A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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11 - The legacy of Croydon Aerodrome: an urban ghetto with flighty names

Croydon Aerodrome, thus, opened on March 1920 with regular scheduled flights, carrying passengers, mail and freight, to Paris, Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and later to Berlin. Because British airline companies soon found it hard to compete against subsidised foreign operators, the government agreed, in 1924, to provide its own subsidies so long as all the British airlines combined in one company. This policy led to the formation of Imperial Airways.

In the mid-1920s, the airfield was extended, the public road closed, and a new complex of buildings constructed along Purley Way. The first purpose-designed terminal building in the world and the Aerodrome Hotel, both in the fashionable Art Deco style, opened in May 1928. A time zone tower in the booking hall displayed dials depicting the times in different parts of the world. The aerodrome was famous the world over, and was well known by aviators. Charles Lindbergh flew into Croydon in 1927 shortly after completing the first solo trans-Atlantic flight. In 1930, Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly from Britain to Australia, and her flight began at Croydon.

During World War Two, the airport was closed to civilian traffic and became a base for RAF fighters until 1942, and, thereafter, for RAF transport aircraft. In February 1946, it was handed back to civilian control. By then, though, it had been decided that Heathrow should become London's major airport: Croydon had no room for expansion and would be too small to cope with expected demand. For some years, it continued to service small short haul operations and private flying clubs, before finally closing down in September 1959.

Today, evidence of the old airport is apparent to the west, along Purley Way, where there are still some of the terminal buildings, including an old control tower which houses the Croydon Airport Visitors Centre (with a De Havilland Heron aircraft outside), and the Airport Hotel which survives under the ownership of Forte Posthouse. And, in the east, by the 300 easting, most of the street names in the Roundshaw Estate reflect aviation history (Brabazon Avenue, De Havilland Road, Hurricane Road, Lancastrian Road, Meteor Way, Olley Close, Redwing Road among others).

Standing on the north side of Roundshaw Park, it becomes clear that extensive changes are again under way here. There is the new terraced housing - however basic-looking, it surely provides better accommodation than the old tenements. A brand new St Paul's church stands on Mollison Drive. This was formally opened in January 2003 by the Bishop of Southwark, the Right Reverend Tom Butler. It replaces one that stood nearby and which was affectionately known as the Propeller Church because its roof cross was made from an old aircraft propeller. The same cross adorns the new St Paul's. The church's architects firm, K C White Partnership, explains its design as follows: 'The distinctive characteristic of the building is the broad sweep of the roof from the main entrance up to the projected apex that oversails the east end of the sanctuary.'

Just to the east of the church is a building site where the new Phoenix Community Centre is under construction. And, further east, beyond Mollison Drive, the tall landscape-dominating chimney (beneath which sits the Amy Johnson Primary School) is due to come down, along with the boiler house. Until it was demolished in 1991, a high-rise block of flats, Instone Close, also stood tall in the area.

An urban ghetto, with poverty and drugs never far away, the Roundshaw Estate has long been a problem for Sutton Council. In the mid-1990s, it won a Single Regeneration Budget scheme grant to provide £30m for housing. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1996, not long before he lost his seat, the then MP for Carshalton and Wallington, Nigel Forman, told the House of Commons he had been on patrol with local police officers in the Roundshaw area. 'We should be able to design out many of the opportunities that exist for crime in the architecture of large estates,' he said, 'just as, alas, they had been designed in when they were first built.'

The detailed plan to regenerate the area (counting on an additional £96m committed by the Council's partners) was approved in August 1998. The chairman of Sutton's housing and social services, Lesley O'Connell, said at the time: 'There is a very human dimension in all this. What it means for the area is economic and social regeneration. . . The residents were involved from the very start . . . They were then invited to put down what they liked and disliked about the estate. What emerged was a dislike of the decks, the high rise blocks, a wish for gardens and more privacy - plus a will to retain the strong community feeling. They wanted a nice environment for bringing up their children as we all do.'

Walking north from Mollison Drive, along muddy grass between two tenement blocks, this part of the estate still feels run down and unregenerated. I pass a dark and dingy tunnel of garages and emerge on to Redford Avenue which lies almost exactly on the 300 easting. Joanna Bogle, a journalist, historian and local councillor, grew up on this road, which, she remembers, led to the airport. She is also the author, along with Bob Learmonth and Douglas Cluett (both now deceased), of four books on the history of Croydon Airport, the last of which was published in December 2003: 'Croydon Airport: From War to Peace'.

On the left, the buildings of Foresters Primary School look like prefabs. Crossing over Link Lane, and Stafford Park Road, I reach Mellows Park, and a cafe housed in an ugly flat-topped pavilion. The Park Cafe is warm and welcoming, and is popular for breakfasts and lunches. On the noticeboard, there are advertisements for women's football, circuit training and bowls. A plaque tells me that this pavilion was opened in April 1996. I would never have guessed the building was less than 10 years old.

In the middle of Mellows Park, there's an older, more traditionally-shaped pavilion, which looks unused. There's also a modern-looking basketball court, and tennis courts which cost £3.90 an hour at peak times (unless you have a discount card, in which case you can buy a session for 40p less). The 300 easting bisects the park, but there is no way through directly north, so I exit to the east and proceed along Plough Lane. I pause at the bridge over the railway line (West Croydon to Sutton) to admire the planning that went into siting brand new houses (red brick on the north side, yellow brick on the south side) so close to the tracks.


 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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