9♣ Lewisham The borough we now know as Lewisham was assembled from two component parts, the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford and the Metropolitan Borough of Lewisham. I've been to the latter, by far the larger of the two, my quest this time to visit some of the highest points of land. Some notable peaks lie just outside the borough boundary, such as Point Hill, One Tree Hill and that covered reservoir off Kynaston Road. But I trekked up half a dozen within the boundary - the hills of Lewisham.
The Hills of Lewisham
Wow, eh? But no, this is the view from Point Hill overlooking Greenwich, 100 metres outside the Lewisham border. For my first summit I'm heading 100 metres in the opposite direction, onto the residential flank of Blackheath.
My word there are some lovely houses around Blackheath, for example where Dartmouth Hill meets Dartmouth Row meets Dartmouth Grove. The first Georgian residents nipped in and nabbed the premium space at the top of the rise, and it's surely the perfect spot for a 'Church of the Ascension' too. On the western side of Dartmouth Row the villas have long walled gardens stretching down to Morden Lane, a gated backwater meandering gloomily past private garages. There used to be a viewpoint here, where the land falls away, but now a lone bench decays behind railings and a padlocked gate, and a sign warns Beware Hazardous Slope. Housing at the foot of the drop strikes a very different tone, with a snake of neglected concrete apartment blocks concealed against the hillside. This is the Lethbridge Estate, part of a "complex decant and phasing strategy" hereabouts and due for demolition by 2021.
Perched upon the avenues of Ladywell sits a convex park called Hilly Fields, an extensive green space boasting fine views over Docklands and the uplands of Dulwich. Victorian developers devoured most of the surrounding area in the late 19th century, but this verdant hillock was saved from residential destruction by Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust. At its summit are tennis courts and half a secondary school, a popular playground and (frequently) the Jaz'May ice cream van. A perfect spot for a minor kickaround, for watching your dog let off steam or for sprawling in the shade of a horse chestnut, and much loved locally. Lines are still on you, Hilly Fields.
Other local hilltops were wholly or partially built over. One such lies a mile to the south in SE23, a proper contoured peak sloping up from Brockley Rise. I've not been able to identify a name, but the eastern flank includes an open space called Blythe Hill Fields, and the two streets rising parallel towards the summit are Duncombe Hill and Lowther Hill. Between these lies a private 'social club', namely Brockley Hill Park, supporting woodland and tennis courts and rising in three stepped terraces. This four acre recreation space has no road access to maintain exclusivity for residents whose gardens back onto it, so unless you snap up a local property or know someone who lives there, you'll never visit.
Beckenham Place Park, Beckenham (67m)
Two hills lie within the grounds of Beckenham Place Park, on the southern edge of the borough, including the hump on which the mansion is situated. This imposing building is now open to the public (for a limited time) following the recent closure of the adjacent municipal golf course, the first fruits of a sweeping masterplan drawn up by the council. On my visit children were happily frolicking in the bunkers, and a totally new sport had arrived courtesy of the London Drone Racing Club. Their members were standing en masse on a grassy bank, VR headsets donned, while a horde of tiny drones buzzed around an obstacle course of hoops and flags. From what I saw, these amazing aerial gizmo battles can only gain in popularity going forward.
Across the park, on the other side of the thickest woodland, a higher peak rises to over 200 feet. Here the views stretch towards Croydon and the transmitter mast at Crystal Palace, across a meadow of long grass speckled with birds-foot trefoil. At the summit the park ends abruptly at a row of houses, this postwar infill marking the boundary with the borough of Bromley. Follow a footpath into the trees and down a rooty slope to reach Ravensbourne station, one of London's least used, and too remote to be passed by a bus service. But this hilltop is a lovely spot, as are so many unsung rural corners across the capital.
I'd never been here before either - I'd walked through Downham's postwar estate several times previously but never spotted the hill. It's not exactly a small hill either, nor entirely covered with housing. A long ridge of parkland rises from the brick semis on the estate's spine road, Downham Way, to an open brow ringed with clustered oaks. On the reservoir-facing flank is a flatroofed modern building containing a lively swimming pool, with a fenced-off astroturf football pitch outside. A broader-than-usual panorama covers lowland Beckenham, with Croydon's highrises poking up beyond the intermediate suburbs, a display I paused to admire for longer than expected. Central London's glories were visible only from the upper deck of a bus, briefly, on the ride down to Grove Park station.
There's no longer a forest on Forest Hill but there is a hill, which you'll know if you've ever been to the Horniman Museum, South London's most eclectic repository, and taken time to explore the grounds. The gardens rise towards a bandstand with a sharp drop beyond, offering excellent views across Dawson Heights towards the spires and towers of central London. But the hill climbs a little further past daisy lawns, through a gate and out onto Horniman Drive. The ridgetop is lined with pristine white semis and several angular Modernist retreats, because lofty elevations tend to attract better-than-average architecture. The highest point is marked by a triangular green, fenced off and ballgame-free by order of the council, with a cluster of oak trees bursting forth within.