diamond geezer

 Thursday, May 25, 2017

7 Leyton/Wanstead & Woodford/Chigwell
Combining these three former boroughs in 1965 would have created a faintly ridiculous new borough, bulging at the top, thin in the middle and spreading out again to the south. More to the point, it would have amalgamated wildly disparate communities, from the northern fringes of Epping Forest to dense terraced streets just outside Stratford. As things turned out each of the three boroughs went its own separate way - one to Waltham Forest, one to Redbridge and the other staying put in Essex. For today's post I've headed to Woodford, specifically Woodford Green, slap bang in the centre.

The Woodford Green conservation area

Several years ago, Waltham Forest council issued a series of free leaflets detailing the delights to be found across each of their many conservation areas. The leaflets were impressive compilations of factual information sourced from the Planning & Transportation department, copiously illustrated, and printed in two colours on folded card. I think it'd be fair to say that no London council will ever have the time or money to create something as good as this again. What's more 90% of the Woodford Green conservation area was actually in neighbouring Redbridge, so they were almost doing the work for free. I'm delighted to say that the Woodford Green leaflet survives as a pdf, as do the rest of Waltham Forest's collection, as a perfect reminder of how much architectural excellence there is on Londoners' doorsteps.

The Woodford Green conservation area stretches for almost a mile along the ridgetop between the Lea and Roding valleys, with the Woodford Wells conservation area continuing to the north. The ridgetop is why there are so many grand interesting buildings up here, because an ancient forest track ran this way, and because the first well-to-do settlers chose the best locations with a good view. The ridgetop is also why so many grand interesting buildings remain, because the nearest railways pass to either side along much flatter ground, so suburbia tended to erupt down there rather than up here. Ah, if only that forest track hadn't turned into the A11 dual carriageway, the rural ambience might also have survived.

This is a fabulous place to begin. It's Hurst House, one of Woodford's oldest surviving buildings, built for a rich brewery owner in the early 18th century, and much admired by Pevsner. The house also has the peculiar local nickname of The Naked Beauty, a reference to the nude statue of a woman which once stood in the grounds. She's long gone, but the gardens are apparently gorgeous, and very occasionally open to the public. The obelisk and four cannon balls out front are not contemporary.

Standing tall over the southern end of Woodford Green, close to Hurst House, is this statue of Sir Winston Churchill. He was the local MP in the post-war years, because he had to be the MP for somewhere, and the statue was unveiled in 1959 by Monty of Alamein. Woodford has another political claim to fame concerning a Prime Minister of the same era, namely Clement Attlee, who lived in an unassuming semi down the hill at 17 Monkham's Avenue before becoming leader of the Labour Party. Woodford Green continues broadly north from Churchill's statue, via a fine horse chestnut avenue, to an unassuming cricket pitch.

This is The Castle Hotel, or rather it was from the early 19th century, a stucco-faced coaching inn and posting house where working horses were stabled. When Epping Forest was opened up in 1878 the inn became a popular spot for East End jollies, and daytrippers would have surveyed the view from behind the balcony rail on the top floor. The Castle's recent evolution has seen it change from pub to Harvester, and last year to a posh steak restaurant. As confirmation that the spending habits of the local populace have changed, the former Midland Bank across the road is now a Mediterranean meze grill.

The area around the pond at the heart of Woodford Green is where the original hamlet used to be, hence a high concentration of locally listed buildings exists along the shopping parade on the High Road. The facade at W. D. Chapman Local Butcher made it onto the list, with its red and white awning and nostalgic typeface, while the assemblage of boutiques and restaurants around the top of Snakes Lane is of a more appealing vintage. Unseen behind an adjacent hedge is Harts House, a Regency mansion that's now a care home surrounded by a private residential estate.

I shouldn't mention the redbrick and terracotta United Free Church at High Elms, designed by the same architect who did the Horniman Museum, because that's fractionally across the boundary in a different borough. But I can wax lyrical about the recessed carving over the entrance to the Woodford Green Men's Club, and the squat clocktower above. This unusual building was converted from a Wesleyan chapel in 1904, as one of the plaques beside the door explains - the other commemorates a dozen members lost in the Great War.

At the top of Woodford Green is All Saints' Church, built in 1874 and extended in 1876, which gives some idea of the residential explosion then underway in the neighbourhood. A prominent landmark, the building is Early English Gothic with a steep pitch tile roof, a tall tower and a shingled broach spire. Today's Anglican congregation is in the charismatic evangelical tradition, which helps explain why the church's website mentions nothing about the glories of the building, and much about the vision of the ministry.

Beyond the Horse and Well public house (circa 1770) we're technically into the Woodford Wells Conservation Area, which isn't quite so splendid because the main road dominates somewhat, and the occasional modern showroom shed intrudes. Crossing the dual carriageway requires descending into a deep tiled subway, municipally patterned, but a fine run of Georgian houses still stands intermittently between sympathetic infill.

Easily missed beneath a canopy of trees on the western verge is the Anti Air War Memorial, comprising a small upturned bomb, in concrete, on a raised plinth. It was commissioned in 1935 by the former suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst, who owned the cottage behind, aghast that the League of Nations now considered aerial bombing an acceptable form of warfare. "There are thousands of memorials in every town and village to the dead", she said at the unveiling, "but not one as a reminder of the danger of future wars."

The conservation area peters out towards a fork in the road where a scrap of former Epping Forest lingers on. But there's one last visual treat, which is Bancroft's, an independent school which moved out to Woodford Wells from Mile End in 1889. From the front its castellations and turrets resemble a fortification rather than a school, whereas behind is a neo-gothic quadrangle and a succession of more modern educational facilities. And just 500 metres up the road is Buckhurst Hill, which is officially in Essex, although had the boundary been drawn differently Greater London would have carried on for several more miles.

» Woodford Green and Woodford Wells Conservation Area Appraisal (66 page pdf)
» The rest of Redbridge's conservation areas
» Leaflets for Waltham Forest's conservation areas

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