The pervading spirit of some places hangs quite obviously in the air. Even if you’re only passing through and not looking very hard, the distinctive atmosphere will soon make itself apparent.
Before you know it – down by the river, next to the statue of that long-dead local hero, in a corner of the oldest Inn, under an ancient oak on the village green – the genius loci will have tapped you on the shoulder, introduced him or herself and either invited you round for dinner, or stolen your lunch.
West Norwood isn’t one of those places.
West Norwood is one of those areas that are easier to define by where they are near, or where they are not. In this case, West Norwood is NEAR Crystal Palace, Streatham, Brixton; it is NOT Dulwich or Herne Hill.
Perhaps the ambivalent Nor sound in the name does it. As soon as the words are spoken aloud, an instant sonic-vagueness is applied.
Wandering around the neighbourhood I can’t help but get the sense that when in Norwood, you are in a kind of semi-defined region: politically in Lambeth, geographically in London, historically in Surrey, but – to borrow a phrase from Suzanne Vega – you’re really somewhere on the outskirts and on the fringes.
The reason I’m interested is because, after a long time in another part of London, I find myself living in West Norwood. So far, on the whole, I quite like it, but trying to pin down what makes it tick, where the centre is, is proving tricky.
A cursory search on the internet reveals that some people refer to West Norwood as ‘West Nowhere’.
The Daily Mail, perhaps unsurprisingly, spun the story of the local branch of NatWest closing into a portrait of a place that is little more than a nightmarish, gang-insfested shit-hole. Of course there’s crime and in a not especially affluent area of a huge city, the usual problems of social and economic deprivation are clearly apparent, but it’s not incessant and the High Street really isn’t the anarchic, ultra-violent arena that the article paints (despite the impression that trying to get on a 322 between 6-7 might sometimes imply). In an almost inevitable sign of the times, the building is now home to a large branch of Pedder, a south-east London estate agency.
More recently The Guardian discovered West Norwood and outlined a brief sketch of an ‘Anyplace’ in transition for their ‘Let’s Move To’ series without managing to make any real sense of the area either.
You can get a sense of how West Norwood used to be from a wonderful piece of black and white film on the BFI website called Suburban Weekend. Filmed in the late 1940s, it’s fascinating to watch now and see which places and buildings survive and what has gone, such as scenes of workers pouring out of the Tannoy Factory, which I guess was where Tannoy Square off Hamilton Road now stands.
There is also some footage of the Regal Cinema which was opposite the Broadway – roughly where the B&Q is today, as it empties out. Look carefully at about 1:50 into the film and as people are leaving the Regal, across Norwood Road you can see the Waygoods sign (below), recently uncovered again from beneath an ad hoarding on Chatsworth way, with the shop it belonged to on the corner.
According to the fascinating website Ideal Homes: A history of South East London suburbs, Norwood’s somewhat diffident, ill-defined locus could well be because it has never been: “a single ancient parish and so has no historic nucleus. It was mainly in the parishes (now Boroughs) of Croydon and Lambeth with some parts in Penge (Bromley) and Dulwich (Southwark).”
Until the mid-19th century West Norwood was known as Lower Norwood, which makes a kind of sense, as it lies downhill from Upper Norwood, today’s Crystal Palace more or less. However rather like Islington’s Essex Road – formerly Lower Road, to the neighbouring Upper Street – in naming terms West Norwood has undergone a kind of faux upgrade.
The real etymology of the name stems from the area’s historic positioning within the once large expanse of ancient woodland that stretched north of Croydon towards Camberwell – The Great North Wood. Norwood joins other local names such as Gipsy Hill and Forest Hill in reflecting their sylvan heritage.
Sara Maitland explores this in a chapter of her wonderful book – Gossip from the Forest –
“Once upon a time there was a swathe of ancient oak forest on the raised ground south of the Thames, about four miles south of the city of London, covering the area which is now Dulwich, Sydenham, Penge, Norwood and parts of Croydon…During the reign of Henry VIII there were dense woods either side of the main road from Brixton to Streatham and therefore also the usual steady stream of complaints that felons and other miscreants escaped from London and hid out in the forest…”
By the end of the chapter, Maitland finds a kind of hopeful echo of The Great North Wood, that is also potentially becoming something else, something new, developing a unique modern form in amongst the surviving patches of ancient wood, reclaimed railway land and abandoned Victorian villas that make up Dulwich and Sydenham Hill woods.
I love walking in those woods, but realistically, they represent something else, (they belong to Dulwich and Southwark) and can’t help make sense of modern-day Norwood.
So where does the soul of West Norwood reside? Not on Norwood High street – a busy mix of small local shops, one or two shabby looking national chains and a few independents aspiring to something more. There are usually lots of people around, but apart from during the monthly West Norwood Feast, everyone seems to be rushing somewhere else: to Tulse Hill Train Station, Herne Hill, Brixton Market, the Crystal Palace Triangle.
This restless, shifty atmosphere is equally apparent at West Norwood Station. Nearby an exciting new arrival is housed in an old pub – The Book and Record Bar – though, while I did find a reasonably priced copy of Peter Gabriel’s first solo album, a Hardback first edition of Bruce Chatwin’s Utz and the enticing prospect of a set of early 70s Pan Horror paperbacks, in surprisingly good nick, I couldn’t locate the spirit of Norwood.
I’ve also searched Auckland Hill – but ambling up past the winding higgledy piggledy mix of housing – genteel outer suburban sprawl meets déshabillé inner city – hasn’t resulted yet in any sudden moments of revelatory understanding.
Attempting to navigate a way through the cemetery simply demonstrated that if you’re only visiting, you have to enter and exit via the gates on the High Street. In a lane off Knights Hill, I struck paperback gold in the half-hidden book section of the Emmaus charity shop – 50p each for some surprisingly recent and decent titles – but got no closer to unlocking the essential essence of Norwood.
Another place I thought might be worth a look was West Norwood Park. In a part of London particularly blessed with greenspace, perhaps the local park would reveal the true nature of Norwood.
The park is on one of the highest hills in the area and affords panoramic views of south east London running all the way across to the City, St Pauls and beyond. The great spiky middle-finger of The Shard is impossible to miss from this vantage point as it gives the surrounding cityscape the bird.
Elevation also lends the park a slightly uncomfortable, exposed feel, making it seem a little colder than it is, more open to the elements. Then at the crest of the hill, you’ll find the scary playground. Wonderfully exciting for kids, but full of worryingly tall climbing contraptions for parents, along with rocky outcrops that invite trips and slips. Apparently it was closed down within a week of first opening when a child broke an arm, but it’s open now, rickety tower of rigging and all – my three-year-old son loves it.
At the northern foot of the park, running alongside the stretch of railway line leading to Gipsy Hill, is my favourite bit of the park: the Country Walk. This project was started in 2001 – and despite always needing more volunteers to keep it going and suffering various setbacks over the years in terms of theft and vandalism – a group of chainsaw wielding youths hacked down various trees not so long ago – has become a delightful semi-wild space.
A woodchip path, dotted with native fruit trees– including blackberries aplenty – runs from the east side of the park to Salter’s Hill. The walk also features ferneries, a pond, a bog and a willow arbour.
The long-standing aim of the Walk according to its award winning (see the Friend’s blog In The Press Section) driving force John Cotter is to create “A perfect Piece of Countryside with all the trees, wild flowers and ferns once native to London”.
Perhaps here, in this patch of lovingly managed wildness, flanked by the main body of the park and the rail tracks, with Kingswood School looming across from Gipsy Road, is something of the true spirit of Norwood: not-quite of the City – not rural or even especially suburban, but something else, on the edge, but happy there, a special place all of its own, that is proudly neither one thing nor another.
Links & References
Shopping for identity – another post by me more focused on Norwood High Street