diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Geography Field Trip: Pollards Hill

Location: Straddling the London boroughs of Merton and Croydon (east of Mitcham, south of Streatham, northwest of Croydon) [OS Map]

Physical Geography: Pollards Hill is a proper hill, 65m in height, rising out of the London Clay. It has a trig point on top, plus a litter bin and a pedestal installed by the Pollards Hill Residents' Association. This gives distances to local and international landmarks, including Croydon Clocktower, Motspur Park Gasometers and the North Pole, inexplicably using the abbreviation 'mls' to represent miles. Views are excellent to the south and west, spanning just over 180°. An ancient earthwork depression exists just below the summit. The hillside slopes particularly sharply to the west, before mostly levelling out. Ena Road, which descends the northwest flank, is one of the steepest streets in Greater London.

Administrative Geography: A longstanding administrative boundary is aligned along the foot of the slope. From 1894 it was the dividing line between Surrey and the County Borough of Croydon, and from 1965 between the boroughs of Merton and Croydon. Merton has the low land, while Croydon has the hill. Despite this, only the Merton side is officially called Pollards Hill - the Croydon side is technically part of Norbury. Because the two councils never worked together no roads link the housing on either side of the boundary, which is marked by a long fence. Instead a single footpath climbs the hill, crossing grassy scrub that used to be allotments - unlit, unpaved and entirely unsuitable for the infirm. As a result of this disconnect the two sides of the boundary have developed in very different ways, which is excellent news when on a geography field trip for 'compare and contrast' reasons.

Human Geography (Croydon): The Croydon side was developed first at the end of the nineteenth century. A couple of grand tree-lined avenues broke off from London Road, initially servicing only a handful of homes below and around the summit. The hilltop was left undeveloped, and gifted to the council in 1913 by Sir Frederick Edridge, five times Mayor of Croydon. Later homes are generally on the large side, with Pollards Hill East slightly outranking Pollards Hill North in terms of aspirational status. A key neighbourhood characteristic is that most of the roadside trees are pollarded, which may not be how the hill got its name in the first place but is a nice coincidence.

Human Geography (Merton): The housing at the foot of the hill could hardly be more different. This is the Pollards Hill Estate, a 1970s attempt to create high density low-rise council housing. The estate consists of 3-storey houses and flats, laid out in zigzagging blocks that weave compactly around the edge of a generous open space. From above it looks like the architects got a potato print of a rectilinear snake and repeated it to squeeze in as many homes as possible. On one side the blocks enclose collective parking spaces and on the other side small garden squares, perfectly dividing the two flanks of the building by function.

The estate's not badly designed but has seen better days, so the local housing association have a £35m regeneration plan. Their workforce is currently renewing kitchens, adding insulation, fixing flat roofs and replacing windows, with plenty of scaffolding as visual evidence. But later phases intend to lose the overall coherence of the existing site by building additional blocks in gaps around the perimeter, because this is what a 21st century housing crisis does to a 1970s estate. Three acres of green space will be lost to make room for the developments, adding 200 extra parking spaces but only 75 new homes. As Moat Homes say, 'exciting things are happening', but more for their bank balance than architectural clarity.

The focal point of the estate is the library, a variegated geometric building refurbished in 2009. It's reassuringly busy. Alongside are a community centre and a nursery, each by modern standards inefficiently single-storey. Across the road is what once passed as a bus station, in recognition that the only nearby railway stations are some distance away, because nobody lives in Pollards Hill for an easy commute. As for shops, the sole parade forks towards a five-way roundabout, with Londis at one end and the Co-Op at the other, plus a halal frozen food bazaar in the centre. It's no ghetto but equally nothing very special, and no well-known coffee chains will be turning up any time soon.

Roads leading westward from the roundabout form a more traditional suburban landscape of interwar semis and part-terraced pebbledash, stretching down to the edge of Mitcham Common. More intriguing is the southeastern wedge, added in the 1950s across what was once Pollards Hill Golf Course. Simple terrace-block council housing was introduced, plus an outer ring of temporary prefabs on cul-de-sacs numbered from First to Seventeenth. They've since been overbuilt with more modern stock, but Eighteenth Road and Nineteenth Road somehow survive. The latter looks nothing special - a narrow backalley painted with double yellow lines along which nobody lives and boasting no street sign - but it is the highest ordinal-numbered street anywhere in Greater London.

Conclusion: The split personality of Pollards Hill exemplifies many geographical principles. The higher land was developed first and contains higher value properties. The valley floor was developed second and much more densely. It's generally the case that the newer the house, the smaller the plot. Council-built housing reflects the era in which it was built, with the 1970s more adventurous than decades before or since. All the pressure to add modern housing is focused on increasing infill on publicly-owned land. Councils rarely work together, creating artificial barriers to connectivity. London's suburbs are the bedrock of the capital.

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