How you arrive at a place can be as important as the place itself. Whether stumbling across an ancient ruin from trackless wilds, catching the first smell and then sight of land from the uneasy, shifting deck of a boat, or perhaps nervously stepping into a thronging city centre from the back of a cab, whose driver is already twitching – on the lookout for the next fare, the manner of your entrance and approach matters.
Writers, naturally, have much to say about how to do arrivals. For Nan Shepherd, when first encountering Loch Avon in The Living Mountain, it is walking to and stepping into the bright water that gives her the first intense feeling for the lambent clarity of the loch; “How clear it was only this walking into it could reveal“. In Soft City Jonathan Raban insists that THE WAY to arrive in London is from the North, so that you can’t help but gaze down on the great city from the distant height of Highgate.
An entrance, though, doesn’t have to be especially grand to have a lasting impact. I live not far from Sydenham Hill Woods in South East London, which together with neighbouring Dulwich Woods forms a narrow island of trees, surrounded on all sides by roads, housing and other urban buildings. It is fenced all around, but there are several ways in, from multiple directions.
My favourite gateway to the woods, because it looks and feels so obviously like a threshold between two different worlds, is via Sydenham Hill Station. All stations are transition points of course, but here it is the abrupt change from the built environment to the organic that gives this site its distinctive character. I’d imagine that this is why the station is one of very few places in my part of London that Ian Nairn features in his classic book Nairn’s London. It is also likely one of the very few places that has hardly changed since he described it in 1966.
Nairn notes the ‘illusion of rurality‘ here, at the station’s tiny College Road entrance down steps hemmed in by trees. Today the layout is much the same, a covered walkway supported by posts, gives the impression that you are moving through some kind of enclosure in a wildlife park, or aquarium, rather than a pathway down to a station platform.
The large frames created between the support struts beneath the corrugated iron roof, seem like glassless windows, with ash and oak, horse chestnut, hazel, sycamore and brambles pressing themselves right up to the edges. Sometimes it feels as though passengers are being protected from the looming sylvan creatures beyond. This jungle-like sensation – still so powerful, – was noted by Nairn over 50 years ago: “the unlikeliness of the site reinforced by self-conscious boarding in. Only the walls and roof keep tigers from eating late passengers for the eight fifty-seven.”
The way we usually get there is from the other side, along Seeley Drive in the Kingswood Estate and on through the arched entrance to Dowell House. This itself provides an interesting, graduated change from city to woodland; the large oaks lining the grassy yards of the blocks seeming advance expeditionary scouts, outliers from the wood itself.
Just before the steps to the station, the orangey-red brick of corporate housing blocks give way to wire-fences containing creeper tangled oaks. It is always here at this abrupt juxtaposition point, that I have a curious sensation that it is the trees being kept away from the people, rather than trespassers being held back from the tracks. Nearby a short flight of steps leads to a platform, then more stairs up to the walkway and through the green corridor, which eventually runs out to a small carpark and a long shaded lane opposite, running uphill away from the station as it crosses the border from concrete to wood.
Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London, Penguin Modern Classics 2014
Jonathan Raban, Soft City, Collins Harvill, 1988
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain, Canongate Books, 2011