A leafy South London neighbourhood with a mock-medieval castle, bold modern architecture, abundant wildlife, and an errant fireman.
1. Vanbrugh Castle.
The home that Sir John Vanbrugh built for himself in 1716. Vanbrugh was considered, along with Nicholas Hawksmoor, to have brought the Baroque to its height in England with designs for Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Architecture was not his sole occupation – he was also a dramatist, soldier, spy (imprisoned in the Bastille), and politician. If this suggests to us a dilettante approach, some people at the time thought so too:
Van’s genius, without thought or lecture
Is hugely turn’d to architecture
noted Jonathan Swift tartly, in the second of two poems satirising Vanbrugh’s work. 1‘The History Of Vanbrugh’s House'(1708) in Pat Rogers, ed., Jonathan Swift: The Complete Poems (London: Penguin, 1983). This poem, and the earlier ‘Vanbrugh’s House’ (1703) refer not to the Castle but to the much-maligned Goose Pie House on Whitehall, (1701).
Vanbrugh himself was the first to admit to his reliance on others, especially Hawksmoor, to provide the expert detail for his grand schemes. For this house, he reverted to medieval features – turrets, crenellations, a central keep , deliberate asymmetry. Nairn’s London describes it as ‘an over-large Christmas parcel which you know is going to be a disappointment. But for all that, it ought to be seen’. 2Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London (London: Penguin, 1966), p.182.
Indeed it should, it has a fantastic view over London and into Greenwich Park from Maze Hill, and even today looks novel. It’s a shame that its two companion buildings, The Nunnery, and Mince Pie House, haven’t survived.
The Castle passed through a number of hands and uses before its current division into private flats. At one time it was a school for the ‘Daughters of Gentleman’, but not those of a frivolous nature:
It is the aim of the Lady Principal to give an education differing in toto from the superficiality of fragmentary knowledge and the veneering with mere accomplishments which have been deservedly the objects of severe criticism. 3Kentish Mercury, Friday 16 January 1885. British Newspaper Archive
2. Vanbrugh Pits
Also known as Blackheath Dips, an area on the northern tip of Blackheath, opposite Greenwich Park deer enclosure. The only reminder that the Heath was once a source of gravel for building works. All of the other workings were filled in with rubble from World War Two, to create the flatter panorama of Blackheath today, but Vanbrugh Pits were left untouched.
During the war, the deep hollow of Vanbrugh Pits was used to store a fully inflated barrage balloon. The area now provides a home for a rich biodiversity as well as peaceful recreation space.
The information board promises Stonechats and the Purse-Web Spider. Today only crows, robins and the inevitable pigeons are present. But the area is alive with birdsong, and the deeper into the pit you go, the further away the sounds of traffic from the A2.
3. 84-105 Vanbrugh Park
An interesting one-off row of brutalist homes designed by Arthur Rubenstein in the 1960s. Originally each was divided into two maisonettes, but several have been converted into three-storey townhouses to capitalise on the views over the Heath out of the front windows.
The houses are well aligned with the heath, and despite their minimal design, complement the older villas next door. They each have a front garden and garage and there is communal space at the back. There are some interior pictures of an unmodernised house here.
Dramatic scenes unfolded at the junction of the houses and St John’s Terrace, one night in November 1928. The glass of a fire alarm was deliberately broken, the last of six such acts of vandalism in the same evening. A total of 87 firefighters needlessly called out.
When the culprit was caught at this junction, in the early hours, ‘careering around’ on his motorcycle’, police were shocked to discover that he was an off-duty fireman! William Mildon of Charlton pleaded guilty to giving a false alarm and was imprisoned for 1 month and fined £5. In passing judgement, the magistrate took the opportunity to compliment him on his driving skills. 4Illustrated Police News, Thurs 1 Nov, 1928. British Newspaper Archive Mildon never gave a reason for his exploits. This was a good forty years before regular breath testing was introduced in England. Just saying.
4. Vanbrugh Park Estate
An estate designed for Greenwich Council by the renowned architects Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, known for the Barbican and Golden Lane estates. It was constructed in the early 1960s, and despite a bit of shabbiness in places, has maintained its originality and sense of place.
It sits sympathetically in the landscape amongst the villa-lined streets and the open expanses of the Heath to the south, as intended by the architects. They even sacrificed spend on materials to devote to landscaping, so that, while the buildings weathered badly, there are lots of pleasing vistas of playgrounds and pagodas, built around trees that pre-date the estate.
The estate website has a section devoted to its history, showing many fine photographs from the early days, including a pond which has now gone, and the architects enjoying a chat and a snout. It also features the famous interiors of the houses, with open-plan ground floors built around a distinctive stove and chimney feature.
The estate was built on a site of fine houses heavily damaged by bombs in World War Two. One of these, Roxburgh House, was the birthplace of the suffragette Emily Wilding Davison. Read more about Davison’s history and the fate of the house in this interesting post by Running Past.
No memorial here – she has plaques at Tattenham Corner, Epsom, where she was fatally injured by the King’s racehorse in 1913, and more famously, one sneaked by Tony Benn into the cupboard where she hid in the Houses of Parliament for the census of 1911.
A house that, like many in the area, shows the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Now divided into flats, ‘Heathview’, on Westcombe Park Road, was built in 1883 by John Beale.
Beale was the son of the Greenwich engineer and inventor Joshua Beale, who was known for designing steam engines, and patented the ‘exhauster’ – a device for drawing gas through pipes which was used in the local gas works.
John continued and developed his father’s inventing work. As well as improving the exhauster, he patented a new design of ‘facile’ bicycle which was easier to ride than the penny farthing. Beale built a track in the front garden of Heathview to test his bicycle. You can read lots more about father and son in this account by Greenwich Peninsula History.
While there are many flourishes of Arts and Crafts design in the area, this house is very generous with its features, showing some lovely brick flower detailing on the outer walls.
Geek Notes: Vanbrugh Park is the name given to an unofficial area to the N of Blackheath, E of Greenwich Park and S of Maze Hill and Westcombe Park stations, in SE3. It’s not a ward in its own right, but sits within Blackheath Westcombe Ward in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. It’s walkable in around 30 mins, if you don’t stop to look at things, but better if you do. A flat area, but the approach from Maze Hill /Vanbrugh Hill is fairly steep. Map of area © OpenStreetMap contributors. Photos by me.