Standing on the upper lawned terrace of The Rookery and looking to the ornamental gardens below, you have the feeling of being in the grounds of a great English country house.
Wide steps lead down to a series of themed areas, with secluded spots where you can read a book under the shade of a tree, where there’s a rockery to explore and a wishing well to peer down. The colourful flora is encapsulating as are the great Cedar of Lebanon trees, which were typical of private estates in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The only thing that’s missing at The Rookery, it seems, is the country house itself. So what is going on here?
Hidden away in a quiet corner of Streatham Common, The Rookery was the name given to a house that stood – until 1912 – in what is now a grassy spot at the top of the gardens. Built around 1786, the large property was set in some three acres of private gardens and parkland.
To understand why the house had been built here in the first place, we need to turn back to the 17th century when mineral springs were found that were believed to have medicinal and healing properties. That discovery paved the way for Streatham being established as a celebrated and fashionable spa town.
Visitors came from far and wide to ‘take the waters’ at Streatham Spa and it has been claimed that at the height of its popularity coaches would queue for a mile along Streatham High Road for the Wells. Later on, the opening of a railway station in 1856 made it a comfortable from London.
An advert for the Spa from 1878 held by the British Library and which can be viewed in full on its website sets out the attraction:
MINERAL WELLS or STREATHAM SPA
5 miles from London; on the Croydon Road
At the extreme end of Leigham Lane,
Opposite the “White Lion” Tavern, Streatham, S.W.
This celebrated MINERAL WATER was first discovered in the year 1659. It rises at a temperature of 52° Fahrenheit. When recently pumped up, it has a slight odour of Sulphur, is sparkling and bright, and, although it contains much Sulphate of Magnesia, is not unpleasant to the taste; on the contrary, it leaves behind a freshness grateful to the palate. It is strongly impregnated with Iron, passing in its course through several strata of that metal.
This CHALYBEATE WATER has been celebrated for upwards of two Centuries, for its great efficacy in renovating the impaired functions of Life, and is strongly recommended by the Faculty in all obstinate Diseases of the Skin and Lymphatic Glands, especially in that afflicting disease called Scrofula… It is a most valuable remedy for persons labouring under Nervous Debility.
SOLD IN BOTTLES AT THE WELL AT SIXPENCE PER GALLON.
Good Accommodation for parties to drink the Water on the Premises. Admission, 1d.
The Rookery was a guest house adjoining the Wells and provided accommodation for those coming to drink the water. Queen Victoria is said to have stayed there.
But after being appreciated for many years, Streatham Spa went out of fashion and in 1912 The Rookery was under threat from developers.
Local resident Stenton Covington led a campaign to save and buy the site. The house itself was demolished and new gardens opened to the public the following year (1913). It was described by the Lambeth Press:
“Following the opening of the Rookery, it became fashionable to stroll in the gardens on a Sunday afternoon. Ladies would parade here in their fine clothes and bonnets and gentlemen would wear smart suits and either straw boaters or bowler hats”.
I dropped in on The Rookery as it was on the Capital Ring walking route I’m following around the outskirts of London.
On this specific leg, I’d walked from Crystal Palace, passing along a number of residential streets and through parks, including Norwood Grove. This contains a Grade II listed mansion of the same name which built in the 1840s by Arthur Anderson, joint founder of P&O, and now owned by Croydon Council.
Heading along a wide track to Streatham Common, I almost missed The Rookery, which is accessed through a narrow gate in a break in the high stone wall.
Inside, I found a plan from 1912 etched on a panel a reproduction of showing all the key buildings from when this was a house and gardens. This included reference to a Stable Yard, Coach House, Glass House, Ice House and Conservatory.
The redevelopment in 1912 and 1913 transformed the site, with an Old English Garden laid out in the former walled kitchen garden which included an ornamental pond with a fountain, paved pathways and pergolas filled with roses. And the wishing well that survives stands on the original site of one of the three famed mineral springs (the others have disappeared).
In the next section is the so-called White Garden, which was created as part of the new public park and remains the only one of its kind in London. It was extensively renovated by volunteers during the gardens centenary in 2013 and today looks stunning. The Westminster Gazette described it shortly after it opened:
“Whoever had the inspiration to plan part of the ground solely for white flowers must have been blessed with the simplicity of genius. The Garden is unique and offers a charming prospect to the eye”.
I then wondered round to the Rock Garden which was built where the stables had been. Here, water cascades down one side of the entire gardens.
Nearby, a group of people were hard at work clearing beds as part of the Streatham Common Community Garden project. It’s fantastic that fresh produce is being grown in Streatham, just as it would have been when The Rookery house was still standing.
After I’d finished exploring The Rookery, I carried on my walk across Streatham Common and onto the shabby High Road – apparently the longest high street in Europe. It is just one of many examples of tatty shopping parades in London where only a few minutes away are pleasant streets with housing stock in mostly good condition.
From there my walk took me past Thames Water’s Streatham Pumping Station – an ornate mosque-looking building in a gated compound and dating from 1888 – onto Tooting Bec Lido and through Balham.
I then arrived in Wandsworth and passed the grubby high walls of Wandsworth Prison. Built in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction, it has held famous prisonners over the years, including Oscar Wilde and Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber.
But one of the highlights of the day was walking across Wandsworth Common. It had a been a little cloudy earlier in the day, yet by the time I arrived there the weather had improved and groups were enjoying picnics and family games of cricket on the mass expanse of greenery.
It really is a wonderful corner of London, especially down by the ponds, where the daffodils were out and ducks glided around in the calm waters. I caught the last glimmer of the sunshine and complete my walking through the day at Wimbledon Park station. I’d explore the park itself properly on the next leg of my walk.
My trip along the Capital Ring continues next Thursday on Pastinthepresent.net when I walk from Wimbledon Park to Richmond Bridge. If you have missed any installments from my trek, you can read all the articles that have been published so far here.