Places are like people when they’re on their uppers it doesn’t half show. Nudged by the first snow flurry this I thought it would be a good time to visit the Winter Garden at Avery Hill. After all this is what they were built for, a reminder of sunshine in the long winter months.
Last time I visited there was a vibrancy with lots of information about the refurbishment plans. An enthusiastic gardener spoke to me about the stage 2 Heritage Lottery Fund application was being developed which involved comprehensive repairs and a new heating system to reinstate the main conservatory into a temperate house. The announcement by Greenwich University, just before Christmas, that they are putting the site up for sale has filled the place with gloom. The application to English Heritage was never submitted and in a stroke the figure of Mercury, that tops the was replaced by the sword of Damlocles.
On this visit I was the lone visitor in the magnificent Victorian structure with one worker locked inside a booth. No lively conversation this time. Outside was no better, the light covering of snow could not disguise the drabness of the walled garden. It was flat with not even a hint of architectural planting to give winter interest. Back in the early C20th the gardens were used to supply other parks and grow specialist planting. All that remains is the one walled garden and a car park now covers the former fruit garden.
The Mansion House site is surrounded by open parkland. Below the ancient Conduit and Pippenhall Meadows two springs feed the River Shuttle which is in a culvert. In Victorian and Edwardian times rivers were diverted, often underground, which created a network of lost urban rivers. In recent years more rivers have been restored or ‘daylighted” as this helps to reduce flood risk and increases bio-diversity. The river emerges at the far end of the green space on the Alderwood Estate. Restoring Avery Hill Park to wetlands would certainly give the parkland more interest.
What does the future hold? Well, firstly the covenant put in place by the London County Council, ensuring that the Winter Garden remains open to the public, cannot be revoked. A challenge for any potential developer and the refurbishment costs are huge at an estimated £7.5million. The land is not designated for residential use, so it will be quite some time before luxury apartments appear.
Dickens visited Greenhithe when compiling his 1880 Dictionary of the Thames and had this to say:
“Except as a yachting station Greenhithe itself offers but little to notice.”
Just east of the Dartford Crossing it’s better known today for its proximity to Bluewater shopping centre and Ebbsfleet International station. In my view, there is now something distinctive about the place; for it’s one of the few low rise developments along the banks of the Thames.
Built around the remnants of the High Street, which has period properties dating back to 1768, the new development blends in well.
It’s good quality housing that’s been designed to complement the landscape and heritage of the area. You get a distinct sense of community. There are riverside playgrounds which reinforces that this is a sustainable community, where people live, use schools and other local services and pay taxes. Prices are considerably lower than riverside properties further upstream. It’s been awarded a gold standard by Cabe.
The estate takes its name from Ingress Abbey a large mansion built facing the river for a local alderman. It was built in part by stones from the Old London Bridge.
A road sweeps down to the restored Ingress Abbey in the centre of the estate, surrounded by its grass amphitheatre. A car-free avenue leads to the Thames.
There are two pubs on the High Street, the John Franklin and The Pier. At low tide the rotting carcass of a boat can be seen close to the John Franklin, it looks as though its been there for many years. The landlord explained that a Dutch couple had some engine difficulties and left it there 30 years ago never to return. The London Port Authority assessed it as not a danger to shipping and so it has remained.
The riverside pathway takes you past the Pier Hotel which had a jetty erected around about 1880 which can still be seen and is now a resting place for basking sea gulls. There is also the marker for the berthing place of HMS Worcester which from1862 was the Thames Marine Officer Training School. In 1938 the college acquired the Cutty Sark and it remained here until 1954 when it moved to Greenwich.
Local estate agents boast of a 45 minute train journey to London Bridge. Progress seems to have faltered, back in 1880 Dickens writes about the express train into Charing Cross taking 45 minutes.
It seems that Kidbrooke has been a building site for over sixty years. Following the Second World War the marshy farmland of Kidbrooke was the site of a massive house building programme. The first phase of which was aimed at the well off as a three bedroom semi cost £2,750. In the same period a five bedroom period property in Ulundi Road Blackheath cost £1650. There’s nothing so fickle as taste and the same properties today sell at £465,000 and £1.2 million respectively. Social Housing was provided at The Ferrier Estate but this came later in the 1960s. It has since been demolished to make way for the Kidbrooke Village development with apartments starting at £300k, so not that affordable.
Today you can alight at Kidbrooke Station and enter the swish surroundings of Berkeley Homes Marketing Suite. Back in 1953 the Estate Agents was still found close to the station but a rather more modest affair.
In the midst of the 1950s estate the London County Council built the first purpose built comprehensive school which opened in 1954 some ten years before the national system. It was one of the few “experimental” comprehensive schools opened in largely Labour controlled authorities. By 1958 there were only 46 such schools nationally. The 50s/60s were the belle epoch of British social mobility and popular opinion was behind the comprehensive system. The grammar school system was seen as devisive and as they only educated 4% of the population did not provide enough places to meet the requirements of the expanding middle classes. The comprehensive was expected to have great appeal and a new bus route, the number 70, from Victoria to Eltham, operating four buses an hour, was introduced so that children outside the neighbourhood could enrol at the school.
Sixty years on and social mobility has seized up, there is a widening gap between the richest and poorest. In attempts to fix the system some look to change the structures of schools introducing unaccountable Academies. The local Conservative candidate for the area wants to bring back grammar schools. It cannot be denied that in the post war period the grammar schools churned out thousands of elevated working class kids but the economy had the salaried jobs for them. Today, we have record numbers in low paid jobs and the threat of 10 million jobs being made redundant by digital technologies so focussing on the school system alone looks rather futile.
In July last year I wrote this post posing the question, “Is the decline terminal?”. Today, sadly we found out that it is. After dithering for 11 years and demolishing a handsome parade of period shops Tesco announced that they are pulling out of their proposal to develop a new store and housing on the Lowfield site. Historic Dartford is left as a wasteland. Tesco also announced plans to close 43 unprofitable stores across the UK, although the locations of these have not yet been revealed. We wait and see what is to happen upstream at Woolwich.
Dartford may well thrive again but a walk through the historic market town leaves the distinct impression that the decline is terminal. Arriving by train one of the first sights is the abandoned Waitrose supermarket, continue through the Orchard shopping centre where there appears to be more vacant than occupied shop units. It’s a ghost town with little footfall to boost sales for those shops still clinging on.
Lowfield Street is awaiting demolition. Notices on the hoardings all along the street proclaim to residents and visitors that “it’s been worth the wait” and “not long to wait”.
Well the townspeople of Dartford have been waiting eleven years for this planning scheme to come to fruition. A new Tesco is coming to town bringing jobs and affordable homes. It’s good to know that there will be new jobs for the many retail staff who have recently lost their jobs, but is this a net gain?
Most historic market towns celebrate their heritage and try to preserve their fine buildings. Now, not all market towns can be preserved in aspic like Stamford in Lincolnshire but most find a way of balancing new development with the old. The buddleia growing out of the decorative brickwork of the remaining heritage buildings doesn’t fill you with confidence about their preservation.
Can Tesco regenerate the town? At the turn of the millenium that may have looked like a possiblity but since then Tesco has been losing market share, austerity kicked in and people have changed their shopping habits. Architecturally it will do nothing to make the place worth visiting. Its neighbour upstream at Woolwich has been shortlisted for the carbuncle prize. The former chair of Planning at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Alex Grant, has stated that it’s a flawed project; a blight on the regeneration of the town and he regrets his role in its progeny. Oh dear it doesn’t bode well for Dartford.
During the long winter months you can really appreciate the Victorian concept of a winter garden. Avery Hill Park has the second largest winter garden in the UK after the temperate house at Kew. So quite an asset in this part of South East London and the prospect of funding from the English Heritage Fund to restore it to its full glory was welcomed by all sectors of the community. Now, all that’s changed as the University of Greenwich announced its plans to sell off the site and abandon its plans for the restoration of the historic Grade 11 listed winter garden.
The three-domed winter garden was created by Colonel North who had made his fortune from the nitrate trade in Peru and Chile. As well as recreating a little bit of tropical South America in south east London he wanted his family to enjoy exercise in inclement weather. On top of one of the domes is a playful statue of Hermes and the original iron framework dates back to the 1890s. The reclining figure of Galatea, one of the goddess nymphs of the sea, is in an imposing position. Galatea can also mean “milky white” and the statue is certainly that. Galatea Reclining on a Dolphin was designed by the Italian sculptor Leopoldo Ansiglioni in 1882.
The building did suffer some wartime damage and there is a tall palm, still there, that had grown through the broken roof back in 1947. The University had already received some funding from The English Heritage Fund and some restoration had started. Information boards with details of the full scheme have been on display for over a year. Further funding of £2.3 million was needed to restore the winter garden to its full architectural grandeur and the bid for this was within days of submission. Now there is a suspicion and fears that the site could be sold to developers.
It’s not that easy to see how a developer could make the winter garden economically viable as it wouldn’t be that easy to convert to luxury flats although there is plenty of scope on the remaining site. The future of the winter garden remains uncertain and will cause jitters in this corner of the capital.
The news this week was gloomy: austerity at 1930s levels, food poverty and accusations that the working class could no longer cook. A trip to Borough Market didn’t lift my spirits as I found out that a lamb’s kidney cost £6. When did this reversal of fortune occur; a staple of the working class now only found on the menus of top end restaurants and in the shopping bags of the well off.
Culinary differences between the different social classes have existed for a long time. During the 2nd World War the government equalized the food supply through subsidies on items consumed by the poor and the working class. Cheap cuts of meat such as offal, breast of lamb, ox tail and cheek were available at the local butchers shop.
Earlier in the week I had come across this photograph of Hedley Vicars butchers on Powis Street in Woolwich. The year was 1951, Britain was beginning the recovery from war, some rationing had ended but it would continue for another three years on meat. Hedley Vicars were celebrating 100 years of service on the high street. In keeping with the optimism of postwar Britain the shop came up with a new slogan:
“In all ages Hedley Vicars are at your service”.
Shops such as a butcher, a greengrocer, a fishmonger and a bakery were standard on any high street and had been so for decades. No wonder Hedley Vicars thought they would continue to provide a service to the people of Woolwich for another century.
Then in the 1960s supermarkets appeared changing shopping habits. Mass food production techniques meant that the less well off no longer needed to depend on cheap cuts and they disappeared from the supermarket shelves. There was a corresponding decline of small independent shops. These vintage photographs of Powis Street show a vibrant high street with an extensive range of shops. There is no longer a butchers shop on Powis Street although fresh fruit and vegetables are readily available at the daily market.
Now the supermarkets are in trouble undercut by the German no frills chains and changing shopping habits. As we brace ourselves for a few more years of austerity what changes will we see next in our high streets, our eating habits and how will our culinary skills develop? Well who can say but one thing I would be willing to bet on is that the increase in pawn shops will continue.
The curious visitor to Stamford may wonder how this town avoided the sprawl and squalor of the industrial period. Preserved in aspic it’s the perfect location for a Jane Austin drama.
Situated close to the Great North Road the town was a natural stopping point for coaches traveling between London and York. Today you can still see the great coaching inns like the George with its iconic sign which crosses the street and the Crown in Red Lion Square. Each have repurposed their old stable blocks to meet very different client groups. Football fans who like a fag can enjoy the large outdoor screen at The Crown whilst shoppers with an eye for luxury goods can visit the boutique shops at the back of The George.
The town dates back to the C5th, situated on a hill above meadows rising from the River Welland. The river remains an unspoilt focal point with dramatic views at dusk. The town’s development was restricted by the open field system. What held development back more than anything was the Lammas Pasture rights – the right of the burgess to graze their cattle and sheep over the open fields after the harvest had been taken in. The fields could be in private ownership but the burgess still had the right of Lammas over any man’s land. Towns in the midlands were particularly affected by the system. By C19th the population and risen and the town needed to expand. It was a problem and one that the local aristocracy, down the road in Burghley House, wasn’t going to lend a hand in solving.
The town returned two MPs and only householders had the franchise. The Cecils owned 200 houses in the town so had a huge influence which they weren’t going to relinquish by allowing open fields to be enclosed and possibly developed. Fearful of Chartists they also ensured that the town didn’t get caught up in industrialisation. In 1846 there was a good chance that the London to York railway could pass through.
People of Stamford were anxious to get the trade because of the decline in the coaching trade. Lord Exeter (one of the Cecils) successfully prevented the railway coming and it went through Peterborough instead. Stamford’s development was choked off and it fossilised into the stunning Georgian town we see today. Good for today’s tourists but not for those living there at the time as from 1850 the population started to decline.
Today the town is still overshadowed by Burghley House and the public school situated in the heart of the town. Market day on Friday is a lively affair with vendors chanting to sell their fresh produce. The townsfolks’ spiritual and social needs are well catered for as there are several churches and numerous public houses. Sadly, not many of the pubs have survived as traditional boozers but have been modernised into restaurants or late night drinking holes with bouncers.
I know this has little to do with the Thames but it’s good for a visit.