diamond geezer

 Thursday, March 23, 2017

3 Beckenham/Bromley/Penge

Penge Urban District has an astonishing administrative history, and is the only part of the capital to have been absorbed into London twice, from two different counties.

In medieval times Penge was a patch of woodland owned by the tenants of Battersea Manor. As late as 1866 Penge was still a detached hamlet of the parish of Battersea, an exclave of entirely disjoint land administered from four miles distant, and thus part of Surrey. From 1889 it formed part of the new County of London, but in 1900 was transferred to Kent as a separate urban district. Only in 1965 did it return to London, combined with several other districts to create the London borough of Bromley.

So for today's post I thought I'd walk the boundary of Penge Urban District, hunting for evidence of its mixed-up past, if only I could work out precisely where it ran. Thankfully Martin Spence, author of local history book The Making of a London Suburb, has detailed just such a walk, in seven detailed chunks, on his Pengepast blog. With the aid of this (and Martin's hand-drawn map) I was able to work out precisely where to go and what to look for, and the end result is this post, which is nowhere near as good as his.

A walk around the rim of Penge

I started at the Vicar's Oak, which you may know better as the Crystal Palace crossroads at the top of Westow Hill. Once the point where the parishes of Lambeth, Camberwell, Battersea and Croydon met, this long-lopped tree is still the only point where four London boroughs (almost) meet. Look out for a memorial plaque on the gateposts at the entrance to Crystal Palace Park.

Heading clockwise, the boundary of Penge Urban District followed what's now Crystal Palace Parade, the ridgetop at the top of the park, and still the westernmost edge of Bromley. There's still a mighty fine view up here, just beyond the bus station on the terrace where the Crystal Palace once stood. I paused to soak in the panorama, interrupted by a lady behind me yelling "Come here Toto!" at a creature I assumed was her dog, but was aghast to discover was her toddling son. A little further along is the entrance to the Crystal Palace Subway, a stunning vaulted crypt which volunteers hope one day to reopen, and at the far end the soaring Crystal Palace TV mast. London's television is broadcast to your aerial direct from Penge.

At the top of Sydenham Hill the boundary doglegs back, and the key road to pay attention to is Old Cople Lane. This was once the main route between London and Bromley, a track along the edge of Penge Common, but today only a stumpy private cul-de-sac remains. This leads to a Caravan Club enclave, and also provides a back entrance to the transmitter compound for those allowed within for maintenance. I couldn't find the metal post marking the corner of Camberwell parish but I did find that for Lewisham, so deeply embedded in modern tarmac that half the 'L' now lies submerged within the pavement.

Alongside are the blocked-off gateposts to 'Rockhills', the large house where Joseph Paxton, designer of the Crystal Palace, used to live. He was instrumental in bringing the huge glass exhibition centre here to Penge after its spell in Hyde Park in 1851, and in completely relandscaping the local area to create Crystal Palace Park. Old Cople Lane therefore disappeared within the ornamental gardens, meaning that the dividing line between Kent and Surrey meandered unseen across the site. It clipped the tip of the north terrace, then passed south of the labyrinth and through the North Basin, then alive with cascades and fountains, now the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre swimming pool.

Only one relic of the former boundary remains within the park, but it's a cracker. A Victorian red-painted metal post lurks in a clump of trees between the playground and the toilets, down near the cafe on the Grand Centre Walk where it's all too easily overlooked. In raised lettering is the year 1875 and underneath this the legend HAMLET OF PENGE. It sounds epic, as if this oaken glade were once part of some Game of Thrones netherworld. Instead this is simply the location of a slight bend in the edge of a minor parish, which then continued out of the park just to the north of the Penge Gate.

The hamlet of Penge Green grew rapidly into a suburb once the railways came, the former Penge Common covered rapidly by housing, with the High Street the heart of the growing settlement. This road is the continuation of what was once Old Cople Lane, with its mid 19th century parish church, the Old Crooked Billet public house and the utterly splendid Royal Waterman's Almshouses. Far more modern is the so-called Penge Triangle, a millennial clock tower with a skirted canopy resembling a pterodactyl, although I'd never have guessed if I hadn't read the plaque.

The original boundary divided neighbours on four streets to the north of the High Street, with the consequence that although Penge West station was in the district of Penge, Penge East station lay just outside. On one of these half-and-half streets, Kingswood Road, you can still see a Beckenham parish boundary post in the pavement outside number 55. Neighbouring Mosslea Road became notorious in 1877 for the 'Penge Murder', a brutal case of matrimonial neglect which might have gone unnoticed had not the victim's husband been overheard in the post office asking whether number 34 was in the Kent or Surrey half of the street, because he was uncertain where to report her death.

From here the boundary becomes more obvious - it's Parish Lane. Where this bends you'll find the Alexandra Nurseries, opened on the site of the delightfully-named Porcupine Farm, one of a handful of local dwellings in Penge back in the 18th century. There's a lot less of historical interest to report from this point onwards, which'll allow me to speed up a little in my reporting. A right turn is made at the mini roundabout on Kent House Road, just before Kent House station, where it's finally time to head back to the High Street. Poor old Bearly Trading on the corner, until recently "Purveyors of Teddy Bears", now not barely trading but closed, with a forlorn-looking rocking horse pushed up against the window.

Where Tesco now stands was the site of Willmore Bridge, an ancient crossing where the road to Bromley crossed a tributary of the Pool River. The Willmore's not so much a lost river as a lost stream, but once had the honour (for about a mile) of marking the shire boundary between London and Surrey. Now culverted, one hint to its existence is the dividing line between SE20 and BR3 postcodes which runs at the bottom of the back gardens between Royston Road and Ravenscroft Road. Another clue is the dip in the land, seen very clearly in Avenue Road, with a brief parapet still evident at the lowest point under which the brook would once have flowed.

We've reached prime residential Penge, where large Victorian terraces line broad avenues, and the houses have anodyne bucolic names like Southview, Ivandene or Overdale. At the foot of Croydon Road an old green sign on a lamppost still says 'Penge', despite more modern eyes being more likely to think that the suburb ahead is Anerley. A sports ground and a railway cutting preclude access to the next stretch of boundary, which diverted me into a much more modern estate - a bit of a culture shock after the last five miles. On the bright side I got to divert into Betts Park, where a brief segment of the Croydon Canal survives. It's unexpectedly pretty, although less so at the moment because a retaining wall collapsed a few weeks ago, so council diggers are at work in the drained cut replacing it with a long gabion bank.

The diversion also forced me past Penge's town hall, a Gothic confection better known as Anerley Town Hall, or rather now the Anerley Business Centre. Bromley council rent it out to small companies, and hire out the hall, but also transferred the library elsewhere three years ago so the sign out front is wildly out of date.

It's a bit of an uphill hike from here to Hamlet Road, down which the parish boundary can reattained. This follows Fox Hill, an ancient track (now residential) and one of the steepest climbs in London. The road sign at the bottom warns 20%, and cars are more likely to edge gingerly down than crawl slowly up. Just beyond the crest the boundary veers off along Lansdowne Road, this juncture marked by a particularly weather-worn parish post. There's one more of these to go, the best of all, outside the front door of a dull block of flats. Look carefully and you'll see it says BATTERSEA 1854, a tiny insignificant reminder that Penge was once a tiny insignificant outpost of this Thamesside parish.

There's just Church Road to go, one side of the Upper Norwood triangle, where dapper boutiques and artisan chocolate cafes confirm quite how far the edge of Penge has come since all the land round here was woodland, field or common. The circuit is complete at the Vicar's Oak, the point where Kent met London met Surrey, or various paired-off combinations of the above. One day you'll be able to explore the best of the area via the Penge Heritage Trail, a crowdfunded project with the support of the Penge Tourist Board, which launched yesterday and very much deserves wider support. In the meantime let me reassure you that Penge is a lot more interesting than most people think. I know, I've walked its rim.

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