Penge by Design: the National Sports Centre and the LCC

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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,

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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;

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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”.

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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.

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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.

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Noviomagus: South London’s Roman puzzle

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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The Lambeth Ford and Roman Watling Street

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 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.

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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,

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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,

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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,

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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.

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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,

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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.

Penge By Design: Edwin Nash

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 Penge’s church of St. John the Evangelist on the corner of St. John’s Road and the High Street, built in 1849-1850, was designed Edwin Nash & J.N. Round.  

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 It was one of Penge’s landmark buildings erected from the 1830s as it made its transition from semi-rural hamlet to railway suburb.

 Although Round is credited as joint-architect, he never seems to have had a substantial career. His only other project that I can identify was in the 1860s, again working with Nash. More of this below.

 Edwin Nash on the other hand, although never a great architectural name, was active for nearly forty years in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. These were the years of the Gothic Revival, and to understand his career, we need to understand what the Gothic Revival was all about.

 Whimsical buildings reminiscent of the Middle Ages, with ‘picturesque’ pointed arches, cropped up occasionally from the mid-eighteenth century, and insistently by the 1820s. Then, in the 1830s, Augustus Pugin burst on the scene. A devout Catholic and talented designer, he published a manifesto arguing that the medieval ‘Gothic’ (i.e. non-classical) style was the authentic expression of Christendom; that its revival was a religious duty; and that new Gothic buildings should faithfully follow medieval practices and designs. Many agreed, including power-brokers in the Anglican Church, and the 1830s and 1840s saw a fashion for historically-correct churches built in close imitation of the ‘Early English’ and ‘Decorated’ styles of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  

 By 1850 the Gothic was triumphant, but some architects were feeling constrained by Pugin’s historical correctness. They started to mix styles and motifs from different medieval moments; designs became less predictable, clearing the way for soaring asymmetrical masses of brick and stone; there was a passion for colour, pattern, mouldings, and contrasting textures; and the Gothic look, already seen in schools and colleges as well as churches, was now thought appropriate for hotels, offices, railway stations, warehouses, statues … This eclectic style, with its free-wheeling elaboration of the omnipresent pointed arch, is known as the High Gothic and it dominated architecture in the second half of the century.

 Edwin Nash’s career began in the 1840s, in the era of historical correctness, and his early jobs reflect this. In three busy years from 1849 to 1852 he worked on three churches in north-east Surrey and north-west Kent: St. John’s, Penge; St. James, North Cray; and All Souls, Crockenhill. St. John’s and St. James were in the fourteenth-century Decorated style, while All Souls was thirteenth-century Early English.

 The features that define St John’s as ‘Decorated’ include both its overall design – nave and transepts, tower at the west end, a striking ‘broached’ spire 

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 – and its detail, such as the stone tracery within its windows, which allowed bigger window-spaces and more light while still providing secure housing for the glass.

 The south windows facing the High Street suffered bomb damage in the War, but two of the original windows survive on the north side, complete with Nash’s stone tracery and stained glass from William Morris’s works at Merton.

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 But the single most striking internal feature is the roof. An open, high, timber truss runs down the nave, reminiscent of medieval hammer-beam roofs such as that in Westminster Hall.  

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 And in the transepts, timber beams leap from the corners to meet in mid-air.

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 These beams impressed the architectural historian John Newman as “especially provocative” when he visited in the 1960s. They are not strictly historically accurate – they are not a typical fourteenth century feature – but it seems to me that they are apt. The Gothic style in all its variations aspires to height and space and light. It seems to me that Nash’s airy timber roof, and his flying timber beams, respect that aspiration. 

His career from the 1850s, once his first three churches were complete, settled into a different pattern. Most of his work involved assisting with restorations and re-buildings, rather than taking overall responsibility. He contributed to medieval restorations and re-builds at St. Martin of Tours, Chelsfield; St. Mary, St. Mary Cray; and St. Nicholas, Sutton. And he added to or enlarged newer nineteenth century churches at St. Bartholomew, Sydenham; and All Saints, Beulah Hill. His particular specialism was in restoring, rebuilding or adding the chancel, the area around the altar which includes the choir and sanctuary.  

But in two busy years in 1863-4 he did take on two complete projects. Firstly, he returned to Penge to design and build St. John’s Cottages at the bottom of Maple Road.

 

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 Just across the road from St. John’s church, these modest, secluded (and now highly desirable) homes were originally built as alms-houses, presumably connected with the church.    

Secondly, together with his former collaborator J.N. Round he designed the nearby church of St. Philip in Taylor’s Lane, next to Wells Park in Sydenham. Their work here reflected the dominant High Gothic approach, combining elements of Early English design with an unusual, short and contained overall plan. St. Philip’s was badly damaged during the War, grappled with continuing structural problems, and was finally demolished in the early 1980s. (More information at http://southwark.anglican.org/downloads/lostchurches/SYD05.pdf). 

Edwin Nash was a safe pair of architectural hands in South London’s Gothic Revival, He left his mark on Penge and many other places, with variations on the Gothic theme which defined the Victorian city.

Roman Stane Street: on firm ground through Ewell & Epsom

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We saw in a previous post that in his book on Roman Stane Street published just before the First World War, Hilaire Belloc insisted that it followed a single straight alignment from Merton Priory to Pebble Lane, seven or eight miles to the south on the downs above Dorking. If true, this would mean that Stane Street was unconnected with the suspiciously straight stretch of the modern A24 from Morden to Nonsuch Park, and it would mean that it simply bypassed modern Ewell and Epsom.

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After the Great War, Captain Grant published his damning rebuttal of Belloc. He argued, correctly, that the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24 was an authentic part of Stane Street. He then projected this line to the south-west, and argued that the road ran through Ewell and Epsom and on to Ashtead, before turning south-east to cross the River Mole at Burford Bridge. In Grant’s view, Pebble Lane had nothing to do with Stane Street.

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Grant was right in general, but wrong in this particular. Both the Morden-Nonsuch stretch of the A24, and Pebble Lane, are bona fide survivors of Stane Street. But they are clearly on quite different alignments. So we have to ask (a) how do they connect? and (b) why did the Roman engineers make things so complicated in this area?

First of all, let’s sort out the route of the Roman road through Ewell, which was clarified by excavations in 1970-75 and 2003.

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The modern road runs down from Morden and alongside Nonsuch Park, then does a dog-leg before meeting the dual carriageway which by-passes Ewell. The Roman road, however, carried straight on along the Morden-Nonsuch alignment, crossed the dual carriageway, crossed St Mary’s churchyard, and continued to the Old Tower just beyond the church.

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Here it shifted slightly to the west to cut through Ewell’s residential streets (Staneway, St James Avenue).

It ran on to cross the modern railway line close to Windmill Bridge, through St Martin’s churchyard in Epsom,

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and on to the top of Woodcote Park. Here it shifted east, ran on, shifted west, ran on, shifted east, and finally met Pebble Lane just beyond Thirty Acre Barn.

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There is nothing unusual about a few changes of direction in a road or path over the course of four or five miles, the distance from Nonsuch Park to Pebble Lane. However, this is not just any road, but a Roman road which is notable for its long straight alignments. As we saw in the previous post, the Roman engineers liked their alignments – but they were also happy to make pragmatic compromises when circumstances justified it. So: what were the circumstances around Ewell and Epsom?

According to Ivan Margary, the doyen of Roman road studies, it was all about the road surface. We saw previously that the course of Stane Street at Newington, and possibly at Clapham, was diverted to skirt around areas of marshland. In the Ewell and Epsom area the issue wasn’t marsh but clay: the connecting route between Ewell and Pebble Lane was chosen to keep the road off the clay and on firm chalk.

Finally: note once more the recurring theme of churches. Medieval churches situated directly on Stane Street as it passes through South London include St George the Martyr, Merton Priory, St Mary’s Ewell, and St Martin’s Epsom.

Belloc made much of this connection and, however wrong he may have been about other things, he was right about this. There is a pattern here to which we will return.

South London Modernism: Threepenny Bit

Just look at this lovely print

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of the NLA Tower in Croydon, aka No. 1 Croydon, aka the Threepenny Bit to us oldies who were around before 1971, aka the Fifty Pee to callow youngsters for whom pre-decimal coinage is as historically remote as the Battle of Hastings or the England football team actually winning something.

The building was designed by Richard Seifert, master of the high-rise tower in the 1960s and 1970s, architect of Centrepoint near St. Giles in 1966, which notoriously stood empty for many years; and the NatWest Tower in the City in 1980, which we are now required to refer to as ‘Tower 42’ as if it had been cast for a bit-part in a near-future urban dystopia directed by Ridley Scott. Seifert didn’t only do towers. He also designed the vile monstrosity of Euston Station, and as such was implicated in the demolition of the nineteenth century station with its famous and irreplaceable Euston Arch.

But the Threepenny Bit is OK. It works. It has character. It’s high but not too high. Its clambering, stacked jaggedness is strangely satisfying. And it has stood the test of time: it was completed almost half a century ago back in 1970, since when other buildings have crowded in, and East Croydon station next door has had a post-modern facelift, and the Croydon Tram has arrived and squatted down in its shadow. But the Threepenny Bit, middle-aged and concrete-clad, is still comfortable in its space, one item – rather a late item – of Croydon’s Modern Moment.

In Abercrombie’s Greater London Plan of 1944, that extraordinary exercise in utopian social democracy, Croydon loomed large as a centre of population, commercial services and manufacturing industry. In general Abercrombie was hostile to industrial development in the suburbs, but he regarded Croydon’s significant industrial base as a special case that deserved protection.

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He also argued that working class housing should be close to workers’ jobs, and lambasted Croydon’s Tory Council for its pre-war cynicism in siting a new working-class housing estate out at Lodge Lane, far from either jobs or decent public transport. That estate continued to grow and became New Addington.

Abercrombie’s vision did have an impact – the Green Belt, New Towns – but the Plan as a whole was not implemented. Local planning stayed with the local boroughs, and in Croydon the borough council was dominated by an ambitious group of Tories. Where Abercrombie had advocated a deliberate, planned redistribution of manufacturing and services across the metropolitan area, they sniffed a local opportunity for a different sort of redistribution – competitive rather than planned, investment pulled in by low rates and good transport links, a zero-sum redistribution of jobs and money to Croydon from central London, with the emphasis on commercial services and scant interest in manufacturing.

The 1956 Croydon Corporation Act gave them the powers they needed, and Croydon’s Modern Moment arrived. The focus was on Wellesley Road, which was comprehensively refashioned as a zone of commercial and cultural modernism: the Fairfield Halls in 1962; St George’s House (the Nestlé building) and St Georges Walk (a first stab at a shopping mall) in 1964; the Wellesley Road underpass in 1965; Taberner House in 1967; the Whitgift Centre (a more ambitious and successful stab at a shopping mall) and the Wellesley Road flyover in 1968; Apollo House and Lunar House (a grimly familiar landmark to generations of migrants) in 1970; and the Threepenny Bit, another couple of hundred yards to the east, in the same year.

Croydon’s Modernist Moment was, therefore, a Tory Modernist Moment. Which is annoying for those of us who (a) don’t like Tories but (b) are rather fond of some bits of Croydon Modernism, such as the Threepenny Bit and the Fairfield Halls. But I suppose we’ll just have to learn to live with complexity.

Meanwhile: if you like the Threepenny Bit print, go to http://www.madebymrsm.co.uk/ where there are many more wonderful London Modern designs by Kate Marsden.

Stane Street at Merton: the Wandle and the Priory

Despite arguments about the precise course of Roman Stane Street as it makes its way through South London, there has always been a consensus that the road crossed the River Wandle at Merton, close to the site which later became Merton Priory. However, for a long time no-one knew the exact location of the crossing.   

In trying to identify this location, we might expect the River Wandle itself to provide a reliable fixed point from which to start. But rivers are not fixed. It is in their nature to wander, to find new courses, and in Merton the course of the Roman Wandle was some way to the east of the modern Wandle. Two thousand years ago the river ran close to the line of today’s Christchurch Road, and passed in front of today’s Colliers Wood tube station. In fact Colliers Wood tube station is the site of the Roman river crossing. An extended and highly successful archaeological excavation, which ran from 1976 to 1990, answered this and other longstanding questions. 

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The Roman river crossing was simply the first in a long line of interventions which have continued right up to the present, and which make this part of Merton into a perfect illustration of the rationale for this blog. My aim in PengePast is to look beyond and beneath the suburban familiarity of South London, and to reveal it as an ancient landscape of human endeavour, struggle and strangeness. Merton certainly does that. 

To illustrate the point: here is the southern edge of the retail park, next to Merantun Way, as it is today. 

stane-st-merton-abbey-retail-park

Three thousand years ago, this site was a riverside meadow. A little less than two thousand years ago, it carried the Roman road. 800 years ago it was the west end of a large priory church, as shown in the map at the top. 100 years ago  

stane-st-merton-1909-map

it was Merton Abbey railway station. And today it is a retail park of quite astonishing ugliness. But in its very ugliness it makes the point that even the most mundane and hideous expressions of suburban modernity are part of an historical process. Even a shoppers’ car-park represents another set of meanings, laid on the palimpsest of South London’s landscape. 

Roman Stane Street was first built around AD 50, with further work carried out between 150 and 200. It seems to have fallen into disuse – or at least, it wasn’t repaired any more – towards the end of the Roman period, from about 350. But the string of Anglo-Saxon settlements and medieval churches along its length show that even if its paving fell short of the Roman ideal, it continued to serve as an important highway long after Britain fell out of the Empire. 

The map at the top highlights two phases of the site’s history: the Roman phase, including the course of the Wandle, the line of Stane Street, and the river crossing; and the medieval phase, including Merton Priory church, and the boundary of the Priory precinct. Both phases were addressed by the 1976-1990 excavations.    

The Augustinian Priory at Merton was founded in 1117, and became an important ecclesiastical institution enjoying royal patronage. At this time abbeys, monasteries and priories acted as clerical, economic and educational centres in their surrounding areas. Merton certainly played this role, and in the Priory’s early years the young Thomas Becket was sent from his home in the city of London to be a scholar here. By the time the Priory church was built towards the end of the C12th, Becket was already a martyr, murdered at the altar in Canterbury Cathedral. 

The church was built in the Romanesque style, its west door standing directly on top of the Roman road, and for more than three centuries it stood as the most imposing element of a powerful institution. With the C16th Reformation, of course, like other abbeys and monasteries throughout the country, Merton Priory was closed down. But whereas the buildings on many other sites were simply left to moulder, Merton’s church was promptly dismantled, its stones robbed for re-use in Henry VIII’s new palace a few miles down the road at Nonsuch. Some buildings seem to have survived into the 1640s, when the site was used to garrison troops in the Civil War. But the whole area was transformed from the late C17th as the Wandle in general became increasingly industrialised. Among these industries was textile manufacture and printing, which eventually led William Morris to establish his Abbey Mills works here in 1881.  

By this time, any physical traces of Merton Priory were thought to have disappeared. But in 1914 a Romanesque gate-way was discovered, built into the fabric of a local house. It had clearly belonged to an important Priory building, such as a guest-house or chapel. It was removed and re-erected about a mile away in the church-yard of St. Mary the Virgin.  

stane-st-merton-priory-gate-2

Here it still stands, a robust piece of C12th masonry, its chevron pattern still sharp, a surprising and rather wonderful remnant of the great medieval Priory at Merton.  

Roman Stane Street: the Clapham Deviation

Ivan D. Margary was the doyen of Roman road studies from the 1940s to the 1960s. He is still recognised as a formidable authority, and his books such as Roman Roads in Britain and Roman Ways in the Weald

 margary-roman-ways-weald

are a wonderful resource. Margary always stressed the disciplined pragmatism of the Roman engineers. They used straight alignments to identify ideal and economic lines across the landscape, and would happily run their roads along these alignments where practicable. But when local topography or soil conditions intervened, they adjusted.

So for instance, at the northern end of Stane Street close to the Thames, the Roman landscape was made up of small islands, creeks and marshes (for more on this see ‘South London Begins‘). Between Newington Causeway and Great Dover Street was a marsh later known as ‘Stewfens’; just to the north was the aptly-named Marshalsea, later the site of a famous debtors’ prison; and the name ‘Newington Causeway’ suggests a raised track around boggy ground. Pragmatic Roman engineers were hardly likely to run their road straight through a marsh, when a minor detour would keep it on firm ground. This is why Margary and others agree that the curve of Newington Causeway round to Elephant and Castle does represent the original route of Roman Stane Street.

But for the next six miles or so, from Kennington right down to the Wandle crossing at Merton, Margary argued that Stane Street was guided by a single straight alignment pointing to the road’s ultimate destination of Chichester.

The modern road more or less sticks to this alignment, with one major exception. It is pretty straight from Kennington to Stockwell; and despite some wandering it stays broadly faithful to the alignment between Balham and Merton. But between Stockwell and Balham we have the “Clapham Deviation”: at Clapham North tube station the modern road veers off to the west up Clapham Rise and Clapham High Street, and then along Clapham Common South Side and Balham Hill, only re-joining the alignment at Balham Station.

In Margary’s view, the route followed by Roman Stane Street was much more direct. It did not veer west at Clapham North, but ploughed straight on through the tube station, through the residential streets to the east of Clapham High Street, through Clapham Crescent, across Clapham Park Road, running just east of Klea Avenue to cross Cavendish Road, and on to meet the modern road close to Balham Station. The map below

stane-st-map-2

shows the deviation in diagrammatic form: Margary’s alignment is in red, and the course of the modern road in black. It also shows the locations of the Northern Line tube stations. I like tube stations. They are friendly and familiar markers in the London townscape, and along this section of the Northern Line they represent a string of ancient South London settlements which sprang up along the length of the road. Kennington, Clapham, Balham, and Tooting are all recorded in the Domesday Book, and must go back many centuries before that.

Essentially Margary’s argument was an application of Occam’s Razor: since the Romans who built the road followed a clear alignment from Kennington to Stockwell, and resumed that same alignment from Balham, the most economical assumption is that the section between Stockwell and Balham was also on that alignment. However archaeological excavations, while not proving him wrong, have failed to prove him right. An excavation in the 1940s at Tableer Road/Worsopp Drive south-west of Clapham Park Road; and another in the 1960s at near-by Lambeth College; found no sign of a road, though both were close to his projected alignment. A 1970s dig on the north side of Gaskarth Road did find pebbles and gravel which seemed to indicate a road or path, but not necessarily a Roman one.

Consequently local historian Michael Green, in his 2008 book Historic Clapham, argues that Roman Stane Street passed through Clapham not on Margary’s alignment, but on the route of the modern road. And he suggests that the Roman road took this course in order to avoid boggy ground in the area which later became Clapham Park. If this is right, then the “Clapham Deviation” is no deviation at all, but a sensible adjustment undertaken for the same reason as the adjustment at Newington Causeway.

Next time: Stane Street, the Wandle crossing, and the tragic fate of Merton Priory.

Contested routes: the Stane Street controversy

Stane Street was the Roman road from London to Chichester – an important military highway from the very start of the occupation, when the Romans’ single most important British ally was Cogidubnus, whose power base lay in what is now Hampshire and West Sussex.

From London Bridge and Southwark, running down through South London, much of the route of Stane Street is on or near the modern A24. But at Merton things get messy. For many years there were very different views, and furious arguments, about its route beyond this point. Everyone agreed that Stane Street crossed the Wandle at the site of Merton Priory (usually called ‘Merton Abbey’). Everyone agreed that, 20 miles to the south, it crossed the River Mole at Burford Bridge just outside Dorking. But there was little agreement about its route between Merton and Dorking, or about its relation (if any) with Morden, Ewell, Epsom and Ashtead.

In the years before World War One, the popular writer Hilaire Belloc walked the route of Stane Street – or at least the route as he understood it – and in 1913 he published a book about it.

belloc-book

 

Belloc was a bundle of contradictions: a devout Catholic of French descent who loved England and the English countryside; a former Liberal MP with a decidedly conservative streak. His book on Stane Street was readable, entertaining, and in large part wrong.

Like many of us, Belloc was impressed by Roman roads, especially those stretches where a long highway streaks, straight as an arrow, through the countryside. But from this he seemed to draw the conclusion that straightness in itself was the Roman engineers’ overriding ambition, and that their roads followed point-to-point “alignments” cutting through the landscape almost regardless of obstacles.

Finally, and quite separately, he argued that in the centuries after the Romans, their roads remained sufficiently important to act as magnets for the siting of medieval churches and abbeys.

Putting these convictions together, Belloc argued that Stane Street ran through South London on a single straight alignment from London Bridge to the downs north of Dorking, where it is represented today by a footpath called Pebble Lane. And he claimed that this alignment ran straight through Merton Abbey on the River Wandle:

“The whole of my argument is based upon the exact alignment of the Stane Street where it has survived with the direction of London Bridge, and upon the identity of the crossing of the Wandle with Merton Abbey, and with the royal land of Merton”.

merton-abbey-mills

 Merton Abbey Mills today, commemorating William Morris’s C19th printworks, which commemorated the C12th Priory

 By committing himself to this alignment, Belloc chose to ignore some inconvenient evidence. Firstly, his alignment by-passed Ewell and Epsom altogether, although he knew perfectly well that traces of Roman road had been found in both places. And more significantly, it required him to ignore long stretches of the modern road which, in his day as in ours, were generally accepted as following the route of Stane Street through South London. To turn a blind eye to this enormous fact on the ground, in favour of an abstract theory of ‘alignment’, was somewhat perverse. We might almost suspect that he was deliberately courting controversy.

Whether or not he was courting it, he got it. In 1922, a retired cavalry officer published a furious refutation of Belloc’s account. The very title of Captain W.A. Grant’s book made his purpose clear – The Topography of Stane Street: A critical review of ‘The Stane Street’ by Hilaire Belloc.

grant-book

 

Blissfully unencumbered by any sense of literary courtesy, Grant laid into Belloc with a will:

“Mr Belloc … jumps to conclusions without taking the trouble to verify them, and gives bearings and distances as ‘exact’ when they are not even approximate … “;

“ … neither of these alignments points where Mr Belloc says it does … ”;

“Surely this must break all previous records for carelessness and inaccuracy”;

“If I seem to have handled Mr Belloc somewhat severely, it is, I think, no more than he deserves … “.

I suspect that, as a military man, Grant was piqued by what he saw as Belloc’s amateurism, and was keen to defend the professionalism of the Roman military engineers who had built the road:

“What Mr Belloc appears to have done was to start off from Chichester along the known course of the road, groping his way as it were from point to point … But what we have to do, I think, is to try and put ourselves in the position of the Roman engineers before there was any road at all … “.

I like this passage. Grant makes no claim to be an historian, but in these few gruff words he neatly summarises the importance of historical sensibility and historical empathy. He recognises the distance in time and circumstance which separates us from those Roman engineers, but also the shared humanity which unites us to them, and he invites us to try to view the world as they viewed it.

Two things in particular infuriated Captain Grant. Firstly, Belloc was cavalier with his data, and even altered it to fit his theory – for instance, by drawing a misleading map which surreptitiously moved Merton Priory a quarter of a mile to the east so that it would appear to lie directly on his pet alignment. And secondly, Grant was convinced that Belloc simply misunderstood alignments. Grant believed that the Roman engineers used them not as building instructions, but rather as practical points of reference:

“ … I am strongly of opinion that in every case the direct alignment would be plotted out, whether it were practicable for the road to follow that line or not” (my italics).

In the case of Stane Street he suggested that the engineers plotted three ‘great alignments’, ‘ideal lines’ across the landscape which they used to find a route which was as direct as possible while allowing pragmatically for local topography.

Grant’s critique of Belloc is unrelenting, entertaining, and mostly justified. Among other things, he confirmed that the modern road from Epsom to London Bridge does indeed follow the route of Stane Street through South London (give or take some wanderings and gaps which I will investigate in the next post). But he didn’t get everything right.

stane-st-map

 

Grant argued that after passing through Ewell and Epsom, Stane Street ran on through Ashtead where there is a small Roman camp, and past Leatherhead to make its way down to the River Mole at Burford Bridge, and so on to the camp at Dorking. He therefore denied that Pebble Lane, which was so important to Belloc and lay further to the east, was part of Stane Street at all. In this, Grant was mistaken and Belloc was correct.

However when it came to the big picture, to the methods of the Roman engineers, an appreciation of the manner in which the road was made, and a practical sense of its route through South London, Captain W.A. Grant, formerly of the 13th Hussars, got it mostly right, while Hilaire Belloc, celebrated popular writer, got it seriously wrong.

Future posts: more on Stane Street’s route through South London including the Clapham Divergence, the Merton Tragedy, the Ewell and Epsom Mysteries, and several significant churches.

Roman radials: South London’s Roman roads

Previously I argued that the Romans may have chosen London’s (Londinium’s) site for three reasons: its status as virgin territory, a place of no particular British tribal significance; its location on the tidal Thames, a good place for a port; and its potential as a road junction, given the early focus on Kent, Essex and Hampshire as target areas for the consolidation of Roman power. In the next few posts I will focus on “the southern radial roads” as Ivan Margary, the great authority on Britain’s Roman roads, called them.

There are four of these “radial roads” running through South London, three of which still function today, as they have for nearly two thousand years, as major routes to and from the city.

Roman road map

Stane Street was the Roman road to Chichester and is now the A24 running through Kennington and Clapham, Balham and Tooting, Morden, Ewell and Epsom and on towards Dorking. Watling Street was the Roman road to Kent, more or less represented today by the A207 running down the Old Kent Road to New Cross, and on from Greenwich, Shooters Hill, Welling, Bexleyheath and Crayford to Dartford. These were both high-priority military highways.

The roads to Brighton and Lewes, on the other hand, were about trade and industry. They linked Londinium to farmland on the South Downs and iron-works in the Weald. The road to Brighton is now the A23 running through Brixton and Streatham towards Croydon.

Finally, the Roman road to Lewes is, for my money, the most intriguing of the lot. It heads down from the Old Kent Road through Peckham, Nunhead, Brockley, Beckenham and West Wickham, and passes by New Addington on its way to Titsey. It is represented by no major modern road, and effectively cuts across the grain of south-east London’s suburbs. But there are other traces on the landscape – parish boundaries, borough boundaries – which still remember it.

If the Lewes road is the most mysterious of the four, each of the others still has some controversy or debate attached to it.

Stane Street sign

Stane Street is remarkably well-represented by long, straight stretches of modern road, such as those from Newington Butts to Stockwell, and from Morden to Nonsuch Park. But it disappears completely from the modern map where it crosses the River Wandle; and again where it passes through Ewell and Epsom. Its precise course at these points has at times provoked furious debate.

Watling Street too comes with a conundrum, which centres on the ford or ferry which crossed the River Thames between Lambeth and Westminster. The question is: did Watling Street continue to the west, beyond its junction with Borough High Street, to link up with this ford? And if so, did it also continue on the other side of the river towards Marble Arch, to meet up with its northern branch on the Edgware Road?

Old Kent Road

As for the road to Brighton, the surprise here is its route through Croydon and beyond. Down through Brixton and Streatham to Thornton Heath the Roman road is reasonably well-represented by the A23. But from Broad Green onwards it takes a course which is quite unexpected, and which shows just how differently Roman engineers, and modern engineers, have responded to the landscape.

These are some of the questions I’ll be looking at in the next few posts.