A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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8 - Upper Woodcote Village, where gardens come before homes, and see-saws are lonely

Despite being a through route and very busy, Woodcote Grove Road (the A237) has a 20mph speed limit. A speed camera, which I walk under, ensures that cars going south drop their speed to near 20mph for 100 yards or so. On the left, along Meadow Rise, is Woodcote High School, where some new buildings are being constructed. After Meadow Rise, Woodcote Grove Road becomes Smitham Bottom Lane for less than a mile before reverting to Woodcote Road.

In the past, Smitham Bottom Lane used to be a longer road. It led, not surprisingly, to a place called Smitham Bottom - modern day Coulsdon. In fact, it was as recently as 1905 that the parish council decided to convert itself from Smitham Bottom to Coulsdon. One year later, in 1906, the change was accepted by the Post Office. The area further west, around Bradmore Green, which historically was considered as Coulsdon became Old Coulsdon. The word 'Smitham' appears to be linked to 'smooth'. Thus Smitham Bottom probably refers to the chalky smooth valley in which the area rests.

Enthusiastically, I turn off the A237 into Upper Woodcote Village, the name of a road that runs round a near-square green. Old fashioned-looking wooden street lights are the first indication of exclusivity, but not the last, for this is the Webb Estate. In 1888, William Webb, a chartered surveyor in Purley, joined forces with a local estate agent to buy 260 acres of what was then the Foxley Estate. He proceeded to develop it according to innovative theories of housing development, later explained in his book 'Garden First', published in 1919. He proposed that 'the occupiers of houses (should) not only have the enjoyment of their own premises in desirable seclusion, but that, both from their own upper windows and when passing along the roads, it may appear as though they are one large garden of which their own holding is a part'.

Webb is particularly remembered for his bold decision to plant trees and shrubs and lay out other landscape features according to a specific planting scheme well before the first houses were built. In this, he was influenced by the Arts-and-Crafts Movement. One of its proponents, the eminent horticulturist, William Robinson, for example, put forward the view that the function of an architect was to plan houses to fit into gardens rather than vice versa. This is exactly what Sir Edwin Lutyens did with a house at Munstead Wood, in Surrey, which was designed to fit into the garden already landscaped by Gertrude Jekyll. It's worth nothing that Webb's innovative experiment pre-dated the garden city of Letchworth and the garden suburb of Hampstead in northwest London.

This bit of the estate, Woodcote Village Green, was laid out in 1903, with whipping post, stocks, a pond containing geese, a see-saw, and an estate blacksmith who worked at a smithy from 1904 till the out-break of war in 1914. There was also the Lord Roberts temperance inn, a pub without beer, that served 'a capital Tea, Luncheon or Light Refreshments at quite moderate charges' in 'the quaint Elizabethan Coffee Room, or on the old goose green'. Today, there's only a busy village store, called Lord Roberts, with most of its customers arriving by car. A war memorial dedicates the Green to 'the use of the public in the memory of the men and women of the urban district of Coulsdon and Purley who laid down their lives in defence of their country in the world wars 1914-1918 and 1939-1945'.

Huge houses, less than 20, line the four sides of the green, each one set in sizeable plots; they are reasonably attractive, some neo-Georgian and others half-timbered. The green itself, though, is an empty place, devoid of character. A few silver birches have been left to grow in the corners, and there is one isolated see-saw at the north end. There are no football posts, no playgrounds, no pavilion, and, as I walk across, not even any dog-walkers - it is utterly empty, flat and empty. It's difficult not to see the green as just another extra bit of lawn for the mansions.

I walk round from the Lord Roberts to the north of the green, and enter Silver Lane. One sign, on a wooden gate, reminds me that this is a private road, and another that there is a 15mph speed limit. In the early part of the century, there was an ornamental wrought iron gate here, made by the village blacksmith, but it was taken down during World War Two, when there was a shortage of metal. According to Webb's plan, Silver Lane was originally planted with four rows of Silver Birch trees and carpeted with bulbs and wild flowers before the houses were built.

A muddy path (with bicycle-proof barrier at its entrance) allows me to cut through to a road called Promenade de Verdun. Thick and tall camellia shrubs on the right not only hide the garden on that side, but keep most of the light from the path (but I do notice some fresh bicycle tire tracks).

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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