Downham in South East London is built-up residential area today, but it was countryside until after WWI. It is probably a little-known area to those living in the more fashionable and trendy parts of London, but I believe that development there has interesting lessons for us in the 21C. (This article was first posted as a Guest Blog with the London Gardens Trust on October 22, 2020.)
Forster Memorial Park
Until the 1920s this area, beyond Lewisham, was open countryside and farmland, the area of the ‘Seven Fields’ in which local people would walk at weekends in the early part of the 20C. But WWI changed many things.
The Forster family were major landowners here and lived at Southend Hall which had vast areas of parkland in addition to farmland.
‘… The land for the park was given to the people of Lewisham in 1919 by H W Forster, later Lord Forster, first MP for the Borough of Bromley and Governor-General of Australia from 1920-25… Mr Forster donated the land in memory of his two sons, killed in WWI, and Forster Memorial Park was opened in 1922 by his daughter…’.London Gardens Online, April 2012
It is hard to find this generosity in today’s property developers with crowded housing estates. Forster Park today covers 42 acres and offers sports facilities, walking, education, and simple enjoyment. And there is a continuity of purpose as local people still enjoy the open air in the park.
The park is unusual in that it has preserved ancient woodlands. According to The Woodland Trust this means: ‘…areas of woodland that have persisted since 1600 in England and Wales, and 1750 in Scotland. This is when maps started to be reasonably accurate so we can tell that these areas have had tree cover for hundreds of years. They are relatively undisturbed by human development. As a result, they are unique and complex communities of plants, fungi, insects and other micro-organisms…’. The many fine oak trees are particularly remarkable, but there is also a surprising area of Scots Pines.
Downham Fields aka Durham Hill
Soldiers returning from WWI had hightexpectations of a better life. Certainly in London the London County Council wanted to create better housing for poorer families. Lewisham Council wanted to preserve the countryside areas, but the London County Council compulsorily purchased Shroffold Farm and Holloway Farm and built the Downham Estate of 6,000 houses between 1924-38 to rehouse families from the East End of London.
The new housing estate was built with wide, tree-lined roads and Downham Fields or Durham Hill was preserved as parkland within the estate. Some of the trees have been sacrificed to create parking for cars, but the parkland continues as a reminder of the countryside which was once here. It is ‘…the most extensive area of flower-rich neutral grassland in the Borough..’. (Ecology Handbook 30, London Ecology Unit)
Downham Woodland Walk
But the LCC went further: ‘…The Downham Estate … incorporated and preserved an existing tract of woodland from Whitefoot Terrace to Bromley Road. Now called Downham Woodland Walk it runs between the houses for over 1.5 km, and much of it is almost certainly ancient woodland, shown on maps of 1805…’.London Gardens Online, April 2012
Today the woodlands are part of the Green Chain Walk in Downham in South East London, and appreciated by long-distance walkers as well as local people. You slip into another layer of time as you step off a busy road, or off the pavement into the woods. The trees wrap you in greenness, and peace, interrupted only by squirrels and birds. Again there is a continuity of purpose, with the woods simply being ‘woods’.
Downham Playing Fields & the Cricket Pitch
Not far away are fields which once belonged to Holloway Farm. The fields remain today, available for sport or walking, with the Spring Brook running quietly on one side, though trees, and creating an interesting wet area before joining the River Ravensbourne.
If you are enjoying the sunshine continue to follow the Spring Brook through Shaftesbury Park and you will find the Downham and Bellingham Cricket Club. The LCC built a cricket pitch in 1931 for those working on the estate and it is still enjoyed today!
You could end your visit to Downham with refreshments at The Bromley Court Hotel which was built in the 1760s and became the country seat of Charles Long, Baron Farnborough, a politician and patron of the arts.
I hope you have enjoyed this little trip to Downham in South East London. Do you have similar stories from your London Borough which you could share? (This article was first posted as a Guest Blog with the London Gardens Trust on October 22, 2020.)
- London Gardens Online: (https://londongardenstrust.org)
- The Bromley Court Hotel: www.bromleycourthotel.co.uk
- The Green Chain Walk: www.tfl.gov.uk
- Archer, J and Yarham, I: Nature Conservation in Lewisham, London Ecology Unit, 2000
- Coulter, J: Lewisham History and Guide, Alan Sutton Publishing Limited, 1994
- The Downham Estate: https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/05/21/the-downham-estate-the-joy-of-having-your-own-patch/