Dull London: The Oak Compass Sutcliffe Park, Kidbrooke, SE3
Kidbrooke's changed. Its concrete heart is now a pert landscaped 'village', with thousands of former residents decanted to make way. But the dull landscape feature I'll describe below dates back to just before the Ferrier Estate was knocked down, specifically 2004, specifically June.
The Oak Compass can be found on a small mound at the southern end of Sutcliffe Park, close to Eltham Road. The park started out as a water meadow on the banks of the Quaggy, before being transformed into municipal playing fields in 1937. At the same time the river was diverted underground, but this proved problematic in terms of large-scale flooding, so plans were drawn up at the turn of the century to exhume the flow. Soil equivalent to the volume of 35 Olympic swimming pools was excavated, giving potential floodwaters somewhere to overspill, and the park was comprehensivelyrelandscaped at the same time.
The Oak Compass is the least exciting of the features that were added, which you can tell because it's number 6 on a list of six on the map on the information boards. Rather higher on the list are the Lake and Wetlands, with their zigzag wooden boardwalk, from which I watched a heron-like bird I think was a little egret take off. Just above it at number five is the Viewing Platform, which is a raised area off Tudway Road with panoramic possibilities. The Oak Compass is none of these things, but instead a kind of compass, made of oak.
The Oak Compass consists of four oak trees, one planted at each compass point, atop a low artificial mound. The mound was designed as a communal focus, with a circular seating area around the edge created using reclaimed oak timbers from the River Thames. A few of these remain, no longer appropriately aligned, and some clearly pushed or shoved over the rim making them impractical for group conversation in the round.
At the centre of the former ring is a small plaque, its lettering now partially eroded, confirming that Sutcliffe Park and the Quaggy River Flood Alleviation Scheme were opened by Baroness Young on 12th June 2004. But the Oak Compass fails to get a mention, the sole reference to its existence being on the information board as "a space for orientation." Well, good luck with that, because not only is this a pretty vacuous description but no attempt has been made to label which tree marks which compass point. Perhaps there never was anything, or perhaps it's been lost or moved or shifted like the surrounding ring of trunks, but a compass without an obvious north is more than a trifle ineffective.
The oak tree marking east looks to be in the best shape. It's now around twelve feet tall, and dense with leaves, most of which are still in place (or were before Storm Angus blew through). The tree marking west is doing almost as well - of a similar height and form but mostly denuded of leaves. However the tree marking north looks rather less mature - around half the height and with only a handful of stumpy branches and crisp yellowing leaves - suggesting that the original must have suffered somehow and been replaced.
But it's the tree marking south which is in a particularly forlorn state. Of the original tree only a couple of feet of stump remain, thin enough to suggest it didn't grow far, and abruptly sawn. There is a replacement oak alongside, a spindly specimen of a similar height, bedecked with a few dozen brown leaves, but I don't rate its chances. The other three trees are protected by wire netting at ground level, but south has none, almost as if someone planted an acorn as an afterthought and walked away, hoping for the best. One angry vandal could remove the new south tree with ease, leaving just that stump, and an even more incomplete lopsided compass.
All the love in SE3 at the moment is being showered on the Kidbrooke Village development, a massive long-term regeneration project delivering four thousand stacked flats. At its heart is a landscaped central park meandering down the spine, and this green thread has all the architectural and horticultural attention, with pristine lawns, shrubberies and water features. Sutcliffe Park has somehow become an afterthought, still ruggedly pleasant and with workmen aplenty all over its athletics stadium, but with wear and tear generally unaddressed. The Oak Compass is merely a symptom of civic underinvestment, barely twelve years old, but already overlooked, forgotten, and yes, dull.