By Candy Blackham
LPG volunteer Candy Blackham, whose book Green Lewisham was published in July 2022, gives a taste of the history and significance both personal and societal – of the green spaces on her doorstep.
When COVID-19 arrived in the spring of 2020, I felt imprisoned. The air was heavy with fear and my spirits sank ever lower, until the day I realised that my prison door had always stood open. Despite restrictions on socialising, I could still walk in the parks. I ventured out cautiously, my health improved, and my spirits rose.
I began to appreciate the complex relationships in my surroundings, and to wonder about lessons for urban living in Lewisham and elsewhere. I found ongoing patterns of concern for others, ongoing needs in our society, and a deep appreciation of nature and natural open spaces and the benefits they bring to people. I was surprised at how this understanding had been applied to urban developments in the past, and how little knowledge is new.
I also gained hours of enjoyment and peace at a very difficult time; pain from a lower back injury is alleviated by walking, and I am curious about new places and new ideas. I wanted to share that enjoyment – so, I decided to write a book. I consulted the London Parks & Gardens Inventory and started amassing a reference library. Where would we have been without obliging delivery people and postmen?
Lewisham was in the Kent countryside less than two centuries ago. London’s expansion, particularly from the mid-19th century onwards, was driven by an increasing population and their housing needs, and a number of factors conspired against areas such as Lewisham: changes due to industrialisation, the creation of new roads and new railway networks, changing political concerns, changes in land ownership, and new social patterns and social needs, particularly after the First World War.
So why are there any green spaces left in Lewisham? Some philanthropic landowners sold land below market value or donated land. Others lobbied for green spaces to be preserved from housing developments. Today, individuals still make a difference: local Lewisham residents convert derelict land into community gardens; there are thirty-six allotments, all with long waiting lists; beekeepers abound. The Quaggy Waterways Action Group have changed the management of the River Quaggy through its urban environment, enhancing parks and benefiting wildlife.
Caring for parks and nature reserves is an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Lewisham Council and management company Glendale do a tremendous job, greatly helped by park Friends groups. Perhaps this relationship between professional and amateur gardeners has the potential for development, with increased opportunities for practical learning and training in horticulture? The restrictions imposed during the pandemic in 2020 and 2021 reminded people of the importance of green spaces, particularly for those living in urban areas; volunteering for community gardens, parks and nature reserves increased and parks were well used. People felt a need to be closer to living plants, birds and the wildlife in the city, and wanted to eat food they had grown.
This trend takes us back 100 years, to an earlier time of positive connection between population growth and green space preservation. Development after the First World War often came in the form of new housing estates built on farmland. The Addison Act of 1919 had addressed the appalling living conditions in inner London, and London County Council, together with local councils, took inspiration for their new developments from Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept of 1898. This proposed tree-lined roads, recreation grounds, communal green spaces, and other community facilities in the new estates. Contemporary housing developers have been less generous than their predecessors, creating ‘pocket parks’ or green ‘architecture’ rather than offering the recreation grounds or public parks of the past. Is this good enough?
Surely the lesson of the past is that we live in a community, and it is for us individually and as a community to ensure our green spaces continue green and go on enhancing our living conditions. In the words of John Claudius Loudon in 1829: “It is much to be regretted, we think, that in the numerous enclosure acts which have been passed during the last fifty years, provision was not made for a public green, playground, or garden, for every village in the parishes in which such enclosures took place.”
Natural spaces are too easily set aside in favour of profit; if only planners would pay heed to those who watched with sadness as their countryside disappeared under London’s urban growth.