August is Local History Month on diamond geezer. Over the years I've explored my immediate E3 neighbourhood, walked the length of High Street 2012 and climbed to the highest point in every London borough, to name but a few of my thrilling quests. This year I thought I'd visit every London postcode district numbered with a three, in a series I'm calling Postcod3s.
As well as the half dozen compass-point postcodes, like good old E3, numerous suburban districts also make the cut because Greater London has expanded over the years. That means nipping out to EN3 in Enfield, RM3 in Harold Wood, KT3 in New Malden and TW3 in Hounslow, and that's for just starters. I plan to visit three locations in each postcode district, obviously, and then report back on them. And because we're going in alphabetical order that means starting in Bromley, specifically Beckenham.
Beckenham Place ParkBR3
If you've walked the Capital Ring you'll have crossed Beckenham Place Park, it being the highlight of section 3. If you walked it before 2016 you'll also remember a significant chunk of it was golf course, with players disappearing into the Palladian mansion as their nineteenth hole. No more. Lewisham council decided to close the course and have spent the intervening three years spending a lottery grant to improve recreational facilities for the many, not the few. It's a bit of a triumph, almost.
The focal point is the upgraded mansion which has unexpectedly become a full-oncommunity centre. When I arrived yesterday afternoon a chalkboard directed the nimble-fingered to a sewing workshop, the sound of a Hatha yoga class echoed out of an upper window and if I'd hung around I could have joined a life drawing class. Today it's meditation, cushion-sewing and a family-friendly streetfood workshop. Head down into the basement for a proper cafe, none of this franchised rubbish, and perhaps the most unexpected treat of all... a second hand record shop. Cigarette Records started out online but now have a couple of roomfuls of vintage vinyl for you to rifle through, majoring on the 70s and 80s with all minority bases covered. Here were all the albums of my youth from the Eurythmics to Shriekback, accompanied by Reel Around The Fountain spinning on the deck at the rear, and if I still owned a record player I might have been very sorely tempted.
Across the grass the Stables Block is getting a revamp, which is sorely needed after an arson attack in 2011, and the formal gardens out front are coming on a treat. I counted well over a dozen volunteers weeding, digging, planting and generally bringing the upper terrace back to life, as well as rearranging bales by the gardeners cottage, and by next summer the full complement of flower beds should look magnificent. How refreshing to see council-funded community cohesion in the Late Austerity era.
The sparkling centrepiece is, or rather should be, the park's new 'wild swimming' lake. This opened with great fanfare at the start of the school summer holidays and proved overwhelmingly popular in the hot weather... so was almost immediately closed. The perimeter is now entirely fenced off with temporary barriers and watched over by three security guards lest anyone try having illicit fun in the deeper-than expected waters. Lewisham council blamed health and safety, which it seems is something they hadn't thought through in advance, having fast-tracked completion to ensure the Mayor could turn up and launch the National Park City Festival from the jetty. No date has yet been set for the lake's reopening but all future dippers will face an access charge, even for paddling, and I fear the 'wild swimming' vibe will have washed away.
The Chinese GarageBR3
The year is 1928 and motoring is in its infancy. By the Park Langley crossroads, just south of Beckenham, Mr Edmund B. Clarke decides to build a petrol station no passing driver will forget. He designs the edifice in full Japanese style, complete with pagoda on the roof and a small water garden out front. As a nod to suburbia he half-timbers the main body of the chalet, Tudor style, but the overall effect is inescapably oriental. Over the years the petrol station comes to be called the Chinese Garage, despite this not quite being the correct nation, and the roundabout outside earns the same nickname. Somehow it's still there.
What it hasn't been for some time is a petrol station. The building was eventually repurposed as a car showroom and service centre - initially for Peugeot, more recently for Kia - with MOTs completed in the workshop and used cars filling the forecourt. Then a couple of years ago it closed completely, with Kia sales transferred to a modern building across the road, at which point a contentious planning application went in. We'd like to change the land use to mixed retail and residential, said the new owners, retaining the listed exterior but shoehorning in Majestic Wine, Pets At Home and a couple of first floor flats.
The local community were not pleased and submitted scores of objections, and the council duly turned down the proposal citing traffic issues. We're not having that, said the developers, and put in an appeal... oh and by the way we're changing the Pets At Home to a Tesco Express. This annoyed the local community even more, fearful that a new supermarket might overwhelm the existing shopping parade on Wickham Road. Surely the government's planning inspector would uphold the previous decision? But they didn't, they decided the traffic issues card had been seriously overplayed, and in May planning permission was duly granted.
The inspector did decree that Tesco had to remove the metal hoarding from around the site because it was harming the framing of a listed building, but they haven't done that yet so I couldn't get a decent photo from the roundabout, sorry. I also crossed the road to the bakery on the corner, and can confirm that Sponge Kitchens offers a far better selection of fresh quality cakes than Tesco will ever manage, and at a very reasonable price. The Chinese Garage will still look like the Chinese Garage once redevelopment is complete, because that's a pre-condition, but the transformation from petrol to food and drink will change Park Langley all the same.
Bethlem Museum of the MindBR3
Bethlem Royal Hospital is better known as Bedlam, the historic lunatic asylum, and can trace its history back to the 13th century. In 1930 the hospital fled Lambeth for the suburbs, decamping to a peaceful wooded setting between Eden Park and Shirley. It's still fully operational, should you ever need to visit, but in 2015 the art deco admin block was transformed into a free museum and gallery which is very much worth a trip. The museum part focuses on expression and emotion rather than stark history, inviting you to confront your prejudices with an interactive video or two (so, would you section anorexic Ann?). But there are still a goodly number of intriguing artefacts, from an ECT machine to a display of inkblots, while an outer chamber houses flaking panels from a padded cell.
As for the art, that changes regularly. Downstairs it's by the patients, one of whom will be staffing the desk if you have any questions. Upstairs is properly curated, the current exhibition Brilliant Visions reflecting on the centenary of the psychotic drug mescaline. The paintings on the gallery walls might best be described as 'art under the influence', because how better to convey to others what it is you think you just saw. In 1930 two Bethlem psychiatrists realised that ordinary patients didn't have the artistic talent to do this properly so ran mescaline trials on a group of surrealist painters instead, and that's the half of the exhibition I enjoyed most. It's open Wednesday to Friday, plus the first and last Saturdays of the month, should your horizons need expanding.
Update: Except that next on the list is CR3, and only a thin administrative sliver of that lies with Greater London. Then it's E3 where I live, then City-based EC3, and only then do I get back to somewhere interestingly peripheral. It also transpires that there are seventeen Postcod3s to visit by the end of the month, which is a heck of a lot, and essentially I don't think this feature can be completed.