of elegant modernist classicism which has variously been called ‘New Empiricist’ or ‘New Humanist’ or ‘Welfare State’ architecture. Stockholm Public Library exemplifies the style.


Stockholm (2)


Here in London, similar forces were at work at the Royal Festival Hall.

If the Stockholm style was uplifting and consensual, Brutalism was rude and contrary. If the Stockholm style celebrated a people united in the pursuit of a better tomorrow, Brutalism celebrated a people arguing, pushing and shoving in the here and now. But perhaps what was most astonishing about Brutalism was its Britishness. Suddenly Britain, having been sullenly behind the modernist curve for decades, was at the cutting edge of a whole new school.

Despite this, the origin of the term itself – or at least the origin-story that I like best, the one that rings most true – is French. It derives from the French béton brut meaning ‘raw concrete’, rough concrete, concrete straight from the tin, concrete to scrape your knuckles on. Brutalism expressed a sort of bleak honesty about the act of throwing up a building, a ‘truth to materials’. It didn’t have a monopoly in this regard: the Arts & Crafts movement made the same claim. What distinguishes Brutalism from Arts & Crafts is that they chose different materials to be true to.

This raw material honesty was what Nairn liked about Eros House:

“ … rough concrete put through all its paces … done from real conviction, not from a desire for self-advertisement… The gaunt honesty of those projecting concrete frames carrying boxed-out bow windows persists”.


Eros House #1

Fifty years on and Eros House is now the proud possessor of a Grade II listing, but I have to say that at ground level, when I visited, its pride wasn’t evident. It’s difficult to look proud with ‘To Let’ signs on your shop fronts.

Eros House #3

Looking up, the original raw concrete intent has been muted by the addition of bland off-white cladding. The projecting concrete window frames which so excited Nairn with their gaunt honesty are still evident, but (to me at least) not terribly exciting.

Eros House #4

Maybe the windows’ impact has been blunted by the cladding. Maybe I am simply unable to think myself back to a moment around 1960 when this gesture was genuinely innovative. Or maybe my sensibility is blunted by having seen too many mediocre tower blocks built since then, unimaginatively recycling the same idea.

I do however like the stair-tower.

Eros House #5

Nairn doesn’t mention the stair tower, though Pevsner (also an Eros fan) gives it a nod of approval. For me, it works by playing off glass against concrete. The fluting in the glass gives it height, and works nicely against the horizontal and pitched bands of concrete, tracking externally the staircases within – truth to materials and truth to function too. The no-nonsense porch is also good, as is the unadorned raw concrete frontage above it.

By the way – why Eros House? Why this erotically-named tower in the middle of Catford? Is something phallic going on? Not really. It turns out that Gordon’s tower was named for the Eros Cinema which was demolished to make way for it.

The Eros Cinema was the last gasp of what had been Lewisham Hippodrome, originally a 3,000-seat music-hall, which hit hard times in the 1920s and was regularly reinvented thereafter – music-hall, cinema, music-hall again, cinema again. Badly damaged in the War, it limped through the ‘50s as the Eros Cinema before the whole site – including the rival Gaumont Cinema next door – was demolished in 1959 to make way for Brutalism. I suspect that the Gaumont was Catford’s respectable cinema while the Eros was somewhat less so, but I may be doing both of them a disservice.

Eros House was only one – and not the most famous – of the Brutalist projects erected by Gordon, Luder and their partners in the ‘60s and ‘70s. They put up the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth in 1966 – voted Britain’s most hated building in 2001 by Radio 4 listeners. And they put up Derwent Tower and Trinity Square in Gateshead, just across the Tyne from Newcastle. I lived in Newcastle and worked in Gateshead in the ‘80s, and both were local landmarks. Derwent Tower, a standalone stunning high-rise block of flats stranded by a sea of low-rise housing and industry, was affectionately known as the Dunston Rocket, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Derwent Tower 2


Trinity Square included the all-concrete multi-storey car-park made famous by the 1971 Michael Caine film Get Carter. By the ‘80s, I think most local people regarded it as an eyesore – but at the same time they rather liked the reflected glamour of its brief film career. Glamour was a rare commodity in Gateshead in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so if a multi-storey car-park was the only way to grab a bit, no-one was going to turn it down.

Tricorn Centre, Trinity Centre and Dunston Rocket were all demolished before the current nostalgia for Brutalism set in. Maybe if they’d survived they would now be vying for a listing, just like good old Eros House.

A Modest Way: South-East London’s Roman road (part 2)

Lewes road Blythe Hill 2

In the previous post I walked the first part of the Roman Way from London to Lewes, from the New Cross/Peckham area to Blythe Hill – or rather, I tracked it at a distance, because what’s special about this Roman road is its stubborn refusal to conform to modern roads or paths. But that will change, as we shall see.

The engineers who built the Lewes Way shifted its alignment fractionally to the south at Blythe Hill, aiming across Stanstead Road and Catford Hill for a crossing point on the River Pool. Rather wonderfully, that crossing point is still in use 2,000 years later. The modern bridge is at exactly the same place, in the River Pool Linear Park.

Lewes Road Pool River bridge 2

In the 1930s our intrepid archaeologists, Davis and Margary, revealed the line of the Way here on the eastern bank of the river

Lewes Road Pool River bridge 1

where it cuts diagonally from right to left to cross the railway line and head into Bellingham.

Here its course runs through houses and gardens as it heads south-south-east towards Beckenham, but we can still identify certain marker points. For instance, this is where it crosses Stumps Hill Lane

Lewes Road Stump Hill 1

before continuing over Southend Road, and hitting the old London Chatham and Dover railway line a couple of hundred yards’ east of Beckenham Junction Station.

Lewes Road Beckenham Junction

From here the Way tracks the course of the River Beck, before cutting across the south-east corner of Kelsey Park, conveniently close to the café where I reckon I had earned the right to a refreshing cuppa.

Lewes Road Kelsey Park

I was now deep in leafy suburbia, and the next marker point was St. Dunstan’s Lane which wanders quietly through a landscape of sports grounds and playing fields and golf. Just where the Lane turns from a south-westerly to a near-southerly direction, the Lewes Way comes through, still on its south-south-east trajectory.

Lewes Road St Dunstan's Lane 1

It ploughs straight through the golf course – no bad thing in my opinion – to cross the Charing Cross to Hayes railway line almost exactly at West Wickham Station.

Lewes Road West Wickham station

The next marker point was Sparrow’s Den, at the bottom of Corkscrew Hill, south of West Wickham, where the road cuts across the playing field. Here we are close to a Roman settlement just across the road, near St. John the Baptist church.

Lewes Road Sparrows Den

This is one of many sites in South London to be nominated as the ‘lost city’ of Noviomagus, which lay somewhere on an imperially-endorsed route from London to Rochester. Clearly there was a Roman settlement here – excavations prove that. But as I’ve argued at length in a previous post, the notion that West Wickham is Noviomagus makes no sense. Who would travel from London to Rochester via West Wickham?

The course of the Way meanwhile carries on, south-south-east, across the fields, gradually approaching the New Addington estate. And here at last, after all those miles of hiding in suburban gardens and scuttling across railway lines, the Lewes Way deigns to correspond to a modern way in the modern landscape.

From Addington Road I took a foot-path which climbs south-east through Birch Wood towards Castlehill Ruffs. It was not marked on the OS map as a public right of way, but neither was it marked on the ground as private or with warnings against trespass. It is  clearly regularly used as an informal way up to the New Addington estate. After a bit less than a mile the path crossed a rough vehicle track, and I turned left for a couple of hundred yards along this track towards an electricity sub-station. Just before the sub-station I turned right again onto a new foot-path heading south-south-east through Rowdown Wood.

I was now, finally, walking the line of the Lewes Way, the first time I had been able to do so since leaving Watling Street.

Lewes Road New Addington path 2

The path continued through the woods, not arrow-straight by any means but not deviating wildly either, edging closer to New Addington’s eastern border. It hit this border right at its most unattractive point, next to the industrial zone. Suddenly, what had been a pleasant enough woodland walk became a grim urban edgeland slog, pinned between an ageing concrete fence to the right, and shabby undergrowth to the left, littered and scattered with rubbish and debris of all kinds.

Lewes Road New Addington path 4 (2)

This grubby scramble didn’t last for ever. Once it got beyond the industrial area and backed onto housing, the path became more pleasant. And even when it was at its worst I tried to remind myself that I was walking the line not of a pristine Roman military highway, but of a working industrial road whose job was to link the manufacturing zone of the Weald with markets and barracks in Londinium. So maybe the waste scattered along the path was fitting, a grim nod of recognition from one industrial era to another, expressed in refuse.

This grubby scramble is also, by the way, the line of the modern borough boundary between Croydon and Bromley, which follows the much older county boundary between Surrey and Kent. And this in turn suggests that the course of the Lewes Way across this particular landscape was very clear in early medieval times, offering itself as a ready-made marker just when these two English counties were defining themselves and acquiring firm borders.

The path finally emerges on the southern edge of New Addington, a few yards from Fairchild School, and opposite a Bromley Borough post to confirm that we are indeed right on the old county boundary.

Lewes Road Bromley boundary

That’s as far as I intend to follow the Lewes Way. If you fancy carrying on, I suggest you try to get hold of a copy of Margary’s 1948 classic Roman Ways in the Weald.


It is of course out of print, but there were copies available through last time I looked, and if that doesn’t work, we still – just about – have libraries. Of course Margary was at work many decades ago, and his arguments have sometimes been superseded by more recent scholarship. But for me, none of this alters the fact that the book itself is a sheer delight, and with a bit of interpretation to make allowance for seventy years of suburban growth, its brilliant maps are still surprisingly useable.

A Modest Way: South-East London’s Roman road (part 1)

Lewes road Blythe Hill 1

Most of South London’s Roman roads coincide, roughly or in part, with modern roads: Watling Street with the A2; Stane Street with the A3; the Brighton road with the A23. But there is one Roman road which is positively modest, self-deprecating, leaving no visible mark on the modern townscape, remembered by no modern highway. This is the London to Lewes Way which cuts through South-East London, from Peckham through Nunhead and Brockley and Beckenham and West Wickham, and onwards to the south.

Lewes road map

One practical result of its modesty is that for a walker, following this route on foot is a far more pleasant experience than following the others. Rather than a charmless tramp along busy main roads infested with exhaust fumes and bad temper, the Lewes Way offers quiet streets, footpaths and parks.

This was not a military highway but a working road, connecting Roman Londinium with the industrial zone in the Weald: charcoal-burners and iron-works. But this doesn’t mean that it was a cart-track, or that it took shape in a casual manner. It was constructed by professional engineers, along straight alignments where possible, using high ground as a vantage point to alter those alignments where necessary. At Blythe Hill for instance, the alignment shifts from a south-easterly to a more southerly direction.

Blythe Hill also serves as a break-point in my own walk along the Lewes Way as it progresses through South-East London. This post records the first stretch from Peckham. The next will carry on from Blythe Hill to the south.

The Lewes Way heads north to south, and its starting point is its junction with Watling Street, the Roman road to Kent, which goes west to east.

In broad terms it makes sense to think of the Old Kent Road or A2 as the successor to Roman Watling Street, but only in broad terms, because the Old Kent Road does not follow the line of the Roman road. In this part of London, the line of the Roman road is about 260 or 270 yards to the south of the Old Kent Road. Consequently its junction with the Lewes Way is not on the A2, but in a residential street running off it.

The junction is, in fact, somewhere around here:

Lewes road Asylum Road

This is Asylum Road, named after the very large and impressive almshouses built by the Licensed Victuallers Association in the 1820s/30s. (As reported in a previous post, at one point Penge’s Watermen’s Almshouses were going to be located here as well, and were only re-routed to Penge after a timely intervention by a wealthy local resident).

The view above is looking north-east, so we must imagine Watling Street cutting across in front of us to meet the Lewes Way behind the houses, with the Way itself setting off to the south-east, to our right.

It would be nice if the route of the Lewes Way ran neatly down the middle of Asylum Road, but it doesn’t. Instead, it runs through the back-gardens of the houses on its east side, and for much of its passage through South-East London it is equally self-effacing. It rarely coincides directly with a modern road or path. The best way to follow it, therefore, is to identify a few ‘marker points’ where we know that we are on its track.

For instance, after running down behind Asylum Road, the Lewes Way crosses Queens Road about here, at the junction with York Grove, a few yards east of Queens Road Peckham station:

Lewes road York Grove

It then cuts uphill to the east of Nunhead Station, to run through some more back gardens, this time behind the houses on the east side of Ivydale Road:

Lewes road Ivydale Road

The line of the Lewes Way runs eerily parallel to the line of the northern section of Ivydale Road, and this was noticed by the archaeologists – messrs. Davis and Margary – who first established its route in the 1930s. Some Roman routes are ‘remembered’ by parish or county boundaries, but this is not the case with Ivydale Road. Instead, the line of the Lewes Way may have been ‘remembered’ as a property boundary, carried down through the centuries as the plot of land was bequeathed and sold on, until eventually a commercial builder acquired it and unwittingly reproduced the old Roman line in the form of a nice new residential street.

Our next ‘marker point’ is the footbridge which crosses the railway line just east of Camberwell Cemetery, between Brockley Way and Eddystone Road:

Lewes road Brockley bridge

A bit of imagination is required here. The cutting through which the railway now runs was first made for the Croydon Canal in the early nineteenth century. When the Canal Company went bankrupt in the 1830s, the canal was drained and a railway was run along its bed. But this is all recent history compared to the age of the Roman road which we are trying to follow. We must try to forget the cutting, the canal, the railway, and the footbridge, and imagine this site as an unblemished woodland ridge. From Queens Road onwards the Lewes Way has been coming up a gentle slope, and this site marks its top. From here, the Way heads downhill towards Brockley Rise, running straight through the middle of St Hilda’s Church:

Lewes road St Hilda's Church

From St Hilda’s it ploughs on, up the hill on the other side of Brockley Rise, heading for the top of Blythe Hill. From here we can look back along the line of the Lewes Way, with St Hilda’s in the foreground, and the glass towers of the City beyond:

Lewes road Blythe Hill 1

And if we turn around to the south we can see where our modest way will take us next time, guided of course by the new alignment prescribed by the Roman engineers when they stood here two thousand years ago:

Lewes road Blythe Hill 2

Next time: Beckenham and beyond.

Main sources for this post:

Bernard F. Davis, ‘The Roman Road from West Wickham to London’, Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. XLIII, 1935.

Ivan D. Margary, Roman Ways in the Weald, Phoenix House, London, 1948.

Penge by Design: the Naval Asylum

Hardwick Naval Asylum 1

Compared to the Watermen’s Almshouses, prominently sited on Penge High Street, Penge’s ‘other’ almshouses, the King William Naval Asylum on St. John’s Road, are positively retiring. But their story is just as interesting.

The Naval Asylum was made possible by the Queen Dowager Adelaide, widow of William IV.

Hardwick - Adelaide

William had been on the throne during the political turbulence of the early 1830s, at which time Adelaide had been very politically active herself, openly supporting the Tories and opposing Parliamentary reform. She had made herself highly unpopular. When William died and Victoria succeeded in 1837, Adelaide became Queen Dowager. She mostly – though not entirely – dropped her political intrigues, and concentrated on charitable works, and Penge was a beneficiary of this new generosity. In 1840-41 she agreed to contribute as patron to the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Almshouses. And when in the mid-1840s she decided to establish a new set of almshouses to accommodate the widows of naval officers, Penge again was the chosen location.

The big difference between the Watermen’s Almshouses, and the new King William Naval Asylum, is architectural. As described in the previous post, the Watermen’s Almshouses were designed by George Porter, who finessed his position as Surveyor to the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Society to land himself the commission, despite having very little architectural experience. The choice of an architect for the Naval Asylum could not have been more different: as an initiative by a leading member of the Royal Family, nothing less than an utterly respectable, utterly reliable, establishment architect would do. And an establishment architect was duly appointed.

Philip Hardwick belonged to an architectural dynasty. His grand-father was an architect, his father was an architect, and his son was an architect. At the time of the Naval Asylum commission he was in his 50s, and had been designing and building high-profile projects for prestigious clients for more than 20 years. He acted as in-house architect and/or surveyor to the St. Katherine’s Dock Co. (this was the great period of dock construction along the Thames), the London & Birmingham Railway Co. (this was also the time of the first great railway boom), and the Duke of Wellington. He had helped design St. Katherine’s Dock, Wellington Barracks, and St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, and had been solely responsible for Goldsmiths’ Hall, the City of London Club, the Euston Arch (the focus of a celebrated, but unsuccessful, conservation battle in the 1960s),

Hardwick - Euston Arch

and the Great Hall and Library at Lincoln’s Inn.

Hardwick’s favoured style was neo-classical: grandly symmetrical statements of power and tradition, with porticos and pediments and columns in white stone. Goldsmith’s Hall (1829-35) is a good example.

Hardwick - Goldsmiths Hall

It is very much not to my taste, with an opulence and confidence bordering on smugness. His work at St. Katherine’s Dock, Wellington Barracks, St. Bart’s, the City of London Club, and the massive triumphal Euston Arch, were broadly in the same tradition.

But he was capable of branching out. At Lincoln’s Inn in 1843-5 Hardwick achieved something very different. The style here was Tudor: still ultimately rooted in the classical tradition, but pulled in a different direction firstly by its openness to the Gothic legacy; secondly by its commitment to brick rather than stone; and thirdly (it seems to me) by a certain homeliness, a warmth, which the neo-classical distinctly lacks. I can appreciate Hardwick’s work at Goldsmith’s Hall, but I could never like it in the way that I like his work at Lincoln’s Inn.

Hardwick - Lincolns Inn 2

The invitation to design the Naval Asylum at Penge must have come very soon after the completion of Lincoln’s Inn. Compared to the sheer scale of most of his commissions, this was a very small job. But it came direct from the Queen Dowager, so Hardwick was hardly likely to turn it down. Consequently, he found himself once more working within the Tudor style – not because he had become a Tudor convert, but simply because this was the accepted style for almshouses. The Watermen’s Almshouses were Tudor, as were the Hickey almshouses in Richmond, the Boot & Shoemakers in Mortlake, the Aged Pilgrims in Peckham, and Dovedale in Battersea.

The King William Naval Asylum is only a few yards from the Watermen’s Almshouses, so comparisons between the two are easy if not inevitable. The Watermen’s is undoubtedly more striking and prominent by virtue of both its location and its design. But according to Pevsner, Hardwick’s Naval Asylum is better: “not only more correct than Porter (the Watermen’s architect) could manage to be, but much more sensitively designed”.

I’m aware that I’m reluctant to agree, because I find the enthusiastic opportunist Porter a more engaging character than the well-connected establishment architect Hardwick. But: character is one thing, and talent is another. I have to admit that Hardwick was the better designer, and the Naval Asylum is the better design.

It is better because it is more fit for purpose – the purpose being the provision of quiet, pleasant, respectable homes for the widows of naval officers: as Pevsner says, the Naval Asylum is “quite humble”.

Hardwick Naval Asylum 2

And it is better because unlike Porter, Hardwick had studied and mastered the Tudor style. So: Hardwick used red brick, where Porter used London stock. Hardwick integrated a black diaper pattern, where Porter had no pattern. And Hardwick made more imaginative use of the Tudor fancy for roofs and chimneys.

Hardwick Naval Asylum 1

Of course, Hardwick had enormous advantages over Porter in terms of time, resources, and experience, including the very recent experience of his Tudor work at Lincoln’s Inn. But it’s no crime to find oneself at an advantage so long as one puts it to good use, and Hardwick did. The result was the Naval Asylum, and Penge is the better for it.

Penge by Design: the Watermen’s Almshouses

View of the Watermen and Lightermen's Almshouses in Penge, Kent, 1842. Artist: WF Starling Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

The Free Watermen and Lightermen’s Almshouses is Penge’s most prominent building, its iconic building, sitting at its historic heart, next to St John’s Church and directly opposite the Crooked Billet. The three ranges of cottages, arranged with their distinctive gate-tower around a formal garden, were built in 1840-41 “for the benefit of Aged and Decayed Members of the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Company and their Widows”. But only a year before building began, the almshouses were heading not for Penge but for New Cross.

 The story begins in 1838, when the Company of Watermen and Lightermen of the River Thames resolved to build a set of almshouses. The Company was a guild of the City of London, established in the sixteenth century to regulate the carrying of passengers and goods on the river. By the 1830s many guilds had little to do with their original craft or trade, and functioned instead as convenient business networks for merchants and financiers. The Watermen’s Company however still had a connection with its original purpose, and included both well-to-do businessmen and working members plying their trade on the Thames. But their jobs were fast disappearing, under pressure from the newly-erected London docks, the new bridges, and the advent of steam-power. The Company decided to build its almshouses partly because its working members’ traditional livelihoods were on the way out.

 Thames waterman 1824

 By the end of the year, prospective sites had been identified at Bow Common, Deptford, East India Dock Road, Hanwell, Kennington, Kingston, Peckham, Rotherhithe and Wandsworth. But the favoured location was Asylum Road at New Cross. Here, the Licensed Victuallers had built an estate of almshouses in the early 1830s: a large and ambitious project in a neo-classical style, long ranges of cottages with a central portico of giant columns. In December, the Watermen’s Company decided in principle to follow suit and build its own almshouses in Asylum Road, because of its “proximity to the metropolis and its central and healthy location and favourable aspect”.  

 At this point, John Dudin Brown stepped in. He was a wealthy merchant member of the Watermen’s Company, with a large house in the posh new suburb of Penge. For him the almshouses were a prize, which could bring prestige both to Penge in general, and to himself in particular, and he went methodically about the task of claiming his prize. First, he got himself co-opted onto the strategically-important Almshouses Committee. Next he undercut the Asylum Road lobby through sheer generosity, announcing that he was prepared to donate 1.5 acres of land in Penge “as a gratuitous present to the Company” to accommodate the almshouses. And finally he invited the Committee’s members to come down to Penge as his and his wife’s guests, to view the site. They duly arrived on 24th January 1839, looked it over, and engaged in some polite horse-trading which led to Brown enlarging his offer from 1.5 to 2 acres. They then retired to his house for refreshments, and one week later the Company’s governing body held a special meeting at which it gratefully accepted Brown’s offer. The almshouses were coming to Penge.

 The pace now quickened. Fundraising got under way, significantly helped when the Queen Dowager Adelaide agreed to be patron – hence the celebratory engraving at the top of this piece, which with its ambitious perspective makes the almshouses look about twice the size of the Palace of Versailles.

 At the same time the Company called upon its Surveyor, Mr Porter, for a briefing on contemporary almshouse designs, and with these in mind it invited architects to submit their proposals. Fourteen were received, including one from Mr Porter. From these a shortlist of four was drawn up, which included Mr Porter. And on 23rd May 1839 the governing body voted overwhelmingly in favour of the design submitted by – Mr Porter. It looks very much as if George Porter was the favoured internal candidate from the start, well-placed to exploit his inside knowledge as Company Surveyor to give it the design that it wanted.

 The Watermen’s Almshouses are neo-Tudor, described by Pevsner as “the inevitable style for almshouses” at this time. The original sixteenth-century Tudor style was an English interpretation of Renaissance ideas coming in from Italy. It took on board the Renaissance taste for rectangular symmetry, and for brick rather than stone, and to these it added a fashion for clusters of tall brick chimneys. And, because many well-known Tudor buildings were associated with court-yards (Hampton Court, Fulham Palace, Lincoln’s Inn), nineteenth-century architects seeking to emulate the Tudor style also included court-yards in their designs, which in turn required gate-houses or gate-towers.

 Many of these elements are present at the Watermen’s Almshouses. It consists of three ranges of cottages around an open space – a formal garden rather than a court-yard, but the point is made. The buildings are of brick. The design overall is nicely symmetrical. The two-storey cottages are comfortable, homely, pleasantly screened by brick arcades, and topped with tall chimney clusters at regular intervals.  

 But over and above this attractive arrangement, dominating it, drawing the eye, is the gate-tower.

 Watermens Almshouses 2

 To my mind the gate-tower is simply wrong. It’s too big. It overshadows the cottages on either side, twice or three times their height, and the sheer bulk of the central gabled gate-house, and the two solid battlemented turrets with their leaden square-cut ogee roofs, dominates the scene. These were after all meant to be almshouses, modest dwellings where retired watermen and their widows could live in peace and quiet, but the big gate-tower seems instead to hint at alarums and excursions.

 And yet, I have to admit, the whole is somehow saved by sheer chutzpah. Porter’s design is historically inaccurate, and in my view thrown off-balance by the gate-tower, but its self-confidence, its refusal to apologise for itself, wins us over regardless. In the end, we can’t help liking the Watermen’s Almshouses, and we can’t help liking George Porter for building them.

 To the best of my knowledge his only other architectural project dates from a decade before. In 1830 he remodelled the exterior of the church of St Mary Magdalene in Bermondsey Street, a short walk from London Bridge Station. Pevsner forgivingly calls it “gimcrack, charming, unscholarly Gothic Revival”. Here it is.

 St Mary Magdalene

 Let’s be generous. This job pre-dated Pugin’s scholarly turn, his call for historically-accurate churches in the Gothic style, and to that degree we can perhaps forgive Porter. But even with that allowance, this is curate’s-egg Gothic, Gothic only in parts, those parts being the windows. Otherwise it’s pure Porter fantasy. What is Gothic about the blocky square tower with its over-sized battlements? What is Gothic about the sloping over-sized battlements on either flank? What is Gothic about the large expanses of flat unadorned light stone facing? Just like the Penge gate-tower, it’s all wrong.

 And yet, just like the Penge gate-tower, there is an in-your-face audacity about it that is rather winning. I have no idea what Porter thought he was doing here, but whatever it was, he did it with boundless energy and utter conviction. And ten years later, he repeated the trick at Penge.

 Key sources: Bridget Cherry & Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: London 2: South, Penguin Books, London, 1983; Records of the Society of Watermen & Lightermen, Guildhall Library.


Penge by Design: the National Sports Centre and the LCC


The National Sports Centre (NSC) at Crystal Palace emerged from the same school of municipal modernism as the Royal Festival Hall and National Film Theatre on the South Bank, and from a time when social and political progress, though not taken for granted, was at least widely believed to be possible.

The NSC was conceived by Gerald Barry, in the aftermath of his stint as Director General of the 1951 Festival of Britain. He was invited to come up with ideas for the largely derelict Crystal Palace site, and responded by pointing out that Britain, a sports-mad nation, had no centre, no physical place, dedicated to sporting excellence. Crystal Palace, he said, could be that place. It had its own sporting traditions – it had hosted FA Cup finals before the First World War, and motor racing more recently – and it offered space and a dramatic hillside setting.

The London County Council (LCC) owned the site, and took up Barry’s proposal. Its own Architects Department was a powerhouse of post-war modernism, which at its best combined functionalism, a commitment to new materials and solutions, and a social-democratic ethos of meeting practical, popular needs. It was led at the time by Leslie Martin, who before joining the LCC had designed the Royal Festival Hall, still today a fantastic building,


the closest we get in London to a People’s Palace. While at the LCC he put together the overall plan for the South Bank complex, including the National Film Theatre and National Theatre;


and subsequently he designed the Museum of London and the London Wall elevated walkway connecting with the Barbican estate.

For the NSC, Martin and his colleague Norman Engleback conceived a unity of three parts: a Sports Hall containing an Olympic swimming pool plus room for indoor sports; a stadium and athletics track; and a hostel and houses for athletes and staff. These three elements would be drawn together by a bridge-walkway taking advantage of the hillside setting, running down from the hostel to provide access to the hall and a vantage point over the stadium. The first plans were produced in 1954, building started in the late ’50s, and the NSC was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh on 13th July 1964.

The Builder, in a feature article that same month, lauded the 11-storey hostel, the 12,000-seater stadium carved out of the hillside, and the Sports Hall’s undulating roof. But it was almost apologetic about the Sports Hall interior with its ubiquitous concrete, seeking to defend it as a purely pragmatic measure “around the public areas where the maintenance of paintwork might be a problem”.


This undersells a stunning design. There’s no doubt in my mind that the architects – first Martin, then his successor Hubert Bennett – used concrete because they loved concrete. Concrete is often associated nowadays with Brutalism, and Brutalism has a certain dark charm, but the Crystal Palace Sports Hall is far from Brutalist. Instead, this is concrete as elegance, concrete springing aloft in the service of light and space.


More than 50 years have passed since the Sports Hall was opened, and 20 since it won a Grade II* listing, but to my mind it is still beautiful, still doggedly optimistic in these mean-minded, shameful, Brexit-hugging times.

Around 2004/2005 the site was in the news when the Twentieth Century Society revealed that Bromley Council was considering demolishing it. This would of course have been illegal; its Grade II* listing placed a duty on the Council to maintain it in good condition. The immediate threat was lifted by London’s success in winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics, and since then the NSC has been associated with various pipe-dreams such as Crystal Palace Football Club’s flirtation with a possible return to its first home, or the appalling proposal from China’s Zhang Rong Group to build a retail and entertainment opportunity masquerading as a facsimile of the original Crystal Palace.

For now, the NSC is run by Greenwich Leisure Ltd., a charitable social enterprise, as a public sports facility. In other words, for now, it’s doing what it was always meant to do.


Noviomagus: South London’s Roman puzzle


 In 1568 William Camden, antiquary and humanist, published his great work Britannia, a topographical survey of sixteenth century Britain. In discussing the area that we now call South London he made reference to:

“ … Woodcot, where by a tuft of trees upon an hil-top there are to be seene manifest signes of a prety towne and diverse wals built of flint stones … This in my conceit was that Citie which Ptolomee called Niomagus, and the Emperour Antonine Noviomagus”.

Woodcote today is a suburb merging into Purley to the east and Wallington to the north, and I doubt whether many residents are aware that it was once written of as a ‘Citie’ which caught the attention of a Roman emperor.

However, the key point of interest here is the reference to Noviomagus. Scholars were arguing about its location when Elizabeth I was on the throne, they were arguing about it a century ago when the Victoria County History described it as “one of the greatest puzzles of Romano-British topography”, and they are arguing about it still. Noviomagus may not be a lost Roman ‘Citie’, but it is a lost Roman settlement, and it’s lost somewhere in South London.

Camden’s mention of the ‘Emperour Antonine’ is an oblique reference to a Roman imperial document, the Antonine Itinerary, produced in the early 200s, which listed routes and distances across various provinces of the Western Roman Empire. The reference to Noviomagus occurs in Iter II or “Route 2” of the British section, which describes a journey from Londinium (London) to Durobrivae (Rochester). According to the Itinerary, travellers following this route from London would after 10 Roman miles reach Noviomagus; after another 18 miles, Vagniacis; and finally arrive after another 9 miles at Rochester. The overall distance from London to Rochester by this route would therefore be 37 Roman miles.

There is of course a well-known Roman road – Watling Street – which runs direct from London to Rochester, so our first thought is that Noviomagus and Vagniacis must lie somewhere on Watling Street. But the distances don’t work. Depending on where you measure from, the direct distance from London to Rochester along Watling Street is between about 27 and 31 Roman miles, not 37.

Our second thought, therefore, is that the Itinerary simply made a mistake and got the distances confused. But this doesn’t work either, because other parts of the Itinerary correctly state the direct distance between London and Rochester: Route 3 and Route 4 both describe this journey, without any mention of Noviomagus or Vagniacis, and both give the distance as 27 Roman miles.

Route 2 must therefore be describing a more indirect journey, 10 miles longer than those in Routes 3 and 4, which might include some stretches along Watling Street, but which also clearly involves one or more significant detours. Suddenly, the location of Noviomagus becomes much more intriguing because in principle, it might be anywhere in South London which (a) can claim to be a ‘Roman site’; and (b) lies about 10 miles from the city of London and no more than 27 miles from Rochester. A lot of places meet these conditions, and over the years scholars have performed heroic feats of advocacy in arguing for their personal favourites. Suggestions have included Bexley Heath, Charlton, Crayford, Croydon, Greenwich Park, Keston, Welling, West Wickham and (as we have seen) Woodcote. Some claims are rooted in solid argument, others in parochial loyalty. But for my money a particularly convincing case was made almost 90 years ago by F.C. Elliston-Erwood.

Elliston-Erwood was a respected archaeologist and historian who published a paper in 1928 in the Journal of the British Archaeological Association. In it, he argued that routes in the Itinerary must have run along recognised roads: that is to say, while they needn’t necessarily stick to high-quality military highways, they would at least follow established tracks or ‘minor roads’ connecting settlements and centres of population. They would not simply wander off into the countryside.

Secondly, he pointed out that a journey from London to Rochester involves four river-crossings, at the Ravensbourne, Cray, Darent and Medway. Each of these had an established crossing point, at Deptford, Crayford, Dartford, and Rochester respectively. So, he argued, any reasonable route would make use of these crossing points.

This approach throws a new light on Route 2, with its additional 10 miles and its references to Noviomagus and Vagniacis. It suggests that these references signify not just places, but roads; that Route 2 detours off Watling Street to follow “the Noviomagus road”; returns to Watling Street for a river crossing; and then leaves it again further on to take “the Vagniacis road”. And the distances suggest that we should expect to find “the Noviomagus road” between Deptford and Crayford, and “the Vagniacis road” between Dartford and Rochester.

If this is right, then Noviomagus cannot be several miles to the south at Croydon, Keston, West Wickham or Woodcote. The Roman site at West Wickham, for instance, has been championed in recent years as the site of Noviomagus, and it is indeed about 10 miles from London. But it is also far from any of the established river crossing-points. And the only way for a Roman traveller to get from West Wickham to Rochester, while covering no more than 27 miles, would have been to strike out across open country. It is hard to believe that a cross-country hike like this would be consecrated as an imperially-approved route when good firm roads were available a few miles to the north.

This leaves us with five places which have been proposed as Noviomagus, and which are sited on roads which connect with the established river crossing-points. They are Greenwich Park, Charlton, Crayford, Welling and Bexley Heath.

We can dismiss Greenwich because it’s far too close to London. And if we’re right in suspecting that Noviomagus and Vagniacis are associated with minor roads, then we can also dismiss Crayford, Welling and Bexley Heath, all of which lie on Watling Street itself. That leaves us with Charlton.

Elliston-Erwood pointed out that there was a Romano-British settlement at Charlton: he should know, because he helped excavate it. It was on Cox’s Mount, the highest point of Gilbert’s Pit.



Gilbert’s Pit is the sandy bluff which lies between the Woolwich Road and Maryon Wilson Park, whose sand-pits were quarried for the Woolwich Arsenal and for glass-making in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


The busy A206 at its foot, now lined with warehouses and retail parks, is the modern version of an old road, with a good gravel surface, connecting a line of settlements – Greenwich, Charlton, Woolwich, Plumstead – all of which have produced Roman remains. And the distance from London is about right. This is why Elliston-Erwood had “no hesitation” in declaring that Charlton was Noviomagus, which means that the modern A206 was once “the Noviomagus road”.

Following the same logic, he suggested that Vagniacis was probably on another by-road at Greenhithe or Northfleet, rather than at Springhead on Watling Street, where it is usually placed.

So: unless and until I come across a better case for some other site, and a convincing rebuttal of Elliston-Erwood’s arguments on river-crossings and minor roads, I’m backing Charlton as the likeliest solution to the centuries-old puzzle of Noviomagus.



The Lambeth Ford and Roman Watling Street


 The London region, before the Romans arrived, wasn’t a bad place to live. The clay soil was hard work, but close to the Thames and its tributaries the soil was better, and the river itself was rich in food and other resources. For travellers by boat the Thames was also a highway, but for those on foot it was more of a barrier. Long before the Romans arrived, therefore, people would have needed crossing-places on the Thames.

There is a longstanding tradition that there was a ford across the river, roughly between St. Thomas’ Hospital in Lambeth and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.


And there are versions of the tradition which associate this ford directly with the Roman road, Watling Street, whose southern section comes in to Southwark from Kent, and whose northern section heads up from Marble Arch along the Edgware Road. For some, because the line of Watling Street appears to ‘point’ at the ford, it follows that the ford must be its intended destination. For others, Watling Street in its entirety was merely the Roman version of an ancient pre-Roman track-way which ran from Kent to Wales, and which crossed the Thames at Lambeth.

I have no problem with the notion of a ford at Lambeth. I have no problem with the notion that people would have used the ford in Roman times, just as they did in the centuries before and after. But I don’t believe that this ford was directly connected with the Roman road that we call Watling Street.

Let’s take things in order. The idea of a ford at Lambeth may seem unlikely to us because today, it would be suicidal to try to wade across the river between St. Thomas’ Hospital and the Houses of Parliament. Today’s Thames at this point is an urban, embanked and tidal Thames, deep, fast, and dangerous. But for most of its life the river here was wider, shallower and slower, and it wasn’t tidal because the tide exhausted itself further downstream. Its banks were made up of mudflats, marsh and beach, broken up by creeks and inlets into numerous small islands or eyots. One of these on the north bank was Thorney Island, formed by the two arms of the River Tyburn as it approached the Thames from the north.

Thorney Island no longer exists as an island, but we can still place it, because in the seventh century it was chosen as the site for the church which went on to become Westminster Abbey. We know that early medieval churches were often located on or near roads or tracks, so maybe one reason for choosing the site of Westminster Abbey was its proximity to the crossing-place on the Thames.

It is therefore perfectly possible that there was a ford between Lambeth and Thorney IsIand, and that it was already there long before the Romans arrived. But what connection, if any, might this ancient ford have with Watling Street?

Watling Street is a Roman road. There is no evidence that it was laid on top of an ancient British track-way, and Alec Detsicas, in his well-researched study The Cantiaci, firmly refutes this idea. It is also intuitively unlikely if we look at the line of Watling Street on the map, because it really is one of the straightest Roman roads in Britain, slicing across the landscape along uninterrupted alignments in both its southern and northern sections. It has all the signs of a route dictated by the preferences and prejudices of Roman engineers.

So let’s come at it from another angle. Let’s take two fixed points: the church of St George the Martyr, which marks the junction where Watling Street meets two other Roman roads, Stane Street and Borough High Street; and St Thomas’ Hospital, which we believe was the site of Lambeth ford. If we really want to believe in a link between Watling Street and the ford, then we must posit some sort of spur-road running between these points, from St George the Martyr to St Thomas’ Hospital.

On the map below,


the broken line represents the most direct route for such a spur: parallel with and a short way north of Borough Road, north of St George’s Circus, cutting across Westminster Bridge Road near Lambeth North tube station,


grazing the northern edge of Archbishop’s Park before passing through the Hospital and across the river. On Thorney Island it runs up the nave of Westminster Abbey,


then roughly along the line of today’s Tothill Street towards Buckingham Palace, where it veers somewhat north to track Park Lane up to Marble Arch and Edgware Road.


But this broken line is entirely speculative. The only tentative suggestion that such a route may have existed as a Roman road is a trace of an undated gravelled road in Lambeth Palace garden. There is nothing else. Maps offer no support: the earliest accurate street map of this part of South London, John Rocque’s map of 1746, shows no road corresponding even faintly to our posited route. Nor is there any trace of it in parish boundaries: the boundary between the old parishes of Southwark and Lambeth runs north-south, not east-west as it would need to do if it were following our broken line.

Instead, the evidence suggests that travellers along Watling Street would have passed through the Roman city of Londinium. Coming in from Kent, they would have turned up Borough High Street to go through Southwark, across the bridge and into the city. When they resumed their journey they would leave along the line of High Holborn and Oxford Street to Marble Arch, where they would turn up Edgware Road towards Verulamium (St. Albans) and the north.

On a modern map this may look like a convoluted detour. But modern maps do not reflect Roman priorities. I believe that this ‘detour’ makes perfectly good sense once we grasp that Roman roads were projections of urban-based Roman power.

Roman roads were about control exercised at many levels. Their solid foundations and surfaces allowed for rapid travel, especially rapid travel by soldiers bent on keeping the peace: this is well known. Their engineering, combining straight alignments and pragmatic deviations (discussed in another post), were both practical, and highly symbolic assertions of control over the landscape itself. And most important of all, the roads ran to and from towns and fortresses, the sites from which power was exercised. The roads served both to push the agents of Roman power outwards in the form of soldiers and administrators and tax-gatherers; and to pull its subjects inwards, into the towns, to gain access to markets and special services and the prestige that came from rubbing up against Romanitas. Roman power was an urban power, and its roads were the means by which that urban power projected itself out into the rest of the country.

So, when travellers coming along Watling Street from Kent in the second or third century arrived at the junction where St George the Martyr now stands,


they would not have regarded Londinium as a detour. They would have regarded it as a natural and welcome destination. For farmers or merchants or artisans it had markets. For artists it had rich clients. For soldiers It had barracks. For everyone it offered food, rest, creature comforts, and a renewal of the sense of belonging to a vast, cosmopolitan civilization.

I have no problem with the notion of a ford across the Thames at Lambeth. But I don’t believe that the Romans would have regarded the existence of such a ford as justifying the construction of a new road, when the alternative crossing-place at London Bridge gave access to the city.