Sixty years ago Upper Norwood was conscious of itself as a sequestered retreat from the bustle of London: a place of natural beauty abounding in sylvan walks and picturesque drives. Indeed, there were popular guide-books on the neighbourhood (they are treasured relics if you can find them now) which set out the local attraction to the visitor. ‘Picturesque Norwood, 1899’ makes the observation that no houses, roads or recreation grounds can take away the poetry and romance one always associates with the name of Norwood. Almost as an afterthought it introduces this curiously muddled passage: ‘And so time creeps on and with it creeps the hand of man, spreading his grasping fingers first on this plot and then on that: land is cleared, houses built, and gradually there has grown one of London’s healthiest and prettiest suburbs’.
‘Platt’s Handbook’, circa 1890, has it that ‘in very few, if any, districts in Suburban London are walks and drives of so much beauty and interest to be found as around the Crystal Palace’. Elsewhere it tells the visitor that the White Hart public house was formerly a single-storey wooden structure surrounded by trees and arbours, and that it was then ‘a great resort of town gallants and winners of Doggett’s Coat and Badge, and noted as the scene of certain exploits on the part of a well-known nobleman and his gay companions’. Alas! one is left wondering who that well-known nobleman could have been, and what his certain exploits were! The visitor to Norwood is also informed that the doorstep of the Woodman in Westow Hill is level with the top of the cross of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and that next to the Woodman there used to be a Tea Garden which was a popular place of resort for people of all classes. Another local guide book of the same period tells the reader that the Woodman possessed two skittle grounds, one of which was reserved for gentle folks. Also that before the railway was opened the Woodman was the chief posting–house for the four-in-hands that ran daily in the neighbourhood.
Another edition of ‘Picturesque Norwood’ dated 1907-8, contains the following: ‘In Belvedere Road we have Grove Terrace dating back to 1840-41, erected by the Fellowship Porters Benevolent Institution and intended as almshouses for stevedores. It is rumoured that the late Prince Consort laid in June 1841 a memorial stone but the latter cannot now be found and the fact remains the cottages were never occupied as almshouses’. In 1899 was published Walter Besant’s ‘South London’. Lamenting the lost hanging woods of Penge - (‘they hung over a hillside, and were as beautiful as the hanging woods of Cliveden’) - Besant says rhetorically: ‘Let us ask the resident of Norwood what he remembers of its ancient glories. Has he heard of the famous Norwood oak? Of the Norwood Spa? Of the gypsies of Norwood? Has this resident heard of the views from the top of the hill, 400 feet above the level of the sea, whither people flocked by hundreds to see the view and wander in the woods?’.
Then this writer of 1899 adds with doleful resignation: ‘It is difficult, now that the whole country south of London has been covered with villas, roads, streets and shops, to understand how wonderful for loveliness it was until the builder seized upon it … all this beauty is gone; we have destroyed it … and on the south there was so much more beauty than on the north’.
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