Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Miles south from central London

The centre of London is generally taken to be Charing Cross, specifically the statue of Charles I in the middle of the roundabout. I've visited the points one mile due south, then two miles, then three miles, all the way up to ten miles, to see how London changes the further south you go.

ONE MILE SOUTH: John Islip Street, Millbank
(just north of Tate Britain, by the junction with Marsham Street)

One road back from Millbank, all is quiet. John Islip Street is a road of two halves divided, roughly at the point where I'm standing, into an unchanged older part and a sleeker modern quarter. The older part includes what looks very much like an atypical council estate, with four parallel blocks named after painters, the exterior perfectly maintained and the courtyard sparkling with potted flowers. Across the street is Tate Britain's administrative building, where the offices are, with a splendid redbrick frontage topped by a sugar-magnate crest. Lorries creep in up the side. Occasionally a lowly member of staff pushes the binbags out on a trolley.

Across the fault line is Millbank Court, a quintessentially 1970s concrete apartment block with pebbledash inserts, and a first floor lobby extending forwards between granite slabs. It looks the ideal place for a secret agent's liaison - MI5 are based just around the corner - or somewhere a provincial parliamentarian might have their pied à terre. The DoubleTree Hilton is a more recent intrusion, all glass and taxi bay, whose menu looks reasonably priced until you spot the small print saying "dishes are small and designed to share - we recommend three per person".

The pavement outside Abell House has been sprayed with red, white and blue marks, including the location of an Empty Duct. A helicopter flies across. Three workmen sit chatting on a gap in the topiary, then move to stand outside a garage door, then disappear. A stream of civil servants and Burberry employees drip down from the top of the street. It's not hard to deduce who's who.

TWO MILES SOUTH: Thorncroft Street, SW8
(off Wandsworth Road, not far from Nine Elms tube)

Thorncroft Street is an unremarkable residential road in South Lambeth, a few hundred metres in length, its former terraces erased after WW2. Their replacements are sturdy multi-storey blocks - Dean Court, Sheldon Court and Burden House - the latter proudly owned by the Church Commissioners. Given the choice, Burden House looks the nicest. You will not be getting into any of their railinged gardens.

We may be only two miles from the centre of London, but owning a car is really popular here. A red Corsa arrives, radio pulsing, and manages to find a gap in the parking bay. A young couple emerge, unlock the boot and take out a week's shopping and two cat carriers. Another couple have driven back from the gym, with hubby in beach shorts carrying a stuffed Lonsdale bag. The cabbie with the light blue taxi drives off so his mate can fill the vacant space with an estate. I smile when I see that the driver of the white van from Harvey & Brockless, "the fine food co", is stuffing his face with a saucy chicken takeaway.

Luke, the golden retriever, has stopped to be admired by the neighbours. His owner questions what might be stuck around his mouth, then walks very slowly in the direction of Sainsbury's. A pink suitcase with a butterfly design has been abandoned on the pavement beside most of an apple. Someone has dumped a broken chair next to the bins. Finches flock to the feeders on a balcony brightened by tubs of geraniums. An old man limps past the basketball court towards the pub on the corner, the sole building to survive postwar demolition. The Nott is an uncomplicated careworn boozer offering Chinese cuisine, rock'n'roll on Fridays and a night of misspelt Halloeen entertainment. For those in need of karaoke, a banner above the door lists Elvis's mobile number.

THREE MILES SOUTH: Cottage Grove, Clapham
(Fenwick Estate, nr Clapham North station, SW9)

The Falcon, with its mustard frontage and beer terrace, is certainly trendy enough for Clapham. But Cottage Grove alongside is the gateway to a dead end council estate, knocked up in the 1960s and hidden away beside the railway embankment. The Fenwick Estate, a loop of courtyard and linear blocks, has seen better days. The Vehicle Testing Station on the way in is a big clue, with its blue MOT triangles and the offer to fix CARS, MOTOR CYCLES, THREE WHEELERS. Shabby wooden doors face the pavement, or can be accessed up backstairs along balcony walkways. A tabby cat looks down from a concrete ledge. Children kick about in a high-fenced football corral. A mural commemorates Billy Cox, 1991-2007. Someone's rice takeaway fills a puddle. The Residents Association Winter Party is pencilled in for mid-December.

A few runs of flats are boarded up, their windows firmly pinned shut. Squibb Group Limited started demolition last month within a zig-zagged sliver alongside the railway. The site's being developed by TfL as part of their new role as the Mayor's housing provider, and will shoehorn 55 all-affordable flats into this awkward space. If I say bricky and balconied, you already know exactly what they'll look like. The remainder of the Fenwick Estate is on Lambeth council's regeneration list, hopelessly delayed, but already pumping out newsletter after newsletter to keep existing residents informed. Everyone'll be sequentially decanted, rather than kicked out in favour of rich incomers, but not for a while yet. Don't expect open staircases in the replacement.

FOUR MILES SOUTH: Saxby Road Estate, SW2
(close to Brixton Prison)

Where precisely a geographical marker lands is a bit of a lottery. A slight nudge to either side and we'd have landed amid Victorian terraces, not always immaculately maintained... a little further and we might have hit a dense LCC estate or even prison cells. Instead welcome to the Saxby Lane Estate, an enclave of postwar council housing a couple of streets from the South Circular. A sign showing the staggered layout of these 70 homes has been planted into a low-walled lawn at one end, along with a few emerging daffodils. Lambeth's architects weren't over-keen to give most residents front gardens, so have provided communal shrubberies, raised beds and lawns instead. One such raised bed is empty other than a mattress, a broken table and chairs, plus a fridge-freezer. Rose bushes have been ferociously pruned. Dogs are forbidden from squatting. Balls must not be kicked.

I take a seat on the central bench, with its plaque in memory of Alim Uddin, son and brother. Noticing that he died aged only 17 I do a quick Google search and discover that he was stabbed quarter of a mile away after an argument over a failed bike purchase. Around the foot of the bench are numerous fag ends, scatterings of freshly-mown grass, a bottle top and a single bacon-flavour corn-based snack I still think of as a Frazzle. The phone box still works, unexpectedly, although these days functions mostly an advert for Rennie. A pasted-up sheet of paper announces that Mehret is offering holistic pain-free pilates taster sessions 25 times a week in January, which suggests she's rather short of custom. I count 22 satellite dishes on the surrounding flats and houses, plus one England flag. Saxby's tenants could be holed up somewhere far worse.

FIVE MILES SOUTH: Streatham High Road, SW16
(at the end of Leigham Avenue)

Streatham's high street lays claim to being the longest in Europe (which means we'll still be on it at Six Miles South). On this occasion we're at the top end, nearer Streatham Hill, slap bang in the immediate vicinity of Nando's. Diners at windowside tables can be clearly seen tucking into peri-peri, forking salad into their mouths or fiddling with their phones while they wait for chicken to arrive. Across the street is Tariq Halal Meats, its windows larger, its counter display brighter, its website more prominent and its meat offering more varied... mutton, lamb, goat, quails. For coffee and e-cigarettes, try Caffe Vape. For disco equipment, obviously Fizz DJ. On a Saturday afternoon businesses are ticking over nicely.

What's unusual is that the shopping parades meeting here both sit beneath enormous mansion blocks. Leigham Hall forms one end of Streatham Court, designed in classic late-30s style by Reginald Toms, hence the lovely coppery-green tiles arrayed along porches and roofs. Across the street is The High, built one year later with similarly Art-Deco-ish entrance doors tucked inbetween the shops at ground level. Look up, however, and the windows of The High are original and miserably peeling, whereas Leigham Hall's have been renewed and look like they might keep the heat in a bit better. I'm not sure if either still boasts a Billiards Room or Uniformed Porters, and rents must now be well above the original £80 per annum, but how great to live at the heart of things in a building of character.

SIX MILES SOUTH: Streatham Common
(southwest corner)

Six Miles South serendipitously lands in the bottom left-hand corner of Streatham Common, alongside the High Road, just opposite Sainsbury's. Lush slopes, intermittently fenced off with orange netting, spread uphill towards the tearoom and the distant Rookery. Down here there's simply an avenue of horse chestnuts, in full blossom, and a plane tree which may or may not be dead. Criss-crossing paths lead off across the common, carefully following desire lines so nobody feels the need to divert onto the grass. Shoppers trudge by, variously laden, followed by a glum youth in a NASA hoodie smoking a rollup. A gardener from Lambeth Landscapes edges his white van down the footpath taking care not to run anybody over.

At the bus stop a posse of homebound schoolkids in maroon blazers hurl swear words, and in one case a heavy log, at one another. A procession of hearses crawls by, kicking off with Grandad, then a floral tribute in the shape of a football, then various members of his family. The Friends of Streatham Common invite you to a Bat Walk on Friday, a Bird Box Survey on Saturday and a Kite Day on Sunday. Silvana Ices have parked up opposite the entrance to the playground hoping that someone will take their advice and 'try a twin cone today'. The clock on the tower of Immanuel and St Andrew's Church is 70 minutes slow. Dad kicks a football through the dandelions, and Small Son passes it back. 'Celebrate Streatham', says the banner hung from the streetlamp, and here you would.

SEVEN MILES SOUTH: Northborough Road, SW16
(Norbury/Pollards Hill)

Northborough Road breaks off from the main road by Norbury's Wetherspoons and dives deep into Edwardian suburbia. The estate agent on the corner appears to have the monopoly on house sales and flat rentals further up. Initially they're quite terracy, with front gardens barely large enough to hold Croydon's full complement of three bins. Then a few gabled properties intrude, then it gets quite mixed, but always stitched together with no direct rear access. The house numbers are my favourite feature, each embedded in the wall as separate digits on glazed tiles, one brick's length from the edge of the porch. The precise location we're looking for is in the high hundreds, by the stinkpipe, right on the brow of the hill.

The view to the west is remarkably lowrise, with Merton Civic Centre the sole tower along a woody skyline. Lined up to the east are the Crystal Palace TV mast, a church spire and the former Windsor House office block. A learner from the Polka Driving School ascends the road with caution, slowing for each hump, trailing a procession of vehicles behind her. The council streetsweeper smiles by, earbuds drooping, although he has yet to reach the fox-ripped bag spilling takeaway trays across the pavement. A family emerges from behind a high hedge in their Eid finest before piling into an estate and driving off to celebrate. Two recycling sacks have been left on a damp pillow at the end of Norton Gardens. A blackbird sings.

EIGHT MILES SOUTH: Mitcham Road Cemetery, CR0
(previously Croydon Cemetery)

I wondered how long it'd take this feature to hit a cemetery, and here we are, if not quite dead centre. Croydon Cemetery opened in 1897 as overspill for Queen's Road Cemetery, the other side of Thornton Heath. It's big and it's irregular, having been extended once in 1935 towards Mitcham Common and again in 1937 towards Mitcham Road. 8 Miles South is to be found within the northwestern strip, specifically in section U, just over the wall from Archbishop Lanfranc Academy. Look for the Jamaican flag, then nudge back a bit towards the central lime avenue. Other parts of the cemetery had mourners, shortcutting pedestrians, even learner drivers enjoying off-road practice, but nobody interrupted me here.

The graves hereabouts are a particularly motley assortment, mostly from 1935 but with infill from dates clustered around 1960 and 2014. Older headstones commemorate Alfreds, Louisas and Mildreds, the most recent Luigis, Franciscos and Murildas. Most graves are low-edged and weed-topped, a few sparkle with plastic blooms and it seems only Jane merits real gladioli. A deflated balloon hangs from Margaret's temporary marker. A tennis ball and an empty can of Scrumpy Jack rest in the trimmed grass. Most of the interred had a good innings, notably Major Dorothy Bristow who hit 93, but Skye barely reached 15 and Our Baby Eileen Patricia just 2½. Undoubtedly the saddest tale is that of Cicely Boswell who lost her husband in an accident in May 1939, then her 18 year-old son in an accidental drowning on Easter Day 1949, while she herself lived on until 1998. Here they all lie, the remembered and the forgotten.

NINE MILES SOUTH: Beddington Industrial Area, CR0
(junction of Marlowe Way and Beddington Farm Road)

This isn't pleasant. We're on the site of Beddington Sewage Works, since relocated to the other side of Beddington Lane to leave space for a huge wodge of industrial estate. The closest landmark is Croydon's IKEA, but that and the remainder of the Valley Park Retail and Leisure Complex is deliberately segregated from the Beddington Industrial Area resource management hub, which is very much Sutton's grubbiest quarter. I trekked in dodging trucks and vans, and a one-off pony and trap, heading for the line of pylons crossing Marlowe Way. At the end of the road is the backside of a very big Asda, and across the road a major distribution centre for another supermarket, namely Sainsbury's. Most of it is lorry park, and several of the dozen bays have Eddie Stobart containers poking out.

The Nine Mile point is occupied by the Beddington Conference Centre, reputedly "the ideal place for organising business meetings, conferences or a complete solution for events and receptions ideal for corporate clients". I hope the interior's something special because from the outside my first thought was provincial motel. A rim of barbed wire and a security guard with a barrier combine to ensure nobody gets to wander in off-spec. Also within this perimeter is the HQ of Fruitful Office, a company who deliver baskets of fruit to offices because that's a thing now. Their chief selling point is that they split the bunches of bananas and grapes in advance to stop employees taking too many, but they must be doing well because I counted 20 delivery vans outside. If your company needs a regular wellbeing perk, never ever tell your staff that their plums arrive via a former sewage works.

TEN MILES SOUTH: The Chase, South Beddington SM6
(backing onto Godalming Avenue)

Finally here's another residential one. We're in Beddington, between Wallington in Sutton and Waddon in Croydon, and administratively in the former. A hundred years ago these were open fields outside the hamlet of Bandon Hill, facing an aerodrome that would shortly become London's first airport. The march of suburbia then claimed the available space between main road and railway, forming the High View Estate, hence I find myself amid very Thirties houses along very Thirties avenues built with the lower middle class very much in mind. The Chase is the spine road, and runty Central Avenue would have provided the retail focus but has now been reduced to three shops. One's a convenience store that still does newspaper delivery, one's the HQ for a slotcutting company and the third belongs to the 'Sausage Master'. Drop in and Daniel Parker will sell you Pork, Stilton & Cranberry, Black Porkies or a full-on Venison, because that's what fourth generation butchers now do.

The local housing stock consists of what looks like several semis joined together. This makes rear access tricky, so the architects also squeezed long narrow alleyways round the back between the avenues. This is also where they stuck the garages, because motorists' needs were less important then, but driving today's vehicles in and out would be far more impractical so everyone now parks out front. Down The Chase each front garden is large enough to accommodate a family saloon, but on Godalming Avenue most bonnets poke out onto the pavement. Because I visited on Sunday morning cars were being washed, hoovered and generally worshipped. Unmodified porches still had their original stained glass house numbers. The lower branches of one conifer were heavy with bird feeders. One pink rose looked like it'll hang on into winter. A tabby cat padded past. Such is London life, ten miles from the centre.


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