A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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32 - From yoga and yams in Chelsham Road to a young Major and Yasmin's murder in Larkhall

After passing the Fern Lodge Social Club on my left, I turn right into Chelsham Road, which will take me back across the 300 easting in a northeasterly direction. This is a pleasant wide road with handsome three-storey victorian houses on both sides, many with original features and looking relatively unchanged from their original state. In particular, I like the decorative stucco heads above the porches, all but one of which are of the same bearded old man. Oddly, number 35 has a different decoration -a female head. At number 44, there is one of the two headquarters of Sahaja Yoga Movement (the other being in the US). According to the movement's own information, Sahaja Yoga was founded in 1970 by Sri Mataji Devi, born in 1923, known as Mataji or the Divine Mother. Sahaja means spontaneity, and the basis of Sahaja Yoga is spontaneous union with the divine. This is accomplished through kundalini yoga, which, it is claimed, awakens a powerful spiritual energy located at the base of the spine. With Mataji's help, kundalini can be awakened in anyone. When it happens, 'practitioners are said to feel a cool breeze on the palms of their hands and above their heads'. The experience also produces deep peace and happiness, and leads to enlightenment when it reaches the top chakra. The movement claims approximately 20,000 members worldwide, half in India. Chelsham Road was also home to a 50 year old woman who was arrested along with nine others in mid-2003 following the discovery of a cache of drugs in Battersea with a street value of more than £4m. The cocaine and cannabis had been imported from Jamaica with a consignment of yams.

At the end of Chelsham Road, the bright ochre brick buildings on Union Road hit the eye. These are owned by The Workspace Group, which claims to be the largest provider of office, studio and small unit light industrial space to let in London and the South East. Opposite, on the south side of Union Road another development is under way. It was opposed by Lambeth Council initially, but the developers won an appeal to the Planning Inspectorate and are redeveloping the plot to provide retail, office and residential units in a building up to six storeys high. The site is of interest because, until 2000, it was used as the Savoy Laundry, and included an Art Deco garden, with an artesian well and ponds, dating to 1920. The London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust advised Lambeth as follows: 'The garden is overgrown, but the basic design is still there. As this is a unique example of a garden of this sort, the Trust believes it is very important to the history of gardening in London, and that it should be retained and restored in any development of the Laundry site.' Looking further east along Union Road the depressing and monstrous-looking grey British Telecommunications tower (Keybridge House) dominates the view.

I walk west along Union Road, past the Laurels, a purpose-built care home for the elderly, and the Larkhall Primary School where, in the late 1940s, pupils received a threepenny bit and two sugar lumps on their birthdays (other ex-pupils, though, also remember the cod liver oil supplements). One pupil, David Smith, went on to play for Surrey Cricket Club (at the Oval, less than a mile north) among other clubs, and three tests for England. On the corner stands a very well-secured premises. There's a heavy gate in Union Road (the only entrance, despite a long and very high wall down Larkhall Lane itself), formidable bright blue-painted railings, and spiky yucca plants. The only sign says '157 Larkhall Lane', but the many vehicles parked in the deep parking lot, which runs the length of the office building, give the game away: this is some kind of police depot which does not want to advertise itself.

I turn right into Larkhall Lane, by the 1940s Duke of York, and head towards Larkhall Park. On my right is the high brick wall of the police depot, and on my left is the Springfield Estate, which contains some 30 blocks of flats. One of these is Stanmore House. It has a long elevation adorned with a symmetrical pattern of large windows, in five rows and 17 columns - just two of which have little balconies. A bicycle is strapped to the outside of one of them. Further north, beyond the Smedley Street junction, the London County Council was much more generous with balconies when it built Dalemain House.

Church buildings lie to the west of the estate and border the south side of Larkhall Park. The church of Christchurch and St Johns dates from the 1860s. Next to it, there's a large lost-looking redbrick vicarage; and next to that is the much plainer Courland Grove Baptist Chapel, with 'Zions Hill Baptist Chapel AD 1840' engraved in its stonework. Above them all towers a very poorly maintained 14-storey concrete block, with every window half-curtained in the same dirty white material. It's surrounded by barbed wire, and has a sleazy looking half-open gateway that would be more appropriate for a building site. It seems this block is currently being used to house asylum seekers. In its shadow sit a red-painted shack which houses the 'Community of Refugees from Vietnam'. Also here, on the south side of the park are a colourful and rustic looking cafe called The Moon, a quiet garden and a playground - all deserted as I pass by this morning.

My route, once again exactly on the 300 easting, takes me across the east corner of Larkhall Park. A notice, put up by the London Borough of Lambeth, informs me that there are changing rooms, a children's play area, a football pitch, a multipurpose sports area, a picnic area, tennis courts, and social rooms. But a poster also advises me that there must be no barbecues, bonfires, or fires. Larkhall Park is only 25 years old, although it was first conceived towards the end of the World War Two. Compulsory purchase of properties took place mostly in the 1950s and 1960s. Subsequently, ownership was transferred from the Greater London Council to Lambeth Council; and construction began in the mid-1970s. The park was originally conceived to be twice as large as it is today; as it is, only two roads - Southville and Courland Streets - were completely wiped off the map to make way for the park, although a snippet of Courland Grove was lost too.

According to the Friends of Larkhall Park, the name 'Larkhall' appears on one of John Rocque's famous maps of the mid-18th century, and is probably associated with that of a substantial country house which later became the Lark Hall tavern and tea gardens. Until 2000, a pub called the Larkhall Tavern was still trading on the same site, further south along Larkhall Lane. Is it worth noting that John Major's first foray into politics took place in this area, when, in 1964, he stood as a Tory Councillor for the Larkhall ward. He was the youngest Tory candidate at the time, a tender 21. But, it wasn't until four years later, after a sojourn in Nigeria, where he broke his leg very badly, that he made it on to the Lambeth Council, for the Ferndale Ward. Looking across the park, the view is dominated by four cream-coloured chimneys (Battersea Power Station), a sky blue gasometer, and the buildings of what is now the South Thames University.

In 2002, Larkhall Park was the scene of a gruesome find. The full facts of the case came out in mid-2003 when, after an Old Bailey case, Fethaullah Mohammed was imprisoned for the murder of his step-mother, Yasmin Akhtar. Her body was found in the park wrapped in a carpet. The police called the case one of a growing tide of 'honour killings'. Yasmin was brought from Pakistan at the age of 21 to marry Fethaullah's father, Mohammed Jamil, 30 years her senior. After years of abuse Yasmin sought help from a women's refuge. She eventually achieved a divorce in November 2000, and moved to a secret location. She then made a legal claim on her husband for £250,000. The family was furious. Fethaullah, with family accomplices, eventually tracked his step-mother down. They kidnapped her, and then, when she refused to drop the claims, strangled her with parcel tape. She was wrapped in a carpet and dumped in Larkhall Park, where the carpet and body were set alight. The husband, Jamil, only escaped trial after suffering a stroke, but, at the time of writing, was still in line for prosecution.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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