The history of our streets - Camberwell

I'm wandering south of the river today and, of course, like any true north Londoner, I was raised to be skeptical when it came to crossing the Thames.  But staying with friends who own an apartment in up-and-coming Elephant & Castle has gone some way to allaying my fears and, furthermore, I've also been inspired by a  six-part BBC tv series entitled “The History of our Streets.”  One of them focuses on Camberwell Grove, a mere 20 minutes stroll away and, fascinated by what I watched, I've decided to take a stroll there.

sign CG.jpg

For anyone interested in historical background, in the late 19th century a social researcher and reformer named Charles Booth took on an extremely ambitious project - to visit every one of London’s streets and record the living conditions of the residents there.  17 years later (yes, it was a real project!) he began drawing detailed maps, colour coding each street according to the residents' social class.  For example, purple represented a mixed area, yellow an area where domestic servants resided, dark blue indicated "poor…casual, chronic want” etc.  

charles booth.jpg
colour map.jpg

And Camberwell Grove is a fine example of the ‘full circle’ that so many London streets have come in around 125 years - from middle-class affluence in the 1880’s, then to a close-knit working-class that lasted until the 1970s and, now back to its original state (prosperous and bourgeois).  To give you an idea of prices, each one of these houses would have sold for about £1,000 in 1869!

Lithograph by Annan

Lithograph by Annan

Starting at Burgess Park (where Walworth Road turns into Camberwell Road) I’m wandering south, past the quirky “Love Cafe” - great for smoothies, pancakes and vegan-friendly grub I’m reliably informed - and turn left into a tiny sidestreet.  Within seconds, I feel as if I’m in the countryside - tress everywhere, birds chirping and tiny cottages (that probably cost an arm and a leg).  Who knew south London was this inviting?


Here's something else I spied on the way - it's a bona fide Japanese police car.  The owner must have shipped it straight from Tokyo!  You won't find many of these on the streets of London...


Finally, I turn onto Cambewell Grove itself and - wow - it really is stunning.   Following the line of a grove of trees, it's beautifully well-preserved...full of late Georgian terraces.  And the first thing that catches my eye is that there are no squares or crescents - it is simply one long avenue.

Look at some of this astonishingly beautiful architecture...


Back in the 1700's, Camberwell was a rural village and the grove acted as a private avenue behind a large family mansion.  But after the mansion fell into disrepair and was demolished, the land was divided up and sold off.  Indeed the first four houses (as shown in the lithograph earlier in the blog) were built by speculators.  Today, they are Grade II listed buildings... 


It's no surprise to me, as I walk around, that homes here are now changing hands for eye-watering sums (think million in sterling) and that this out-of-the way part of London, far from a tube station (though close enough to an overground - Denmark Hill) is making a comeback in popularity.  For a north London girl, I have to admit it's opened my eyes.  No doubt I'll have to begin wandering in South London on a regular basis...


It's unbelievably tranquil - hard to believe that just a few moments away you're in the heart of noisy, grimy, inner-city London.   And the leafy trees give it such a refined, elegant feel. I have to pinch myself because close by is a railway line (built in Victorian times) only all I can hear are birds.  Apparently, the street was first called "Walnut Tree Grove" though, sadly, I spy no such trees today.

The street is also home both to a chapel and a pub and now has the status of a conservation area (a result of a long campaign by residents from the 1970's).


Finally, as promised, here's a link to the programme in its entirety (courtesy of You Tube)....enjoy!