SE13: A river runs through it

SE13 is Lewisham. The town centre is an important transport hub as well as a big shopping centre. Though we will major on that we will also go along the road to the historic part of Lee as we heard is in SE13 rather than SE12

We start our walk at Lewisham Post Office which is in W H Smith in the North Mall of Lewisham Shopping Centre. Turn right out of the shop and exit the mall heading towards the station (this is the corridor that heads off to the left)

The “Legible London” maps on the streets have not quite caught up with the reconfiguring of the roads, so they still show a roundabout outside the northern end of the shopping centre.

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Now Molesworth Street goes straight into Loampit Vale with a side turning off to link to the High Street which has been restraightened. What has been lost though is any sense that once there was a bridge over a river here – and it was called Lewisham Bridge. Now the river just pops our from under the railway arch and disappears under the road.

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This is the River Ravensbourne which has come up from Catford and beyond and near here another river joins in from the east and that is the River Quaggy, which we shall get a glimpse of shortly.

But just about where the road is now was once a parade of shops with a large cinema.

Stop 1: site of Odeon cinema

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The cinema here was opened as the Gaumont Palace in December 1932. It has just over 3,000 seats and as so often happened with these large cinemas it also had full stage facilities and regularly hosted live performances.

In 1962 after restoration following a fire, it was renamed the Odeon. Through the 1960s and into the 1970s, many famous acts appeared here: Nat ‘King’ Cole, Johnny Cash, Sarah Vaughan & Count Basie and His Orchestra, Ted Heath and His Orchestra, Ray Charles, The Supremes, Chuck Berry, Cliff Richard and The Shadows, The Rolling Stones, Manfred Mann, The Beatles, The Who, Rod Stewart, David Essex and The Bay City Rollers.

More info about this cinema is on the wonderful Cinema Treasures site: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/30710

Attempts to convert it to Bingo were refused and it closed as a cinema in 1981. It was left empty for 10 years, and then the entire building was demolished in June 1991, to allow for a road widening scheme (which has since been changed again). A fragment was said to have remained but even that has now gone along with any indication as to where this huge cinema once stood.

Who knows if this building had been better located (eg near a tube station and not next to one of the main roads to Kent and the channel ports) it might have survived as a live venue in the same way its sister at Hammersmith has.

Now head over to the station which you will be able to see.

Stop 2: Lewisham Station

Lewisham is a rather unsatisfactory station. Here is a plan which shows why.

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The National Rail station is on a viaduct in the form of a Y shape with two platforms on each arm of the Y. And up a slope is a roadway which ends up at the ticket office in the middle of the two arms.

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Below and sort of at ground level, there is a DLR station.

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It’s all bit of a cobbled together. It just is not how just would design a station if you were starting from scratch.

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Upstairs the platforms are on curves, so there is quite a gap between the train and the platform in some places.

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Standing on the platforms and looking towards central London there is a complex junction with a flat crossover between the two sets of lines. Typically at present there are 14 trains an hour to central London, but they go to three different stations from two different platforms – 8 an hour to Cannon Street, 4 an hour to Charing Cross and 2 an hour to Victoria.

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And over to the left out of view is a line which bypasses Lewisham station completely, so some suburban trains which might have served Lewisham go whizzing by, meaning the service from here could have been even more frequent. If the station had been better located it would have been the Clapham Junction of south east London.

There is a nice view of the Shard from the platforms.

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So how did this happen. The first station in Lewisham was opened as part of the North Kent line in 1849. The station was moved in 1857 to its present location which was slightly to the west of the original. The junction to the north of the station was remodelled in the 1920s and a link was put in to the Greenwich Park branch.

The Jubilee line was once planned to come here but that got cancelled in the late 1970s. But the DLR was squeezed in here in 1999 and now there is talk of the Bakerloo line being extended here, but not until the 2030s.

The full complicated story can be followed here:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lewisham_station

Now go out of the station forecourt. If you go left you can spot another bit of the largely hidden river Ravensbourne. This is looking away from Lewisham centre towards Greenwich

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And this is looking back towards the centre of Lewisham

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Go to the end. Cross over the main road  and turn right. Head towards the shopping centre. On your way look left and you will see another stream which disappears under the road.

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This is the River Quaggy which comes in from the direction of Lee. Ahead is our next stop, the Police Station

Stop 3: site of Chiesman’s Department store

Today this is Lewisham Police station – an uninspiring work-a-day building.

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But once this was the site of a major department store called Chiesmans. The following information is mostly from the House of Fraser archives:

Chiesmans Ltd, drapers, Lewisham, was incorporated as a private limited company in 1921. The business was founded in 1884 as a partnership between two brothers Frank and Harry Chiesman who opened a drapery shop on the High Street, Lewisham.

In 1921 the rebuilding of a more modern store, on the same site, was begun, and extensions and alterations continued in the 1930s. Chiesmans Ltd had acquired premises on both sides of the High Street and in 1939 work was completed on a bridge across the High Street which connected both stores at first floor level.

The business was expanded in 1933 when Chiesmans Ltd bought a second store in Maidstone, and again in 1947 a store in Canterbury was added, but had to be resold when it proved unprofitable. In 1957 a fourth store in Gravesend was purchased. In 1957 Chiesmans Ltd became a Public Limited Company, although most of the shares were kept within the Chiesman family. In the following two years the company acquired stores in Tunbridge Wells, the Isle of Wight, Ilford, Upton Park and Rochester. The Lewisham store was extended again in 1960.

The company was bought by House of Fraser in 1972. It got renamed Army and Navy and was downsized in 1993, eventually closing completely in 1997. (Curiously the House of Fraser Archive page suggests that the shop was still trading in 2009 which it was not)

Now our next stop is just next door

Stop 4: former Co-op store

Here on the left is a rather grand building which was built as a department store in 1933 for the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society.

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It is a four storey Art Deco style building with central tower and relief plaques depicting a steam train, lorry and ships The dates of 1868 and 1933 are incorporated in the tower.

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1868 is the date when the Royal Arsenal Supply Association was founded by 20 workers from the Royal Arsenal. It became the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in 1872. 1933 is the date of construction of this building.

There is a lorry with RACS spelled out on its trailer.

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There are a couple of ships and in the middle a vent like thing with what looks like the entwined letters of RACS.

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Now cross the road and you will see our next stop, the Clock Tower.

Stop 5: Clock Tower

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This was built for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. It survived the bombardments of the Second World war but was moved slightly in the 1950s.

There is a rather nice crown atop this clock tower.

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Here is a link with more info on the clock tower: http://www.lewishamcard.co.uk/latest/2016/5/16/the-history-behind-the-lewisham-clocktower

Just beyond the Clock Tower on the side of the High Street is a market area. Interesting that today almost all the market now operate on the £1 a bowl model of pricing. I guess it saves fiddling about with weighing stuff.

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Now a little way along the market to you right you will see Marks and Spencer’s store.

Stop 6: Marks & Spencer store (and plaque)

And to the left of the entrance is a plaque.

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This commemorates the casualties from a V1 rocket attack in July 1944.

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When one thinks of war time bombing one tends to focus on the so-called Blitz – that was a period of sustained bombing from planes between September 1940 and May 1941. That was bad enough but from the summer of 1944, Germany started to use missiles – the V1s and V2s. They could be fired from continental Europe and did not need a plane to deliver them.

According to Wikipedia, a total of 9,251 V1s were fired at targets in Britain, with the vast majority aimed at London; 2,515 reached the city, killing 6,184 civilians and injuring 17,981. 1,115 V2s were fired at the United Kingdom. The vast majority of them were aimed at London where they killed an estimated 2,754 people with another 6,523 injured.

The V1 had a distinctive engine sound which cut out as it was about to drop on its target, which gave some warning. The V2 was supersonic and just arrived. It must have been quite terrifying as there was little warning of a raid, as a missile would only take 5 minutes to get here from Belgium. No longer were the bombing raids confined to times when the bombers could fly. One wonders what might have happened if these weapons had been around earlier in the war.

Keep going along the High Street and at the end of the bus only section you will see our next stop on the left.

Stop 7: Lewisham Library

This rather nondescript looking 1960s building houses Lewisham Library.

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Go inside and there a little surprise on the ground floor above a doorway near the bottom of the escalator.

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This is a plaque commemorating King Alfred, he of burnt cakes fame. He was Lord of the Manor of Lewisham and this plaque dates from 1901 so was presumably moved here from a previous Library building.

Now retrace your steps along the High Street and at the very end turn right into Lee High Road.

Note here according to the street maps is the location of Lee Bridge, although you cannot actually see a bridge.

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Go along Lee High Road for a while until you reach Clarendon Road. Turn right here.

Almost immediately you will go over another river. This is the River Quaggy again and presumably what Lee Bridge went over.

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Now continue and at the junction bear left into Gilmore Road. Stop at Number 9 which is on the left.

Stop 8: Number 9 Gilmore Road

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As you can see, there is a blue plaque. This commemorates the birthplace of the poet and writer James Elroy Flecker (1884 – 1915).

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The plaque erected in 1986 by Greater London Council. Not sure he would qualify for a plaque now as he is not exactly well known today. If he is remembered at all, it is for his 1913 poem, “The Golden Journey to Samarkand”.

Follow Gilmore Road round and turn left at Eastdown Park. Then turn right at the main road and cross over

You will see a gated estate, called Halley Gardens and just after that entrance you should see this,

Stop 9: Meridian marker

We saw a few Meridian Markers in east London but they are not so common south of the river. And this one is much older than the ones we saw previously.

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It was laid on 16 May 1984 in Lewisham Anti Racist Week “to commemorate the centenary of the Greenwich Meridian and promote racial harmony throughout the world”.

Although Britain has established the meridian through Greenwich in 1721, it was only adopted internationally as a result of a conference in Washington DC in the United States in October 1884. of course the French were not happy as they had a rival meridian going though Paris and so they abstained and did not in fact adopt the international meridian until 1911.

This agreement was needed not just for navigation but also to help standardise time, an issue which had emerged with the railways, notably in North America where there was a multiplicity of local times. We kind of take this for granted but it all had to worked out.

Interesting the local council decided to install this in May, a few months ahead of the actual centenary.

Now keep going along Lee High Road, cross over Brandram Road. At the corner are some almshouses which we shall come back. you need to turn right into Old Road. Follow Old Road round to the left and ahead you will see our next stop set back in its own grounds.

Stop 10: Manor House library

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Today this is a library, but once it was the home of the Baring family.

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As evidenced by the Lewisham Borough council plaque

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As we heard in SE12, much of the development here was the land hereabouts was part of the Baring estate. The building dates from 1771/72 according to architectural guru Pevsner.

Next door to the Library is Manor House Gardens, a lovely little green space.

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Have a look at the information sign at the entrance.

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Have a look at this sign and you will see at the other end of the garden, the River Quaggy runs through it.

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Now follow Old Road round and to the left and you get back to the main road. Ahead you will see our next stop.

Stop 11: Boone Chapel and Merchant Taylors’ Almshouses

Firstly there is the Boone Chapel. This is the only remaining part of some almshouses dating from 1683.

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According to the Blackheath Historic Buildings Trust http://www.blackheath.org/bhbt.htm

“The original almshouses and chapel were commissioned by Christopher Boone, a London merchant and, like Sir Christopher Wren, a member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company, and built in 1683. Income from the Boone family estate in Herefordshire helped provide relief for the elderly poor of Lee and for the education of 12 poor children. The original row of almshouses stood next to the Chapel facing directly on to Lee High Road. These almshouses were demolished in 1875 but a U-shaped block, dating from 1825 and listed Grade II, remains further up the hill. After demolition of the original almshouses, the Chapel continued to function as a reading room, but fell into disuse after 1945.

It is likely that Wren was commissioned to build the Chapel and almshouses but the work was probably carried out by Robert Hooke, a close friend and colleague and another member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. Hooke is best known for advising Wren in the re-building of the City of London after the Great Fire and in the designing of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich.”

By the late 1990s, the Grade I listed chapel was suffering from decades of neglect and was placed on English Heritage’s London Buildings at Risk register. The Blackheath Historic Buildings Trust was set up in 1999 and following the raising of over £500,000, Boone’s Chapel was renovated in 2008. The chapel is now used by a firm of architects but is open to the public 30 days a year, including for Open House weekend.

Now continue along Lee High Road and look though the fence and you will see the Merchant Taylors’ Almshouses.

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These almhouses date from 1826 and are separate from the Boone’s almshouses which were rebuilt just up the road. Since 2010 the Merchant Taylors’ and Boone’s almshouses have been run by a single charitable trust which is still connected to the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors.

Go along the main road and turn right into Brandram Road, where you will the entrance to the Almshouses.

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Keep going up this road to the end. Our final stop is to the right and ahead.

Stop 12: St Margaret’s church (and old churchyard)

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St Margaret’s Church, Lee was built between 1839 and 1841 in a simple early Victorian style, replacing the older medieval church nearby (which was 12th Century). Extensive and lavish interior decoration was carried out between 1875 and 1900. It is said that the church is one of the best preserved examples of a decorated gothic revivalist interior in London.

But perhaps of more interest is across the road. this is where the original St Margaret’s church was before it was rebuilt in the 19th century. And it is here where the old graveyard is.

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It seems that they did try to rebuilt the church on this site between 1813 and 1830, but this failed as the foundations of the old church could not support a new building. But the churchyard was left and this is where Edmond Halley (1656–1742) is buried. He was England’s second Astronomer Royal from 1720 and the discoverer of Halley’s Comet. And there are two other Astronomers Royal buried here – Nathaniel Bliss and John Pond (no me neither!)

So that brings us to the end of our SE13 walk. Lewisham has been unlucky in its history and geography. It is not quite right with the main roads ploughing through and separating the station from the town centre. And the two rivers which flow through the centre are now rather sad concrete lined drainage channels. The grandness of some of the shop buildings is somewhat let down by the run of the mill retail offer here. But at least M & S is still here unlike in Wood Green and West Ealing. And we did get to go the historic part of Lee which for reasons lost in the mists of time was in a different postal area to the main part of Lee.

We are almost in Blackheath here. You can get buses 54, 89 and 108 either on to Blackheath or back to Lewisham.

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