Walking round London pt18: Crystal Palace Park to Upper Norwood Recreation Ground
The second quarter of the 120km charitable capital circumnavigation closes with just a bit more climbing
(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.)
I turn my back unwillingly on the enticing prospect of the National Sports Centre — too distant for the aching legs to reach at this late stage, two minutes shy of eight hours after I left the Royal Victoria Dock — and am immediately consoled by the railway station.
First, some housekeeping. This station, opened on 10 June 1854 by the West End of London & Crystal Palace Railway, had its name appended for decades with Low Level to differentiate it from the Crystal Palace High Level station, opened in 1865 by the Crystal Palace & South London Junction Railway. But that latter station closed in 1954, 18 years after the Crystal Palace itself was burnt to the ground. And neither is particularly near Crystal Palace FC, to the dismay of unwary visiting fans. And that paragraph may now have set the record for the number of times required to type “Crystal Palace”. There’s another, look.
The restored booking/entrance hall of the station.
Anyway, the fine look of this station hints at what the Palace itelf was like, while speaking volumes about the Victorian valuation of craftsmanship. Operational in time for the Palace’s opening, it served as a fitting taster: disembarking under the cover of an elegant dual bow-spring arch iron roof (removed in 1905 after a similar structure collapsed at Charing Cross), visitors will have swept up a huge staircase (gone) past a chapel and restaurant (both gone) from the platform into the booking hall, admiring another iron arched roof (still there) before passing out under the filigree of the station-entrance awning (still there) and into the park (still there).
Wake up, it’s a beautiful awning.
In 1986, by contrast, with much lower passenger numbers concentrated on the southern platforms away from the park, the Victorian entrance was closed and a new southern entrance opened which purported to reflect the design of the Palace, lost 50 years previously. In thin green steel, smoked glass and mesh, it looked more like the child of a backstreet fling between a shopping centre and a greenhouse. Thankfully, in 2012 the original entrance was restored and the new aberration demolished.
Oh my. Pic: C.Ford
Walking out of the station road, I indulge in a brief mindfulness check; I realise I’m aching in my right shin, right calf, right hip, left hip and left shin, although curiously not left calf. Still, more pain than not, and the heart hardly jumps for joy when I’m confronted with Anerley Hill.
This used to be called Gravel Hill (and the road up it was Gravelly Lane) when all here was nothing but common land. In 1809 the Croydon Canal came through and in 1827 Penge Common was enclosed, with the turnpike company extending Clays Lane — now Elmers End Road and Anerley Road — across it. A Scottish silk manufacturer called William Sanderson saw his chance, bought a bundle of land and built himself a house in splendid isolation, which he called Anerley: Borders dialect for “solitary”. When the railway came, he sold the land but stipulated a station for his own use, which took the name of his house — and thus did the suburb that sprang up around it, which mushroomed after the crowds came to the Crystal Palace.
Whether it’s Gravel Hill or Anerley Hill, it’s a steep hill, and not just to those of us who’ve walked more than 30km on a sunny day. When trams ran up here, they were initially hauled up by a stationary engine at the top but later specific trams were introduced with special gearing just for this route; similarly, the trolley-buses that replaced the trams needed very particular brakes.
I’m therefore glad to see the trail turn left down a side-street, but there’s no escaping the hill. Pleydell Avenue has an S-bend which cunningly hides the ratcheting gradient for a sudden reveal: I’m joined by a couple of young walkers and we chuckle hollowly at the unfolding verticality of our path.
As the path winds ever upwards, we pass through a tiny park, the Palace Square Open Space, barely big enough for a kids’ playground and minuscule five-a-side pitch. With Crystal Palace Park less than a lap of an athletics track away (ooh me legs, the very thought…), why is it here?
Well, it turns out this is the Brits making lemonade when life gave them lethal lemons. In July 1944, a German V1 flying bomb fell here, destroying houses and claiming lives; instead of rebuilding, they tidied up and the recreation ground opened in 1951.
Emerging onto Belvedere Road, covering what used to be part of Ridgewood Coppice, we’re greeted with the sight of an almost laughable incline, the sort you’d have to drive in first gear if you had the luxury of a car.
Oh come ON.
The housing stock looks grand, as houses on hills often do, and it has dated well. Diverted by the lovely interplay of the shadows cast by the late-afternoon sun on the Victorian housing, I manage to miss (right behind me) a folly villa, glazed brick towers and all, built by Benjamin Waterhouse Watkins — he who built the dinosaurs on Crystal Palace Park.
At least I did get a pic of a 1980s-style tape-deck ghetto blaster which someone has left out for anyone interested (“Take me please — I work!”). Although tempted, I don’t take it, instead strolling past Cintra Park, the name probably linked to an 1808 treaty between the British and a retreating Napoleon. On Cintra Park, a blue plaque marks the birthplace of Marie Stopes, whose titular birth control clinics have done much more to improve women’s choices than Stopes herself may have liked: although a standard bearer for women’s rights and family planning, she was also a pro-life eugenicist who argued for “racial purification”.
Moving on as swiftly as our legs will carry us, we’re now in Upper Norwood. This used to be the suburbia of the very affluent Victorians, and much of the housing stock their demand created is now protected by a large conservation area, with inhabitants who clearly care. One house on Tudor Road features a Japanese maple tree, water feature and pergola.
Turning from Tudor Road onto Fox Hill — so named because at the bottom of it was Fox Farm, a farm owned by Mr Fox — we cross the boundary from Penge in Bromley into the old parish and modern borough of Croydon. Ahead of us is Church Road, nowadays the busy A212, but following the course of an ancient path along the ridge crest, one of the few direct routes through the woods.
We have our own path to follow and our time on Church Road is limited as we’ve to plunge down the other side of the ridge through Westow Park, carved out of private estates, including the innovative neighbouring Royal Normal College and Academy of Music for the Blind.
As an appeal in The Spectator of 19 March 1904 explains, “this College was established in 1872 with the object of educating and training blind children of both sexes, all creeds and any rank, and the result achieved has been highly satisfactory and has more than justified its existence.” (An editor’s note warns warmly that “The excellence of this institution must be our excuse for breaking our very necessary rule against devoting our limited correspondence space to appeals of this nature.”)
The College broke with tradition by helping blind people become “independent and useful members of the community” as music teachers, organists and piano tuners; the neighbouring grounds specifically designed to help the blind enjoy outdoor activities unaided. Blitzed and demolished, the college relocated to Hereford but the grounds joined Westow Park in 1970, augmenting an 1890s public park.
And from the bottom of there it’s two more corners to Upper Norwood Recreation Ground, where we know our finishing line lies. It’s fitting that this leg of the Capital Trail, which has featured so many parks — around 17, depending how you cut it — should end in one more. This was bought from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1890 by a council under public pressure to provide a green space in an increasingly packed neighbourhood. It opened that May to popular acclaim, with a 1,400-strong procession “the like of which had never been seen in Upper Norwood before”, our friends from the Royal Normal College singing All Creatures Now Are Merry, and that traditional park/opening staple of a fireworks display.
No such hullabaloo awaits us as we cross the finishing line, but we do get welcome applause from volunteers, lashings of snacks and drinks, and of course a medal — which interlocks enticingly with the one I got from the North quarter. It’s been a long day, exhausting and demanding, but also rewarding. There are just 14 days until the third quarter, which swings around the corner into my manor of South-West London. I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Coming up next: The third quarter commenceth
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