Walking round London pt15: Grove Park to Beckenham Place Park
Edwardian idyll, interwar optimism, ancient woodland and Georgian go-getting
(ICYMI: on Sat 5 May, the writer walked 36km as the first quarter of a 120km circumnavigation of the capital for charity; on Sat 26 May, he walked the next quarter. These blogs are to publicise the fundraising and consider the vernacular. There’s a full list of chapter/sections at the end of each blog.)
It’s just gone 2pm — five hours and maybe 22km into the walk — when I pass the Grove Park Library, where someone has parked right by the “Drop-off only, no parking in driveway” sign, and press on up Coopers Lane and Baring Lane. It’s now fairly dull suburbia of 20th-century stock, but at the very end of the 19th century Grove Park was a quiet middle-class area with a fair few farms; living at Three Gables on Baring Lane was Edith Nesbit, author of The Railway Children, inspired by the line behind this very house.
Library sign remains unread.
Nesbit’s own life was hardly the stuff of children’s novels, or the idealised Edwardian middle-class idyll encapsulated in her most famous book: a co-founder of the Labour Party progenitor the Fabian Society, she lived in effectively a menage-a-trois with her husband and his mistress, having her own fun via affairs with George Bernard Shaw, among others.
And it’s down to the line I go now, via the renamed Railway Children Walk which goes right past the side of the Three Gables site (now modern flats). I’m in the mood for perambulating along a trainline — besides them being reliably flat, the Parkland Walk was the highlight of the Capital Challenge’s first leg — but I’m to be disappointed.
While the Nesbit-flavoured trail shoots off to the right, my path ploughs straight on cross a surprisingly extensive spread of tracks — the nearby Grove Park station is a five-platformer serving as an interchange between the Southeastern Main Line and the Bromley North Line. Not the sort of line along which Roberta, Phyllis and Peter might innocently scamper, even if we ignore the hulking 37-acre spread of the Hither Green Cemetery opposite.
Kids! Play on this railway….
…and you might end up in there. Sleep tight!
Skirting the southern edge of the cem & crem, I stop at a petrol station for coke — the sugary rehydrater rather than the illegal stimulant, although the bloke behind me in the queue complains about the prices through a recently-extinguished spliff like a stoner Andy Capp.
Life metaphor #376.
Off again and up yet another hill, I’m now firmly in the Downham Estate — a planned suburb of 7,000 new homes for a population of 29,000 over nearly 600 acres, built between 1924 and 1930 by the London County Council. Designed to decant the overcrowded population of inner-city Deptford and Bermondsey onto a greenfield site between Catford and Bromley, it wasn’t universally popular: some newcomers flitted back to their old manor, complaining about the lack of shops, community spirit and pubs (although the Downham Tavern made the Guinness Book of World Records as Britain’s largest pub: it could accommodate 1,000 customers).
The estate, somewhat egotistically named after the LCC’s chairman Lord Downham, was the biggest of several interwar estates built in south London. These may have started off as “homes fit for heroes” to house demobbed soldiers, but there was also a social hygiene element to the masterplan: with the Russian revolution still fresh in the memory, there were genuine fears of a proletarian uprising. While these estates doubtlessly improved many people’s fundamental, environmental needs — as would be categorised by Abraham Maslow in 1943 — they were also intended to disperse potential malcontents.
At Downham, any notion of an idealised communal society was somewhat hampered when the residents of the private estate to the south constructed a two-metre-high “class wall” topped with broken glass to keep out the proles. In the event, they didn’t really have to: many of the lower orders couldn’t afford the rents, which had been fixed at the lower-professional bracket, and left anyway.
Nowadays largely social housing, the estate isn’t the nicest but it isn’t the worst either. The major through-roads, along which I pad, have large central areas with grass and a liberal embellishment of trees, whose shade I seek with the suspicion that I may be the first to do so in months. Sadly, they also have a phenomenal amount of rubbish, be it exploded bin-bags, discarded wrappings or all manner of broken plastic tat on every corner. This tat provokes the council’s tit, erecting massive “Flytipping? See you in court” signs which are understandable but exacerbate the ugliness.
The verdant central strip between Shaw and Undershaw (pic: Google)
It’s with relief that I slip across Moorside Road and straight forward onto the Downham Woodland Walk, one of those near-miraculous slivers of undeveloped land that can do so much to restore the soul’s equilibrium. On the map it’s invisible, but on the satellite image it’s a reversed Zorro-slash of mature green, continuing on from where the estate designers have left the mature trees right into the heart of the housing.
The Zorro-slash: note Shaw/Undershaw trees at the top right (pic: Google)
I’m going in the other direction, following my feet and enjoying the shade. The walk runs for over a mile and dates back hundreds of years, with some of its flora and fauna indicative of ancient woodland. It covers one of the remaining parts of the ancient Great North Wood — whence the name Norwood. There’s something slightly magical about this type of place: just as I’m starting to fantasise about a lovely cup of tea, three appear at my feet — albeit carvings as pathside art. Perhaps it’s sunstroke.
If you go down to the — milk no sugar, thanks.
With that on my mind, when the walk emerges on the Bromley Road right by a charity shop, I spy my chance. The only hat on offer is a pink suedette peaked cap, but at £1.50 (and more importantly well above 30 degrees in the direct sunlight) I’m in no mood to quibble. Bumping into some fellow walkers as I exit the shop, for the first time today I fall into pleasant conversation on foot.
Not at my most beautiful.
My conversational compadres both did the North section of the walk, and both think this is an easier experience. By now, I’m not sure — there’s more up and down, and I’m certainly feeling the effects of only getting two hours’ sleep last night — but the easy chat makes things swing by as we walk towards and into Beckenham Place Park. This is also a change of scene, at 237 acres the first large public area we’ve hit since the bifurcated Eltham Park, two and a half hours ago.
Beckenham Place Park is largely the work of 18th-century John Cator. The son of a Hertfordshire timber merchant, he joined the family business as it relocated to Southwark, on a site which later became the Bankside power station, now the Tate Modern. A typically active Quaker — he was also MP for Wallingford, then Ipswich, then Stockbridge, before becoming the High Sheriff of Kent — he diversified the family interests into property, which was booming as the capital expanded through south-east London into Kent. No wonder he was described as a “goodnatured busy sort of man” by the painfully-named diarist Fanny Burney.
Where the lake was (and shall be again).
One of the things that kept him busy was Beckenham Park. He bought land in 1757, consulting botanists to introduce exotic tree species and a lake, and in 1762 built the mansion that still stands today, beacon-like on the hill as we wind through the park toward it.
As the centuries marched on it stayed in the family but functioned as a boys school and a sanatorium before being bought by London County Council in 1927; two years later they made the golf course the first municipally-owned course in England, the mansion functioning as clubhouse. Rather less happily, during the Second World War it became a PoW camp and the park featured barrage balloons and an anti-aircraft battery.
From there it went up the usual guardian path: GLC in 1965, borough council 1972, slow decay, lottery grant (£4.9m) in 2014. The money makes for interesting times: they’re refurbishing the fine Georgian mansion (now open to public for first time in decades), while polishing the park at large — like reinstating that lake that was key to Cator’s vision. Within the mansion they’re giving over spaces to little arts projects like a sewing group and a record shop: reclaimed, refurbished, reloved.
I’m impressed with the plans, and that cheery state of mind may not be entirely because we’ve just hit the third and final checkpoint, with the usual (and very welcome) encouragement, rehaydration and snack stocks. We’ve now covered 26.5km of 35km, so we’re slightly more than three-quarters of the way and quickly closing in on four-fifths. These mental maths and psychological milestones matter. So does maintaining momentum, and while my conversational colleagues have an extended rest, I’m itching to continue.
Coming up next: Pevsner, Larkin, Jimmy Cliff and Status Quo
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) will take place on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.
NORTHERN QUARTER, SAT 5 MAY
EASTERN QUARTER, SAT 26 MAY
• Pt15: …to Beckenham Place Park • Pt16: …to Penge
• Pt17: …to Crystal Palace Park • Pt18: …to Upper Norwood