How a once-derelict patch of ground, is helping to galvanise a community in one corner of South London.
On weekdays Vale Street is a bit of a rat-run.
Drivers, set on avoiding northbound congestion on Croxted Road and Norwood Road, launch themselves around the St Gothard Road hairpin, hoping to shave precious minutes off the commute, by speeding through half waking Lambeth back streets.
Invariably, at about this point, motorists have to put a brake on their time-saving ambitions, when they meet a 322 bus as it meanders around West Norwood and West Dulwich – en route to Brixton and beyond.
It is unlikely that anyone stuck in their car here, who takes a moment to look beyond the windscreen, will notice anything especially remarkable about their surroundings.
At the southern end of this stretch of road, stands a short row of three storey, pale brown Victorian mansion blocks that form Shaftesbury Terrace – a rare pre 20th century survivor on the street of both bombs and Lambeth council.
On the rounded corner of the terrace, an old tiled pub sign reads –The Shaftesury. Full Off Licence. Lacons. Round the back, in what might once have been the pub garden, a bulky Leylandii looms over a wooden fence, like an overzealous bouncer.
Opposite Shaftesbury Terrace, are the imposing, yellowy brown walls of the Vincennes Estate. The estate was built by Lambeth in 1964 and named in memory of World War II resistance heroes of Vincennes, France.
These include Violette Szabo and Lilian Rolfe, both with local connections through their fathers. The women, who had been working in France as secret Allied agents, were captured and later shot at Ravensbruck concentration camp just prior to the end of the war.
From the street though, you’d have no clue about any of this (though there is a memorial in the adjacent square). A little further along there’s a green square, with The Bricklayers Arms on the far side. To one side of the pub, on Carnac Street, tucked between terraced houses, is the entrance to Elm Wood Primary School.
Opposite the green are the flats and houses of Beeton Way, a more recently constructed housing estate, named after the Delia of her age, Isabella Beeton – who is buried in West Norwood cemetery, which backs directly on to the houses.
Next door to these homes is the Vale Street Reuse and Recycling Centre for Lambeth. This is followed by a small iron-fenced basketball court, which stands opposite a row of houses. To one side of these at the very end of the road is a small rectangular patch of grass. Its only outstanding feature is its apparent randomness, an offcut slice of ground hanging about on a corner.
Until recently this small area was often scattered with dog shit, crushed beer cans and food wrappers. Today though, the place is on the way to becoming something rather different.
I walk down Vale Street most mornings on the way to Tulse Hill, rarely paying attention to scruffy bit of grass at the end. But one day earlier in the summer I noticed some industrial type sacks and planks of wood, lying there. Surely someone wasn’t trying to sneak a very thin house onto this spot? Fortunately this turned out to be the beginning of Tritton Vale Pocket Garden.
A couple of weeks ago, during a weekend working session on the site, I caught up with Bianca Valido, one of the core team behind the project.
When I read about it online before we spoke, the ambition for the space was clear and very positive. The idea is for the garden to:
- Bring the community together
- Create an area of natural beauty, reduce littering & dog fouling
- Increase biodiversity, particularly for bees & birds with bug and bird houses in addition to wildflowers
- Provide a place for gardening & relaxation for residents without gardens
- Provide space for community gatherings such as street parties
- Provide a space for educational exploration, art installations & play for local children & pupils of Elm Wood
- Plant ‘fruit and edibles’ to be taken by children/locals
Sitting on the broad shelved edges of a pair of large square planters, we talked about how the project came about.
Bianca, along with the other members of the core group behind the Pocket Garden, lives locally and has a son who goes to nearby Elm Wood Primary. To people like her who regularly passed the small grassy area, it was clear that it was neglected and had become a bit of a dumping ground.
Bianca said that ‘fly-tipping was a bit of an issue’ and the space was ‘essentially a dog toilet’. After talking about the space and what might be done with it, a core group of parents and friends – Bianca, Jessica Osborn, Terka Acton and Buffy Handslip – decided to take action.
Further impetus to make new use of the spot came from the situation of Elm Wood, which is tightly squeezed into a small site, with little room for the children to play. In addition to the school’s needs, many people living nearby are in flats with no gardens and would appreciate the chance to get involved with a garden space near their homes.
While Bianca shares the garden’s birth story, the delight in her voice is clear as she lists the stages of the project as it gathered momentum and more and more local people and organisations got involved.
Jess a Lambeth ‘street champion’ helped to kick things off and got in touch with the relevant local authority contacts. Then the group learned about the ‘Capital Clean up Campaign’ an initiative from the Mayor of London’s office that gives grants to local projects cleaning up their parts of the city.
A Facebook page was created and further interest drummed up via the school and local resident groups. With the crucial support of Elm Wood – a ‘massive catalyst’ – which promised to use the space for education, the team felt that they had a strong case, but were still a little surprised to be awarded a grant from the Mayor’s office.
More funds were still needed to do things properly so a Space Hive Crowd Funding site was set up to bring in the rest of the money required. Other existing local community groups, including the Norwood Feast, helped to spread the word further, both via social media and on the ground at the monthly West Norwood Feast itself.
All the while, other people and organisations began to get involved. As Bianca continued her lengthy list I couldn’t help but smile at this litany of positive local support and advice, all pouring in to help with what is a very small piece of ground.
Photos by Tritton Vale Pocket Garden
Invaluable support was provided by, amongst others: the Vale Street Community Shop and the Library of Things (based behind the recycling centre opposite, who provided tools); community activator Wayne Trevor – who’s involved with lots of similar local initiatives like the West Norwood Bzz Garage and Open Orchard and Vinnie O’Connell of New Leaf, who helps run the Tulse Hill Poly tunnel on the Tulse Hill Estate and kindly donated lots of plants.
Nearby Alleyn Park garden centre provided hefty discounts and put the group in touch with Hawksmill Nurseries, who in turn donated large amounts of plants and seeds, as did A &E Bridgen and Son another Alleyn Park supplier.
Greenwich Leisure Ltd (aka Better gyms) and Workspace Group (who operate Park Hall Business centre on Martell Road the next street along) both made a very generous donation, each sponsoring one of the two sleeper planter-benches.
Pedder Estate Agent, Topps Tiles and the Volcano Café all also provided support, along with a local women who brought along a fig tree and Kew Garden’s Grow Wild Project, which supplied wildflower seeds.
Photos by Tritton Vale Pocket Garden
The colourful stepping stone mozaics that form a pathway around the garden were made by Julia Norburn of ‘Arts4Space’ and designed by children at Elm Wood – with each year group contributing a stepping-stone each.
I was trying frantically to jot down the various different people and groups involved, but just when I thought I’d got it all down, the torrent continued. Fortunately I was also in touch with Terka, the garden designer, who added further confirmation of this wonderful outpouring of community energy in writing:
“We’ve been overwhelmed both by these positive responses and by support from the strong local network of organizations with similar aims: Library of Things and Community Shop (both just across the road) have been incredibly helpful, Open Orchard are donating trees, Floral Hall and Alleyn Park Garden Centre have donated plants and local businesses have given funds, time, expertise and materials.”
Photos by Tritton Vale Pocket Garden
Not wishing to put a dampner on things, I asked Bianca almost apologetically about Lambeth’s involvement. With libraries being closed, Brixton traders left to the ‘mercy’ of Rail Track, estates of social housing earmarked for ‘redevelopment’, which, usually means rebuilding as largely private apartments, the local authority doesn’t have the greatest reputation as a force for good at the moment. As a result I’m not expecting much in the way of positivity.
However, in this instance, I’m pleasantly surprised. Via Jess the Street Champion, the council got directly involved through Jason Prentis, a member of Lambeth’s street care team, who not only helped fill out the appropriate forms, but got things like dustbins provided, helped procure compost and funds from the authorities and, one weekend, turned up to the site to get stuck in himself.
In Bianca’s words “he actually took care of building 4 large planters made out of reclaimed scaffold boards; he did this all by himself on the pavement next to the garden site. Brought his own tools and workbench and got on with it. Amazing”.
Bianca and Terka also shared with me some of the practical difficulties involved in working on and creating the garden.
One big problem encountered on the way was in the ground itself, which turns out to have been full of brick rubble. Terka explains that this “made it quite tricky to build the garden. We designed it with raised beds and planters to counteract this, since even breaking up the ground to a spade’s depth was difficult. We discovered that there had previously been a church hall spanning the site and joining it to the other side of the road – apparently this was demolished when Vale St was created…We didn’t find much of interest while digging – just the usual marbles and little bottles, which were carried off as trophies by a small helper.”
Site of Tritton Vale Pocket Garden in 1894 – Ordnance Survey Map from National Library of Scotland Maps Project
After hearing this I went off to do a little historical digging myself. Through a combination of history books, online references, local forums, council records and the fantastic National Library of Scotland’s georeferenced maps – which enables users to compare old Ordnance survey maps and others with current satellite maps – I was able to add a little more to the picture.
The church hall that once stood where the end of Vale Street now meets Tritton Road, was called Emmanuel Hall and was presumably associated with Emmanuel Church on Clive Road, around the corner. The church, in its original incarnation, was built in 1877 – though destroyed by fire and replaced in 1967.
The remains of the hall probably account for the large amounts of bricks found in the ground at the site – although there was also a brickworks very close by for some years in the 19th century.
In the 1894 Ordnance Survey map of West Norwood, on the site of the basketball court, almost opposite the Pocket Garden, was a Pottery Works. Tritton Road was then known as Paget Road.
In an earlier map from a survey in 1863s it appears that the church hall is yet to be built and the road layout is almost entirely different; with a Hamilton Road and Grove running up to approximately the site of present day Vale Street and the junction with Tritton Road.
Here a much larger brickworks takes up most of the space where, in years to come Lambeth’s municipal works, a dump and today’s recycling centre would be sited, behind West Norwood Cemetery.
According to the Hunthouse.com website which has some pages covering renamed London Street Names, Paget Road became Tritton Road in 1912. I have been unable to find out why the street name was changed, but the choice of Tritton was probably due to Sir Ernest Tritton, (1845-1918) an English Banker and Politician – who like Mrs Beeton is buried in West Norwood Cemetery.
Interestingly, both the Dulwich Society website and Hidden London.com refer to the landowner of the Tritton site as being responsible for curtailing the length of Rosendale Road, which runs south for a couple of miles from Brockwell Park until somewhat abruptly halting at the junction with the much less ambitious Tritton Road.
Hidden London records that “Rosendale Road’s eventual width and grandeur was supposedly the consequence of a plan to make it part of a grand processional route to the Crystal Palace. A speculator attempted to profit from this by laying out Tritton Road in its path, hoping to be bought out, but his bluff was called and the scheme was abandoned.”
Had the plan to run Rosendale Road all the way up to the Crystal Palace been successful, then today’s Pocket Garden site on the corner of Vale Street would probably be part of the back garden of a house on a much bigger thoroughfare.
Of Vale Street itself I haven’t been able to find an exact date for its creation. I had assumed that it may have been built during post-war reconstruction of the area – which suffered lots of bomb damage in the blitz – but the earlier road plan, if not the Church Hall itself (which is not clearly marked) can still be seen on a later map published in 1960.
The houses on Vale Street next to the Pocket Garden were built circa 1970, so the creation of Vale Street and the demolition of the Church Hall most likely took place at some point during the decade between – although the building itself may well have been damaged earlier during WWII.
Back to the present day, and Tritton Vale Pocket Garden is beginning to establish a positive presence in the community. Terka says that:
“It’s early days, and we’re still finishing off the garden – some low hedging went in this weekend, we’ll be putting in some winter vegetable soon, and the fruit trees will go in once they are dormant – but we can already see positive effects: kids constantly detour off the pavement to follow the mosaic stepping stones round and climb on the log, and passers-by often smile or stop for a chat if you’re working in the garden. I heard that the lady who looks after the bees in the community garden is pleased that they’ll have another place to forage, and – overall – it’s seen as a positive addition to the area.
In a little over 3 months, a dedicated core team, with help from many other local people, organisations and businesses, have succeeded in transforming the future of what was a tiny, unloved slice of waste ground.
I asked Bianca how they planned to maintain momentum, once the garden itself is complete. Again there follows a long to-do list of things to come.
A ‘friends group’ will be created, along with a regular slot or slots for people to come along to maintain and enjoy working in the garden. The group want to forge links with other community gardens, such as L’Arche London’s garden on Idmiston Road, West Norwood, where Charlotte Dove works alongside community members with learning difficulties. In the future she plans to lead working parties to the Pocket Garden to offer a change of scene and involvement in the wider community. The next pressing practical issue to tackle is getting Thames Water to connect a tap, so that the garden has its own direct water source.
We also talked about the importance of children being able to engage with plants and insects and animals, so that they can get a hands on sense of the world around them beyond tarmac and telly and phone screens.
Clearly a small space such as this can only achieve so much – Bianca was clear that the Pocket Garden will not in itself save the environment, but equally, that as part of a wider range of similar projects, it can be a force for good.
When I walk down Vale street a week or so after talking to Bianca, now knowing about the effort involved and the wide group of people behind it, the space seems to shine out as something far more than just a little garden.
Lately, watching and reading the Post-Brexit, news it seems as though Old England is being dragged relentlessly, downward into a period of dark, inward looking, sneering, xenophobic and exclusionary resentment (of course the result of the European referendum will affect every part of these Islands, but it is England in particular that seems to be diminished).
This slide into the insular unknown is being dressed up by some of our more cynical/deluded and one-eyed politicians and journalists as a return to some mystical golden age of greatness. I am afraid that I can’t see it.
Against this, Tritton Vale represents something else. In this place, which happens to be in London, (but with the same will and energy could happen anywhere), there is a different kind of England on show.
Here is a sense of locality that is inclusive and welcoming. A place that looks out as much as in, a place that is concerned with sharing more than taking. Tritton Vale, is only one small Pocket Garden, but also a great glimmer of hope in the gloom.
Links and References
Norwood Past, John Coulter, 1996, Historical Publications.