SW7 should perhaps be known as Brompton. But when the railway first came in 1868, the station here was called South Kensington, probably because it sounded posher. Later in the early 1900s, the promoters of the railway we now know as the Piccadilly line called their company “The Great Northern, Piccadilly and Brompton Railway” (GNP & BR) and they included a station called Brompton Road, which was between Knightsbridge and South Kensington. But as we heard in the context of the City and South London railway in SW4, these early Underground promoters learnt by trial and error. And the error that the GNP & BR made was to put some of their stations too close together. By 1909 just three years after opening, passengers were so few and far between at Brompton Road that some trains passed through without stopping. But what really did for Brompton Road was the rebuilding of Knightsbridge station in 1934 with an extra new entrance near Harrods. The station was closed, and during the war was used for military purposes.
But the name Brompton has not disappeared so decisively as Walham Green in SW6, There is the C of E church, Holy Trinity, Brompton, the London Oratory church is often erroneously called the Brompton Oratory and there is a building opposite which used to be Empire House and has now been christened “Brompton Quarter”. And of course there is now the Brompton folding bike which was apparently invented and first made round here.
For the purposes of this walk we are, like the SW1 walk, going to eschew the big ticket items, such as the Museums, the Royal Albert Hall and the site of the Great Exhibition of 1851. We will concentrate on some of the other interesting things here in SW7.
Beyond what we normally think of as South Ken (By the way as far as I can discover Kenneth Horne who hosted the radio show Beyond our Ken, had nothing to do with South Ken and neither did any of the cast – sorry for that teaser)
We start our walk at the Post Office in Old Brompton Road just near South Kensington Station. If you are coming out of the Post Office turn right and walk along Old Brompton Road towards the station. cross over and just by the southern corner of Pelham Place is a statue with its back to the station.
Stop 1: Bela Bartok statue
Bela Bartok was a hungarian composer and the reason his statue is here facing this way is that when he came to London in the 1920s and 1930s he stayed with Sir Duncan and Lady Wilson at 7 Sydney Place, just 250 yards down the road in the direction he is facing. (7 Sydney Place is actually where the blue plaque is). The statue was erected by the Peter Warlock Society, as it was british composer Peter Warlock who was instrumental in bringing Bartok to Britain. Warlock lived in Tite Street SW3 just a few doors along from Oscar Wilde’s house and there is a blue plaque to him there. (As we had more than our fair share of blue plaques in Chelsea I did not mention him in the SW3 walk)
Now cross Pelham Place and ahead of you is the station
Stop 2: South Kensington Station
This was originally two stations side by side on the surface; and then later another one was added underneath. On this side there are two station buildings. To the left is the sub service Metropolitan and District Railways station.
Note the word “and” between “Metropolitan” and “District” showing it was served by two railway companies. In 1868 the first Underground railway company, the Metropolitan Railway, had extended its line from Paddington as far as South Kensington. The Metropolitan District Railway, a separate company, headed off east from here to Westminster. There were four platforms. The two to the north were the Metropolitan’s and the two to the south were the District’s. The track layout was rationalised in the late 1960s so that all eastbound trains use the old westbound Metropolitan platform and all westbound trains use the old eastbound District platform, so in effect there is a single island platform from which you can go in either direction.
The old eastbound Metropolitan platform is disused but can still be seen but the old westbound District platform was demolished in the early 1970s to allow the lifts to the Piccadilly line to be replaced by escalators. So if you have ever wondered why there is so much apparently wasted space at South Ken station that is why.
The arcade we see today was built in 1907 and was one of a number of over station developments on the sub-surface lines at this time. I guess this was made possible with the electrification of these lines. By 1907 the Metropolitan District Railway was known as the District Railway hence the wording on the sign.
In 1906 the station for the GNP & BR was built beneath the sub surface station. The building we see to the right of the arcade housed the lifts and has the typical dark red glazed tiles of the deep level tube lines built by companies owned by the Underground Electric Railway Company of London. At the moment this building is covered in scaffolding
Now go through the arcade and turn right into Thurloe Street, left into Exhibition Road and then right into Thurloe Place. Follow Thurloe Place until you reach the junction of Brompton Road. Across the road is our next stop.
Stop 3: London (or Brompton) Oratory
Here we have a little bit of Rome in London.
An Oratory is a group of Catholic priests and lay-brothers who live together in a community bound together by no formal vows but only with the bond of charity. Founded in Rome in 1575 by St. Philip Neri, today it has spread around the world, with over 70 Oratories, of which three are in the UK. The London Oratory was founded in 1849, the year after Cardinal Newman established the Birmingham Oratory.
The original London premises were near Charing Cross. In 1854 the community moved to its present Brompton Road site. An Oratory House was built in 1854, followed by a large temporary church. The church was replaced in 1884 by the present neo-baroque building. I cannot possibly do justice to this magnificent building so here is a link to the Oratory’s own website where you can do their tour.
Cross the road and pass in front of the Oratory to where you will find a driveway.
Stop 4: Holy Trinity, Brompton
Just past the Oratory is the driveway that takes you to Holy Trinity, Brompton – the Church of England parish church. It is curious to say the least that the catholic church managed to build their massive Oratory on such a prominent site in effect overshadowing the parish church. If it was not for the sign, you would perhaps not even realise there was a church down here.
The church dates from the 1820s and is built on the site of a burial ground for St George’s Hospital which used to be just up the road. Today Holy Trinity Brompton is perhaps best known as the place where something called the Alpha Course started. I will not even attempt to explain what the Alpha course is and is not! If you are interested, you will no doubt find out for yourself.
By the way, you can see the remaining surface building of Brompton Road station beyond the Boris bike stands. This however is over the border in Cottage Place SW3.
It has just been put up for sale by the Ministry of Defence who have had it since the war. Offers in the order of £20 million expected.
http://londonist.com/2013/07/brompton-road-tube-station-for-sale.php (you may need to open in a new window)
Retrace your steps along Thurloe Place, staying on the same side of the road as the Victoria and Albert Museum. This road becomes Cromwell road. Stop just after the junction of Exhibition Road where across the road you will see the junction of Cromwell Place.
Stop 5: Sir Charles Freake (21 Cromwell Road)
Now almost totally forgotten, Sir Charles Freake (1814 – 1884) played a major role as an architect and builder in this part of London, responsible for much of the development south of South Kensington station (in particular Onslow Square and Onslow Gardens). In 1860, he moved to Cromwell House, 21 Cromwell Road, which continued to be his London home for the rest of his life. The blue plaque by the way is around the corner in Cromwell Place.
Continue along Cromwell Road and a little further on you will see a modern building that breaks the Victorian terrace.
Stop 6: Lycée Français, Cromwell Road
Here on the Cromwell road and just behind is a little bit of London which is forever France. It is the location of the Alliance Français and the Lycée and the presence of these has led to this area being a magnet for french speakers. London Mayor Boris Johnson loves to point out (especially to visiting French politicians) that given the population of ex-pat French people in London, he is also Mayor of the sixth largest French city. The Lycée is a 1950s infill of a gap caused by bomb damage.
Keep walking along Cromwell Road and cross Queen’s Gate when you get to it. Ahead on the corner is our next stop
Stop 7 Baden Powell House
At the corner of Cromwell Road and Queen’s Gate is the headquarters of the Scout movement, founded by Lord Robert Baden Powell. This building dates from 1959 – 1961
The scouting movement it seems sorted of started by accident. Baden Powell was a military man and had written a manual “Aids to Scouting”. This was a summary of lectures he had given on the subject of military scouting. Much of it was a written explanation of the lessons he had learned from an American Frederick Russell Burnham, who introduced Baden-Powell to the American Old West and woodcraft (what today we might call, scoutcraft).
By the early 1900s “Aids to Scouting” had become a best-seller, and was being used by teachers and youth organisations. Baden-Powell decided to re-write Aids to Scouting to suit a youth readership and in August 1907 he held a camp on Brownsea Island to test out his ideas. About twenty boys attended. He published the revised version as “Scouting for Boys” in six instalments in 1908. This as they say was the start of something big.
Walk along Queen’s Gate in front of Baden Powell House away from Cromwell Road. Cross over Queen’s Gate when convenient and take the first turning on the right – Imperial College Road (this has a barrier but there is pedestrian access for the public). Go down this road until the green which is on the left.
Stop 8: Imperial Tower
Standing on the green in splendid isolation is a tower. This is all that is left of the Imperial Institute. This Institute was founded after the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886 and was intended to encourage emigration, expand trade, and to promote the commercial and industrial prosperity of the empire. The original building was constructed between 1887 and 1893.. It had three copper-roofed Renaissance-style towers, but a single 85-metre tower, Queen’s Tower, is all that now remains after demolition in the 1950s to make way for Imperial College.
There were four majestic stone lions which sat either side of the entrance to the Imperial Institute. Two can now be seen at the base of the tower, The other two were moved to the institute’s successor, the Commonwealth Institute in Holland Park. Not sure what has happened to these now the Commonwealth institute has moved out and the Design Museum is going to take over the building in Holland Park.
Retrace your steps to Queen’s Gate. Cross over Queen’s Gate and turn right. Take the second on the left and then immediately take a right into Queen’s Gate Mews.
Stop 9: Queen’s Arms
This lovely pub in Queens Gate Mews to the west of Queens Gate is I believe the closest pub to the Royal Albert Hall should you be in need of a drink after a hard night at the Proms, or indeed now. The mews themselves are also lovely.
Retrace your steps to Queen’s Gate cross over, turn left and take the first turning on the right (Prince Consort Road)
Stop 10: Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road
Not to be confused with the nearby Holy Trinity Brompton, this is an early 20th century Church which replaced a much older chapel.
Pevsner describes this as “an exceptionally sensitive interpretation of a 14th Century hall church making the most of a confined site.”
To the left of the main altar, next to a side chapel is a monument which dates from 1910 but looks Jacobean.
This is the memorial to G F Bodley. This church was one of the last designed by Bodley but even so the style of his monument is a little odd as Bodley’s work harked back to a much earlier time.
Retrace your steps to Queen’s Gate, turn right and go to the end of Queen’s Gate. Here on Kensington Road turn left.
Stop 11 Hyde Park Gate (part 1)
Hyde Park Gate is an odd street for a couple of reasons. First, the buildings numbered as Hyde Park Gate are partly facing onto Kensington Road and partly in two dead end streets, so the numbering goes along Kensington Road then down one side street and back again and then a bit further along Kensington Road and down the other side street and back again. But even odder is that Hyde Park Gate is not near Hyde Park – the greenery you can see across Kensington Road s actually Kensington Gardens.
Take the first street on the left
This stretch of road must vie for the most blue plaques (seven!) and most are of people you might actually have heard of. As the numbers go up one side and down the other, we will follow the order one sees them rather than the house number order.
Starting on the left at number 9 is Robert Baden Powell, founder of the scout movement who we heard about earlier.
Then on the right at Number 29 is where the author Enid Bagnold lived. Her best known works are the 1935 novel National Velvet (later made into a film in 1944 with Elizabeth Taylor) and the 1955 play, the Chalk Garden.
Next and on the left at Number 18, is the house where Sir Jacob Epstein lived. In fact he died here in 1959.
Across the road at Number 28 is the house where Sir Winston Churchill spent his last years.
And finally at Number 22 on the left is a triple whammy – Victorian author, critic and mountaineer, Sir Leslie Stephen and his two daughters who are better known as Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf. The two women were born here in 1879 and 1882 respectively and it was the family home until 1904 when Sir Leslie died. The house was sold and this is when the two sisters moved to Bloomsbury.
Now retrace your steps to Kensington Road. Turn left and take the first left which is also called Hyde Park Gate but has the higher numbered houses.
Stop 12: Hyde Park Gate (Part 2)
This section of Hyde Park Gate has a couple of the original houses in the street (numbers 42 and 45) which overlook a delightful little garden.
Now to get out from here you go down what looks like a private street. It is called Reston Place and there is a gate across. But when you get to the other end (which is Palace Gate), there is a sign confirming this is a public right of way. Go on try it. By the way the picture is looking back from Palace Gate.
Now we have left SW7 and are in W8. Although not strictly within the “rules”, do have a look at Number 2 Palace Gate which has a blue plaque to show this is where the painter John Everett Millais lived and died.
So this brings us to the end of the SW7 walk. A walk which shows how this area has always attracted well known people from the time it was developed. But again we have seen how the naming of a railway station has a profound influence on what people call an area. So hello South Ken; farewell Brompton.
We are now in Palace Gate where you can get buses to High Street Kensington or Gloucester Road. Or you could even walk to either.