LGO tells me that ‘…The site’s historic interest resides less in its design than in the story of its acquisition. Deptford Common to the north had already been lost to development when the open land of Hilly Fields was leased to builders in the 1880s. It was saved through a campaign that began in 1889 and involved the Kyrle Society, MPGA, Commons Preservation Society and local residents. Octavia Hill of the Kyrle Society, later co-founder of the National Trust, helped establish the fund-raising committee, which culminated in the purchase and opening of Hilly Fields in 1896…
…The new park was laid out to designs by Lt Col J J Sexby, Chief Officer of the LCC’s Parks Department, [also responsible for Deptford Park] and …. included perimeter railings, a refreshment house, drinking fountain, open-air grandstand and bandstand. …In the north, the brickfields and pits were levelled, swampy sections drained …. It was opened to the public on 16 May 1896 by Sir Arthur Arnold, Chairman of the LCC…’.
It seems that the planting in today’s park is much freer than the original design, with an emphasis on nature and conservation, although the interest in sport and refreshments continue!
The geological structure of this area is fascinating. Firstly there is a small area of chalk around Somerset Gardens and across Lewisham Way around Sandrock Road. This shows clearly on Stanford’s Geological Library Map of 1878. Abutting on to the chalk pit, in the area between Tyrwhitt Road and Shell Road was the brickworks, which mined deposits known as the Woolwich and Reading Beds, clay and sand deposits laid down in c.55 million years BC. And in the middle of these beds are alluvial deposits – matter laid down by the river and consisting of clay, sand, silt, and gravel. Brickmaking was obviously a major industry although LGO suggests it was closed down to create the Park by 1896. However, although by the photographs in the Lewisham Archive, brick and tile making continued in the surrounding area of Brockley until at least 1900. The road names here are very descriptive: Sandrock Road (with a sandstone cliff at the end, just visible), Undercliff Road (runs through the site of the former quarry), Overcliff Road (runs over the top of the former sandstone quarry), and Shell Road (built on the site of the chalk pits).
Today, on the north east side, the park is closed off by the Bowling Club, founded in 1906 and clearly strongly supported by the members. LGO talks of ‘…a garden area tended by local schools and the park users group to the north has beds, shrubs and concrete tubs near the Francis Drake Bowling Green..’ but I think the garden has become today’s nature reserve. Housing closes off the rest of the eastern side but there is an entrance to the park at the top of Vicar’s Hill, and another at the bottom. On all other sides the park is open and easily accessible.
On top of the hill ‘…a sundial in the form of a circle of 12 large granite stones was erected … to mark the millennium…’. Unlike the stone circles which I have seen in Portugal this one is purely decorative – there is no ‘atmosphere’ or ‘aura’ when you step into the circle, and sadly the flat stone in the centre of the circle, marking the solstices, is badly cracked. Nearby are tennis courts, a children’s play area, and the Café. In the ‘bowl’ at the bottom of the hill is a cricket pitch, but when I visited children were playing soccer around the cricket pitch!
Prendergast School is a comprehensive school in the park. It opened in 1880 as West Kent Grammar School, then became Brockley County School before becoming Prendergast School. The pattern of naming is odd because the school was founded through a bequest (with additional funding) of Dr Joseph Prendergast, who was also the Headmaster of Colfe’s School 1831-57. In addition to the Victorian building there is now an extension on Adelaide Avenue.
Near to the school LGO points out that ‘…On the southern edge is a wooded area that since 1992 has been a nature reserve with hawthorn scrub, blackthorn and elder, as a result of local residents approaching LB Lewisham’s Nature Conservation Section. Improvements were carried out including railings, gate and paths with a Community Action for Wildlife grant from English Nature in 1993 with contributions from Brockley Society, Lewisham Environment Trust, the Civic Trust and Prendergast School…’. This surprising area, hidden away, remains in place.
Pre-fabs used to stand on the western side of Hilly Fields until as late at 1964 and their outline can apparently be seen in the grass during a very hot and dry summer. It has rained a great deal recently and the grass is lush, so no chance of me seeing these ‘ghosts’! (Do read Running Past, however.)
This is another surprising, and glorious, park in Lewisham. It is open and spacious, with wonderful views towards the City, Shooters Hill, and the South Downs on a clear day and well-used by local people for all kinds of activities – or none at all. And it is another park where local people are taking ownership. As LGO observes: ‘…The Friends of Hilly Fields work with Lewisham Council to achieve sustainable improvements and facilities for the park, increasing its use and enjoyment. The Friends have successfully raised funds for a number of projects and organise events and activities in the park…’.
The trees are a feature of the park: London place trees (old and new), oaks, ash, sycamore, cherry trees, poplars, beech, and lime trees, and probably several more of which I am woefully ignorant.
London Gardens Online
The history of Hilly Fields
Detailed information about Hilly Fields today
The ever-reliable ‘Running Past’ should always be consulted about south east London!
Edith’s Streets – fabulous research resource!