diamond geezer

 Monday, January 19, 2009

Random borough (20): Croydon (part 2)

Somewhere historic: Addington Palace
There's not much that's proper old in the Croydon area. Creeping suburbia wiped out most of the ancient hamlets, and manors, and kings and queens of old generally gave the place a wide berth. But the market town has one long-standing connection, to the Archbishops of Canterbury, who had their summer residence in Croydon Palace from the 12th century onwards. Some of this building still stands, now part of an independent girls school, and guided tours are available on a handful of days throughout the year. But not in January, so I didn't go there. Instead I followed in the archbishops' 200-year-old footsteps, fleeing Croydon town centre for a place in the hills.

Addington PalaceAddington Palace, formerly Addington Manor, is a Palladian mansion a few miles southeast of Croydon. It was bought by the government in 1808, paid for by the sale of the old palace, and as many as six consecutive Archbishops of Canterbury spent their summers here. No, I hadn't heard of any of them either. When the seventh moved back to Canterbury instead, the palace was sold on to a diamond merchant, then to the Red Cross who used it as an isolation hospital. In 1953 the lease was taken over by the Royal School of Church Music, an august body charged with maintaining ecclesiastical choral tradition. And it was they who once invited me to visit the palace, back when I was a cherubic youngster with soaring vocal cords. I don't remember much of the occasion, alas, apart from a few vague wood-panelled flashbacks.

I didn't feel quite so welcome on this visit. Addington Palace has moved down the spiritual ladder and is now a wedding, conference and banqueting venue. For a small fortune (plus deposit) you can hire the chapel for a bit of knot-tying, then dispatch your guests to the permanent marquee dumped in the back garden. Smart guests were arriving when I turned up, so I kept my distance behind the hired limos and tried extra carefully not to tread on the grass. The surrounding greenspace is owned by the Addington Palace Golf Club, a rather exclusive bunch ("shirts must have collars and sleeves") serving a very exclusive neighbourhood, and I didn't think they'd appreciate former choristers stepping out onto their fairway for a better photo opportunity.

St Mary's, AddingtonDown the hill is Addington Village and tiny St Mary's Church. This is the borough's oldest building, complete with part-Saxon chancel, a medieval belfry and an unusual pyramid-capped tower. It's also, unexpectedly, the burial place of five of the six Archbishops who lived up at the Palace. You'd expect their bones to be stashed in Canterbury, or at least Lambeth, but instead their ties as Lord of Addington Manor drew them to rest here instead. The church offers occasional tours in the summer, but again not in mid-January, so instead I made do with a stroll around the compact churchyard trying to spot mitred memorials.

New Addington tram stopThat's old Addington. New Addington is a completely different matter, and a completely different world. This huge local authority housing estate, originally planned as a 'garden village', now sprawls unchecked across 1000 acres of former farmland. Sadly New Addington never achieved its aim as an aspirational community, not by a long chalk, and lack of facilities and isolation from the outside world led to the place being nicknamed Little Siberia. Today more than 20000 people live on its downmarket slopes, and few are the sort who play golf. The main shopping parade is awash with charity shops, bakeries and bookies, and the only supermarket options are the Co-Op or Iceland. This is a land of mobility scooters, sneering dogs and hoodied youth, and a million miles from the wealthy suburbs across the valley.

But one thing's rescued New Addington from abject misery, and that was the arrival of Croydon Tramlink in 2000. Line 3 terminates at the top of town, with regular services down the hill towards central Croydon and civilisation. It's an enjoyable journey - through switchback woodland and through a couple of old railway tunnels - and much quicker than the old crawl by bus used to be. Another great example of improving social cohesion through investment in public transport infrastructure, and one of Croydon's most useful resources. You may never use it, because it's hard to think of a good reason for coming out this far, but the residents of New Addington can only be grateful that Tramlink reached them pre-Boris.
by tram: Gravel Hill   by bus: 130, 466

Somewhere pretty: Addington Hills
Canary Wharf from Addington HillsCroydon boasts some stunningly pretty countryside, at least by normal London standards. The rolling hills and verdant valleys of the North Downs Green Belt are rather gorgeous, and the perfect "somewhere pretty" for me to visit. Except I've already been, a couple of summers back, for a walk along section 5 of the London Loop. I strongly recommend this undulating hike around the southern rim of the capital, especially the views from Farthing Downs, but probably not in January. So I left that old favourite alone and explored a different council-recommended viewpoint instead. Just south of Shirley.

The easiest way to get to Addington Hills is by tram. Alight at Coombe Lane, which looks like a forgotten halt in the middle of rural England, and then take the path into the undergrowth. No really, don't be afraid, this muddy track is another stretch of the London Loop, and the woodland doesn't stay dense for long. You emerge beside what must be London's most remote Chinese restaurant, and then the path turns left away from the car park towards an elevated stone podium. Oh my word, look at that. The land drops away beneath you, across the capital's largest expanse of heathery heathland, and there's a great (and unusual) view across most of London. To the left that's the metropolis of Croydon, its skyscraper office blocks clearly evident. A bit further round, surely that white arch can't be Wembley 17 miles away, but yes it is. There are the two south London TV masts and, across to the right, a prominent cluster of pointy topped buildings that can only be Canary Wharf. Hang on, back a bit, rather fainter than expected, there's the Gherkin and the towers of the City. A series of metal plaques around the edge of the platform confirm what you're seeing - even on a clear day, apparently, Amersham. Splendid stuff. Just be careful which route you take back to the tram stop, because some of the couples lurking in the car park looked like they might have a completely different view on offer.
by tram: Coombe Lane   by bus: 130, 466

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