Dulwich Village is one of the most picture perfect postcard spots in South East London. With an array of interesting independent shops, upmarket cafes spilling out on the pavements and protected from the main road by wide grass borders (themselves surrounded by white picket fences), visiting here seems very un-London is many respects.
The capital has, over the years, sprawled in all directions, but walking around Dulwich I still heard people talking about meeting for a coffee in “the Village”. In fact, many of the businesses, such as a toy shop, have the word “village” in their name.
Part of the attraction of visiting Dulwich Village – first recorded in AD967 as Dilwihs (meaning ‘dill meadow’) – is that the area is surrounded by greenery. Dulwich Park is one of the most pleasant open spaces in London, but it is by no means the only park to enjoy a walk – the list of parks around here is very respectable. Roads leading off the main drag are lined with charming Georgian houses and even on Dulwich Village street, there are some cosy cottages.
And for me, one of the most important reasons for visiting Dulwich is for its place in British history. England’s first art gallery was opened here, as is a long-established school, boasting a list of famous alumni.
One of the most significant milestones in Dulwich’s history was when Queen Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Edward Alleyn bought the local manorial estate – which stretched from Denmark Hill to Sydenham Hill – for £5,000 in 1613. He had earned much of his wealth through controlling licenses as joint ‘Master of the Royal Game of Bears, Bulls and Mastiffs’.
Alleyn set out to create a charitable foundation, starting by establishing – in 1619 following the awarding of a patent from King James I – a school for poor boys which he called ‘Alleyn’s College of God’s Gift’.
Now known as Dulwich College, the independent school has educated a number of famous ‘Old Alleyians’ over the years including the explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton. It is appropriate that the James Caird, a 23 foot whaler, that he and his companions used for their epic adventure to South Georgia in the Antartic winter of 1916 now rests at the institution.
Another past pupil, PG Wodehouse, who named the school ‘Valley Fields’ wrote of “six years of unbroken bliss” from his time studying there. The manuscripts and letters of the author are held in Dulwich College’s archives, along with a range of other treasures, such as papers belonging to Alleyn and his father-in-law (and business partner) Philip Henslowe providing detailed descriptions of Elizabethan and Stuart theatres (between them they built and expanded significant playhouses, the Rose, Hope and Fortune). And the Financial Times editor Lionel Barber is amongst the more recent famous alumni.
While Dulwich College shifted further away from the village centre in the 19th century (more of which shortly), the neighbouring 17th century white-washed almshouses are retained in their original setting. You can walk right in to the inner courtyard, where there is a fine stone chapel (Christ’s Chapel, built 1616), lawned area with benches and a recently installed statue of Edward Alleyn himself.
The Village expands
Just beyond the village centre you arrive at the gates of the wonderful, expansive Dulwich Park. When the weather is fine, it is heaving with visitors taking strolls around the lake, riding hired bikes along the tarred paths, using the tennis courts or playing a game of football on the open fields. For those feeling a bit lazy, it is also a great place to find a bench and watch the world go by.
Opened in the 1890 by Lord Rosebery, the park was founded by the Metropolitan Board of Works on former farmland and meadows. And some 10 years ago, thanks to a Heritage Lottery grant, it was restored to its original Victorian design.
From the park entrance, a street populated with fine detached and semi-detached houses leads you to the current Dulwich College, the Governors declared upon its opening it to be “worthy of our aspirations and resources”. Built in the 1870s, to the design of Charles Barry Junior (son of the architect of the Houses of Parliament), the red-brick buildings enjoy a sumptuous setting and are surrounded by greenery. When I walked past, youngsters were enjoying a game of football in front of the sports pavilion.
The capital for building the new 19th century school came partly from the building of railways through endowment lands. Land values increased in this period as vastly improved transport links brought a wave of residential development, including the building of numerous villas. Although, any visitor to the area today, will see a considerable amount of greenery has been retained.
Barry was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects for the new Dulwich College design, built in what he described as “North Italian of the Thirteenth Century”. The school’s website provides a fitting description: “With a Palladian structure as his base, Barry was given free rein to indulge his imagination from triangular gables to a roof of finials, turrets and cupolas.” While inside he “combined traditional elegance with the daily needs of a working school” and added:
“Dulwich was the first public school to have a dedicated hall for assemblies with all teaching directed towards the classrooms. There were also three science laboratories and a lecture theatre. The great hall and sweeping staircases add a sense of grandeur in keeping with the academic aspirations of the school.”
England’s first public art gallery
Dulwich is also home to England’s first public art gallery (established in 1811 and opened in 1817, more than 20 years before the National Gallery’s arrival in Trafalgar Square). Dulwich Picture Gallery was founded following the bequest of the Swiss painter, Francis Bourgeois RA who left his collection of old masters “for the inspection of the public”.
Sir John Soane, the famous regency architect, was commissioned to build the pioneering gallery featuring a series of interlinked rooms. He created skylights to naturally illuminate the collection, which today consists of European old master paintings of the old 1600s and 1700s. Rembrandt, Rubens, Gainsborough and Poussin are among those featured.
Bourgeois had originally assembled his collection with his friend, the French collector-dealer Noel Desenfans on the instructions of the King of Poland, Stanislaw II Augustus. But when the country ceased to exist as an independent state and the King was forced to abdicated, leaving the pair with a large number of valuable paintings. Attempts to both persuade the Tsar of Russia to buy the artwork, as well as convince the British to start a national collection, fail.
When Bourgeois died in a riding accident, Desenfans’s widow, Margaret, honoured the former’s wish to put the collection on public display. There was already a gallery in Dulwich College (to which Bourgeois had left £2,000 for improvements to be made after his death), but it was decided to create the new building. Margaret Desenfans gave the school £4,000 towards the new building (it could not afford Sloane’s already reduced £11,270 estimate on its own).
Today, some 26 pieces of artwork (mainly of kings and queens, sibyls and emperors) originally owned by Edward Alleyne and originally housed in the gallery at the old Dulwich College are on display in Dulwich Picture Gallery’s permanent collection. The independent museum also hosts a number of special exhibitions through the year.
And even if you don’t want to look at the paintings there is a cafe set in a separate building in the gallery’s grounds. On a sunny day, it is pleasant to be able to look across the well-kept lawn at Soane’s masterpiece which has been expanded and refurbished on numerous occasions over the years.
Dulwich Village looks to the future
While the Village has plenty of nice cafes and restaurants in its centre, it does not currently have an operating pub. But that will soon change as a Grade II listed, historic pub is getting a makeover, which once the hoardings come down, will also boast a 20-room hotel. As with everything in Dulwich Village you can expect it to be upmarket. But hopefully there will also be an area where you can enjoy a pint of beer, without needing to eat food.
Visiting the village today, one thing that strikes you is that ‘The Dulwich Estate’ isn’t a concept that has been consigned to history. It continues to drive the development – including the pub – of the area today.
There are some 5,000 residential properties across the Estate’s 1,500 acres, most of which are held by individual owners on a freehold basis. But it is estimated that it retains the freehold for some 600 homes, as well as that of commercial buildings, including shops and restaurants. And even where the Estate doesn’t own a property outright, it does still exercise considerable control – through both authorising consent for alterations to be made to properties, as well as charging residents a maintenance fee for the upkeep of common areas.
Income generated from residential and commercial properties, as well as running London’s last remaining tollgates (introduced in 1789), is ploughed into the Estate’s charitable foundation. The fund supports seven defined beneficiaries, including three schools, the chapel and the almshouses. In amongst the historic buildings, trendy restaurants and plush boutiques, Alleyn’s legacy lives on.