Avery Hill Park in Eltham is beautiful parkland with centuries-old fields and hedges and a mansion house. The Avery Hill Mansion was one of the grand country houses in the 19th century, lavish and comfortable and with an extraordinary Winter Garden. I can see I will need several more visits as the seasons change and the current restoration work progresses.
A brief history of Avery Hill
John Thomas North (1842-96) was born in Leeds in Yorkshire where he was apprenticed as a mechanical engineer to Shaw, North and Watson. On completing his apprenticeship he joined the John Fowler Steam Plough Works. The company exported to Chile, and North was sent there on contract in 1869 to maintain equipment. In brief, he started investing in nitrate production. By 1890 North and his associates controlled 70% of nitrate production in Chile, one of the world’s largest deposits. He diversified his business interests into coal, water, iron and transport and became one of the wealthiest men in the UK, known as ‘The Nitrate King’.
North returned to the UK in 1882 and settled in Eltham in 1883 where he took out a ten-year lease on the old mansion at Avery Hill. He then bought the house in 1888 from Anna-Maria Boyd and rebuilt it into a lavish mansion with a picture gallery, a Turkish bath and a Winter Garden. The mansion and even the separate stable block had electric central heating! By 1891 his estate was over 270 hectares (667 acres) and stretched from Shooters Hill to New Eltham. When he died the estate was put up for auction and Col North (as he had become) was buried at St John the Baptist in Eltham.
The LCC bought the mansion with 28 acres of farmland in 1902. The mansion opened in 1906 as Avery Hill Training College the first training college for women teachers. The college merged with Thames Polytechnic in 1985 and became part of the University of Greenwich. The Harris chain of schools is now (2022) converting the building into a boys’ school.
The formal garden
The formal garden is on the west side of the Winter Garden. In the 1970s the planting was abundant. There were roses and scented shrubs including Daphne Mezerum, Choisya Ternata, wintersweet, winter jasmine and hamamelis. Jerry Coleby-Williams worked in the GLC nursery in the 1970s and paints an evocative picture of the gardens at that time.
Today the mass planting of annuals seems to have gone, replaced by some perennials and wildflowers. Shrubs still line the walls but it is not a garden which looks ‘loved’. I find it sad to see.
The Winter Garden
The Winter Garden of 1889 is the second largest glass house in the UK, after Kew Gardens and Grade II listed. Greenwich Council owns the building. As recently as the 1970s the large warm temperate central house housed a Canary Island date palm and plants from South Africa, South America, Australia and California. It is currently closed for repairs. I last photographed here nearly seven years ago and it was in disrepair then. Perhaps there is a plan to restore the planting?
The Friends of Avery Hill Park publish a list of notable trees. Some date from when Thomas Hale (1839-51) owned the property. James Boyd was the next owner. He made his money from sugar refining in the firm of Hall and Boyd. The area around St George-in-the-East was apparently was the main area of sugar refining although the last factory closed in 1885. During his time, (1851-82), Boyd was perhaps the first to develop the parkland at Avery Hill.
Close to the house, just beyond the formal gardens, is a small area of secondary woodland. I ventured in and found what looks like an old line of hedging.
At the bottom of Butterfly Lane, as it turns towards Conduit Head, there is a remarkable oak tree. Surely this is at least a Veteran oak tree and should be on the Ancient Tree Inventory? Curiously none of the trees in the park are on the inventory.
To the south of the mansion is parkland and sports fields.
The little river Shuttle rises from springs in Pippenhall meadows and runs in ditches in the park. But it only becomes interesting as a stream some time after leaving the park. It is an interesting stream to follow from source to where it joins the River Cray just outside Hall Place.
Avery Hill Park in Eltham is a fascinating site for historical reasons but also because some of the landscape has remained unchanged from the Middle Ages, extraordinary in London.