Blackheath: Wide Open Space

It’s a paradox to be standing in the middle of a dense, crowded, urban environment and find that you are physically isolated, cut off on your own. Treading the grass, there’s not another person within spitting, throwing or shouting distance of you. There are vast empty spaces between you and the nearest human being. You could drive a range rover or a huge lorry right through the middle of all this, and people do, at a rate of every other second. But that’s enough about the Millwall defence, because on my way to last weekend’s game I got off the bus early and had a nose around Blackheath and Charlton.

The last away game I wrote about saw us snatch three points from the mighty Fulham. It was still summer, we were taking on all comers and things were rosy in the garden. Since then, Millwall have won 1 game from the last 68 and reverted to their traditional position of a hair’s breath above the relegation zone. Charlton Athletic should be the big local derby, but there is such deep hatred for West Ham, Crystal Palace and Leeds that this one falls a bit flat. Fans of different clubs are not as different as they like to think but chez Millwall, the prevailing image of the Charlton fan is that of a trainspotter who brings a flask of weak lemon drink to the game. As the heavyweight clash of Barcelona v Real Madrid is known as El Classico, Millwall v Charlton is sometimes called El Spastico; they are the only local rival who can be relied upon to match us for ineptitude.

The 53 bus goes direct from our manor to theirs, but Blackheath is a good stopping point en route, and sees me starting where the Greenwich Nairnwalk ended. Off I get at the evocatively named Wat Tyler Road.

This vast, level expanse of over 200 acres is a strange place. The village opposite has become a sort of SE London Hampstead, but the heath itself is far more stark, lacking hills, valleys or woodlands to divert the eye. A major road cuts through the middle, making the heath neither a high street nor an ‘away from it all’ spot.

Nairn quite enjoys the strange effect produced by the road. “The edges, heavily built up, bounce the space back into the centre, where it is reinforced by the grave parade of lorries and red buses… it is the opposite of London Fields, Mitcham Common, or other dull areas of amenity inflicted on London. Here there is tension between the middle and edges”.

As for the heath itself, Nairn finds it has “remarkable personality… the whole heath is slightly convex, tipping over into views down to the Thames or across to Shooter’s Hill”.

A few times I have been to Blackheath with the intention of taking the hangover for a long Sunday walk, and each time you soon find yourself gravitating towards the village. Around the heath’s southern perimeter, the edge of Blackheath Village is the open neck of a funnel, down which everything is drawn, with apparent inevitability.

In this corner of the heath, All Saints church is sat like a paperweight. It resembles a toy church from a set of decorations at the foot of the Christmas tree. Nairn, not without affection, calls it “hilarious”; All Saints is “sit-up-and-beg Gothic… stuck down as if to say: if I weren’t here it would all blow away. This kind of preposterousness is very hard to resist, any of the preserved bits of Blackheath would be missed less than this pipsqueak”.

The village has gentrified, as one would expect of an area with charming alleys like Tranquil Passage, but independent shops and cafés outnumber chains for now. On a weekend mid-morning the place is rammed with cars, families, and outside tables where yummy mummies drink prosecco.

As you get further from the heath, you find more traditional elements. A while ago, having seen wicker craft stalls in the local estate agents, I described the village as chi-chi on Twitter and had disgruntled residents pointing out that there was a Costcutter and a Greggs. Although it is largely very well-to-do, just past the station we find this uncared-for block of post war flats with dingy net curtains in the windows.

There are a few notable elements scattered between the upmarket pizza restaurants. Behind the station is a huge gothic-looking house, possibly Quaker according to the signposts, and side by side are a music conservatoire and a community-run theatre.

Adjacent to the village is Blackheath Park, a sizeable estate which has white fencing gates and forbidding Private Property signs at each point of entry.  I go in anyway.

Nairn introduces the estate as follows: “Every variety of villa, but never enough to smudge the original patrician stamp. Then in the mid 1950s Span appeared and has been deftly slipping in slices of weather-boarding and tile-hanging. The original leafy layout has received another dimension… the exhilaration of old and new together when both are good”.

Along the road called Blackheath Park, there is a thrilling diversity to the parade of houses. Every one is different and were they not detached and separate by high hedging, the road could be an English Schaerbeek. The space-age apparition below (with house next door for contrast) has its counterparts in Pond Square, Highgate Village, but those were hidden down drives and behind high walls. This one is nothing like its tasteful Georgian neighbours, but succeeds by having the front to stand proud and say, “Yes! I am R2D2, landed on a genteel 1820s estate. And what of it?”

Nairn’s highlight is the crossroads where Blackheath Park meets Foxes Lane. One corner is sober old houses with a stucco facade (“a very pretty original group”). Another is the very distinctive St Michael church, high and narrow with a needle of a spire (“far more individual than the usual run… more than a studious crib from a pattern-book”).

The south side is modern. There is a block of Span housing (modernist developers of suburban “homes within a garden”, in operation around 1957-1969). This block finds Span “at their crispest”. On the fourth corner, poking out from behind a high wall is “one of the best new single houses in London, built 1960”.

As you head deeper into the estate, the silent gravel spaces around these detached houses seem an awfully long way from London. This feels more like an Oxfordshire village. I look at so many hugely expensive houses for this blog that I sometimes wonder if come the revolution, someone will use it as a hit-list. Stately houses are interfiled with recent builds whose modernist design is bolder than the Span stuff.

An old tower which has co-opted into providing a spine for some post-war houses signals our arrival at The Priory, a block of flats which were Span’s first and give you a good idea what they were about. You need to come a fair distance down the drive before you catch sight of the flats on either side, which are effectively camouflaged by all the trees and greenery. Walking along the road, your sighting of these homes is as fleeting as the glimpse of a deer. Nairn: “there is one marvellous moment when one lush square dissolves into another, downhill, like drowning in a sea of Samuel Palmer’s vegetation”.

Returning to the heath itself, hidden away in a far corner is something called The Paragon. I pass the Princess of Wales pub, carry on past impressive houses for some time, and eventually wonder if I’ve walked in the right direction.

Once I find it The Paragon is well worth the walk, a great big necklace of precious pearls. Seven big houses face the heath in a very slight crescent formation, joined to one another by white colonnades whose columns hold up a covered walkway. Their restrained elegance is delightful, and Nairn is unstinting in his praise: “the best of all London’s surviving C18th schemes… an idea as good as anything in Bath, which is to say anything in Europe at that time… it is the Royal Crescent wearing a South London grin, cockney panache.” He is impressed that the architect neither went for an even number of houses, nor embellished the central house “as a Frenchman might have done”.

Having seen the best last, I leave Blackheath by Charlton Road and pass more churches, houses old and new, before a small green marks the end of Blackheath and beginning of Charlton.  We’re on a ridge that looks down towards the river and the road from Deptford. After the green, the road passes over a motorway leading to the Dome, and some unspeakable huge development which is probably just a load of new riverside flats, but looks like Breughel’s Tower of Babel.

The elevated road continues for some times and keeps changing, without ever being that pleasing on the eye. There are interminable stretches of Victorian houses, cottages claiming C17th provenance, and blocks of postwar council housing in strange colours.

Eventually the road comes smack into Charlton House, and bends around a small war memorial to the left to take in Charlton village. Charlton House stands out; built in 1607 for the elder brother of the future Charles I, when it was no doubt a country retreat, it’s quite unexpected to find it punctuating the dreary road carrying buses to Woolwich. It looks concentrated and brooding, a lot of windows and other features are fairly packed into a tight space and the brick is dark. I wonder what the story is with the isolated arch in the lawn; a remnant of something else or just a decoration for the unsmiling thing behind it?

Nairn enjoys being transported back to the Jacobean age and gives Charlton House the high praise of “Duchess of Malfi, SE17”. The twin turrets are a little Teutonic and Nairn reports that “with the big glass windows it looks like a stray from a Baltic waterfront… the three-storey frontispiece sizzles like a firework, the stone crackling out into violent grotesque faces”.

Instead of following the village route, at this point we plunge down the steep hill of Charlton Church Rd, for the aptly-named Valley. The incline is vertiginous, the housing is a bit scruffier and the football crowds have many fish-and-chip shops to choose from; you could be in Hastings, or the seedier ends of Brighton. Even down here there are surprises in store, not least a blue plaque for the great Italo Svevo; Triestine Jew, pal of James Joyce, and author of Senilità and Cosienza di Zeno, who spent an inexplicable ten years living towards the bottom of this road (this is so incongruous that one wonders if it might be a surreal joke, but if Joyce mapped out Dublin from Trieste…).

I doubt Svevo’s skirt-chasing alter egos were on the mind of anyone else going through the turnstiles. The Valley has filled in some of the corners, but the three joined-up stands have five different heights between them and it always looks like some monstrous Brobdingnagian toddler has been given free rein with the stickle bricks.

I’d describe the game, but fuck all happened. The one moment of drama came in the 95th minute, when Millwall were caught flat-footed and a pass picked out a Charlton striker clean through on goal, one-on-one against the keeper. He dawdled, someone lunged for the ball, making the ensuing chip over the keeper sufficiently weak that another defender had time to race back and hook it off the goal-line. Then out of the ground, through rows and rows and rows of impassive police with batons hanging at their hips, and back on the 53 bus with a point that we’ll be glad of on the last day of the season, or two points dropped that we’ll be cursing.

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2 thoughts on “Blackheath: Wide Open Space

  1. Good stuff! Having a Greggs is no sign of non-chi-chiness though. It’s a more complicated mathematical equation involving ratios of charity and betting shops to chain coffee bars.

    1. I was on Broadway Market today and they still have a Percy Ingle, so I guess it’s fine that landlords charge £675 a week for a bedsit there.

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