Promising signs of the future for Croydon’s historic Old Town

CROYDON COMMENTARY: With more than £17million to spend, the council is rolling out plans to spruce up the neglected corner of the Old Town around Croydon Minster. LEWIS WHITE, pictured left, a retired landscape architect, took a Sunday afternoon stroll to see what all the fuss is about

The council’s guided heritage walk on Sunday was held to complement the exhibition being staged across the road from the Minster to show the plans that they have for the area, which are part-paid for by the Mayor of London’s “liveable neighbourhoods” fund.

The Minster’s 16th Century arch entrance is a scheduled monument

In spite of the somewhat limited time, the exhibition was well worth attending, allowing a view of the detailed drawings for the proposed improvements, and to talk with the council landscape and urban designers and conservation officer.

The walk was well-supported by the public, including people who live nearby in Old Town. The walk took in the church forecourt and the war memorial area, where the Conservation Officer pointed out the fantastical waterspout gargoyles and weird faces (including some scary devil-like creatures) on the south side of the Minster. The Minster itself, once the tallest church in Surrey – probably eclipsed now by Guildford Cathedral, and for more than 50 years no longer in Surrey – is a beautiful Medieval building of knapped flint and cream coloured stonework, rebuilt in large part after a catastrophic fire in the 19th Century.

The key proposal for the forecourt is to enlarge and repave it, to become a more fitting civic piazza, infilling and landscaping the ramp zone to the underpass which currently cuts into the space.

The council’s Minster Heritage Walk is less than one mile, but takes in six listed buildings or scheduled monuments

A slight reduction in height of the roadside wall alongside the Minster will open up views for passers-by on Roman Way. Clearly, there will need to be a balance struck between creating visual access and keeping enough wall to keep down traffic noise and vehicle exhaust emissions, which will impact on the new piazza.

A similar reduction in height of the flint walls on the south side of the piazza will open up pleasant views over the adjacent green, part of which is proposed as a new children’s play area, an idea clearly supported by a local mum who said that there are plenty of children living in Old Town who will enjoy having a play area on their doorstep.

This open space to the south of the Minster is clearly a place currently much-used by street drinkers, whose cans were strewn around the grass. It is very clear that the redesign of the open space and the new play area will have to take this issue very seriously, not just in opening up the area to allow views and sunlight in, but to be followed up by improved maintenance.

Another Grade I-listed building, parts of Old Palace date back to the 12th Century. Lessons are now taught in a room where Elizabeth I once stayed

I was left wondering if the Minster and a social enterprise or charity could work together in this area to create something like the community gardens in Bankside area, around Southwark Cathedral near London Bridge Station, where homeless and ex-homeless people do a great job of gardening some very similar open spaces, to the huge benefit of residents, office workers and tourists.

The guided walk moved on round the “Minster and Old Palace block” , pausing at points of architectural and heritage interest. Glimpsing into the courtyards of Old Palace, we learned something of the history of this Tudor archbishops’ home, which was originally founded next to the unpolluted head springs of the River Wandle.

This was centuries before this area of market gardens became used for noxious industries like leather tanning and bleaching in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and the river became  filled with ordure and effluent, after which the Archbishops upped-sticks to their new palace on the dry and healthy slopes above Addington Village.

A number of volunteers from the Friends of Old Palace were on the walk, and mentioned that there will be 10 open days staged this year, in April, May, October and November, when the 1,000-year-old Palace will be open for guided tours top the public. Worth checking out their website for more info.

The green outside Croydon Minster often displays evidence of street drinkers

The Minster heritage walk leaflet, as produced for the occasion, offers a route of barely one mile, but which includes at least six listed buildings or scheduled monuments.

The last stop on the walk was the medley of old buildings between Reeves Corner and the Minster, including the Reeves furniture buildings and Ramsey Court almshouses. Sadly, now missing the architecturally “quirky” old “Reeves island site” building, which burned down in the riots in 2011, but nonetheless still fascinating and attractive.

Let’s hope that these gems can not only be conserved, but that their potential for fitting new uses can be realised.

The urban design for the Minster frontages and open spaces to both north and south sides will clearly create a substantial improvement in the landscape setting of the beautiful Minster church. I really hope that the project successfully manages to stop current problems of anti-social behaviour by opening up views and shining some light into these rather gloomy open spaces. I hope that they council present a number of play area design options for the play area to the local parents, as they are the people who know what play features really interest their children.

The council officers I met were genuinely responsive and keen to engage with the public, which bodes well for a good result. I look forward to seeing how the scheme design is refined in the light of public consultation, and see the final results on the ground in a year or so’s time.

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