Nairn’s Sydenham Hill: A Private World


Sydenham Hill #3

Ian Nairn was a passionate and popular architectural critic from the ‘50s to the ‘70s. He championed urban oddness, quirkiness and surprise against town-planning blandness which he dubbed ‘subtopia’. He died from alcoholism in his early 50s.  

His 1966 book Nairn’s London is now regarded as a classic. Maybe it’s time to revisit some of the places he cared about in South London, and see what’s become of them in the intervening 50 years.

Ian Nairn was clearly taken with Sydenham Hill railway station, hiding away in its deep woodland cutting, when he visited in the 1960s. I think what most appealed to him was its innocent artifice. It was, he said:

“ … the quintessence of true suburbia, the illusion of rurality more effective here than the real thing would be”.

It was:

“ … a complete private world …  the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding-in”.  

In fact, there is nothing intrinsically unlikely about a railway cutting. Much of the drama of railway engineering – bridges, cuttings, tunnels, viaducts – stems from the mundane imperative for trains to run on level tracks which natural landscapes tend not to provide for. A cutting is essentially a slice taken out of an inconvenient piece of countryside to allow the trains to run. Over time, as shocked vegetation recovers, a cutting may reinvent itself as a woodland dell, which is what has happened at Sydenham Hill. But it is no accident that Charles Dickens’s most effective ghost story, The Signalman, is set in a new railway cutting, where the violence done to the landscape is stark and raw and inseparable from the tale’s atmosphere of dread.   

Sydenham Hill #4

The cutting at Sydenham Hill, however, is neither stark nor raw. The scars made more than a century and a half ago are healed. But I take issue with Nairn. Its ‘unlikeliness’, its appeal, lies not in the site itself but rather in the means of access to it.

There are several stations in South London where the platforms are significantly below the level of the surrounding land: Denmark Hill, for instance. But at Denmark Hill you never forget that you are in a conventional Victorian railway station: you enter through a station house, walk down covered steps, and emerge onto a platform where you are surrounded by Victorian brick.  

At Sydenham Hill however, approaching from College Road, you enter a portal which ushers you down a rather wonderful little walkway.  

Sydenham Hill #1

As it twists and turns, dropping down the hillside in stages, the foliage presses in from both sides. Nairn whimsically imagined wild beasts crouching in hiding, and leaping out to snatch unwary commuters.    

Sydenham Hill #2

Officially, of course, this is simply the way down to the platform, but official purposes can be misleading. The Sydenham Hill walkway transcends such dumb functionality. It is an experience in itself. It is a brief woodland encounter inseparable from, but not reducible to, the presence of the railway station. 

Sydenham Hill #5

 And once you find yourself at the bottom, on the platform, you are confronted by the looming presence of Penge Tunnel, its elliptical entrance hard up against the station. The portal is rather grand with its classical side piers and cornice, though today its dignity is compromised by wear and tear and graffiti.    

Sydenham Hill #8

 For over 140 years this was the longest railway tunnel in London, an honour snatched away as recently as 2007 when the new Eurostar tunnels opened on the line out of St. Pancras. However, Penge Tunnel may still hold the record as the Longest Tunnel That Members Of The Public Can See Through End To End which, if true, is I suppose some compensation.  

Sydenham Hill #6

 

Penge by Design: Railway Picturesque

LCDR Penge East #2 (2)

 

Catching the train to work each day can be grim, and it’s understandable if this grimness attaches itself to the station where we do the catching, reducing it to merely a site where we must wait and endure. This is a pity, because railway stations are intriguing places, with a special place in London’s townscape.

Consider Penge East railway station. Consider it not as a place to be endured on the way to Brixton or Victoria, but as an example of mid-Victorian railway design.

 

LCDR Penge East #3

 

The station house has a domestic feel, with its homely brickwork and pitched roof. Gently asymmetrical, a short central range with wings at each end, but the wings don’t match: that on the left is taller, with gable-end windows set deliberately at odds with each other, and the chimneys are set differently.

 

LCDR Penge East #4

 

Multi-coloured brickwork, yellow stock with recessed horizontal bands, red brick ornamentation under the eaves, and red and black rows defining the bluntly-pointed arches over doors and windows. The arches have cream base-stones, and cream key-stones with neat little moulded trefoil logos.

 

LCDR Penge East #1 (3)

 

It’s a nice jumble. The multi-coloured and textured brick harks back to Tudor and Renaissance styles. The pointed-arch doors and windows are vaguely Gothic. The deliberate asymmetry was a very Victorian thing, seen in many churches. If we need a label, then I think ‘Railway Picturesque’ hits the mark.

‘Picturesque’ is usually taken to refer to certain whimsical buildings of the eighteenth century, but architectural historian Carrol V. Meeks maintained that it was a much broader and longer-lasting phenomenon. In his 1957 study of railway architecture ** he argued that the picturesque was the railway industry’s dominant style in the nineteenth century. It was characterised by asymmetry, variety, irregularity, and for its detail and ornamentation it happily raided various architectural traditions. The aim was to facilitate the business of the railway while achieving a variety of pleasing, perhaps mildly surprising, visual effects. Penge East railway station is a modest illustration of this.

But Penge East was not a standalone design. It was one of several stations built by the London Chatham & Dover Railway Company (LCDR) in 1862 and 1863 along its new commuter line.

Since the 1850s the South Eastern Railway Company had operated a line from Bromley and Beckenham to London Bridge. The LCDR aimed to compete by building a line from Beckenham to a new junction at Herne Hill, from where travellers could go on either to Victoria, or to St. Paul’s (the original name for the station we know as Blackfriars). Herne Hill was therefore the lynchpin in the project.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #5 (2)

 

The LCDR’s chief engineer was Joseph Cubitt, nephew of Thomas Cubitt, Victorian London’s greatest builder, responsible for Bloomsbury, Belgravia and Clapham Park; and of Lewis Cubitt who designed Kings Cross Station. But Joseph Cubitt was an engineer rather than an architect, and the job of designing the railway stations along his new line fell to a young man called John Taylor. Taylor had a long career and eventually became Sir John Taylor, a safe pair of architectural hands, responsible among other things for the main staircase in the National Gallery. But in 1862 he was just starting out, and his design at Herne Hill station was rather impressive.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #4

 

The station house at Herne Hill is much grander than Penge East, but it has the same asymmetry, the same yellow brick and recessed horizontal bands, the same red brick ornamentation under the eaves, the same pointed red and black arches, and the same trefoil mouldings on cream key-stones. Herne Hill was the prototype for all these design elements. It set the style which was faithfully reproduced a year later at Penge East, and which informed the subtly different, slightly Byzantine variant at West Dulwich.

 

LCDR West Dulwich #1 (2)

 

Among this little group of stations Herne Hill stands out by virtue of its priority, and its size, and – crucially – by virtue of its tower.

 

LCDR Herne Hill #1

 

Square and chunky, with five high arched false window-recesses on each face, and a shallow pitched roof, the Herne Hill tower has an Italianate look – or would have if it were not for the very English chimney stack sticking out of its top. We might be forgiven for assuming that the tower was built purely for visual effect, but in fact it contained and concealed the station’s water-tank, which makes it quintessential Railway Picturesque: mundane industrial function masked by form; a form which is eclectic, arresting, and just off-balance.

None of this prevents the daily commute from being grim. But at least it’s picturesquely grim.

** Carroll V. Meeks, The Railway Station: An Architectural History, London, Architectural Press, 1957.