Welcome to my home town: How Croydon’s worst bits inspired my lifelong love affair with nature

Soma Ghosh
·7-min read
Croydon offers green spaces beneath the grey image (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Croydon offers green spaces beneath the grey image (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could be a while before we can go anywhere else…

It’s accepted by most snobs – desperate, like me, to cut loose from their birthplace – that Croydon is the most mortifying of home towns. South London’s concrete haemorrhoid, with its humongous flyover slouching towards Mitcham’s crematorium, offers such gifts to the world as BNP skinheads and the Croydon pony-tail “facelift”, a miracle of non-surgical plastic surgery. When not bloodstained by knife fights, Croydon is often portrayed as being as beige and bourgeois as it appeared in the 1970s sitcom Terry and June.

Yet Croydon always dreamed of escaping itself. In Tudor times, its palace was the summer retreat of archbishops. Interestingly, for a town with a complex relationship with migrants, the East India Company’s engineering college was in Addiscombe. Here, imperial vandals trained to “administer” my Indian ancestors’ lands. Funny how troubles return home to roost. And a good thing I was unaware of this irony when I threw mud pies at the BNP lads who’d spittingly demand that I “go home”. My big mouth would have likely attracted more than the usual sticks and stones.

Some 49 skyscrapers were built in the Sixties and Seventies as part of Croydon’s bid to be Britain’s Manhattan. Before I was born, my mother worked at the Home Office in Lunar House, where claustrophobic white panels and windows, designed by Centrepoint architect Richard Seifert, allude to the moon landings. Even the buildings seemingly dreamt of being somewhere else – a sentiment I could wholly sympathise with.

I loved to lie in the grass, watching clouds and contrails. The UK’s first, sparkling-white Art Deco airport was in Croydon, with the world’s first air traffic control tower. Amy Johnson flew from here to Australia in 1930. Flying to Paris on Imperial Airways, you’d be served cocktails from the bar, lobster, foie gras and salad from Surrey St Market.

And, indeed, Croydon’s aspirational bent has continued. But which kid enthuses over a town’s commercial buildings (Nestle, IBM)? Why, in 2020, should I celebrate the £5.2bn makeover of Ruskin Square, or the concierged apartments that forced the closure of the only fun clubs in town, The Black Sheep and The Bad Apple? And when it opened in the 1990s, the Brit School for wannabe pop stars seemed like just another box of post-Thatcherite ambition.

But I certainly got some benefits from my home town: shopping and a love of green spaces. I passed weekends working in Miss Selfridge and drifting around my mother’s retail church, Allders, which closed in 2012. We bought a Kenwood Chef and hooks and eyes to repair sari blouses. “It’s so convenient”, my mother still never tires of telling me, wondering, on Zoom, why I’ve moved to the Welsh Marches (15 miles from the nearest Sainsbury’s).

<p>Space is the place: Lunar House</p>Getty Images

Space is the place: Lunar House

Getty Images

The truth is that, in part, I have my home town to thank for my enthusiasm for rural living. For without the commercialism of Croydon – and without my bullying teachers and those BNP boys, grunting for prey – I wouldn’t have veered off the streets and into the woods. They are easily accessed but too deep, in many spots, for the more nefarious activities of drug dealing or fights. Croydon’s woods date to before 1600. They include Littleheath, Long Lane, Devilsden, Pinewoods, Foxley and Selsdon, to name a few. Bunking, I encountered hazel, beech, oak and nameless plants I later learnt were wood anemones and bilberry. I could sit on a rock for hours, watching for lizards and woodpeckers, while those other stubborn immigrants, the rosy ringed parakeets, squealed overhead.

I could sit on a rock for hours, watching for lizards and woodpeckers, while those other stubborn immigrants, the rosy ringed parakeets, squealed overhead

During the pandemic, the woods offer safe family reunions. I can meet my mother at the Lloyd Park tram stop; she walks here daily, in her hand-knitted face mask. Years ago, when I first brought my Jewish partner on a picnic, a swastika in weedkiller welcomed him. Now, there’s an outdoor gym, in use during lockdown. There are new cycle paths and a zip wire, beloved by our little boy.

Beyond Lloyd Park begin the meadows that extend into Addington Hills, London’s largest area of heathland. We walk among bell heather, gorse, marsh violet. At the viewpoint, on a clear day, we can see my old London home, Parliament Hill. After four hours of compressed, masked train travel, the hush is exhilarating. High above the dying wild grasses, the parakeets dart in green flames, heading northwest. Maybe they’re joining the 6,000-strong colony in Mitcham Common, next to the cemetery. Or maybe they’ll roost here for good.

Here’s how to explore Croydon’s best bits for yourself.

England is under national lockdown from 5 November until 2 December. During that time all non-essential travel, both domestic and international, is banned, while all non-essential shops will have to close. Pubs, cafes and restaurants will also be shut except for takeaway food. For more details on the rules around travel, see our lockdown guide.

Go rockery rambling in Coombe Wood

Is there anything more Croydonian than ornamental concrete?

This sylvan idyll of Victorian eccentricity in Combe Wood is a pioneering example of artificial Pulhamite, sculpted during the empire craze for rockeries. Here, William Harvey, who proved the circulation of blood, meditated in caves he built. Serpentine paths lead past carp ponds, roses and a winter garden into the woods. On Saturdays, a meditation group practises Shinrin Yoku, Japanese “forest bathing”. The summerhouse in which you can shelter from the rain once rotated to follow the sun.

Fish and chips

McDermott’s in Forestdale, the fish and chip shop of my childhood, has got fancier since winning awards over the years and starting to offer gluten-free batter. But no matter the hype, the fish is still as firm and melty – and the staff as welcoming – as ever. When the diner’s open, you pay 55p for extra salad but get a free top-up of chips. That’s Croydon hospitality for you.

Flights of imagination

Croydon’s Art Deco airport building and Grade II control tower are preserved in the visitor centre and micro-museum. In the booking hall, imagine the rush of tweed suits and fox furs. Artefacts from the Battle of Britain, the wicker chair from a bi-plane and Amy Johnson’s luggage, rescued from her fatal crash, remind us of the power of human endeavour. We will rise again. Donations of £6 per adult are suggested (under 16s go free).

Croydon’s Art Deco airportWikimedia/YoavR
Croydon’s Art Deco airportWikimedia/YoavR

Get your groove

In the Noughties, for a brief time, music seemed to be happening again. The diversity of Croydon glittered, whether it was Gothic fetish nights at Black Sheep bar which, along with record shop Big Apple, was a birthplace of dubstep and grime, or nights at the legendary jazz pub, The Lord Napier. But then gentrification sped up and, as local jazz innovator Arun Ghosh says, “Everything stopped!”

In recent years, music shop Reggaemasters moved from North End to Frith Road. You can buy reggae, roots, dub and dancehall vinyl imports. But most precious is the vibe; try to catch their in-store DJ sessions.

Real art for real people

Turf Projects, in my mother’s old shopping mecca, Whitgift centre, is an artist-run collective. It showcases cross-disciplinary work, from paintings and performance art to music and activism. It’s temporarily closed but has gone online during lockdown and is open during the pandemic.

<p>Selsdon Woods, my schoolgirl refuge</p>Marathon

Selsdon Woods, my schoolgirl refuge

Marathon

Birds and bluebells

Come next April, waves of bluebells will undulate over the 137 acres of Selsdon Woods, as they did when I hid there as a schoolgirl. A bird sanctuary with ancient trees: it’s bliss.

Bed down

Westciti Aparthotel in Addiscombe is a stylish choice for local living with contemporary bedrooms; from £56, room only. But I prefer Premier Inn on Coombe Road for its hidden woodland setting and quick access to Coombe Park, Lloyd Park and the Addington Hills. Family rooms start at £51, room only.

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