diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Driving around London can be expensive, what with the Congestion Charge and newly-extended ULEZ, but there's only one place where you have to pay a specific toll.

It's not a bridge (the QE2 Bridge is outside the capital), it's not a ferry (the Woolwich Ferry has always been free) and it isn't (yet) a tunnel. It's a road in Dulwich.

This is College Road, the spine road of the Dulwich Estate, south London's original Low Traffic Neighbourhood.

The Dulwich Estate was founded by Edward Alleyn, a particularly successful Elizabethan actor. He used his career earnings to buy the manor of Dulwich - a substantial plot then well outside London - and also set about establishing a school which he called the College of God's Gift. With no heirs to pass the land on to, in 1619 he set up a charitable bequest which in modified form holds sway over the estate today. I won't go into the finer historic detail because the Dulwich Estate did that on their website as part of their 400th anniversary celebrations and it's all there in impressive depth.

The Dulwich Estate still owns the freehold to 2½ square miles of southeast London strung out between Denmark Hill and Crystal Palace. It's mostly green, embracing significant parkland, woods, an 18-hole golf course and a large number of sports grounds. Pass through at this time of year and you'll likely spot lads with bulging bags of cricket kit on their backs with bat and pads protruding. Edward Alleyn's school is now much better known as Dulwich College and independently thriving. The art gallery punches well above its weight. And 5000 homes have been built on the estate over the years, some lowly and some prime piles, far smarter even than the Barratt home Margaret Thatcher retired to. So it would never do to allow too much through traffic.

The toll road dates back to 1789 and was built by John Morgan who went by the unlikely title of Lord of the Manor of Penge. He lived at the top of Sydenham Hill and wanted an access road north across college fields, so they let him, but when the lease expired responsibility passed back to the Dulwich Estate. They added a tollkeeper's cottage alongside the gate (still there, now listed) and continued to levy charges even after London's last turnpikes ceased operation. A century ago passing through cost 3d per car, 3d for a horse drawing a cart (2d without) and 2½d for driving a score of hogs. These days (for eligible vehicles) it's £1.20.

A quaint octagonal tollbooth sits on its own little island in the centre of the road. Originally the tollkeeper would have taken the money at the window and then raised the barrier himself, but the current set-up is automatic which greatly helps when two cars turn up at once. Your coins go into a yellow slot on the front of a patched-up machine, which also has at least three other slots for cards of various types and a sellotaped pad if you need to enter your PIN. Rest assured they also take contactless and more recently Apple Pay. Those paying cash should be aware that the machine doesn't take 1p, 2p and 5p coins or £20 and £50 notes.

A dazzling range of discounts apply depending on your position in the Dulwich Estate hierarchy. If you live beyond the boundary but are willing to stump up for 100 journeys in advance you get them for £1 each. If you're a freeholder or tenant on the estate you pay 85p, if you live on a road very close to the tollgate you pay 60p and if you live on Woodhall Avenue or Woodhall Drive you're allowed a £190 annual flat fee pass. The most generous offer is to homeowners on private roads who get to pass through for nothing, but only because they're already stumping up excessive road charges to help keep potholes at bay.

The toll gate looks to be fairly well used and only occasionally does a car pull up short, reverse and turn back. It's also quite easy to veer off up Hunts Slip Road and pay nothing, it's not much of a diversion, although you will probably end up in a big queue waiting to pull out onto Crystal Palace Parade. To understand why this toll road might still be needed head a short way north to the crossroads by the Mill Pond, because this is where the South Circular Road crosses the Dulwich Estate. You might not guess by simply looking because the orbital here is a leafy narrow avenue rather than a thundering concrete dual carriageway, but the South Circular has always been an entirely different beast to the North.

Here too is Dulwich College, the only place of learning in London where a toll road helps reduce the school rush to manageable proportions. On one side of College Road are dazzling gothic-towered classroom spaces and numerous modern annexes, sufficient to support the academic education of almost 2000 students. On the other side are extensive manicured pitches for rugger and other sports, lovingly tended by grounds staff thanks to income from annual fees. Polite signs advise anyone who isn't a student to keep out, indeed the entire estate seems very keen on polite signage - here's how they warn owners not to let their dogs defecate on the grass.

To the south of the toll booth are several modernist 1960s townhouses, indeed a complete Drive-, Court- and Avenue-sworth, a highly covetous cluster for those who like this kind of thing. Beyond that is the parish church and a twisty ramp down into the deep cutting where Sydenham Hill station hides away, a most convenient commuting proposition. And beyond that on the other side of the chasm, somewhat unexpectedly, a full-on council estate with standard postwar flats and an almost entirely shuttered shopping parade. You pay your rent, you make your choice.

It's an area well worthy of exploration, not just the Dulwich Estate but the real London nudged up against its perimeter. Just don't drive because you'll struggle to find somewhere to park and it'll cost you £1.20. Pedestrians and cyclists, you'll be pleased to hear, pass through London's only toll gate for free.

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