Saturday, March 12th 2016
We decided to take a trip to Peckham, which is in the historic London Borough of Southwark, and in particular to visit the library there. Peckham is an ancient settlement and appears in Domesday Book as Pecheham. I have seen two suggestions for the derivation of its name. The first, supported by English Heritage, asserts that it is composed of two Anglo-Saxon words, peac and ham, respectively, meaning ‘village near a peak or hill’. The second, which seems to me equally, if not more, plausible, cites the name of the local river, the Peck, and interprets the name as ‘village on the Peck’. Supporting the latter view is the name of that part of Peckham known as Peckham Rye, the second word of which is said to derive from ree, an old word for a stream or watercourse. Rye Lane (see below) was so called because it once ran beside the Peck. The river was largely enclosed in 1823 but parts of it can still be seen in Peckham Rye Park.
The new Peckham Library was designed and built by architects Alsop & Störmer and was subsequently awarded the Stirling Prize. It was officially opened on May 15th, 2000. Its unusual inverted-‘L’ shape attracted much interest and I think it must be unique among public libraries in the UK.
The design does mean that users of the library must first climb the stairs or take the lift in order to reach those parts of the library that are of use to them. Once aloft, one finds the library pleasant, though rather snug. When we were there, it was well attended, mainly by people studying. (Photography is not allowed during opening hours.)
The library building is situated in an open space of mixed hard surface and planted areas. Here, people can sit or stroll and children can run about and play. It makes a pleasant transition between the library and the streets of Peckham.
A work of art by Duncan Hooson and called The Elements resides in the open space. The elements in question are the traditional ones of Fire, Air, Water and Earth and are here represented by globes of which three are partially or entirely sunk in the ground. One of them (I known not which) seems to be missing from my photo.
In August 2011, riots broke out in parts of London and spread to other cities of the UK. You will find plenty of accounts of these events online, including this one. Scenes of violence and looting and the breakdown of order were profoundly shocking to most of us (see We don’t give up so easily for my own, somewhat emotional, response) and people sought various ways to express this and to assert support for the nation and their local communities. Peckham was one of the districts that suffered rioting and looting but here it sparked an immediate and moving reaction. This is described by the panel visible on the Peace Wall:
Following the disorder of August 2011, The Peckham Peace Wall was started by four members of Peckham Shed theatre company on a board covering the broken window outside Poundland. This attracted the involvement of thousands of local people whose post-it note messages of love and respect for Peckham grew to eventually fill eight hoardings.
When the time came to replace the windows and remove the original Peckham Peace Wall board, members of the public were anxious not to lose this unique record of the public’s thoughts and emotional response to what had happened within their town centre.
This permanent public artwork has been developed as a creative response to a public consultation, led by young people from The Challenge Society working with Peckham Shed, which asked members of the public in Peckham what they would like to see happen to the original Peckham Peace Wall and for their thoughts about how best it should be preserved.
The surface of the wall is divided into small rectangles imitating Post-It notes of various colours, bearing messages which are facsimiles of those posted on the board at the time. Some are humorous, some express dismay or incomprehension; others call for an end to violence and crime and express a hope for peace. The most moving, in my opinion, are those that in brief phrases clearly express a love of their community and their solidarity with it in a time of crisis. Despite the lawless acts perpetrated during the riots, I think Peckham can take pride in its citizens and their reaction to those bewildering and frightening events.
We continued our tour by photographing the imposing building on the corner of Rye Lane. In 1867, Jones and Higgins opened a shop on this site. It must have done extremely well because a few years later, they were able to build a fully fledged department store. If you look carefully at the building, it may occur to you that the clock tower differs in style from the rest. This is because it was added in the 1930s, a time that was no doubt the store’s heyday. The business finally closed in 1980. Following closure, the clock, lacking maintenance, ceased working. In February this year (2016), it was restored and once more started showing the correct time. Long may it continue to do so.
Almost opposite Jones & Higgins, on Peckham High Street, stands a Wetherspoon’s pub called the Kentish Drovers. I include this, not for its own sake (it has recently been renamed) but as a historical bookmark, so to speak. There have been two ancient taverns in Peckham bearing the name of Kentish Drovers but both have disappeared. The fact that there were two of the same name indicates the importance of the trade that the name commemorates. For a long time, London Bridge, just to the north, was the only practicable entrance into the city of London from the south. Cattle driven from Kent and other places to London’s meat market perforce passed this way. Happily, those days are ended and meat now finds its way to the capital more humanely, though still not humanely enough, in my opinion. By renaming its pub, Wetherspoons is recalling the cattle drovers and their passage through Peckham.
We took a stroll down Rye Lane, an area that began development in the early 19th century and became something of a commercial hub. Peckham Rye Station was built here in December 1865. In the Lane we met our first listed building, the Baptist Chapel. This is the second chapel on the site and was built, as the Roman date under the pediment boldly declares, in 1863. It replaced the first chapel of 1819. Its architect was one S.K. Bland, of whom not much seems to be known. Like much of Peckham, and London generally, the chapel suffered from bombing in the Second world War. Happily restored, it today enjoys a Grade II listing.
Rye Lane is a busy shopping road, active and lively, if not always aesthetically pleasing. (It is currently the subject of a conservation area appraisal by the Council.) There are several markets in Peckham and Rye Lane Market offers the advantages of shopping under cover. I have not been able to find a definite date for its foundation and can only assign it vaguely to ‘sometime in the 20th century’.
To judge from the variety of goods on display, the market is popular with shoppers and has an established reputation.
When you first see the above long façade, it seems to pose something of a paradox. It looks rather like a market or a shopping centre and yet it displays, to the left of the large windows over the entrance, a sign announcing it to be Peckham Rye Station. The paradox is resolved by the realization that the station, a rather fine one with a Grade II listing, lies hidden by the commercial frontage. The station, built in 1865, included a large forecourt onto which the present retail units were grafted in the 1930s. The bold and colourful design (please click to see a larger view) now looks a little sad and in need of cleaning and restoration. We were unaware of the hidden gem and so didn’t visit it. Another time, perhaps.
When I saw this structure, I did not know what to make of it. Was it an elaborate gateway? Or perhaps the entrance to a market or shopping centre that has been demolished? In fact, it turns out to be the remains of the Tower Cinema. The cinema was originally built in 1914 though the façade we see today dates from 1955. The Tower survived the two world wars but closed in 1956, despite the remodelling of frontage. During the Second World War, an air raid shelter was constructed in the cellar and if a raid occurred during a film, a notice would appear on screen inviting the audience to seek refuge in the shelter. The body of the cinema was demolished and the area now serves as a car park.
We returned to the top of Rye Lane and set off west along Peckham High Street and then Peckham Road. This brought us to the beautiful South London Art Gallery. As indicated by the inscription over the art gallery door (the door on the extreme right), this is another gift of lasting value from the philanthropist John Passmore Edwards. It was built in 1896-8 to a design by Maurice Adams and is now a Grade II listed building. According to the aforementioned inscription, it was intended to be The South London Art Gallery and Technical Institute but the technical institute long ago gave way to the art school.
We were proceeding up Southampton Way when this strange sight came to our attention. Ostensibly, we have a tall and elegant street lamp beside which is a cattle trough of seemingly traditional design. However, a mere glance suffices to show that there is something not at all right about the trough… (There is also something odd about the lamp though I have not so far managed to resolve the oddities.)
Closer inspection confirmed the initial impression: this is not a genuine original cattle trough but a modern stand-in. Why would anyone go to the trouble and expense of making and installing a fake trough? The answer is to be found on the Website of the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association which was formed in 1859 to provide public drinking fountains supplied with clean water and included cattle troughs in its remit a few years later. Fountains and troughs were also supplied by other individuals and organizations but the MDF&CTA remains by far the most prolific provider. Most of their historic fountains and troughs are now non-functioning but remain in place as objects of interest and beauty – cattle troughs often having been turned into planters with colourful displays of flowers.
As a ‘collector’ (photographically only, of course) of these artifacts, I understand why others would also be interested in them. What I had not realized before is that numbers of them have disappeared, presumed stolen. The MDF&CTA has created a database of troughs and fountains and is aware when one goes missing. This explains the presence here of the ersatz trough. The following bulletin appears in the MDF&CTA catalogue:
The original trough was presented by Camberwell (St Lukes) Band of Mercy per Miss Mabel Horonsell and the association at a cost of £52.11.0. According to the vicar of the nearby St. Lukes church the trough was stolen during 2006. If you know what happened to the original lost cattle trough please send me details. The current structure supplied by Southwark Council is a modern, non-functioning replacement with a faux fountain head.
On the modern replacement is reproduced the original inscription showing the trough to have been donated by the local branch of the Bands of Mercy.
Cattle troughs are big and heavy and they are cemented in place. I imagine that heavy lifting equipment would be required to move one. Who is stealing them and to what end? Are thefts being commissioned in the same way as thefts of art works? If anyone knows, I would be glad to hear from you.
In Wells Way, we came upon another puzzle. A quick glance was enough to see that this building was ‘interesting’ but what was it? Old buildings have often undergone various episodes of remodelling and you sometimes have to carefully ‘read between the lines’ to work out what the original structure was. My first guess was a small set of almshouses but I soon dismissed that because almshouses, for obvious reasons, tend to have a symmetrical structure and there is nothing symmetrical about this design! Also, the item in brick didn’t easily fit in with the rest of the pattern. In the event, it turned out to be quite easy to ‘decode’ this because it is a listed building (Grade II) and English Heritage has therefore done the job for me! I quote:
St George’s vicarage, now converted to flats. 1820, extended c1840 and 1860, converted 1980s. Centre block added c1840 when the walls of the older part were increased in height and the whole re-roofed. North wing added 1860. Stucco. Low pitched hipped slate roof with bracketed eaves soffit. Irregular plan, late C20 garage extension to right. Gothic-style windows added in 1860.
No, I wouldn’t have worked all that out without their help! But what a fascinating story an old building sometimes has to tell if we have the wit to listen.
We made our way into Burgess Park where we found another, at first sight, incomprehensible structure. I have written about a previous visit to Burgess Park which explains something of its origins and association with the Grand Surrey Canal. The park is very big and today we found ourselves in a part we had not explored before. The surprise was to discover a substantial iron bridge whose only purpose seemed to be to carry people a few yards across the park passing over the footpath. It had obviously been built originally for some other purpose.
The first clue was that the path leading to, and beyond, the bridge was wide and straight, far wider than a normal park path. I guessed that this was the course of the old canal, now filled in. A blue plaque on the bridge confirmed my suspicions by explaining the origins of what it poetically calls ‘The Bridge to Nowhere’:
The Bridge to Nowhere recalls the park’s past life, when it spanned the Grand Surrey Canal. Along most of its length, the canal was wide enough to let two Thames sailing barges pass. Built at the beginning of the 20th century, it saved a long walk to cross the canal at Wells Way or Trafalgar Avenue.
In the photo of the bridge you can just about see a red object. It is this, a model steam locomotive. Why it is here? As far as I know, there was no railways here, even in the days of the canal and there is no plaque to tell us about it. Quite by chance I found, if not the answer, at last an answer. It involves the London, Chatham and Dover Railway’s line running from Nunhead to Crystal Palace, which ran, I believe from 1865 to 1954. It seems that on an unknown date this loco was placed as a memorial to the defunct railway beside the now closed Paxton Railway Tunnel. At an equally unknown date, the loco was mysteriously transferred to this spot. As noted, there is no plaque or other information providing an explanation of its presence or significance.
A feature of Burgess Park is the lake. This is quite large as park lakes go and has a resident population of water fowl which are fun to watch.
At this point, I would have been happy to catch a bus and go home but we had one more item on our list of things to see. We reached it by walking along the Old Kent Road to Mandela Way.
What we had come to see stands on a piece of open ground at the junction of Mandela Way with Pages Walk. The object in question is a decommissioned Soviet T-34-85 battle tank whose recent history includes an appearance in the 1995 film of Richard III. Why is it here? The answer, it seems, has to do with a dispute between a local resident, one Russell Gray, and Southwark Council, who turned down his application to build on the site. Mr Gray then bought the tank and placed it here, where it has remained despite the Council’s wishes to have it removed, apparently because the owner managed to secure the appropriate planning permissions for its installation. You will find a more detailed account of the story in this Evening Standard article.
The owner has allowed street artists free access to ‘Stompie’, as the machine has come to be nicknamed, and over the years it has changed its costume many times. It has become famous and is cited as a London landmark in many blogs and printed publications. The end wall of a house forms a convenient backdrop to the tank and has also received the attentions of artists.