A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Brighton Cross

Kip Fenn
A novel about
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26 - 'Streets are the living rooms of our nation' - Streatham's street of shame

In the 18th century, there was a rectory, a forge, a village lock-up, a tithe barn, a school and an inn all nearby the church and green. In the 21st century, there's no hint of such a rural idyll any more. I continue north on the Streatham High Road for a block. A sign tells me the congestion charging zone is four miles away. At street level I pass by a 'Big Discount Store', an amusement centre, a launderette, a 'Rock Bottom Household Superstore', and a pawnbrokers. Above the street level facades, though, there is evidence of Victorian extravagance. The buildings, usually four stories high, are full of riches, decorated gables, brick mouldings and engravings, original timber windows, stone cornices and parapet cappings. So rich, in fact, that Lambeth Borough is determined to try and restore some of the prestige. It has set aside Streatham High Road and Streatham Hill as a Conservation Area, and a Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme is under way.

The route is thought to follow closely that of a Roman road. It is known that during the Saxon period there were scattered settlements here - indeed, the name Streatham derives from the Saxon meaning 'the settlement by the street'. The post-Norman period saw a growth in the prosperity of the village, as a halfway staging point between London and the Archbishop of Canterbury's palace at Croydon. Thereafter, the plagues of the mid-17th century, the fire of 1666, and the discovery of medicinal springs on Streatham Common all provided a stimulus for wealthy families to move away from the unsanitary conditions in London. With the development of the railways in the second half of the 19th century, the population increased rapidly, and dramatically. The old estates in the rural areas beyond the village became unfashionable and so the grounds and houses were sold off, and the resulting sites redeveloped as speculative residential projects. The predominance of commercial buildings on the High Road dating from between 1880 and 1910 indicates the significance of this period, one of great economic development. A second wave of development came between the wars, partly due to the arrival of an electric tram link with central London. This led to the building of three cinemas, one theatre and a ballroom slotted inbetween the huge developments of residential apartment blocks. These, together with the ice-rink and municipal swimming pool at the south end, launched Streatham in the thirties as the premier entertainment venue of South London.

However, the area was badly hit in the late 1980s recession with the loss of several major national retailers, including most significantly the loss of John Lewis, trading in the old Pratt's store. Today, some 80% of Streatham's commercial sector is represented by micro businesses. In a report undertaken for the regeneration scheme, Lambeth blames many of the area's problems on the A23, the major London-to-Brighton trunk, which runs along the Streatham High Road and splits Streatham in two. A range of policies are being adopted to try and cope with the continued decline along the road. These include promoting investment in new/modernised shopping and promoting Streatham High Road as an important South London entertainment centre (hence its support for the Hub Scheme); managing the road network to benefit public transport, pedestrians and cyclists; providing better short-stay parking facilities; and improving the visual character and integrity of existing conservation areas. The Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme (HERS) was set up to help with this latter aspect. Although £0.75m in grants was made available less than half of the money was actually taken up for projects.

In early 2004, there is little evidence of much regeneration, and plenty to confirm its status as Britain's worst road: two years ago, BBC listeners voted it as the number one 'Street of Shame'. (Grey Street in Newcastle-upon-Tyne was voted Britain's best street.) The organiser of the public poll, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), commented: 'Streets are the living rooms of our nation and a barometer for how we all feel. We can feel lifted by streets like Grey Street and depressed by those such as Streatham High Road. They should be an expression of collective pride and not places to rush through as quickly as possible.'

On the east side of the High Road, an original-looking blue police lamp, reminiscent of Dixon of Dock Green, arrests my attention. A first Streatham Police Station was opened here in 1865, and then replaced in 1912 by the current building to a design of John Dixon Butler, the Metropolitan Police architect. Earlier in the 1880s and 1890s, Butler had worked with another police architect Norman Shaw on two Scotland Yard buildings in Victoria Embankment, which are now known as Norman Shaw North and South and provide accommodation for Members of Parliament.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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