New Lamps For Old

Palace Grove, Upper Norwood, is charming still. It is a small gravelled, tree-lined cul-de-sac made up of five houses; four built in 1847, the fifth some 30 years later. Before the Crystal Palace arrived in 1854, it was called Green Lane.

Up until the early 1960’s, a lamplighter would cycle along each evening as it grew dusk to light the two small, about 10 feet high, gas lamps. One stood at the entrance of the Grove, the other halfway along. They cast a soft yellow glow on the old plaster facades, and surrounding greenery. It was a romantic setting, very stageworthy.

At that time, grey concrete blocks seemed to be rising out of the ground on all sides. Penge Council took over streets of small houses by compulsory purchase – many a sad tale there – and decided that sodium lamps in concrete standards were to replace all street lamps. We naturally wanted to hang on to our delightful lamps, which after all were put up with the houses. A little research and we discovered that our lamps could be converted to sodium and be attached to the main street supply at little cost. We would happily pay for this ourselves. We kicked up such a fuss that no less than six Penge Councillors came and looked at the Grove. Their general attitude was dismissive. The houses had had their lives and would soon be for the chop anyway, so we would have one concrete standard like everyone else.

It seems strange now, but at the time people all over London were chaining themselves to lamp posts to prevent their homes being demolished for redevelopment, and many pictures appeared in local papers, as ours did, though we didn’t go so far as chaining ourselves up.

The new concrete standard was main street size. It was positioned outside No. 3 and reached the first floor. When alight our bedroom was as bright as day. Even heavier curtains bathed us in a red/orangey glow, which didn’t do much for our nightlife. Fortunately, the new lamp was temperamental and was as likely to stay on all day and leave the Grove pitch black at night, not a bit like our trusty old gas lamps. It was with mixed feelings that we learned that our lamps, deemed too old for further use by Penge, had been seized by the developer of a neo-Georgian estate in Dulwich and suitably converted. They were highly thought of by residents there.

In the fifties, when my husband and I with two very young children moved here, the low-brick back garden wall gave on to a small bluebell wood. My garden is still full of bluebells, but can’t match the heavenly scent of that wood in the Spring. Very high old elms there housed a rookery and the evening air was loud and lively with their squabbling and chattering. Two elderly ladies then lived in Fox House. Perhaps they would have approved of the number of lively, elderly residents who have replaced the noisy rooks of their day.

On the Fox Hill side of the wood, where a small block of flats now stands, there was a tiny woodman’s cottage. It was dark, with small windows, no more than one up and one down, with a dark curved wooden staircase to the upper floor. Carol Brahms, the writer, lived there.

The last small strip of land at the entrance of the Grove disappeared in the early 80’s. Removal of the top soil almost finished off our famous tree painted by Camille Pissarro in his picture of Fox Hill. But the new house owners took it under their wing and have worked to keep it alive and healthy.

In the fifties, a broad swing gate stood at the entrance of the Grove. We were unaware that a neighbour in Belvedere Road was keeping his eyes peeled in the hope that one year someone would forget the ritual of the annual closing of the gate. He could then claim right of way through the back of his garden and built a garage opening into the Grove. Sufficient to say, one year that happened and we lost the right to close the gate. It hung open for some years but eventually fell apart. The property was promptly sold at greatly increased value. The new owner, now a long term resident, has added colourful plants and preserved the trees at his end, so over all, we have gained.

At a Bromley Council meeting on the environment in 1990 the audience was assured that if members of the public took more interest in their neighbourhood, much more could be done to conserve interesting features. I mentioned the struggle to get our lamps back.

“How long have you been trying? I was asked.
“Over 20 years.” Laughter in the hall.
“But how long since you last got in touch?”
“About a fortnight ago.” 

In the end our Liberal Democrat Councillor Chris Gaster approached the Bromley Engineers Department. He was assured that there had never been gas lamps in Palace Grove! Poor Chris! I showered him with photographs and newspaper reports from 30 years before. Thanks to him, the upshot stands just outside my front room window. A very tall Victorian style single lamp now adorns the Grove. Not our old lamps, but better than that dreadful concrete standard.

We did survive another sticky patch when an erstwhile neighbour tried to persuade the Council to install a proper pavement and tarmac road and chop down half the trees. But he moved some time ago and the trees are beginning to grow back. We may have lost the rooks, but we still have owls, a woodpecker, blue tits, all manner of feathered visitors, foxes, hedgehogs – they’re all still here.

Peggy Mitchell

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