diamond geezer

 Saturday, December 24, 2011

There aren't many places in London with a festive name. But there is an estate to the east of Wood Green which fits the bill, even if Christmas wasn't the reason for its birth. Noel Park is named after Ernest Noel, a Scottish MP and the Victorian chairman of the Artizans, Labourers & General Dwellings Company. This was a philanthropic enterprise whose aims were to create new houses for the working classes, ostensibly to help replace huge areas of slums destroyed by London's growing railway network. They built small estates in Battersea and Queen's Park, then looked north for somewhere bigger for their third venture. The chosen target was a triangle of farmland in the Moselle valley (this being Tottenham's minor stream, not the famous French wine-growing river). And they chose the area because it had good railway links... not that you'd notice today.

The Palace Gates Line was a railway linking "three quarters of a mile from Alexandra Palace" to Seven Sisters station. This wasn't the most useful place for a railway, especially when the hoped-for tourist traffic never materialised, but trains ran regularly either to Liverpool Street or to North Woolwich. Ideal for a "Suburban Workman's Colony", thought the ALGDC, because the City and East London's docks were just the sorts of places that workers liked to go. A hundred acres of intensive building work got underway, and the local station was renamed from Green Lanes to Green Lanes & Noel Park. A winning combination, the company hoped.

The Noel Park estate was one of the very first garden suburbs, and was carefully designed along social and aesthetic principles. Five basic designs of house were built, each in the Gothic Revival style, with greater ornamentation (and turrets!) on the corner plots. All were built from red and/or yellow brick, in terraced blocks along the various parallel avenues. All the first class houses had four bedrooms and an imposing frontage, while the fifth class houses were single storey "cottage" maisonettes. All had front and back gardens (which was an innovation at the time), although no bathrooms were included (Haringey Council had to add these later). To maintain social cohesion all of the houses were built in pairs. Many had characteristic sticky-out brick porches, facing at right angles to the road, while even the cheapest maisonettes had neighbouring front doors so that they still felt a little special. Still do.

Walking down the streets of Noel Park 125 years on, you can tell the area's still a little special. For a start, there's the non-uniform uniformity. Entire avenues stretch off into the distance like a sheer wall of brick, broken only by Transylvanian turrets where roads occasionally cross. First come gables and porches of one style, then gables and porches of another, clustered by class. Most houses have since been personalised, as befits a century plus of use, but the attention to detail in the brickwork and tiling remains very much evident. A few houses have been pebbledashed, one even stoneclad, but thankfully these are very much in the minority. Some front gardens are beautifully tended, others concreted over for wheelchair access, but all too small, thankfully, for parking.

My favourite street was Moselle Avenue, built along the line of the culverted river. No pristine development this, not any more, but a linear community blessed by cohesive architecture. The low winter sun attempted to illuminate the northern terraces - chimneypots and upper storeys blazing, but shrubberies and bin stores in shadow. The half-mile-long avenue formed one of the fourth- and fifth-class zones - the structural giveaway being the succession of side-facing porches. In a couple of places there are very local shops, like Sparkles launderette (The Superior Wash) and Joseph's Fish & Veg Shop (I had to doubletake the name of that one). But there are no pubs, not anywhere on the Noel Park estate. The temperance movement was strong in the 1880s, and Lord Shaftesbury would never have turned up to lay the memorial stone in a neighbourhood of ill repute.

You can't catch a train to Noel Park today. The railway line faded through lack of use, and the arrival of the Piccadilly line at Wood Green sealed its doom. Since the 1960s much of the old line has been built over, although the bridge at Westbury Avenue survives pretty much intact. Particularly jarring, architecturally speaking, is a long thin development of council blocks called the Sandlings which covers a former goods yard. As for Green Lanes & Noel Park station, that was eventually replaced by Wood Green Shopping City which is very much the dominant retail centre round these parts. But step a few streets back, past the brick church and the brick school, and the brick avenues of Noel Park survive as an island of true character in the residential sea of North London.

» For much more on the history of Noel Park, Wikipedia is surprisingly good.
» The Palace Gates railway line is described in more detail here.
» Felix has a fine photographic tour of the Noel Park Estate N22.

» If you enjoy randomly wandering around London, and you have 45 minutes spare this Christmas, you'll enjoy watching The London Perambulator

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