SE26 is Sydenham. A bit of a sprawling place and another one of those districts which is quite hard to place on a map. We start at the Post Office, 44 Sydenham Road and which is in fact our first stop.
Stop 1: Sydenham Centre
I think the Post Office once took up the whole of this building but now it is in just a part and the rest seems to be called “The Sydenham Centre”
According to Lewwisham Council’s website:
“The Sydenham Centre is a vibrant community space that holds a mix of local organisations, events, activities and services for local and vulnerable people.
The Centre’s main focus is around arts, dance, physical movement and wellbeing activities.
The Sydenham Centre provides the following:
day activities for people with learning disabilities
micro-brewery which provides training and employment opportunities for people with learning disabilities
hireable activity space.”
One interesting feature is the mosaic on the exterior which celebrates all things Sydenham, from Camille Pissarro and Ernest Shackleton to bomb damage.
There are some 11 roundels in total and at the left there is a key to the various elements of the mosaic.
This indicates the artist is Oliver Budd of Budd Mosaics
The company was established by mosaic artist Kenneth Budd in 1951 and more than 60 years later second-generation mosaic artist Oliver Budd designs and creates custom-made mosaics for home and abroad.
Here is a link to their website: http://www.buddmosaics.co.uk/index.html
Now interestingly according to the wonderful Cinema Treasures site, this was the site of a cinema which opened in October 1910 as The Queen’s Hall Electric Theatre. It was taken over by the Army Service Corp. in the spring of 1917, during the First World War, and it was closed. It didn’t reopen until August 1919. In late 1936, alterations were carried out and it was reopened in January 1937 as the Classic Cinema.
It was renamed Naborhood Cinema in May 1939 (what a great name!). It received some slight bomb damage in 1943, and was closed. It never reopened and was demolished in August/September 1953. And as we have seen Sydenham Post Office was built on the site and now having been downsized, the building is largely a community facility.
Now go as if you were turning right out of the Post Office and head down Sydenham Road until you reach Girton Road. Our next stop is at the dead supermarket at the corner.
Stop 2: site of another cinema, 72-78 Sydenham Road
According to Cinema Treasures, this too was the site of a cinema. Opened in August 1931, as the State Cinema, it was built for and designed by A.C. Matthews. It was opened on 1st August 1931. He was also responsible for the couple of cinemas we saw in SE19.
It was taken over by Excelsior Super Cinemas in October 1933 and then in March 1949, they were taken over by the Granada chain. It was renamed Granada in October 1949.
The Granada was not split up nor turned over to bingo and carried on as a single cinema until it closed in April 1971. It was demolished later that year. A Safeway Supermarket was built on the site. This later became Somerfield and finally a Co-operative Food store. Today it is closed.
Now head back along Sydenham Road and a little past the Post Office you will see a railway bridge. Turn right just before that for our next stop.
Stop 3: Sydenham station
This is another of the stations built by the London and Croydon Railway which took over much of the alignment of the Croydon Canal The first station here opened in 1839 and was located to the south of the railway bridge.
With the construction of the branch to Crystal Palace in the early 1850s, the country bound platform was resited to its current position, north of the railway bridge. The London bound platform remained with a station building on Sydenham Road by the bridge. This meant the station had an unusual staggered platform arrangement.
Today the station building on the bridge has long gone and the main station building is down the side street on the right. This is just before the bridge on the country bound side of the tracks. It presumably dates from the 1850s when the line was rebuilt.
Today if you go onto the station you will see the platforms are staggered but not in the way they used to be.
The reason the London bound platform looks a bit spartan is that it is relatively new.
The northbound platform only dates from 1982 when British Rail decided to construct a replacement platform 90 meters north, parallel to Peak Hill Gardens. This was because the retaining wall at the original location was beginning to collapse.
Now go back to the main road and turn right. you will see a roundabout ahead of you. And to the right you will see a distinctive building with a dome. This is known locally as Cobb’s Corner and is our next stop.
Stop 4: Cobb’s Corner
This used to be Cobb’s Deparment Store. The store was started by Walter Cobb as a small draper’s shop in 1860. It gradually grew until it became a fully fledged Department Store building. This corner became the main entrance in 1902. The shop was very badly damaged by bombing in October 1940 and although it was rebuilt the store gradually declined.
Cobb’s continued to trade until 1981 which is kind of surprising as Sydenham never developed in to a major shopping centre.
There is an excellent piece in Cobb’s on the Sydenham and Forest Hill Local History site.
Now return to the roundabout and go down the main road on the left. This is Westwood Hill. Our next stop is soon on the right hand side.
Stop 5: St Bartholomew’s Church
According to architectural guru, Pevsner, this church dates from 1827 – 1832 and is of stock brick. Pevsner does not rave about this church, but nor is there any withering comment.
In the church grounds, near the entrance to the church, is the grave of 10 men who died during the rebuilding of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in 1853 when the scaffolding they were on collapsed.
But I guess its main claim to fame is that the church features in the 1871 painting by Camille Pissaro called “The Avenue, Sydenham”. This painting is owned by the National Gallery and is one of a number Pissaro painted around here when he was staying locally in what today we call SE19.
Our next stop is almost immediately next door on the right.
Stop 5: Number 12 Westwood Hill
You will see there is a blue plaque. This denotes the fact that antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton lived here.
Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874 – 1922) was a polar explorer who was involved in three British expeditions to the Antarctic. He was born in County Kildare, Ireland and his father, a newly qualified doctor, moved the family here to Sydenham when Ernest was ten.
Ernest Shackleton has an extensive Wikipedia entry – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ernest_Shackleton
According to this, his first experience of the polar regions was as third officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Discovery Expedition 1901–1904, from which he was sent home early on health grounds.
During the second expedition 1907–1909 he and three companions established a new record of getting the farthest south – to the latitude 88°S, around 100 miles from the South Pole. This was regarded as the largest advance to the pole in exploration history. Also, members of his team climbed Mount Erebus, the most active Antarctic volcano. For these achievements, Shackleton was knighted.
After the race to the South Pole ended in December 1911 with Roald Amundsen’s conquest, Shackleton turned his attention to the crossing of Antarctica from sea to sea, via the pole. To this end he made preparations for what became the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914–17. Disaster struck this expedition when its ship, Endurance, became trapped in pack ice and was slowly crushed before the shore parties could be landed. The crew escaped by camping on the sea ice until it disintegrated, then by launching the lifeboats to reach Elephant Island and ultimately the inhabited island of South Georgia, a stormy ocean voyage of 720 nautical miles and Shackleton’s most famous exploit.
In 1921, he returned to the Antarctic with the Shackleton–Rowett Expedition, but died of a heart attack while his ship was moored in South Georgia. At his wife’s request he was buried there.
Our next stop is right next door and also has a blue plaque.
Stop 6: Number 14 Westwood Hill
This blue plaque is for Sir George Grove, who could not have been more different from Shackleton.
Sir George Grove (1820 – 1900) was an English writer on music, best known as the founding editor of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians.
Grove was trained as a civil engineer, but his love of music drew him into musical administration. When responsible for the regular orchestral concerts at the Crystal Palace, he wrote a series of programme notes from which eventually grew his musical dictionary.
He edited the “Dictionary of Music and Musicians” which was first published in four volumes (1879, 1880, 1883, 1889).
The second edition, in five volumes, was edited by Fuller Maitland and published from 1904 to 1910, this time as Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. It has gone through several editions since. The latest print version runs to 29 volumes. In recent years it has been made available as an electronic resource called Grove Music Online.
Grove was also involved in the creation of the Royal College of Music in 1882 and was its first Director.
He died here aged 79 on 28 May 1900, in the house in which he had lived for nearly 40 years.
Now continue along Westwood Hill and take the first turning on the right – Jews Walk. Our next stop is a little way down on the right hand side.
Stop 7: Number 7 Jew’s Walk
Number 7 is nestled in a garden surrounded by trees and scrubs.
But you can just make out a blue plaque. This notes that socialist campaigner Eleanor Marx lived and died here.
She was the youngest daughter of Karl Marx. She was a socialist activist who sometimes worked as a literary translator.
There is a fascinating post here from the Sydenham and Forest Hill Local History site
It is by no means clear why she chose to live here but this piece does suggest that she was attracted by the name of the street given her Jewish heritage.
The piece also tells the sad tale of her suicide. In March 1898, after discovering that Edward Aveling, her partner and a prominent British Marxist, had secretly married a young actress in June of the previous year, she committed suicide by poison. She was 43. The piece mentions that Dr Henry Shackleton, father of Edward, was called when she was found dying.
Now go down the side road almost opposite – Longton Grove. When this bends to the left take the turning on the right – Longton Avenue. Soon ahead of you on the right you will see an entrance to a park. Go in there as it is our next stop.
Stop 8: Sydenham Wells Park
The name of this park is a bit of a giveaway, because this was once the location of a spa.
Keep walking though until you get to the formal garden bit.
Just beyond here is a stone with a water drain underneath. I guess this maybe something to do with one of the natural springs – or at least a reminder of what used to be here.
According to London Gardens Online:
“Sydenham Wells Park is near the former site of mineral springs that were discovered in the C17th, becoming a popular spa whose numerous visitors included King George III. The spa’s success led to the building of larger houses, and wealthy people began to settle in the area. The opening of Crystal Park encouraged further influx. Sydenham Wells Park opened as a public park in 1901 following a campaign to save the land from being built over by housing development.”
More info at:
Now head through the park and out the other side. You will either come out to Longton Avenue (in which case turn right) or Wells Park Road (in which case turn left). Go along Wells Park Road away from the park and soon on the left you will see a home set back off the road at a slightly lower level. This is our next stop.
Stop 9: Site of Upper Sydenham station
This house is pretty much all that is left of Upper Sydenham station which was on the line which went to Crystal Palace High Level.
The station was opened by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway in August 1884. It was temporarily closed as an economy measure in both World Wars (January 1917 – March 1919 and May 1944 – March 1946).
Although the line was electrified in 1925, it was never a major route and lost much of its traffic after Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936. The line was permanently closed in September 1954
The station building sits atop a tunnel and the platforms were quite a long way down. There is little to see now but you can go down to the tunnel mouth if you follow the signed path.
And then take a left into the woods
If you look carefully you will see the mouth of the tunnel, though it is blocked off now.
If you want to see what this station looked like before nature took over go to the fantastic Disused Station site:
This has lots of pictures of the station with its full complement of buildings and also just as a couple of forlorn platforms.
Now return to Wells Park Road and turn left. Continue to the end and at the main road you will see another road almost opposite with a pub at the corner. This is Crescent Wood Road, where we have our final two stops.
First up ahead on the left just after the green pathway is number 3.
Stop 10: Number 3, Crescent Wood Road
If you look carefully at the right hand end of the main house is a blue plaque. This notes that television pioneer John Logie Baird (1888 – 1946) lived here
He was a Scottish engineer and innovator. He was one of the inventors of the mechanical television, demonstrating the first working television system in 1926 and the world’s first colour transmission in July 1928, Whilst he was a great pioneer, it should be said the actual system he developed was a bit cumbersome and others would develop more workable solutions..
Fascinating fact: The demonstration of colour television in 1928 featured a young girl wearing different coloured hats. That girl was Noele Gordon who went on to become a TV presenter and actress, most famous for her leading role in the soap opera Crossroads.
Logie Baird had a transmitter and TV studios at Crystal Palace but they were lost when the Palace was ravished by fire in 1936. I have not been able to confirm it but I guess he was living here because of his facility at Crystal Palace which is after all just up the road.
Our next stop is just across the street.
Stop 11: Six Pillars
Here we have a very striking modernist building called Six Pillars, because – guess what – it has six pillars at the front.
This is clearly rather special.
According to a February 2007 article in the Daily Telegraph https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/property/3356594/South-Londons-own-white-house.html
“Six Pillars was designed by Tecton, a London-based architectural practice led by the Russian émigré and master of the modern movement, Berthold Lubetkin. His best-known London works are the Penguin House at London Zoo and his apartment blocks, Highpoint, in Highgate, North London.”
“The main façade of the house, which faces the street, is a rectangle of concrete floating on six jaunty … pillars – whence the name – reached by a horseshoe-shaped drive. Outside it looks enormous. Internally, it spans 3,000 square feet, but [it has been likened] it to the Tardis in reverse. “It seems huge from the outside, but once you’re in, it’s not that big.””
“The four-bedroom house was built in 1934 as the residence of Jack Leakey, a former headmaster of nearby Dulwich College, and his wife. It is said that the pair’s ‘unconventional marriage’ may have influenced its unusual upstairs layout. Enter the double-volume entrance hall with its large window made up of small panes of glass, typical of the period, and a swooping curved concrete staircase leads to a choice of two separate wings, which were once ‘his and her’ bedroom suites.”
So that brings us to the end of our SE26 walk. I had not expected to find quite so much of interest, certainly not to find myself at such an iconic house, or find four “proper” blue plaques.
We are quite a way from where we started. you can return to the main road and catch a bus (Number 202) back to Sydenham. Or else you can follow a green passage that will take you done the hill to Sydenham Hill station which is served by local trains running between London Victoria and Bromley/Orpington. There are usually four trains and hour plus some extras in the peaks.