diamond geezer

 Saturday, June 15, 2024

London's highest High Street
High Street
(Downe) [155m]

How ironic that London's highest High Street should be in Downe.

Downe is a proper village surrounded by fields, not far from Biggin Hill airport. It used to be in Kent but is now in the outer orbit of the London borough of Bromley. It has two village pubs, a small village school, a few farms, several stables, maybe 300 houses, a very poor bus service and a fundamental place in the canon of evolutionary biology thanks to former resident Charles Darwin.

A note on high things: Downe nestles on the shallow northern slope of the chalk escarpment of the North Downs.
A note on high things: The word Downe originates from the Anglo Saxon word dūn, or down, as in the North Downs.
A note on high things: Downe's elevation (max 175m) is higher than everywhere in north London (max 153m).
A note on high things: Caterham on the Hill has a higher High Street (185m), but that's a mile outside London.

And for some reason Downe has a High Street, which is definitely officially called High Street despite what the street signs say.

Downe has a rising high street, barely 300m long, climbing gently to a triangular focus outside the parish church. St Mary's tower dates back to the 13th century and is topped by a shingled (tiled) spire. A sundial on the south face is dedicated to Charles Darwin "who lived and worked in Downe for 40 years", but the plaque has to add that he's not actually buried here, Westminster Abbey claimed him instead.

Across the street is the old Victorian village school, funded by the wealthy Lubbock family at High Elms, which for the last 100 years has instead been used as the Village Hall. You're too late for the barn dance at the start of the month but not too late for the Quiz Night/Bingo combo next weekend (all profits towards the renovation fund). If you do ever pop in and use the toilets in the extension out the back, you might like to know they're where the air raid shelter used to be.

Nextdoor is the George & Dragon pub with its half-timbered frontage and hanging baskets. It's perhaps most famous as Nigel Farage's local when he lived a mile away down Single Street, although history does not record whether after a few pints he walked home down the terrifyingly narrow lane or drove. Traditionalists will be pleased to see it has a Union Jack outside and a St George's flag in the window. Also the food's cheap, just £7.95 for a Basket Meal in the garden.

The Queen's Head pub across the road is partially Tudor with characterful leaded windows. It's contradictorily decorated at present, with both bunting for the football and a gold stag left over from Christmas. It totally wins in the heritage stakes, in part because it's named after a visit Queen Elizabeth I made to the village in 1559, but mainly because it has a plaque outside saying "Charles Darwin enjoyed a drink or two here". It's pretty cosy inside.

The owners also have an eye to daytime clientele because alongside is a tearoom where dainty scones and hot drinks are served. It also doubles up as The Queen's Larder which is the closest Downe gets to having a shop. Fresh fruit and veg, sliced bread and confectionery take centre stage, also an incredibly limited supply of cleaning products and bottled sauces, but if you want to read your latest column in the Daily Express it's a long drive.

The only other retail unit on the High Street is the Dakshin Indian restaurant (or 'Dakshin of Orpington' as they insist on calling themselves online). This opened about five years ago after previous curry-vendors Rajdoot went bust. Obviously they do all the chicken tikka and seafood bhuna stuff, the menu's very comprehensive, but I was particularly drawn to their dessert menu which appears stuck in the 1980s (elegant glass filled with dairy ice cream layered with thick Cadbury chocolate sauce and Cadbury's Flake - £4.50).

At the very centre of Downe, in the middle of that triangular road junction, is a mature lime tree which Darwin might have seen a sapling. In 1953 it was surrounded by a wooden seat where villagers can sit and gaze upon comings and goings down the High Street, indeed in the absence of a bus shelter it's probably the best place to wait for a 146. The three grilles in the tarmac are irrigation pipes added by the Residents' Association in 2018 to help prevent lack of moisture starving the tree's growth.

The cottages down the high street are a motley bunch, some evidently very old, others blatantly 1930s and some later infill. Front gardens are sometimes glorious, sometimes tiny, sometimes both. You're very lucky if you have a parking space, hence the high street also doubles up as a car park, hence driving a bus through can be a real challenge. Walnut Tree Cottages are timber-framed and thought to date to the end of the 15th century, but their addresses are officially 1-3 Luxted Road so they don't count here.

Yes there's a red phone box, although BT removed the payphone a while back citing lack of use. Yes there's a pillarbox, but best get your mail in the slot before 9am. Yes there are two bus stops, one of which is actually called Downe High Street - that's at the quieter non-conservation-area end of the street. And yes there's also a very comprehensive information board and heritage map on the patch of grass opposite the pubs, so a lot of what you've just read I've copied rather than being innately knowledgeable.

Downe's charming, patently rural and seriously remote by London standards. It's what a real village looks like, not the ghastly urban developments or twee metropolitan oases so often rebranded by marketeers. Its High Street is also impressively atypical, a curl of cottages rather than a wall of shops and not a graffiti scrawl in sight. Very much as high as it gets.

London's lowest High Street
High Street
(Stratford) [5m]

Downe is 150m higher.

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