Green Spaces of New Cross

Rosanna Cavallo, now a London Parks and Gardens research volunteer after retiring from her gardening business, finds more than meets the eye in the green spaces of New Cross.

Lewisham had been anticipated as 2022’s London Borough of Culture for some time, so it has been several years since the members of the Research Group allotted sites between us to study. I knew the area less well than some of my colleagues, and so was left with three sites in New Cross with which I was not familiar.

On an August day with a blue sky and sparkling sunshine, I embarked on my first site visit to Hatcham Gardens. I was immediately hooked. Nothing – but nothing! – can draw me in quicker than an unusual plant; in this case the Albizia julibrissin f. rosea or pink silk tree, which was in full and glorious bloom. I had never seen it before and loved its rose-pink paintbrush flowers and mid-green leaflets.

The name Hatcham (now New Cross) is recorded as Hacheham in the Domesday Book (1086), and New Cross Gate is named after the New Cross tollgate (1718). Despite Hatcham’s historical credentials, the name has died out except in Hatcham Park Road and a few institutions; Hatcham Gardens, however, is a modern feature. Regrettably, in a heavily built-up area, the greater part of this rare open space is boarded up and scheduled for redevelopment.

Hatcham Gardens (Photo: Rosanna Cavallo)

Historically this site was influenced by George England, a robust character who arrived from Newcastle in 1839 and rented a factory – the Hatcham Iron Works – between Pomeroy and Kender streets. England built around 250 railway locomotives, took out two patents for machinery designs and made castings for the Crystal Palace. His success was such that he rapidly employed over 40 employees and built a substantial family home, Hatcham Lodge – now 56 Kender Street. He retired in 1869, to be succeeded by his son-in-law Robert Fairlie, who had eloped with England’s daughter when she was only 17; records show that England took Fairlie to court for falsely claiming parental consent, but clearly the family rift was mended by the time of England’s retirement!

My second site was Bridgehouse Meadows, which GoParks London describes as ‘a sizeable park contain(ing) extensive meadows, in an area of New Cross that is deficient in accessible wildlife sites’. On my visit, again on a sunny August day, I saw Bridgehouse Meadows at its best. It had clearly been sympathetically landscaped, with a good nod to its name showing in the abundance of wild flowers sown.

The main path is long and snaking, skirting a railway line, with open spaces leading off from it; the result is an oddly-shaped park. What is undeniably in its favour, however, are the hills adding extra interest – a legacy, I presume, of banking from its previous conception as a greyhound and speedway stadium. It pleased me enormously to see again how New Cross’s hilly green spaces at first mask and then suddenly reveal some quite imposing skylines of the city of London.

Bridgehouse Meadows (Photo: Rosanna Cavallo)

Unfortunately, on this day the separate Nature Reserve was locked and inaccessible, but I liked the park and found it to be well used. There really are so few green spaces in the New Cross area, and this ‘lung’ was a much-appreciated break from never-ending residential buildings.

My last site was Fordham Park, which, on the Sunday of my visit, made a great impact on me with its dominant feeling of spaciousness. Having now built up a stronger acquaintance with the area, I recognise that any feeling of wide-open space here is at a premium. Named after Charles Frank Fordham, a gardener and the last Mayor of Deptford, the park opened to the public in 1975 following clearance of tightly-packed urban streets in the 1970s. The eye-catching Moonshot Centre, with its triangular glass entrance picked out in bright blue, takes pride of place at one end of the park; it acts a base for various African and Caribbean communities in the area, and offers numerous activities.

Fordham Park (Photo: Rosanna Cavallo)

Fordham Park is very green, filled with trees and extremely well used. People patronise parks to a greater degree if the space satisfies the needs of varied sections of the community, and this park seems to do this very successfully. I saw many joggers, dog walkers and families; the atmosphere was happy and pleasant, and I enjoyed my couple of hours there. I would be less than honest if I did not mention the problem of anti-social behaviour, but I saw nothing myself except for a friendly and delightful public space, with the visual treat in the background of a great panorama of the city of London.

In conclusion, I may have originally thought I had drawn the short straw with the location of my research sites. How wrong I was! Researching past the obvious unfolds the interest – all human life is there. It is surprising to think that as recently as 150 years ago New Cross was forest; I am very happy to think that research to update and add new green spaces to the London Parks and Gardens Inventory may help protect what remains of them for the future.