diamond geezer

 Thursday, January 05, 2023

The A23 is the main road from London to Brighton. It starts at Lambeth North station and ends at Brighton Pier, making it much too long for a walk along the lot. So I've picked one short section of the A23 and walked the length of that, because how better to start the New Year than an end-to-end exploration of Purley Way?

A23: Purley Way (3 miles)

Purley Way is essentially the Croydon bypass, because even in 1925 the town knew it was wise to displace heavy streams of vehicles elsewhere. Initially it was part of the A22, the London to Eastbourne road, but in 1935 officials cut that back to Purley and renumbered everything to the north as the A23 instead. The bypass begins at Thornton Heath Pond, or at least the grim gyratory that erstwhile water feature has since become, then follows Thornton Road south past Croydon Cemetery. Only at the Lombard Roundabout does Purley Way eventually begin, and all I'll say up front is that at least by starting here and walking south the scenery eventually improves.

Whoever designed the Lombard Roundabout wasn't interested in pedestrians because none of its five arms has any crossing facilities, you just have to take a chance and nip across. I wish the residents in the newbuild flats alongside all the best. The road south was once Waddon Marsh Lane, a rural backwater passing fields and a monster gasworks, but with PurleyWayification came the inevitable arrival of industry and lacklustre housing. Those engineering hubs are long gone but have been replaced by sheds with more modern functions like cash and carries and builders merchants, because Purley Way attracts giant retail warehouses like a horse attracts flies. Matalan is the first of the big names to appear, and expect to tick off every other out-of-towner before we finish.

The road soon ascends a concrete flyover to leap over the tram lines, a former railway, with progress for pedestrians complicated by the arrival of Ampere Way. While negotiating the detour I spotted a service door into the void beneath the flyover had been left unlocked and open, but decided against ducking inside because mild urbex is my limit. Rising close by are the two giant chimneys that IKEA kept (and emblazoned with blue and yellow hoops) when replacing Croydon "B" Power Station with a household megastore in 1992. Throw in a line of pylons and you can see why the local access roads have been named after pioneers of electrical physics.

That intervention complete we plunge back into the dreary warehousiness of the Beddington hinterland. Someone thought that if they called this bit the Purley Way Retail Park and that bit the Purley Way Centre we might discern a difference, but it still all just looks like a swarm of drive-to businesses. Park here for sofas, beds and carpets, park the other side for sportswear, self-storage and Sainsbury's, then get back in your car and join the queues waiting to turn out onto the main road. Again the pedestrian feels like an afterthought, left to cross a never-ending sequence of access roads at their own risk. For those who like to know which bus route we're following it's the 289, end-to-end, which quite frankly would be a much safer way to experience Purley Way than walking it.

Ahead is what used to be the village of Waddon with its watercress beds and manor house, but Purley Way now ploughs through the footprint of the latter and the River Wandle passed beneath us in an unseen pipe back by Currys. The Hare and Hounds pub is one of the oldest buildings left but can't originally have been that custard colour. Many of the residential streets which bear off this section of the A23 have had gates added to allow emergency access only, else they'd be far too tempting to percolate down. It's nice to be reminded that Purley Way isn't all sheds, some of it actually gets lived on, but Metroland elegance this ain't.

The traffic lights before Waddon station are watched over by the smiling face of Gavin Palmer, a businessman urging the local electorate to vote for 'Mr Cure' as the first Mayor of Croydon. Given he came 8th out of 8th in the election, which was held eight months ago, you'd think he might have taken down his billboard misfire by now. This junction is apparently called Fourways, despite one of its arms only leading to a Poundland. Beyond the railway the houses stop and we're back into shedland, most notably Morrisons, and then comes the more widely known Fiveways where many a Croydon driver has spent many hours of their life. From orchards to purgatory is a journey of only a few decades.

Here's where the 21st century kicks in with a brief burst of leisure centre, sponsored academy and newbuild flats. It's therefore quite remarkable to find an 18th century throwback on the other side of the road, a Grade II listed barn with a steeply pitched roof which now looks 100% out of place. It used to be part of Coldharbour Farm, perhaps even replaced its tithe barn, and is now kept alive by an evangelical church. Other nearby buildings of note include the Oriental gate leading to Wing Yip cash and carry, a convenience store called Kevin News and the Spitfire Business Park. Because here comes the famous bit.

Croydon Airport opened to passengers in 1920 and was already the base for Imperial Airways when the arrival of Purley Way helped kickstart further development. Here were built the world's first air traffic control tower, the world's first purpose-designed airport terminal and the world's first airport hotel; today all global staples but unheard of a century ago. Through the 1930s high society knew Purley Way well, but WW2 and the development of Heathrow sparked a rapid decline and Croydon's last flight flew in 1959. The visitor centre still opens monthly - just look for the de Havilland Heron proudly displayed out front - but alas this Sunday's limited run of tickets has already sold out.

A few last megasheds mark the end of Purley Way's commercial focus. Some form the Colonnades Leisure Park, should your idea of leisure be a gym and a Nando's, while the largest still drawing the crowds is an enormous Costco. But then, after a final pile of discarded tyres and the Battle of Britain RAF Memorial, the car parks fade out and grass finally takes over. One patch of concrete apron survives amid the downland if you look carefully enough, but mostly all you'll see is the occasional dogwalker from the Roundshaw estate. Meanwhile the non-airport side of the road has instead been covered by a heck of a lot of playing fields, and suddenly Purley Way has become a rather pleasant place to be.

The road climbs gently to pass between two school playing fields at the top of the rise. And beyond the summit it feels much more like Surrey, which of course this used to be, as Purley Way descends to a close past homes an estate agent could sell in a trice. Officially the road name changes before the final parade of shops, a Mock Tudor beauty where residents of Purley come to buy fireplaces, pizza and steak. But the practical end is at the maelstrom of Purley Cross where the A22 branches off and the Croydon bypass ends. It's also midway along the A2022, if you remember, which feels an appropriate place to terminate my 2023 New Year journeys.

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