Croydon props up the capital from beneath, and it's also the London borough with the largest population. So big, indeed, that the council have their sights set on reinventing Croydon as London's Third City. Much of the northern part of the borough is suburban sprawl, but down south the land gets hillier, and greener, and (in places) considerably more exclusive. I spent yesterday attempting to explore some of the borough's more interesting locations, which wasn't easy because no matter where I went the transport network kept dragging me back to the centre of town. Definitely town, Croydon's no city yet.
Somewhere to begin: Museum of Croydon Beneath the Town Hall clocktower, in the very centre of Croydon, is the borough's main cultural centre. It's not particularly obvious from outside quite how many different arts-y facilities are crammed within. It's not that obvious inside either, and I got a bit lost trying to work out where to go. Ah, hang on, past the main library, up the stairs and through the door marked 'Then'. 'Then' turned out to be an empty-ish black room with some maps on the wall and a model of the Crystal Palace atmospheric railway on a table and some motley objects shut away in separate illuminated containers. And that's all I saw, because within two minutes of my arrival the building's manager walked in and closed the museum down for the day. Staff absence problems, apparently, so the young bloke supervising the museum had to be relocated to the more-important cafe-bar instead, sorry. And with that I was locked out and never got to explore the place properly. I suspect I didn't miss much. The museum's exhibits aren't labelled in the conventional sense, no printed text alongside, but instead you have to interact by touching a video screen to discover background and emotional statements attached to each. Too much effort for too little reward, I thought. Plus it really didn't help that one of the screens was displaying a Windows Outlook Express error message instead. Plus you can interrogate the entire collection online from home, so why bother turning up? I shan't be rushing back. by train: East Croydon by tram: 1, 2, 3
Somewhere retail: Whitgift Centre / Allders One thing Croydon's great for, and that's shopping. The centre of town is one big shopping island, hemmed in by a ring of dual carriageways and circling trams. Take your pick of the high street stores, they'll have a branch in here somewhere. And at the heart of things are two Croydon classics - Allders department store and the Whitgift Centre. Until recently the Whitgift was London's largest shopping mall, at least before that upstart Westfield came along. It's a revamped 60s complex, unusually airy, with labyrinthine passageways on two levels connecting three individual atria. They've seen better days, to be sure, but they still have more character than any recent artificial hellhole. The main action is downstairs, while the upper floor has slightly more of a backwater feeling. Solid, safe, comfortable, and a bit of a middle-aged family hangout. On a Saturday morning the place to be seen is Cafe Giardino (of which there are three) - the ideal spot to squeeze behind a plastic table and enjoy a frothing beverage with optional pastry while you flick slowly through your mid-market tabloid. Or ride the escalator to buy a personalised pen, somewhere halfway between the tropical fish cavern and the independent sewing shop. Probably nothing more special than where you live, just bigger.
Exit through Allders Square to Croydon's biggest department store. Allders may have retreated from the rest of the southeast, but here it's still trading as a bought-out independent behemoth. Oh my word, the ladies shoe department is enormous. Rack after rack after rack of pointy heeled must-haves, which seemed to have attracted several excitable Croydon footwear devotees. I moved on, slightly more tempted by the basement offering of Vacuum Cleaners, Domestic Appliances, Fitted Kitchens and 'Gift Food'. They do things slightly differently in department stores. In particular here, where there's a thin crescent mall curving within the store, with small concessions devoted to key-cutting, hair-dressing and cake-icing. You can easily imagine that Terry and June might walk down here at any minute. Alas, Allders's future still looks rocky, and the store may not survive repeated attempts by the council to redevelop this prime central site.
And on the corner of George Street, back to Whitgift again. This time it's the Whitgift Almshouses, a row of Elizabethan properties that have somehow survived to the present day, despite sticking out into a major crossroads. They're a rare exception round here, they're not shops. Neither are they under threat, because not even the local council would dare build a skyscraper here. You can see the projected plans in a plastic scale model just up the road in the brand new Croydon Visitor Centre. Shiny towers ahoy, that's the proposed future for the metropolis of 2020 Croydon. Personally I reckon the current handful of classic old 1960s and 1970s designs just outside the town centre are uplifting enough. by train: West Croydon by tram: 1, 2, 3 by bus: tons of them