diamond geezer

 Wednesday, November 15, 2017

2 Chislehurst & Sidcup/Orpington
This would have been the largest London borough, had the Herbert Commission had its way, comprising most of what's now Bromley and a bit of Bexley. The chief reason for its size was the extent of Orpington Urban District, which despite its name was mostly countryside, and whose boundaries dragged several villages and tiny hamlets kicking and screaming into Greater London. I've been out to explore three of these, a trio of rural retreats which probably ought to be in Kent, and likely wish they still were.

Three Orpington villages

1) DOWNE

Where? Three miles southwest of Orpington, across the fields from Biggin Hill. [map]
How did it get its name? Probably the old English word "dun", meaning hill. The spelling's changed a lot over the years, and was Down in the 19th century. Allegedly the Royal Mail requested the extra 'e' to avoid confusion with County Down, Northern Ireland.
What's on the village sign? A lime tree, the parish church, the white horse of Kent (because residents won't let it go) and a bearded man who changed the world.
How to get there? The 146 hourly from Bromley, or the R8 every 90 minutes from Orpington (or most likely drive).



What's the village like? Quiet, and sprawled, but with a central focus at the road junction by the church. Many of the houses are on the large side, but there are also several cottages, plus some more modern infill safely tucked out of sight of the richer residents. Country lanes hereabouts are narrow, and the farmland often paddocky. A few years ago the government proposed making the local area a World Heritage Site, for historical environmental reasons, but the idea remains on UNESCO's tentative list.
Population? A few hundred.
What's the big news? Fast broadband has arrived for those on the 01689 exchange. The willow tree in the pond has been removed after taking a battering in a summer storm. Nigel Andrews won the Apple Day bake-off.



Church? That'll be St Mary's, which retains one 13th century window and a 16th century steeple. A sundial on the flint tower is dedicated to Charles Darwin, long-term resident of the village, along with a somewhat passive-aggressive comment that he's buried in Westminster Abbey rather than here.
Pub? Two pubs, no less. The Queen's Head is named after Elizabeth I, who once came to the village to attend a christening. As well as Jackie's range of home made soups, it has four CAMRA-friendly real ales on tap. The George and Dragon is more half-timbered and hanging-baskety, again with real ales, and Nigel Farage (who lives in nearby Single Street) is supposedly a regular.
Village shop? Heavens no, that's long gone. But there is an Indian restaurant called the Rajdoot of Downe, and also a teashop called The Teashop. Tripadvisor rates the cake over the curry, but residents are probably onto a winner with both.



#1 tourist attraction? Down House, which for 40 years was home to the naturalist and evolutionary mastermind Charles Darwin. He moved here because of the botanic variety of the surrounding chalk grassland, and would take daily strolls amid this 'natural laboratory' to test his theories. His house is now owned by English Heritage, and is very much worth a look round (but it's weekends only in winter, and some of the rooms are closed, so now's not the best time to come).
#2 tourist attraction? Christmas Tree Farm, which as well as being a non-drop Nordman Fir distributor is also a favourite menagerie for those with small children. Meet the llamas and the "quite naughty" goats, feed the donkeys and maybe get licked by the cows, all before washing your hands and tucking in at the tea room. The farm has a low-key hands-on charm, but OMG the website looks like a jiggery-pokery relic from 15 years ago.
#3 tourist attraction? Downe Bank, the first nature reserve to be purchased by Kent Wildlife Trust, on account of it being Charles Darwin's favourite place to study. He was particularly interested in the abundance of orchids, so named one section of the slope Orchis Bank, and these flowers inspired a seminal treatise on pollination. Today's visitors are restricted to a single steep-stepped path dipping across the dry valley, which opens out only at Orchis Bank itself, where a handful of sheep graze to keep the habitat in check. I've pencilled in to return in summer, and/or in spring for the bluebells, as part of a more in-depth exploration of the area.

2) CUDHAM

Where? Four miles south of Orpington, two miles east of Biggin Hill. [map]
How did it get its name? It was Cowdham at the time of the Norman Conquest, and has since been Codeham and Coldham before settling on Cudham.
What's on the village sign? The church, the pub, the Domesday book (because the village is proud of its age) and some hilly rural bumps. Erected at the millennium, alas the sign had to be taken down in the summer as its tiles kept falling off, and is now awaiting repair.
How to get there? The R10 every 150 minutes from Orpington (or most likely drive).



What's the village like? A motley collection of mostly 19th century houses, with no particular focus, spread out along Cudham Lane facing a steep escarpment. Some of the cottages are a delight, others a bit more municipal. The footpath is intermittent. A lot of people live in (or behind) what used to be Cudham Hall, previously an engineering college, since converted into plush apartments. A large mid-village sports ground is the home of Cudham Wyse cricket club and Cudham United Football Club.
Population: A couple of hundred in the village centre, a few hundred more scattered across the parish in numerous hamlets.
What's the big news? The Christmas Tree Festival launches on 24th November. Pine Media are making a hash of the broadband upgrade. Sarah Elston's Zumba demo at the Cudham Fete went down a treat.



Church? That'll be St Peter and St Paul, which is of 11th century origin, and sits at the highest point hereabouts. Two of the yew trees in the churchyard are believed to be around 1500 years old, suggesting that the site has a much longer history. Repairs to the top of the steeple are currently being actioned via a very long ladder resting across the clockface.
Pub? The Blacksmith's Arms is an archetypal country pub, whitefaced and stepped, and dates back to 1628. Originally a farm building, then a smithy, the owner started selling ale in 1729. Outdoor options include tables out front or the beer garden out back ("Please do not pour drinks on flowers as it kills them"), the latter ideally located for cricket ground refreshment. Nigel Farage is again known to be a regular, and this may be why in 2014 the kitchen started serving a 'UKIP pie'.
Village shop? Heavens no. If you want bread or milk, or anything, best drive to Biggin Hill. But you can get your car serviced, or your MOT sorted, at Humphreys garage.



#1 tourist attraction? The Blacksmith's Arms was the childhood home of Harry Relph, better known as music hall star Little Tich. Born in 1867 with an additional finger on each hand, he stopped growing taller at the age of 10, and eventually worked his way up the showbiz ladder from local curiosity to theatrical impressionist. One of the first visual comedians to be captured on film, his most famous act involved dancing on the tips of 28-inch boots. A small exhibition of Little Tich memorabilia can be found inside the pub.
#2 tourist attraction? The Cudham Circular Walk is a 7.5 mile waymarked trail across ideal walking country, and takes in Downe and High Elms - leaflet here.
#3 tourist attraction? If you fancy giving your car's brakes a good tryout, or want to cycle down a really sharp incline, the lane down the escarpment from Cudham Lane may be the steepest hill in Greater London. Church Hill looks bad enough, but the sign at the top of Downe Road warns of a 25% gradient (or 1 in 4 in old money) which is quite some descent.

3) PRATTS BOTTOM

Where? Two miles southeast of Orpington, just south of Chelsfield. [map]
How did it get its name? With a name like that, good question... but it turns out to be nothing smutty. Stephen Prat was a 14th century landowner, and the village is low-lying at the foot of a hill.
What's on the village sign? The coat of arms of the Diocese of Rochester, propped up by two white horses (they took leaving Kent really badly here), plus a squat building I think must be the local tollgate cottage (which was demolished in the 1930s).
How to get there? The R5 every 150 minutes from Orpington, or walk a mile to Knockholt station (or most likely drive - the busy A21 road passes through the valley at the foot of the village).



What's the village like? The original village nestles around a triangular common, overlooked by a converted oast house, the pub and the village hall. To the south are some fine weatherboarded cottages and a nautical-themed playground, before the road up Rushmore Hill disappears into a leafy tunnel. Much suburban infill has taken place, most notably the avenues squeezed up onto the escarpment, some of which are lucky/unlucky enough to be in Kent rather than London. Villagey ambience is almost entirely absent along the arterial Sevenoaks Road.
Population? A couple of thousand.
What's the big news? The Christmas tree on the green is already up, with a warning to council staff not to strim underneath for fear of chopping the fairy lights. High on the agenda at the recent AGM of the Pratts Bottom Residents Association was "the dreadful bus service". The next Model Railway Show in the Village Hall is on the weekend of 13th/14th January, but the date for the village panto is not yet set.



Church? That'll be All Souls, a simple chapel-like affair built when the population grew rapidly at the end of the 19th century. Accessed up a steep footpath, the bench out front has fine views over undulating arable fields.
Pub? The Bull's Head (or The Bulls Head, depending) has stood on its current site for roughly 400 years, a short trot uphill from the Sevenoaks Road. Dick Turpin is said to have drunk here, and to have crept in and out via a secret tunnel, but dozens of pubs across the country claim much the same thing. Having survived a spell as a wine bar, then a down-at-heel dive, these days it's a pleasant all-round hub with an open fire for addled overwintering.
Village shop? The Rushmore Store on the main street reopened last year, selling newspapers, groceries and sandwiches, but appears to have succumbed to market pressures and is now very much blinds-down. I suspect the Spar minimart at the Esso garage on the main road sealed its doom. But if it's something more specialist you're after, try the parade across the road. World of Sewing is rammed with craft fabrics, sewing machines and haberdashery, and the nice ladies within will happily demonstrate their overlockers. The next niche retailer is The Christian Bookshop, then a Chinese takeaway, then The Kitchen Doctor offering made-to-measure worktop upgrades, but the intermediate off-licence has alas long since bottled up.



#1 tourist attraction? Other than standing in front of the village sign for a grinning selfie, nothing. But that's no reason to never visit...


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