South East London

Visiting modernity in Croydon – on tour in a ‘crap town’ with the National Trust

“It’s a world away from the South Downs or the Lake District but Croydon could be set to become a new tourist hotspot thanks to the National Trust,” said the Evening Standard in a recent article. This is perhaps stating the obvious – national parks with green open space and rural villages have a completely different appeal to a populated outer London borough lined with Brutalist concrete structures.

But as someone who regularly appreciates exploring the history of urban areas, I was quick to sign up to one the Trust’s new tours of Croydon. Given that the organisation is probably best known for preserving grand stately homes, its initiative called Edge City providing tours of modernist architecture have caught the attention of national press. Most articles provided a reminder of Croydon’s ‘crap town’ status and the fact that it is frequently included in lists charting the worst places to live in the country.

Some – such as former Victoria and Albert Museum director Sir Roy Strong – have gone as far as saying that putting the tours on “is yet another indication that the Trust is in an identity crisis”. Rather than being welcomed as an attempt to broaden the organisation’s appeal, he seemed to suggest in his article in the Times earlier this month that resources would be better spent elsewhere and noted, for example, than many rural churches were in urgent need of repair (quite how much he thinks it costs to put on volunteer-led tours which visitors pay for is another matter).

“This sudden desire by the Trust to apotheosise Croydon is a clue to the greater canker within,” Sir Roy wrote in his Times piece. “Why this lurch into tours of post-war urban redevelopment of a kind that throughout the country was so disastrous — gutting historic towns and cities, forcing people into tower blocks in the interests of social engineering, sacrificing everything to the motor car and the shopping mall? Everywhere the effort has been to reverse what was done in wrecking our historic urban heritage.”

In my view however, London’s so-called third city – “a mini-Manhattan of offices” – is a place that deserves to be explored. Between the late 1950s and 1971, some 40,000 new workers were employed Croydon and 40 office blocks were built. The expansion of this outer London borough continues to this day. And there is a real emphasis today on creating new homes in Croydon city centre so that it becomes more than just a place to work – and somewhere that is busy all day long.

We had two volunteer guides for our hour and a half tour around Croydon – one admitted at the start that he hadn’t really been to the town before the previous Thursday (“But I have read quite a bit”), while the other worked here 25 years ago. Although they had been parachuted into southeast London by the Trust, they did manage to point out many infamous structures that we could see on the skyline from our first stop – the top floor of AMP House, which is now serviced offices – and they also provided a (brief) overview of its recent political history.

Just a couple of minutes walk from East Croydon station, we were perfectly positioned to see the new pop-up Boxpark leisure venue taking shape in the foreground (due to open in September) and also the Ruskin Square development (a mixed scheme offices and homes) being built next to. But we also could see examples of the modernist Croydon that has sprung up in the aftermath of the Second World War that today defines the landscape.

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View from AMP House – looking onto Boxpark development, East Croydon station and No. 1 Croydon

The motorcar was at the very heart of the plans for modern Croydon and so an efficient network of dual carriageways, underpasses, dual carriageways and an unprecedented seven multi-storey car parks were installed in the new city centre. Many of the post-war buildings – like the 10-storey, glass-faced Corinthian House in Lansdowne Road – were raised above the ground, allowing for vehicle access and parking on the lower levels. In an age where more people take public transport these towers look very dated in this respect, but I think they should be marvelled and recognised for how forward-thinking they were when built.

It was the short-lived government policy of decentralisation of offices in a bid to ease congestion in central London post 1956 which gave the development of Croydon a considerable boost. Land which Croydon Corporation had been accruing over a number of years was leased to private companies and construction began in earnest. One of the first to be built was Norfolk House (completed in 1959) with its distinctive cladding, originally used by the YMCA, but now a Travelodge budget hotel.

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Former YMCA building, now a Travelodge

“Wherever you go in the centre of Croydon there is a new building taking place: cranes, skeletons of steel, rising office blocks, wreathed in mists of scaffolding, hammering on metal, the hum of cement mixers everywhere,” wrote Audrey Powell in the Observer in 1961. “The residents go about their affairs accepting the fact that their town is changing before their eyes. Modern towering offices and small shops gleaming with plate glass are taking the place of old landmarks….”

One of my favourite buildings in Croydon is No. 1 Croydon, which you see if you look left after emerging from East Croydon train station. Standing 270 feet tall and with 23 octagonal storeys, it was until recently the town’s tallest. Often referred to as the “Thrupenny Bit” or “50p Building,” the white-washed paint work wonderfully absorbs the light on a sunny day and was designed by Richard Seifert, who was also the architect for Centre Point at the foot of Tottenham Court Road.

We also briefly stepped inside the Whitgift Centre on the tour. Today, it seems a pretty dated shopping centres when compared to modern malls like Westfield in Stratford, but when it opened it was way ahead of its time – complexes on this scale were almost unheard of. It was built between 1965 and 1970 (then enclosed and re-clad in the 1980s) on an 11-acre site vacated by the Trinity School of John Whitgift, which moved out away from the centre of Croydon. The Allder’s branch here (which has sadly now gone) was the third largest department store after Harrods and Selfridges.

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Whitgift Centre

But by the 1970s Croydon’s free reign over its building was over. The Architect reported in 1971 said that looking closely at the town “reveals chaos – Croydon has the quantity but little quality”. And in 1974 the new Labour administration at the Greater London Council put a halt to the construction of new offices. Although the 1980s saw planning applications approved again, in the face of glitzy modern buildings in places like Canary Wharf, it was looking pretty dated as a commercial district.

Croydon arts

Our final stop on the tour was the Fairfield Halls arts complex. Just a few hours before my visit it had closed to the public ahead of a planned refurbishment (which didn’t yet have planning permission and still required proper survey work to take place). Given that there are essentially three venues in one here, some had campaigned for the work to be done in phases and so some areas could be kept open. But to no avail – the council decided that there would be a complete shut down and it will be at least two years before any performances are put on at the Fairfield complex (some believe it will be much longer).

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Fairfield Halls

We were greeted by the venue’s enthusiastic operations manager (who has now transferred over to work for the engineering company that will work on the project). He gave us an introductory talk – explaining how it was built on what was originally land used for a raucous fair (hence the name) and later used as railway sidings for Croydon’s first station which once stood across the road – before taking us on a behind the scenes tour of the venue.

Opened it 1962, the building was designed by Robert Atkinson and Partners and was clearly inspired by the earlier Royal Festival Hall, which dominates the South Bank and is of the Scandinavian-inspired Modernistic style. Although the architects were different, the acoustics engineer at both was the same. The errors made on the South Bank were taken into account when planning the main 2,000-seat concert hall at Fairfield and it is widely recognised as one of the best in the country in this respect. It is adjoined by the smaller Ashcroft Theatre (named after Croydon-born Dame Peggy Ashcroft) and Arnhem Gallery (named after Croydon’s twin town in Holland), the latter largely used for functions in recent years rather than displaying paintings (some oil works melted at a very early exhibition when light seeped through the windows skylights, so it has found other uses).

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Concert hall at Fairfield Halls

Walking around the closed venue it felt a bit sad given that rubbish was strewn over the floor, rows of seats had been removed and chandeliers were winched down from the ceiling. After years of putting on acts ranging from the Beatles and the Who to London Symphony Orchestra and some of the country’s top comedians, it will be quiet for some time. We were able to walk over the stages and performing platforms, as well as stepping into the Royal box (complete with adjoining toilet featuring 1960s textured wallpaper, with a distinctive smell that our guide apologised for in advance – there was a recent flood and it had to remain locked at all times for security reasons).

The venue clearly looks dated and, until survey works are undertaken, it is not known whether asbestos is present. The performing areas are also very cramped, so some big shows haven’t been able to visit because the sets are too big. Once the refurbishment is finished, it will apparently be able to offer a lot more. And the neighbouring College Green gardens – clearly a good idea at the time, but left to wrack and ruin in recent years – are also being brought up to date.

Remembering the past, inspiring the future

Having spent an hour and a half exploring 20th and 21st century Croydon, it would be easy to forget that there is a much longer history here. After our tour had finished we retreated to a sunny pub garden – with the modern town on the skyline – at what was built as a coaching inn. It’s a reminder that people have been coming to and passing through these parts for many years.
Croydon was mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 and grew as a market town in the years that followed – it was particularly known for charcoal production, leather tanning and brewing. It was described by Daniel Defoe in 1724 as “full of citizens from London”. And in 1889 it became a county borough, with a degree of autonomy.

But it was the arrival of the first railway in 1839 (connecting it with central London) that was instrumental on putting Croydon on the map. And other lines followed in 1841 (to Brighton) and 1847 (to Epsom). This influenced suburban development, as the London Society Magazine noted in 1862: “Handsome villas sprung up on every side tenanted by City men whose portly person crowed the trains”. And as I’ve written previously, the outskirts of Croydon was home to London’s main airport until the Second World War (before it finally closed in 1959).

National Trust is right to showcase and celebrate Croydon through its Edge City initiative. And while the execution of the guided walks could be better (by working with more people who live and work in the town perhaps) the tours are great conversation starters. Perhaps it will encourage more people to visit the town and realise that it is not such as “crap” place after all. After many years of neglect, it seems there is the will by a diverse range of organisations to make Croydon an attractive place to live and work.

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Sign outside Fairfield Halls

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Colourful safety at the Ashcroft Theatre – telling the story of Croydon’s theatrical past

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Arnhem Gallery at Fairfield Halls

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