Feeling brave? The toilets in the woods on Clapham Common are up for rent, to entrepreneurs with ideas.

They’ve been boarded up for as long as most of us can remember. At one stage someone stole part of the roof. The whole building leans just slightly. And they narrowly escaped complete demolition over a decade ago. But somehow, the long-closed public toilets on Clapham Common Westside kept standing.

And flushed with their success at re-letting the Skate Park cafe (which as we reported last week, is set to have a great deal of money spent on upgrading it to become a new outdoor-focussed branch of Megan’s) and the imminent conversion of the central La Baita cafe to a new branch of Pear Tree Cafe (which we’ll write more on in the near future), Lambeth is now attempting perhaps the bravest leasing deal of all: seeing if anyone wants to take on the forest toilets!

Let’s be frank: I don’t think that Sanderson Weatherall, the estate agents who are advertising this property, will exactly be seeing queues round the block. It’s right next to the busy A205, it’s adjacent to a whole load of slightly scruffy and distinctly muddy changing rooms, it comes in at a pretty light 500 square feet, and the building needs a lot of work to get it back in to a usable condition. And as anyone who has been house hunting will know, it’s always a bit of an ominous sign when the estate agents’ listing contains no interior photos; and when you get there and there are ‘Warning: dangerous structure’ signs scattered around the building your fears tend to be confirmed somewhat.

But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a great deal of potential, and the listing notes that “creative ideas are welcomed to make best use of this space”. The number of people walking past here on a typical weekend is vast, and it’s right next to one of the wealthiest and densest residential catchment areas in London. The unit will definitely be cheaper to let than the central cafe or the Basketball courts cafe (which both go for about £25,000 a year) – though the potential here is so uncertain that no rent is even listed, its a case of getting in touch to discuss. There’s a surprisingly large amount of enclosed space around the building, if you prune back the rampant vegetation that has engulfed the building, which could become an enclosed terrace area. It’s actually a pretty elegant building – much more so than the Skate Park cafe; with fine brickwork and it even has a (presumably long-boarded-over) fireplace. And this part of the common doesn’t have any other Cafes in the immediate vicinity. You could go further and go for something like Stein’s outdoor sausage restaurant in Richmond, or even echo what Megan’s are doing on a smaller scale. It could maybe also work as a takeaway, a small gym, or even an artists’ studio. Being right next to the A205, most uses of the building are hardly likely to disturb the neighbours. The one thing it won’t be becoming is new public toilets – as the building doesn’t really meet any modern accessibility or security standards.

Despite being in Wandsworth, the building is being leased by Lambeth, who manage the whole of the Common; They’re offering a ten year lease, with a potentially lengthy rent free period at first in exchange for the new tenant getting the building back in to a usable condition. The lease also includes an unusual condition that “The premises must be accessible to the general public providing services or activities of a recreational, social or educational character benefiting the Park. This is in order to comply with Parks and Open Spaces Act 1967“. Similarly to the plans for the Skate park cafe, the premises can probably be “extended” over the garden area, provided the extensions are ‘temporary which means gazebos, blinds, pergolas, shipping containers – but no permanent extensions. This is all to comply with the very strict rules on what buildings and activities are allowed on Common land. A cafe is, generally speaking, allowable and is likely to be the most plausible use – but Lambeth are happy for potential tenants to think widely and imaginatively about what they may be able to do with the building.

So – are you feeling brave? If you want an unusual commercial project, or know someone who might, get in touch with Sanderson Weatherall (the listing, which went up a couple of weeks ago, is here). We’re glad to see that this building is, after several decades of disuse, finally ‘on the market’ – it has been decaying for years and with a bit of imagination and investment it could be an asset to the Common rather than an eyesore. Bringing it back in to use would tidy up this rather scruffy entrance to the Common, and if the new tenants replace the sadly lost but ever-popular ice cream counter at La Baita, so much the better.

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Megan’s has big plans for the Clapham Common skate park cafe

A few weeks ago we reported that the gradually-deteriorating former Recovery Kitchen next door to the basketball courts had gone under offer for around £25,000 a year. And now we know that it’s being taken over by local restaurateur Megan’s, who already run a loosely Mediterranean themed cafe on the Pavement in Clapham Old Town and another by Battersea Power Station – and who have some frankly pretty ambitious plans for the site.

Previous tenant at the site Recovery Kitchen struggled, as have many of its predecessors – because this is fundamentally a tough spot to trade. Running a park cafe at those rent levels really isn’t a walk in the park, with limited evening trade, rather basic kitchen facilities, and a trade that’s rather sensitive to the weather. But above all it’s a question of space: by the time you try to fit a kitchen and toilets in the rather small building, there’s no room left for seating.

Which is why Megan’s are proposing to use the building itself only as a kitchen – with all of the seating, as well as the bathroom facilities, outside. Here’s the floorplan – the grey is the existing building, the orange is a ‘temporary’ 25-foot shipping container structure that will house toilets, and everything else is lots and lots of seating – with standard seating more or less covering the current boarded area, a more informal gazebo area where the current gravel car park is, what may be an especially popular area of seating up on the roof of the shipping container overlooking the skate park and the Common, and even a narrow strip of seating behind the current building.

It’ll be called The Terrace by Megan’s, and architect’s drawings suggest it’ll be advertising Coffee, Brunch, Prosecco and Pide Pizza. As you’d expect from Megan’s (whose other venues are always well presented), the whole building will have a major makeover, becoming their signature blue (albeit retaining some of the current wood boarding installed when it became Recovery Kitchen) and having a very substantial decorational upgrade across the board.

Obviously a major challenge of an entirely-outdoor restaurant is the weather, which is why Megan’s propose to build a retractable roof structure over the whole area, similar to the one pictured right. Both this and the toilets are ‘temporary’ structures, because the rules around building new permanent buildings on common land are extremely complex (it’s not impossible, but it’s very hard). In many ways this is a restaurant for modern times – open air in the summer, and well-aired in the winter – and in line with the pavement seating extensions we’ve been seeing of many of the pavement restaurants along Lavender Hill.

This is a bold plan and if it goes ahead, will be the biggest investment this building has seen for several decades. It may also be a controversial one: any commercial development on the Common attracts opposition, and this is probably pushing the bounds of what can reasonably be fitted on to this relatively small site. But it does appear to have the general scale and ‘critical mass’ to actually be viable – and experience at Megan’s other restaurants suggests it will be popular, and finally stop the series of business failures at this location. The overall setup is vaguely reminiscent of Stein’s riverside sausage restaurant in Richmond. At the moment the site is a messy eyesore between a road junction, a skate park and a basketball court, so there aren’t many neighbours to disrupt, and the plans will certainly see the general public making more and better use of this particular bit of the Common than they do currently – our instinct is that this is a positive development for the site. The planning application is still open – if you want to comment in support or against these plans, or just make a general observation., search for application 21/00024/FUL at the Lambeth planning site.

We’ll also be reporting in the near future on rival cafe La Baita – which has recently closed following the retirement of the owner. We have heard it is set to reopen as a second branch of the pear Tree Cafe in Battersea Park.

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The Milkman still delivers to Lavender Hill

It’s a long-lost sound many of us remember from our childhood – but it’s not gone away. If you’re awake in the early hours in Lavender Hill, you may hear the familiar sound of an electric milk float, and the clink of bottles.

Because milk deliveries are still running – even in inner London! Milk & More employ 1,100 milkmen and women who deliver more than a hundred million pints of milk each year, and still in the familiar returnable glass bottles. For many years they were run as Dairy Crest, but are part of dairy firm Müller (who are maybe more famous for making dairy yoghurts such as Fruit Corners & MüllerRice), though three quarters of the actual deliveries are by smaller franchisee businesses working under the Milk & More national brand. Deliveries to Lavender Hill are on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and come from Gap Road, between Earlsfield and Wimbledon.

We’re not usually too keen on delivery services – as a website that makes a point of talking about local shops! But we’re happy to make an exception for milk deliveries, give they’ve been around for decades, that they barely compete with local shops, and that with electric deliveries & minimal packaging waste are an environmentally friendly option. The service has evolved a bit over the years, branching out to a much wider range of milks and juices now, including oat, goat, soya, almond and the like, as well as a complete set of organic options, and a small range of bread products.

And most of the milk is still delivered with fully electric milk floats. This approach goes right back to the 1940s, which – as new cars increasingly move to being electrically powered – means milk delivery was way ahead of its time… No-one is quite sure why milk floats were electric – possible reasons include their being able to run very quietly (an advantage for a service that was delivering to quiet residential streets in the early hours, when most windows were single glazed), and that electric vehicles were much cheaper to run than petrol or diesel vans given they were stopping and starting hundreds of times on each round. There has lately been a slight move towards diesel vehicles, especially on long rural milk rounds – but we suspect it won’t last.

Lockdowns and a move towards more occasional shopping trips to allow for social distancing has been good for milk delivery services – and apparently led to a surge in online customers, with Milk & More gaining twelve thousand new customers in the last year. The core range of milk costs about 80p a pint delivered, with organic milks more like 95p and the more exotic options such as Kefir and creams costing more. Bottled fresh juices are about £1.35 a pint. So if you happen to be up in the middle of the night, and hear what sounds like a milk float, it probably is one! And to find out more about the service (which includes details of our local milkman, Dave Cousins) see Milk&More’s website.

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Lavender Hill retail roundup – February 2021

It’s been a tough few months for our traders, with the always-difficult start of the year combining with yet another lockdown – but Lavender Hill has held up better than most. One of the emerging themes of lockdowns is that while national chains just close, smaller & independent businesses get imaginative and find ways to carry on. And Lavender Hill’s residents – many stuck at home all day – have rallied to support local traders.

We’ve also seen a good few new businesses starting – which is encouraging and reflects strong entrepreneurialism even in the most tricky circumstances. More than ever, this is the time more than ever to be trying out our newest arrivals, so here’s the rundown of the new and imminent changes on and near Lavender Hill. If this is the first time you’ve read one of these, do also have a look at our previous article, and the one before it, which picked out many more new arrivals. It’s also worth a look at the Clapham Junction BID who are now tracking opening hours and takeaway/delivery options for businesses towards the western end of Lavender Hill in a more comprehensive manner than we ever could!

At the eastern end, Sugarcane London – who opened a Caribbean restaurant next to Wandsworth Road railway station a few months ago – is opening up their second branch, in what used to be Signtair signmakers at 50 Lavender Hill. The existing restaurant is a proper independent business and very clearly a passionate project, with strong reviews – they’re not quite there yet on the fitout but this will certainly be worth a try when it opens.

Signtair haven’t gone far – moving across the road to larger premises at the long-empty former butchers’ next to the Coop (which we’ve often reported on!). At the time of our photo they were still working on the premises, which has been empty for longer than any other unit on the street – it’s really good to finally see it back in use, and also to see that the classic shop front and green tiles are being kept in place –

The former Dukes dry cleaners at 34 Lavender Hill is being refitted as Lash and brow lab, adding to quite a cluster of nail bars and hairdressers in this part of the street.

The former Amazing Thai next door has had a more problematic conversion, with the rear sliced off to become a flat, leaving the front maybe rather too small to accommodate a viable shop. We were really quite surprised to then see the front being further subdivided to create two absolutely tiny shops (whose precise purpose remains something of a mystery) – at a push these could be sole trader nail bars, but we do have concerns about the squeezing of retail units to the stage where they’re barely viable as standalone businesses.

One unit that’s looking for someone to make it theirs is 71 Lavender Hill (pictured right), a very-long-closed pharmacy which was tied to Signtair’s new home as the longest-running empty unit. It’s had a good quality renovation by the landlord to create a bright two storey corner property over 70 square feet, with a large usable basement with natural light, going for around £2000 a month. If it’s the unit for you, call WeCan properties on 020 3890 6474.

Maker of smart Shaker kitchens Olive & Barr have taken over the former William Hill in the middle of Lavender Hill, to open their first London showroom, which is being equipped at the time of writing. Special respect goes to the landlord of this unit, who wasted no time at all after William Hill closed their store in getting the builders in, fitting it out to a high standard with a completely new shopfront, and letting it to new tenants. No-one starting a new business wants to take on the risk of having to completely renovate the building before they can get going, which is why keeping the buildings in a decent state leads to much faster lettings, while premises that haven’t had a penny spent on them for years shift much more slowly. If every landlord was as proactive as this, we’d not have any empty shops at all.

The old Royal British Legion at 173 Lavender Hill has the builders in. The building was in a very dilapidated condition, and as we’ve previously reported it is being converted to flats, with a new shop unit on the ground floor, and an added roof storey.

Ryness’ former shop opposite Battersea Arts Centre has reopened as TaxAssist accountants – a well established nationwide chain. Let’s be honest – accountancy services is never going to set the world on fire – but this is a useful service to have here given the number of small businesses in the area.

In maybe one of the most interesting developments, Clapham Cycle – a local cycle club who run rides, socials and even cycle holidays – is taking over the former Haart estate agents at 255 Lavender Hill. This could be a real change to the cluster of estate agents currently along the western end of Lavender Hill, and we’ll be sure to report further when this opens.

Ginger Kiss at 196 Lavender Hill has reopened as the fourth branch of Yori, a Korean barbecue restaurant with branches in Covent Garden, Piccadilly Circus and Wimbledon. Takeaway only for the time being – but a welcome addition to this part fo the street.

The Royal Trinity Hospice shop is up for lease, and next door the former Lock Centre has opened as VapeMobile (with a slightly unfortunate bright green security shutter that doesn’t do a lot for the look of the generally smart stone frontage of the building).

The new London and South Western pub has (as we reports a few months back) opened, but has spent most of its time closed!

Finally… no retail roundup would be complete without a mention of Debenhams! Back when our branch was closed, with the landlord deciding that there were better options for the building, we wondered if the chain as a whole would survive, and sadly it didn’t. But there’s probably more to say than we can fit here – so we’ll hold that update for a full article in the near future.

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A surprising planning decision on Taybridge Road

Wandsworth have just made an interesting planning decision – which is maybe the sign of a new approach to urban trees and greenery in Wandsworth. It’s on a site that a couple of years ago was very controversially converted from a small park, that had been laid out on a 1940s bombsite in memory of those who died – and there was a great deal of controversy about the project. It didn’t help that the developers were a firm had previously found local fame when they demolished The Castle pub, on Battersea High Street, and replaced it with a block of flats. The Street View image below shows the site as it was. This article from the Evening Standard gives a feel for the arguments at the time.

The large sycamore tree, three cotoneaster trees, and all the shrubs – which were on the corner of Taybridge Road and Gowrie Road, just off Lavender Hill – were destroyed to make way for the new flats. Fortunately not everything was lost, because the developer was required to offset some of the environmental and visual damage, by ensuring the new development included replacement trees and vegetation. The developer’s early attempts to get planning permission were rejected (as rather out of scale, with balconies overlooking neighbours) – but the first version that got approved (planning application number 2017/0631) included three replacement cherry trees and a somewhat optimistic ‘green wall’ facing Gowrie Road, shown below.

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Work starting to improve the Lavender Hill / Queenstown Road junction

Back in January we reported that following 17 accidents at the junction in three years (cars crashing into nine cycles, five pedestrians and two motorbikes), Lambeth are planning to make some design changes to make it safer. Work is now due to start next week on the Queenstown Road junction, and a few weeks later at the Silverthorne Road junction.

For pedestrians, the pedestrian crossings (with their notoriously unreliable push buttons) will see an upgrade to have a countdown timer.  The small traffic island on the Queenstown Road side will be removed, to make more space for cycles and cars queuing at the traffic lights (and reduce the tendency for it to be hit by turning vehicles). The pavement outside Sainsbury’s will also be widened.

For cycles, this will include realigning the vehicle lanes to make them have a consistent width (to avoid pinch points), creating cycle lanes leading out of the junction as well as in to it, and adding small traffic lights specifically for cyclists along the Cedars Road and Queenstown Road (as surveys have shown this is becoming a busy cycle route, used by over 100 cycles a day during the morning peak). 

And for drivers, the Queenstown Road approach will be reorganised to have two clear traffic lanes (one just for turning right) as well as a separate cycle lane – rather than the current rather awkward one-and-three-quarters-lanes arrangement.  The whole junction will also be resurfaced. 

The cycle stop areas will also be reorganised further along Wandsworth Road (where it meets Silverthorne Road) and in slightly slower time at the junction with Union Road (where works are delayed until other work that’d set to dig up that junction is complete). 

It would have been good to see something more ambitious (including ‘X’ diagonal pedestrian crossings, and longer cycle lanes between the junctions) – but this is still a step in the right direction.

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A big upgrade for Clapham Common’s basketball court

Things are looking up for Clapham Common’s basketball court. As part of a project to support grass roots basketball in the UK, it’s set to be turned in to a proper spectator arena with new rows of tiered spectator seating around the sides of the court, as well as a big general renovation of the court itself to include sponsor logos. It’s a project by Basketball England, and part of a wider effort by the NBA and Footlocker which will see urban basketball sites in cities across Europe upgraded (similar projects are underway in Paris, Barcelona, and Milan). As the owner of basketball site Hoopsfix commented, “It’s going to be the nicest outdoor set up in the country and be huge for the basketball community“.

This follows an initial upgrade of the basic court a few years ago, which saw the rickety perimeter fencing that surrounded part of the site replaced, the whole court resurfaced, and new floodlights installed. The adjacent skate park also had a major upgrade, which has been a resounding success – it’s become perennially busy, attracting a surprisingly wide mix of people from dawn to dusk.

Building anything on ‘common land’ is an unusually complicated process, because the common has general ownership rather than it just being down to the individual landowner, with decisions being made by central government following detailed investigations – so although the work is fairly small scale and funding is in place, the project needs to wait for the Planning Inspectorate to give it the nod. The previous upgrade to the courts saw some concerns about common land being used for something that was more of a sports centre, as well as the impact of new lighting and fencing. However it’s fair to say that a run down and dilapidated facility does no-one any good, and since that upgrade the area has certainly seen a lot more public use. We understand that if all goes well, this should all get going in the summer.

Foot Locker ‘s involvement as a key sponsor and funder is a bit interesting. There’s an obvious marketing angle for Footlocker in further growing its basketball activity (which is why they are also partnered with the NBA for this project: the NBA is well aware that basketball could grow considerably in the UK!) – and their “raise the game” programme is designed to “celebrate the people, places and institutions throughout Europe which are committed to helping basketball culture thrive”.

But Footlocker hasn’t just turned up out of nowhere – they have surprisingly deep roots just down the road in Brixton. It’s a little known fact that Footlocker was originally part of Woolworths! And Woolworths’ first ever London store (and only their seventh store in the UK) was in Brixton – just along from the tube station. Woolworths later moved to the other side of the tube station, and Footlocker set up one of their earliest UK stores in part of the original building – which was their only south London store and something of a local icon. Until, that is, it was set on fire and completely destroyed in the 2011 London riots. Their building was wrecked, but was eventually patched up to become a dreary parade of phone shops. Footlocker were clearly still keen on Brixton despite the disaster that had befallen their store, and reopened for business five years after the fire in an new site (by T K Maxx).

All in all – coming on top of recent investments in the skate park, and the four outdoor gyms, it’s good to see the sports facilities in the Common being kept up to date. There’s probably also a mini golf on the way on Clapham Common Westside, which we’ll be covering in a future article.

On a loosely related note – The gradually-deteriorating former Recovery Kitchen next door to the basketball courts, which ran for a while as a health-focussed cafe but which has been closed for quite some time, was put up for lease again in the early summer (for offers around £25,000 a year, on a five year lease). We understand it is now, at last, ‘under offer’ to a prospective operator. Sadly Recovery Kitchen never really took off, despite the owner’s best efforts to spruce up what was frankly a tired and shabby building. Running a park cafe at those rent levels really isn’t a walk in the park (with limited evening trade, a trade that’s rather sensitive to the weather, and not a lot of indoor seating for the winter) – but the previous incarnation of the building as Fields was a huge success, and showed that even the most unpromising park cafe buildings can work with the right amount of imagination (and maybe a bit of luck). No news yet as to what the new operator plans to do, but with the Common’s other resident cafes La Baita and Common Ground – as well as Honest Tom’s snack van – all doing a healthy trade serving people on their outdoor exercise, the sooner this building gets back in use the better.

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John Archer, Battersea’s groundbreaking mayor, may be honoured with a statue on Lavender Hill

It’s surprising how little we talk about John Archer. Born in Liverpool, he and his Canadian wife moved to Battersea in 1890 when he was about 30. He was clearly an industrious gentleman, with myriad jobs over the years including professional singer, and a successful photographer (running a studio in Battersea Park Road), while also at one stage being a medical student. He travelled extensively – making it around the world at least three times – and it’s easy to see why he was attracted to Battersea, which in 1890 was a fairly newly built and fast evolving part of London. But the political scene in Battersea is where he would become famous.

John first got in to local politics after attending the Pan-African Conference, an unusual event in 1900 designed to unify influential figures from across Africa to draw attention to the injustices going on under colonial rule. At the conference he met many leaders of the African diaspora, and this clearly awakened him to some of the impact he could make in politics.

Because while John’s mother Mary Theresa was Irish, his father Richard was from Barbados – and this was at a time where being black was a pretty serious obstacle to political success. But that didn’t put him off, and in 1906, he was elected as a councillor for Latchmere Ward on Battersea Borough Council. He was later re-elected for several more terms – in 1912, 1919 and 1931.

But his biggest moment was in 1913 when he was elected to a one-year term as Mayor of Battersea by his fellow councillors. This was a major post (not a ceremonial role like some ‘mayors’ are now), and the election battle was fierce – he had to deal with racist campaigns against him and allegations that he did not have British nationality… in the end he won by a single vote (40 to 39). Battersea was known for fairly radical politics at the time, but this was a ‘landmark’ moment even in Battersea – a sit was was the first time a black man held a senior public office in London.

It got lots of press coverage, and John was well aware that this was quite a moment, not just for London:

“My election tonight means a new era. You have made history tonight. For the first time in the history of the English nation a man of colour has been elected as mayor of an English borough.

“That will go forth to the coloured nations of the world and they will look to Battersea and say Battersea has done many things in the past, but the greatest thing it has done has been to show that it has no racial prejudice and that it recognises a man for the work he has done.

Race issues ran deep in Britain, and John’s election was far from universally welcomed. Soon after the election, reflecting on the hate mail he was receiving from around the country, he said “Do you know that I have had letters since I have been Mayor calling my [Irish] mother some of the foulest names that it is possible for a mother to be called. I have been made to feel my position more than any man who has ever occupied this chair, not because I am a member of the council, but because I am a man of colour. Am I not a man, the same as any other man? Have I not got feelings the same as any other?”

But John was a tough cookie who wasn’t easily deterred. He was an active politician with a determination to drive action on civil rights issues – fighting cuts in unemployment relief, and the practice of sending young residents of Battersea to a workhouse.

He later stepped down so he could act as the election agent for one of Britain’s first Indian MPs, Shapurji Saklatvala – and clearly did a good job as Shapurji won over 2,000 votes more than the nearest rival and became MP for North Battersea. John died at 69, while still deputy leader of the Battersea Labour Party.

For over twenty years John lived in a terraced house at 55 Brynmaer Road, just off Battersea Park Road, that escaped the redevelopment of the 1960s and is still standing. The then-new Archer House flats near Battersea Square were named after him soon after his death, and more recently High View school has been renamed John Archer Academy in his honour. In 2013 (100 years after his election as mayor) English Heritage installed a blue plaque at his former house in his memory, and the same year he featured on a Royal Mail commemorative stamp series of Great Britons – which showed him wearing the Mayoral chains of office in front of Battersea Town Hall.

But John was a real pioneer, and frankly deserves more. And that’s probably why Wandsworth Council are taking forward plans for a statue in his honour – pledging £10,000 in October to get things going, and looking for donations to cover the rest of the cost. Current Council leader Ravi Govindia commented that “many people in Battersea and Wandsworth are very proud of John Archer’s contribution to Battersea and London; he was a true pioneer and in time has become one of the earliest role models of black achievement in London”.

The precise location of the statue is yet to be confirmed (“a high profile location”) – it could be in Battersea Park (not too far from John’s house of twenty years), though for visibility and accessibility a more promising option is the junction of Falcon Road and Lavender Hill. Possibly best of all is the newly upgraded area by the front of Battersea Arts Centre – because this of course used to be Battersea Town Hall where John was elected, and where he managed to make such a landmark impact on British politics. This would be Lavender Hill’s first statue, and a fitting way to remember both John’s legacy, and how radical Battersea’s politics were at the beginning of the last century.

For more on John Archer, this article in the South London Press is worth a look, as is his Wikipedia article. The campaign for the status has seen national coverage – for example this article in the Daily Mail.

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A neon nod to Lavender Hill’s history, hidden away among Battersea’s new flats

Taking the bus along Queenstown Road on a rainy winter evening, if you cast your eye down one of the obscure side streets full of bins & delivery lorries you might just spot a huge sprig of Lavender glowing in the darkness.

Lavender‘ is a big neon artwork by Margate-born, Cardiff-based artist S. Mark Gubb, on the side of the railway arch between Majestic Wine & the new ‘Vista’ development.

It draws from the local farming of lavender, back in the days when the low-lying areas of the Shaftesbury Estate & Battersea Park were famed for their production of melons and asparagus, and the drier, higher land up on what was to become Lavender Hill was developed as a series of lavender fields.

Much of this was down to the Huguenots, a group of Protestants of whom around 200,000 fled persecution and massacres in northern France in the 1600s, and found a warmer welcome in the UK. They’re probably most famous for having set up a silk-weaving district in Spitalfields – but they also settled around the country including a cluster in East Hill between Wandsworth and Battersea (hence the still-standing Huguenot burial ground as well as street names including Huguenot Place & Nantes Close). They were a skilled people and – as well as being a valuable addition to Wandsworth’s then-thriving clothing industry – are believed to have made major upgrades to the farmland in the area, including the lavender fields.

When discussing Battersea before the railways, it’s worth a mention of this 1848 watercolour by Robert Westall of ‘Battersea Fields’ – showing the view looking towards the Thames from Lavender Hill, with the open farmland and (possibly) lavender cultivation that existed before the industrial era (click for a larger version). The Royal Hospital Chelsea and (in the foreground) Battersea Pumping Station (which was built eight years previously in 1840) are both visible. This was painted a few years before the railways were developed and Battersea changed forever!

Later, the area was of course swamped with houses and industry – with little remaining of the agricultural days other than surprisingly good soil in many Battersea back gardens – so it’s nice to see this little modern reminder of Lavender Hill’s past.

It’s part of a wider set of art around the new development around Berkeley Homes’ ‘Vista’ development. At the moment it is a little tucked away, and somewhat surrounded by building site hoardings and security controls – but as the adjacent ‘Prince of Wales Drive’ building project on the other side of the railway – which is also being built by Berkeley – is completed this is set to become a new public route under the railway, and it’ll get a lot more noticed.

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Walks aren’t just for the countryside! We review two recent walking guides in Battersea.

One of the simple pleasures that’s still open to most of us – including in the lighter stages of lockdown – is outdoor exercise. And what better way to do this than to explore the area we live in in a bit more detail? We’ve reviewed two walking guides in the Battersea / Clapham Junction area.

The first is Discovering Battersea’s Open Spaces by Clare Graham (sold out at the time of writing at Waterstones, but available direct from the Battersea Society). In a compact format (24 pages) this nicely presented guide ties together most of our green spaces in six mapped and annotated walking routes, stretching from Vauxhall to the edges of Wandsworth and down to Wandsworth Common. It includes all of our most famous and historic open spaces, but also works in several that are only really known to locals like Fred Wells Gardens, Banana Park and Montefiore Gardens, as well as recent developments like the promontory garden – with some of the best river views around – in Battersea Park. And some that are so new they’re still being developed – among the big new developments of Nine Elms.

One thing that will strike readers is that despite being a very densely populated area, there’s still an impressive amount of green space in Battersea! We were pleased to see that even the recently upgraded and lavishly planted tiny little park whose development we’ve previously written about between Asda and Dorothy Road (pictured below) makes it in to one of the walks.

The walks are also a way to experience the huge variety of buildings in the area – whether leafy Victorian streets, brand new luxury developments of riverside flats, heroic estate redevelopments of the 1960s and 1970s. The routes include lots of little insights about the history of the areas the walks pass through – for example the long-lost St John’s Hospital, which used to be a major site just off St John’s Hill (and whose name lives on in the St John’s clinic on a small part of its old site). And the walks also make sure to find a decent en-route cafe!

Battersea’s a very walkable area and there’s always a bit more to discover when you stray away from the usual places, and this guide should be a good companion to some local excursions as the days lengthen and the lockdown eases. Anyone with an interest in exploring Battersea, or just looking for some new places to go on a quiet wander with a canine companion, should find something of interest here.

The second local walking guide is The Heathwall – Battersea’s Buried River, by Jon Newman. On the face of it, this is less of a walking guide than a history of one of London’s least well known lost rivers – and there’s a lot of content and detail here – but it also includes a walking route that runs the entire length of the Heathwall. The Heathwall was once a real river, of sorts – and it used to run from close to Clapham Junction, all the way to Vauxhall – and it was a major part of draining the marshy riverside area that became Battersea.

Unlike some of London’s more famous lost rivers like the Fleet and even the Falconbrook, no-one’s really heard of the Heathwall, but when you look at the way the land lies in Battersea you can see why it used to exist walk north from Lavender Hill and you run down a steep hill – before things flatten out. But keep going and the land definitely creeps up as you approach the river, as anyone who’s cycled along Queenstown Road can confirm.

The raised embankments at the side of the Thames are what allowed Battersea to move from being a low-lying swamp, to being a rich agricultural area famed for exotic crops such as melon and asparagus, and then to go on to be swept up in the urbanisation of London. But the land was below the level of the river at high tide, and the water that ended up in Battersea still had to go somewhere! The Heathwall was the river that drained all this low-lying land, and where it met the Thames, a sluice gate was opened at low tide so it could empty to the Thames, and then closed as the Thames rose above the level of the land. As Jon Newman explains, there were disastrous situations when these sluice gates weren’t closed in time! Jon’s map below shows the Heathwall running from Falcon Road, roughly parallel to Lavender Hill and Wandsworth Road all the way to Vauxhall.

And from the first page, it quickly becomes clear that we’re not really talking about some lost riverine paradise – but more of a headache and problem for those around it! The Heathwall was ‘over looked and under loved’, ‘inexpressibly dismal’, and as more and more houses connected to water supply and fitted toilets, and as all manner of heavy industries poured toxic waste in to it, it became a sludgy, stinky mess. As houses began to be built all around it, the whole river was gradually covered over to make the areas around it more pleasant to live in – and gradually its existence was forgotten.

But that’s not to say it’s not an interesting history. And Jon Newman has dug deep here and packed a lot in to 56 pages – the book’s full of interesting bits of history. We learn that Bazalgette’s famous Thames sewers were rather awkwardly built at a higher level than many of Battersea’s basements, which caused severe flooding in the Heathwall and led to a ban on sewer connections in Battersea’s deeper basements. And about an area of housing north of Wandsworth Road that was so heavily damaged in the war that it was evacuated and became a ‘designated area for street fighting’ used for military training.

We also hear about how cholera – which was generally associated with the poor and bad living conditions – mysteriously led to the unexplained death of nineteen people in a row of ‘commodious and comfortable’ smart houses along Wandsworth Road, who didn’t really fit the established view of what caused the illness. The inspector brought in to investigate the deaths actually commented that these specific houses shared a pump for their water supply that drew from next to the Heathwall, which was “positively fetid [and] utterly unfit for use”. But despite being tantalisingly close to spotting the cause of the illness, they blamed it on bad smells and missed the connection between cholera and the water supply, which was only made five years later at the now-famous Broad Street pump in Soho. The landlord renamed the houses, and deaths from cholera continued with 64 the following month along Lambeth’s riverside.

The enormous amount of development that has happened since the Heathwall was covered over means that the walk Jon sets out doesn’t precisely follow the river, but it makes a decent effort at it – and there are a few places where the waters can still be seen. The best examples are on Robertson Street, where a whole series of unusually large drains reveal long ladders going down in to the darkness, and – once your eyes get used to peering in to the darkness – swift flowing water (our pictures below). The Heathwall’s maybe forgotten, but it’s definitely not gone away!

One of the few visible remains of the now very hidden river is hiding in plain sight among the glamorous new flats on Nine Elms Lane: the Heathwall Pumping Station, which has replaced the sluice gates and now lifts water from the Heathwall up to the level of the Thames sewer.

All in all – a fascinating read. Ideal for those who know the area well and have an eye for detail, or an interest in what flows beneath us – but the walk is also an exercise in contrasts, running through a wide cross section of Battersea, from its leafiest residential streets to the high rise new districts, via its still busy industrial districts.

Discovering Battersea’s Open Spaces by Clare Graham – easiest to order direct from the Battersea Society or at local independent bookstore Clapham Books (whose store on The Pavement, Clapham is still open for click & collect) / on sale at Waterstones (albeit currently closed for lockdown) / and listed on Amazon.

The Heathwall – Battersea’s Buried River, by Jon Newman – available at Waterstones / Amazon / Blackwells

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