SE3: Sun, Sand and Postcards on the edge…

SE3 is Blackheath, which centres on one of London’s suburban villages. It is an area with somewhat more character than the previous postcode, SE2.

We start our walk at Blackheath Post Office in Blackheath Grove. Head out of the Post Office towards the main road and station. The latter, which is over the road, is our first stop.

Stop 1: Blackheath station

The railway arrived in Blackheath in 1849 on a line from Gravesend towards Lewisham and on to London Bridge. The building at street level dates from 1879, but down at platform level are some original buildings.

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It has an odd arrangement in that the main access to the platforms does not go through the ticket hall. There are also no ticket barriers here because there is not really the space, so they just have the free standing Oyster validators.

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The London bound platform did have an adjoining bay platform which could be used for terminating trains from London. It is still here but overgrown and disconnected, now the platform has been extended to take longer trains.

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I have always been puzzled as to the railways in this part of South East London. There are three parallel lines which head out of London Bridge and come together again at Dartford. The northern one runs through Greenwich and Woolwich, the middle one through Bexleyheath and the southern one through Sidcup. But then there is this odd linking line connecting the northern and middle ones between Blackheath with Charlton. Why was this put in? The answer is that this link is the original line – the more direct route through Greenwich was only completed in 1878 and the line through Bexleyheath in 1895 (as we heard in SE2 in connection with William Morris’ travels to and from the Red House).

Now if you are in the station, head out on to the street, turn right and cross the road. Take the first turning on your left, which is Bennett Park

This short street has no less than three blue plaques. The first you come across is at Number 4 on the right. This is for Sir Arthur Eddington (1882-1944) who was a mathematician and astrophysicist. But I am going to skip him and focus on the other two.

Stop 2: Number 5 Bennett Park

This is on the left as you come down the road.

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And there is a blue plaque to graphic artist Donald McGill (1875 – 1962)

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McGill’s name is today synonymous with saucy seaside postcards. He was a naval draughtsman until 1904. An in-law encouraged him to design postcards after seeing an illustrated get-well card he had made for a sick nephew. Within a year it was his full-time occupation. He spent most of his life in the Blackheath area. Not sure how long he was living at 5 Bennett Park.

The cards feature stereotypical images of buxom young women, fat old ladies, drunken and/or lecherous middle aged men, honeymoon couples and vicars. He has been called ‘the king of the saucy postcard’. They are little well drawn masterpieces of social observation with a Music Hall sense of humour.

He did well out of this but even at the height of his fame he only earned three guineas a design, and he did not get anything when the image was continually reproduced.

Strange I do not know why but I kind of thought he was Scottish – probably the name and the sense of humour.

Continue along Bennett Park to the very end which is where our next stop is.

Stop 3: Number 47 Bennett Park

This rather lovely building has the words “Blackheath Arts Club” over the door on the left.

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The Blackheath Art Club was founded here in 1883 to:

“promote social intercourse among gentlemen interested in science, literature, painting and music in Blackheath and the neighbourhood”.

The purpose-built studios at 47 Bennett Park were intended to be commercially self-sustaining and subsidise the building of the art school and conservatoire but this never really worked out. The Art Club had its last exhibition in 1916 and the building was requisitioned by the Government for war use. The Club itself was wound up soon after the First World War.

The building then went through a variety of uses but was taken over in 1933 by the GPO Film Unit. Headed by a man called John Grierson, this Unit was set up to produce sponsored documentary films mainly related to the activities of the Post Office.The unit was a pioneer in making documentary films and had contributions from well known people such as Benjamin Britten, W.H. Auden, E.M. Forster and J.B Priestley.

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The GPO Film Unit became the Crown Film Unit in 1940 with a remit was to make films for the general public in Britain and abroad, basically moral boosting propaganda. This went on to become part of the Central Office of Information.

Today the building has been converted into flats.

Retrace your steps along Bennett Park and turn left at the end. Continue along here until the roundabout where our next stop is on the left.

Stop 4: Blackheath Halls

There are a pair of interesting buildings here. Blackheath Halls was established via a public subscription and built in 1895 by William Webster. The adjoining Conservatoire of Music and the School of Art, which you come to first, were completed in 1896.

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The Hall building has some lovely relief panels.

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The venue initially hosted orchestral and choral works with people like Dame Clara Butt and Percy Grainger appearing here.

During the 1980s the Halls were threatened with demolition but were saved with the support of local businesses and the community. After extensive renovation and restoration followed, the Halls reopened in 1991.

Blackheath Halls are now owned by Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. This was formed in 2005 as a merger of two older institutions – Trinity College of Music and Laban Dance Centre.

The Great Hall seats 600 and there is a 160 seat recital room.  The Halls cater for classical and non classical concerts as well as stand-up comedy.

Continue walking past the Halls and turn left down the first street.

Stop 5: Blackheath Park

This is a private street (or rather a group of streets) which the Cator estate.

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According to architectural guru Pevsner, this area formerly belonged to Wrinklemarsh Manor, owned in the 17th century by Sir John Morden, more of whom anon. The estate passed through various hands until it was purchased in 1783 by a John Cator. He demolished the house and started to develop the land.

The street, Blackheath Park, dates from the early 1800s, and of course no such development would be complete without a church.

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This is St Michael and All Angels and is noticeable because of its very slender spire. The church itself also very slim profile. This was built in the late 1820s..

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There are some interesting 19th century houses here and also some notable post war 20th century developments which have been fitted in, including a number by a company called Span who built some 13 developments within the Cator estate in the 1950s.

As you return back along Blackheath Park have a look out on the left for number 10 – a modern building which lurks like a stealth bomber in amongst the older stock.

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This dates from 1968 and is by Patrick Gwynne. Very well done. At once uncompromisingly modern and yet not out of place as it does not shout its presence.

Now retrace your steps and leave the estate, going back past the Halls and the station. Just beyond the station the road splits.

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Take the left hand road. This is the centre of Blackheath Village and very lovely it is too.  This street is called Tranquil Vale which is a superb name, don’t you think? Go past the Crown pub.

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And our next stop is on the left.

Stop 6: Mary Evans Picture Library

This is the Mary Evans Picture Library. It is a private library which specialises in providing pictures for commercial use in books, newspapers, magazines, adverts, web sites and all manner of other media.

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Mary Evans and her husband Hilary founded the library in 1964. Its core philosophy, unchanged for over 40 years, is “to make available and accessible all the wonderful images created for people to enjoy over the centuries which were originally published in books, on posters, in advertisements, or as prints”. This is not high art but “ordinary” images which display such skill and creativity on the part of the artist, and the style, medium and texture of which defined the era in which they were created.

Sadly this is not somewhere where you can just pop in and browse. But if you want to find out more follow this link: http://www.maryevans.com/about.php?pageName=about1&prv=%27menu%27

Ahead you will see the church of All Saints, our next stop.

Stop 7: All Saints Church

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All Saints Church dates from 1857 – 1867 and Pevsner describes it as “Puginian … already old fashioned.” going on to say “Remarkable for the way in which it is placed right into the heath. Surrounded on all sides by grass, it stands as if it were a model.”. Yes it does look slightly unreal.

But the other unreal thing about this spot is the fact you can see the tops of some of the Canary Wharf towers in the distance.

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There is so much I could cover here about the heath and the village,

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But I want to press on as there are some things a little further afield I would like to get to. However as a result the rest of the walk is a bit spread out.

From the Church follow the edge of the heath, passing by the Clarendon Hotel and the Princess of Wales pub. Keeping the heath to your left, turn along South Row. Note the rather lovely early 18th century building to your right.

 

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With this crest.

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The crest has the motto “Nihil sine labore” which is often translated as “Without work there is nothing”. In other words you have to work for things.

Continue walking along side the heath and our next stop is on your right.

Stop 8: The Paragon

This is at the other end of the Blackheath Park development and is called The Paragon.

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It is a rather grand sweeping crescent overlooking the heath. It was built over a period of years from 1794 to 1807 and is part of the Cator estate.

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The road is private and guarded by a small lodge at each end. Pevsner says these are post war creations but comments they are “entirely convincing”.

Then just ahead you will see a green space with a gatehouse. That is our next stop, or rather will be, when we get to it.

Stop 9: Morden College

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So far so uninviting. But look to your left and you will see a sign for a footpath – not any old footpath but the “Sir John Morden Walk, London SE3” no less.

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Go down here because that way you can see the historic building at the heart of the college.

Confusingly Morden College is not an educational establishment and self evidently it is not in the place called Morden..

Their website http://www.mordencollege.org.uk/ explains:

“Sir John Morden, born in 1623, was a merchant, a member of both the Turkey (Levant ) Company, and of the East India Company. From 1669, with his wife, Dame Susan, he lived at Wricklemarsh Manor, Blackheath.”

He founded his College to provide accommodation and support for merchants like himself, but who had fallen on hard times through no fault of their own; were single, either widowers or bachelors; of a minimum age of 50 years, and members of the Church of England.

As you walk along the path the main building appears on your right.

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The original College was built between 1695 and 1700 in the style of Wren: This had 40 apartments around a quadrangle, with a Chapel all of which were set in gracious grounds.

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Since the Second World War more accommodation has been built in Blackheath and also Beckenham, raising the capacity from 40 to 400.

So basically this is rather unusual old people’s home.

Keep walking along the path and you will reach a street. this is Kidbrooke Grove. Cross over tis and keep going down the path which leads you to Kidbrooke Park Road. When you get here turn left and go to the end. This is Shooter Hill Road. Hard to believe this is the A2, the main road to North Kent and Dover.

Turn right here and walk on to our next stop.

Stop 10: The Sun in the Sands pub

This is one of those names which you hear a lot on traffic reports as it is a junction on the A2 and Blackwell Tunnel Southern Approach. You cannot immediately see the latter as it runs below the roundabout in a cutting.

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The junction gets its name from a pub, which you can see on the far side of the road interchange.

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This is an unusual pub name and the Dictionary of Pub Names says the name comes from the sight of the setting sun amidst dust, kicked up by sheep herded by drovers from Kent travelling towards London. However Greenwich Council says in its “Sun in the Sands Conservation Area Character Appraisal (Adopted 26 September 2007)” that “The name “Sun in the Sands” refers to the sand pits formerly around the pub.”

This document also says: “A building on this site appears on Rocque’s 1745 map, and this appears on Hasted’s Plan in his 1778 History of Kent. The first reference to a public house appears in the 1790s rate books, the ‘Sun Ale House’ is recorded as such in 1812. This building seems to be the  same as that illustrated in the 1830 watercolour reproduced above on the front page. The present Sun in the Sands Public House is said to date from 1842 – and is believed to have been substantially rebuilt at the end of the 19th century. However comparison of the photos below of the present building with the 1830 drawing shows that the pub retains the same form – wide gable ends and 5 bay width which were there and already ‘old’ in 1830. This suggests that, whilst no doubt much altered and rebuilt, the building frame predates the 1840s and is likely to be substantially the 18th century one seen in the 1830s watercolour.”

So it has a bit of history.

Sad it looks like this, with the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach thundering under the roundabout.

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Now go over to the far side of the roundabout on the other side of the Blackwall Tunnel southern approach road from the Sun in the Sands pub. You will see a pathway which parallels the main road go along this. This leads to a road which you should follow. Take a left at the end (which is Old Dover Road). Go along here through a small shopping area and past a library. Our next stop is just before the end on the left.

Stop 11: site of an old cinema, Old Dover Road

Hard to see now but this M & S Food store is on the site of an old cinema

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The cinema was originally called the Roxy and opened in 1935. The newly built cinema building was taken over by Associated British Cinemas(ABC). According to the wonderful Cinema Treasures site “it was not designed by their usual in-house architect W.R. Glen, but by noted theatre architect Bertie Crewe”. It was closed by war-time damage and only reopened in January 1947. It was renamed ABC in 1963 and survived as a cinema until February 1974.

The cinema was demolished in the spring of 1981 and a rather uninspired supermarket structure was built on the site. Not sure what it was when it opened but it is now an M & S.

Go to the end of the road and ahead you will see a green. Cross over to the other side of the green and our final stop is straight ahead.

Stop 12: Pegga Stores, Number 188 Westcombe Hill

This is an old fashioned survivor of a shop. It is called Pegga Stores and sells greeting cards and small gifts

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For 45 years this was the domain of Peggy Hawkes – and Londonist told the story in a great article about the shop in 2016.

http://londonist.com/2016/01/pegga

She had started working at the local newsagents/stationers for an elderly couple, the Munns. Her son, Andrew, cannot be sure 188 Westcombe Hill has been a stationer’s since it was built but he does know the Munns had it for 50 years before they retired, a year or so into Peggy’s employment.

“She was horrified to think she’d lose her job,” says Andrew. “So the family got together and bought the shop.”

For local people Peggy’s passing in December 2015 brought a mixture of sadness, disbelief — she was an institution no one imagined could die — and fear.

“Everyone’s been asking ‘are you going to sell the shop; are you going to change it?’ We’re not. We love it,” says Andrew. “But we will clean.”

“People try to buy the shop all the time,” says Andrew. “We get notes shoved under the door (there’s no letterbox) and people even come in. Mum used to send them away with a flea in their ear.

“Me and Angie are going to give this a go.” Angela Wing worked with Peggy for many years and also has no intention of changing anything.

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The question which does remain unanswered is why is it called Pegga store and not Peggy? Even her son does not the answer to that one.

So we have now reached the end of our SE3 walk. We have seen quite a bit of one of London’s lovely suburban villages with some interesting historic connections, including a college which is not a college and a church which looks like a model.

We are a bit of a way from a station here but you can get buses 54, 108 or 202 back to Blackheath station or else you have buses 108, 286 or 422 to Westcombe Park station

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