On The Trail Of Norwood

Norwood is full of ghosts, and standing at the top of Spa Hill (formerly Leather Bottle Lane,) facing the view a glance to the right of Beulah Hill may reveal the faintest shadow of Charles Dickens hurrying to visit friends at the top of Biggin Hill, or the preacher Doctor Spurgeon thinking profound thoughts in his home of Westwood, or Felix Mendelssohn being inspired by the gate bell at Roselawn to compose ‘The Evening Bell’, or Colonel Gouraud receiving Edison’s first phonograph for demonstrating to a fascinated audience at ‘Little Menlo’ … Alas none of this exists today and, in any case, our trail goes elsewhere and in the opposite direction. So let us begin where the Norwood community may be said to have begun: at the Beulah Spa. It is true that there were dwellings and people here before the Spa but it was this ‘happening’ and later on the coming of the Crystal Palace which made Norwood a magnet and in the space of half a century or so pushed the Great North Wood off the Norwood Heights and replaced it with spacious houses and gardens and gentle tree-lined streets.

Beulah Spa

More about them as we go, but first to the former Beulah Spa through a gate at the top of the Hill (immediately opposite a restaurant/public house now called the ‘Harvester’on the site of the one-time grand Beulah Spa Hotel) where the hubbub of ghostly voices, the strains of ghostly music, and the faintest outlines of Decimus Burton’s buildings and gardens can be imagined. The only remaining building of the Beulah Spa is Decimus Burton’s ‘Tivoli Lodge’ (1830), now restored and bearing a Croydon Heritage green plaque. The Spa grounds also survive in part and Croydon Parks Department has worked hard to maintain the rural illusion by contouring the slopes, replanting trees and preserving the woodland footpath (formerly the historic Sylvan Road) on which your feet should now be firmly set. In Spring and Summer the woods are a delight and if you close your eyes, it is possible to imagine yourself back in yesterday’s Norwood when human incursions were largely limited to the activities of gypsies, colliers, a few farmers and the odd highwayman.

When the Spa finally closed, the land was bought by Mr Frederick Horne who in 1859 built a fine mansion and called it ‘The Lawns’. He built a lodge by the entrance gate opposite to Tivoli Lodge which survives to the present day and bears the insignia ‘F.H. 1864’ on the outside wall. The mansion itself had a short life and was demolished following a serious fire in the 1860’s. In 1903 the grounds were reduced to 61⁄2 acres and after the Second World War to their present size when ‘The Lawns’ Housing Estate was developed, leaving no sign of the two lakes which were an original feature of the Beulah Spa. No trace remains of the famous well, although the water will still be there somewhere.

All Saint’s Church 

Soon you will be abreast of a footpath on your left leading out of ‘The Lawns’ onto Grange Road and you will see opposite a house called The Grange on the corner of Grange Hill, a very early building in the area – Grange Road was once its drive access. Then turn left and walk up Grange Road to Beulah Hill, where you will be greeted (trees permitting!) by a fine view of All Saints’ Church at the top. This, the work of the architect James Savage, was built in 1827-1829 and its exterior remains little changed to this day. In its history it has been variously described as George IV Gothic, Victorian Gothic, and ‘cardboard’ Gothic. It contains a chancel by Edwin Nash added in 1861. Savage also designed the School House that stood at the side of the Church and survived until the 1960’s when it was demolished to create generous playing field space for a new All Saints’ Primary School.

The new School is behind the Church and fronts on to Upper Beulah Hill. Cross the Hill and walk through the Churchyard, once bordered by handsome railings of which a remaining end-pillar fragment can still be seen. This is a haven of peace and tranquillity despite the traffic noise from Beulah Hill and Church Road. There one can rest awhile and look at the headstones of distinguished Norwood residents buried there. That of Admiral Fitzroy (celebrated hydrographer and meteorologist, inventor of the Fitzroy barometer, one-time Governor of New Zealand etc.,) is close to the West Door and should not be missed. His grave has been restored in recent years with financial help from the Norwood Society.

Moving on to the junction with South Norwood Hill and Church Road, spare a glance across the road at a fine group of dwellings, Nos. 1-11 Beulah Hill, which cover a significant period of late Victorian/Edwardian architecture. Considerable alterations were made to No. 1 in 1988/9 but the extension followed the original style. Also observe the contrasting but attractive complex represented by the NTL (now renamed) television transmitting station (which won a Civic Trust award in 1970) and the wooded expanse of Beaulieu Heights and its converted and restored mansion in the background.

Church Road

What can one say of this road? That it is long, very straight, on level ground, and in that respect like very few other roads in this part of London. It appears on Rocque’s Survey of Surrey 1745 and was at one time known as Vicar’s Oak Road because the famous Vicar’s Oak stood at its Northern (Anerley) end. With the coming of the Crystal Palace it formed a grand approach road and by 1860 fine houses lined both sides right up to the Triangle. The road has survived the ravages of modern development to a remarkable degree, but only local vigilance and enlightened action by Croydon Council in designating it as a Conservation Area in the early 1970’s has made it possible, with the keen support of the Norwood Society, to keep many of the attractive old buildings.

As you move into Church Road pass on the right what used to be known as the “Livingstone” telephone exchange. This was built in 1929 and has been expanded in recent years. Its current size reflects what, until recent years, was the space needed to accommodate hundreds, if not thousands, of Strowger mechanical switches to connect telephone circuits. Now all the work done by those switches can be done by space-age technology in something about the size of a domestic wardrobe. It stands against an attractive group of houses forming Forsyte Crescent on land originally the estate of Hazelwood. Here was once a great house with an imposing tower and it is said that to celebrate the Relief of Mafeking during the Boer War a huge silk Union Jack edged with fairy lights was flown from the tower.

Next we pass an estate of post-war council flats, but thereafter the road reverts to pattern with a group of Victorian houses with attractive brickwork features (Nos. 271-281) carefully restored externally and converted for modern living inside. No. 275 was at one time the home of the famous TV comedian Ronnie Corbett. The houses on the other side of the road, from the junction with Upper Beulah Hill, are all uncompromisingly Victorian, all large with spacious gardens, and only different in the degree of care bestowed upon them. Some are red-brick, some are a mixture, some stone and some stucco. Most have their own drives and all are impressive. They date back to the early 1860’s.

The former Vicarage of All Saints (on the corner of Sylvan Hill) is earlier (c.1840) and quite different: sort of Regency Gothic if you can imagine such a thing. Although only two storeys, its scale is impressive. The house has now been converted internally to form retirement flats, and its grounds now accommodate bungalow accommodation for the elderly. Moving along the Road towards the Triangle you may observe many interesting houses and note how discordant modern development is kept precariously at bay.

Residences of particular interest are No. 146, (Albert) and No. 144 (Victoria House), which now house a language school (Select English, formerly Anglo-School). Note the pelican carving above the front door. No. 140 was the home of Admiral Fitzroy and he died there in 1865. He is commemorated by a Croydon Heritage green plaque unveiled in 1999. No. 128, ‘’Rockmount’, is a villa of exceptional interest designed by Sextus Dyball around 1880, notable for its height and elaborately detailed woodwork said to be in the American style of the time. Nos. 124 and 126, both dating from the early 19th century (before the Crystal Palace and the Beulah Spa), are good examples of the use of stucco in building and both have shuttered windows. The last three houses are all listed buildings.

The next building of interest on the left is the Queen’s Hotel (1854). It was once the only large hotel in the whole of Croydon, built to serve those who came from far and wide to see the Crystal Palace. Many famous people have stayed there, including the Emperor Frederick of Germany, who was married to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. Emile Zola was there during the Dreyfus affair when he fled France in order to avoid a sentence of imprisonment following his newspaper article denouncing the actions of the French government. Note the blue plaque commemorating his stay. The replacement modern wing on the right is, by any assessment, an eyesore. The South West wing of the hotel was demolished after a disastrous fire in 1975.

Two houses almost opposite the Queen’s Hotel are worthy of note, first because of their ‘barge board’ eaves and secondly because they were built as ‘mirror images’.

There are more fine Victorian properties between the hotel and the entrance to Westow Park. Worthy of note are Nos. 114 and 116 and then No. 112 (‘Rosetta Court’), formerly called ‘Westow Villa’, which in its heyday was probably the finest house in the area with lead canopies, delicate ironwork, stucco and brick finish. Until 1984 it was in use as a family house, but now is restored as retirement flats with new buildings in the former garden.

As with practically all the district’s open spaces, Westow Park has been carved out of private estates and until fairly recently a large house stood behind the wall facing Church Road. This was ‘Walmer House’ which began its existence as a family house but ended it as a council home for men. When it was eventually pulled down the handsome entrance arch was retained and built into the park wall where it remains.

Then, very quickly, we are at the junction with Westow Street and the Triangle where an overlarge building called ‘Greystoke House’ built in the late 1980’s dominates the corner.

Westow Street

Every junction in the Triangle has at least one public house. ‘The White Hart’ faces you and ‘The Alma’ is across the road. The former is in Croydon and the latter is on the boundary line with Bromley.

The ’White Hart’ is a very old Norwood pub and photographs show that, in common with a lot of the earlier Triangle properties, it was originally a wooden structure, with posts and chains around the frontal area and a pump on the pavement where water was sold to the locals at so much a bucket. There was also a ‘White Hart’ tea garden on the opposite side of the road which was entered through an opening formed by the jawbones of an enormous whale. As with much of very early Norwood, this has now gone forever. The present building was designed by Sextus Dyball. The only remaining part of the original weather-boarded building can be seen immediately adjacent to the public house. The oldest surviving building in Norwood, this fragment was saved from demolition in the 1990’s by the action of the Norwood Society and more recent attempts to demolish it for redevelopment continue to be resisted. It is, however, obviously in a parlous state and faces an uncertain future.

The next building of distinction on that side of Westow Street is a church built in 1877. Formerly a United Reformed church, in recent years it has been restored externally and become the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Constantine and St. Helen serving the Greek community of South London.

Almost opposite the church is the Phoenix Community Centre, built in the 1980’s as part of a complex which includes a supermarket, multi-storey car park, Salvation Army Citadel, shops at street level and a garden centre below. The Phoenix Centre is well designed and equipped, owned by Croydon Council but run by local people for local people. The Centre is used by the Norwood Society for local history talks.

There is a pleasant greensward with trees extending to the pavement and with the Upper Norwood War Memorial, the setting for which has been greatly enhanced by landscaping and paving.

It is interesting to note that this important development straddles the area on which there once stood a house called ‘The Mount’, the first building to be purchased for the establishment of the Royal Normal College for the Blind. It is said that the founder of the College, Dr. Campbell, chose the Norwood site so that his pupils could be close to what was then the finest musical centre in England, the Crystal Palace. The College was moved out at the start of the Second World War and never returned. A building at the lower level of Westow Park, which once contained the piano rooms, is all that remains. On the road to this lower level and car park stands Nesbitt Square, a modern development of houses which won a Croydon Design Award in 1988.

Proceeding down Westow Street, we pass shops on our left and the former Upper Norwood Post Office on our right (now a restaurant). Next to this building is the former sorting office.

Little side roads, even passages, will be noted. There is Victory Place, Carberry Road, Childs Place and Paddock Gardens. Opposite is a very old Norwood road: Haynes Lane. The victory after which Victory Place is named is not known, only that it must have been before 1890, as the road certainly existed under that name before then. Carberry Road is named after a local butcher, Mr. Carbery …. An extra ‘r’ seems to have slipped into the name of the road. And Paddock Gardens is thought to have derived from the fine stables which once existed within the Triangle close to what was then the oldest building in the district, the ‘Woodman’ public house. Haynes Lane was named after another local resident of the Triangle’s early days. It is now notable for its weekend collectors’ market.

You cannot fail to notice a well-kept building on the right with a handsome clock. This was for many years the meeting place for the Ancient Order of Foresters but fell into disuse and dereliction. The building was used as a Crown Court between the early 1970’s and 1986 and is now used for commercial purposes.

‘The Holly Bush’ stands on the next junction. As with ‘The White Hart’, the present building is not the original one and when an old local resident, Mrs. Elizabeth Dee, wrote about it in 1852 it stood back from the road and boasted a small and rather tatty holly bush inside the door, presumably there to justify its name. You now turn right into:

Westow Hill

On a fine day you cannot fail to notice before you turn right the wonderful vista of London stretched out like a giant carpet below. We have seen Westow Park, walked through Westow Street and now enter Westow Hill. With such local emphasis on the word ‘Westow’ it will no doubt come as a surprise that no one is quite sure how or from what the name is derived, although there is an ancient village of that name in East Yorkshire.

From the point of view of local government Westow Hill is a nightmare. The ‘Holly Bush’ side comes within the London Borough of Croydon (as does most of the Triangle) and the ‘London’ side comes within the London Borough of Lambeth. One interesting and unique feature arising out of this complicated situation is the Upper Norwood Library at the corner of Beardell Street. It serves people from both Lambeth and Croydon areas of Upper Norwood and is controlled by a library committee on which both Boroughs are represented. The Library dates from 1899 and has a coat of arms on its frontage which is believed to be a mixture of the two coats of arms of the two Boroughs that set it up.

Another unusual feature is a building which at first glance is just another supermarket. However, on closer inspection you may be surprised to see that part of the complex is a Methodist church. The church/supermarket combination must be very unusual, but the original building on the site was the church and no doubt the benefit of such a development must have been a temptation.

On the left was an attractive public house formerly called ‘The Queen’s Arms’ (now The Black Sheep Café) which once boasted a royal coat of arms and is on the Lambeth side of the road. Legend has it that Queen Victoria once stopped here to drink a glass of water.

On the Croydon side ‘The Royal Albert’ is an example of 1930’s pub architecture but seems to present the appearance of half of a semi-detached pair. You will notice that this pub stands back from the road. Apparently it was built in this position to accommodate a road-widening scheme that never materialised.

Before long we are at St. Aubyn’s Road, a turning on the right hand side. The road is located over what was once the site of a boys’ school founded by a Mr. Aubyn whose elevation to ‘sainthood’ was another unique Norwood ‘happening’ (there is, however, a famous French saint of that name). Mr. Aubyn’s school covered land which included St. Aubyn’s Road, the church, and down to the ‘Cambridge’ public house. Neither the church nor the pub existed in the 1850’s, and where the ‘Cambridge’ now stands were iron gates forming the school’s main entrance. On the wall of the former NatWest Bank building opposite there is a blue plaque denoting that the French Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro lived there in 1870/71.

We now reach the central focus of Upper Norwood. Looking down the wide expanse of the Crystal Palace Parade one can imagine what it was like when the huge glass palace stood on one side and the bustling High Level railway station faced it on the opposite side. It can be readily understood why ‘Westow House’ (formerly the ‘White Swan’ and then ‘The Bluebottle’) and the ‘Cambridge’ were built at this point, almost in the shadow, as it were, of the “Royal Crystal Palace Hotel” which no longer exists on its Anerley Hill site. Some idea of its architecture and scale can be gauged from the building immediately around the corner on the Bromley side of Church Road. This currently houses a large restaurant, but was once a wing of the hotel which had its frontage where ‘Jack Beard’s At The Palace’ public house now stands. Like the Queen’s Hotel, it catered for visitors to the Crystal Palace and Joseph Paxton often stayed there in its early days until he obtained his house at Rockhills, at the far end of the Parade.

All the buildings mentioned faced the junction formed by Crystal Palace Parade, Westow Hill, Church Road and Anerley Hill. A glance at the map will immediately demonstrate its importance as a gateway in and out of London to the South and it is here that for centuries the bounds were beaten from a tree called the Vicar’s Oak. A historical record relates that as far back as 1583 ‘ perambulation to Vicar’s Oke by Churchwardens and other honest men cost 2s. 6d.’ Some of the responsibility for the extraordinary local government boundary lines which meet here to this day must rest with generations of ‘honest men‘ who were not always as efficient in tracing them as they should have been or, it is rumoured, were led by a drunkard who lost his way.

Church Road (Upper Part)

Here you are aware of the kind of dereliction which became all too common once the area’s ‘raison d’être’, the Crystal Palace, was destroyed by fire in 1936.

The movement to close churches too large for present needs, and under financial pressure, finally claimed St. Aubyn’s in the 1970’s and on the site there is now a block of flats. Worship continues in the church buildings at the rear and there is a day centre for older citizens. Entry by car is from St. Aubyn’s Road, but pedestrians can go in from Church Road as can others who are en route to the modern housing estate which now occupies much of the Triangle’s interior, once proposed as a pedestrianised shopping and leisure precinct.

Moving further along the road we come to Stoney Lane which once contained rustic cottages with long gardens. These have gone and today the Lane has become a cul-de-sac of extremely modest proportions. Completing the Triangle takes us past a mixture of shops and offices and very quickly we are opposite ‘The Alma’ and back at ‘The White Hart’ again.

Moving back into the main part of Church Road spare a glance for Belvedere Road and make a note to walk through it sometime, taking in the low terrace of cottages on the left, built around 1840 as almshouses for stevedores but never used for that purpose. Also the fine Victorian houses with their belvederes after which one presumes the road was named (or was it the other way round?).

After a parade of shops the first house of particular interest on this side of Church Road is No. 117, ‘Rosebank’, dating from 1843/44. This house stands behind tall hedges and is unusual in that the front door is on the top (first) floor of the house where one would usually expect to find the bedrooms. You then pass a modern development built on the site of a garage which once gloried in the name of “The Farmer’s Wife”. Just before reaching the junction with Fox Hill you will pass two beautifully maintained Georgian cottages.

Fox Hill

Immediately on looking down Fox Hill on your left you should not miss two smaller but delightful cottages, Nos. 1 and 3. Go down Fox Hill and at the junction with Tudor Road your attention is drawn to a house on the corner called ‘Pen-y-Bryn’. It is of particular interest because it is thought to be the house in a painting by Pissarro called ‘Lower Norwood - snow effect’. It also has a connection with the well-known Comper & Bucknall families.

Your attention is now drawn to yet another wonderful vista which would have been even more wonderful 150 years ago when there were nothing but farms, orchards, fields and woodland, as far as the eye could see. Fox Hill was then called Fox’s Lane and led down to a farm owned by a man called Fox. At the bottom of the Hill turn right along Auckland Road and admire surviving villas until you reach the imposing well-preserved church of St John the Evangelist. Standing at the junction with Sylvan Road, its exterior, which lacks its planned tower, belies a beautifully laid-out interior which boasts examples of some of the best 19th century church architecture. The Rose Window reflects the genius of Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960), famous church architect, Norwood resident and first President of the Norwood Society.

Then backtrack along Auckland Road, cross Stambourne Way and, only about 10 m to your left, you will come to the rather concealed entrance to the Woodland Walk, which winds its way attractively back up to Church Road. Then cross the Road and enter Westow Park. It is a steep walk down to a playground in the bottom left-hand corner, then turn left and enter Harold Road with its handsome Victorian houses. On the right is yet another green space - the Upper Norwood Recreation Ground. At the end of Harold Road you will rejoin Beulah Hill and be back at your starting point, after what, the writers hope, will have been an interesting walk on the Trail of Norwood.

Grateful thanks to Owen Luder and Leo Held who helped so much in researching the area and collecting information for the first edition: and to Anna & Richard Lines for this one.

Revised in 2008 by A.L. and R.L.

© The Norwood Society, Registered Charity 285547

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