This is a lovely little walk (about nine miles) linking several delightful green spaces near my home in Lewisham, south-east London.
The first stop is our local park, called Hilly Fields.
Hilly Fields was formally opened on 16 May 1896 after a public subscription organised by Octavia Hill, the founder of the National Trust.
It’s not named Hilly Fields after Octavia; it’s just hilly. We live around the corner in Overcliff Road and there’s an Undercliff Road a bit further away. When we turn into the park and turn left after the bowling green, we follow Cliffview Road and then Vicar’s Hill.
Social campaigner Octavia Hill was visiting tenants in Deptford and noticed a vase of flowers that had been picked on Hilly Fields. That’s how she found out about it and why she strove to save it from development so it could be enjoyed by locals forever.
The northern end of the park, near where we live, housed a brickworks and that part was drained, levelled and marked out as a cricket pitch.
The cricket square was long gone when we moved to the area 30 years ago, but a new square was installed just a few years back. Our son, Joe, who was captain of London Schools cricket side, played for the Mayor’s XI in the special opening match.
The bowling green was opened in 1906 and the club there is named after possibly the most famous of all bowlers, Sir Francis Drake, who was knighted in Deptford.
Drake made his money from the slave trade and the gates have been daubed with Black Lives Matter graffiti. It is difficult to understand why it cannot be called Hilly Fields bowling club. Most other bowling clubs are named after the park in which they sit.
We walk all the way to the bottom of the steps at Vicar’s Hill and then turn up the muddy side path along the rear of Veda Road’s back gardens to the top, where a small orchard has been planted. And then on to the stone circle.
The stone circle
The stone circle on Hilly Fields was only erected for the Millennium celebrations in 2000. It was the brainchild of a bunch of Brockley artists back in 1997 and was eventually commissioned by the Brockley Society. The Brock Soc charges if you want to read its official history, but lots of others have made the information available for free.
The stones were brought from Scotland and set in place on the morning of the spring equinox on 21 March 2000. For a quarter of a century before that, a midsummer fayre has been held at the bottom of Hilly Fields (this year will be the first time it has been cancelled). But that’s it. There’s nothing magical or historic or pagan or druid about the place.
Yet groups of naked people have been spotted standing on the stones late at night in summer, on the day after the midsummer solstice at Stonehenge, where weddings and spiritual ceremonies take place (I’ve been). The Hilly Fields streakers are on the wrong day and in the wrong place.
At the top of Hilly Fields is a trig point – or at least that is what I have always called them. They are also called pillars and stations and beacons. The trig is short for triangulation.
According to the Ordnance Survey they were first used in the retriangulation of Great Britain on 18 April 1936. On that day, a group of surveyors gathered around a white concrete pillar in a field in Cold Ashby and began the retriangulation process.
There were more than 6,500 trig points across the UK. Originally, when all the trig points were in place, it was possible in clear weather to see at least two other trig points from any one trig point.
Careful measurements of the angles between the lines-of-sight of the other trig points built up a grid of triangles measured against a single baseline to construct a highly accurate measurement system that covered the entire country.
They’re no longer used for mapping but trig points remain key figures for walkers and map readers.
The one in Hilly Fields is 51m above sea level, just 2m short of the highest point in the park. Hilly though it may be, tall it isn’t. Big Ben’s tower is 96m from base to top. The Shard, which is easily visible from Hilly Fields, is 310m.
The red brick building at the top of the park was West Kent Grammar School, built in about 1885. It later became part of Brockley County School. Prendergast has only been on the site since 1995.
There is a path directly down to the new part of the school but a path crosses it angling towards Ladywell. This path is now lined on the southern side with newly planted walnut trees, donated by the National Trust.
The lady and the well
The next stop is Ladywell village, station and railway bridge.
The Ladywell Society has erected a plaque on the newish building now on the site of the original well. It suggests the well was active from 1472 to 1855.
The well was covered over when the railway was built. The coping stones of the well were later uncovered during work to underpin the railway bridge, and rescued. In 1896 they were incorporated as part of the fountain that stood in the grounds of the Ladywell Public Baths, a local landmark built in red brick in 1884 and sometimes called the Playtower.
Our daughter went to Ladywell gymnastics club in the old, damp and disgusting Ladywell Baths building before the club moved to much better facilities in Bellingham. The building remains the subject of much fuss and ire these days over its proposed redevelopment.
The steps from Ladywell Bridge on the opposite side to those leading down to the station, take you to some great murals painted by local artist Lionel Stanhope, which have featured in the Guardian.
Next we walk through Ladywell Fields. in 1889 land between the River Ravensbourne and the station was bought by London County Council and Lewisham District Board of Works. Further parcels of land were bought in 1891 and 1894 and the whole area was laid out as a public amenity and initally named Ladywell Recreation Ground.
The river was rerouted in 2007/08, away from the ugly concrete channel that keeps the water at the side of the park. Further development to create viewing platforms was done a couple of years after that.
I have to admit, the grumpy me thought the idea silly at the time, but I was wrong. The rerouted river has become the best thing about Ladywell Fields. It is tiny for most of year but has been designed to flood and store water during heavy rains to protect the Thames from flooding. My Flickr album has close to 500 photos from Ladywell Fields.
Birds, bridges and branches
You can regularly see herons and egrets and sometimes even a kingfisher in the river. There are cuckoos in the larger trees too, in both the northern and southern sections.
The two halves of Ladywell Fields are joined by a curly footbridge, sometimes known as Satan’s bridge or Devil’s bridge because it is bridge number 666.
At the southern end of Ladywell Fields is a modern art installation in the middle of the Ravensbourne River. When I say modern, I don’t mean modern art. I mean recent, as in 2014. It is a facsimile of fallen branch. A copy – an exact replica – made from a mould of an original.
When the water level is low you can go right up to it and turn it. It is called Turning Tree.
The Pool Linear Park and Riverside Walk
This is a bit of a detour from the three peaks route but a lovely addition. It means walking past Catford Bridge station on the left and Catford Bridge a little bit further on the right, under the road and through the car parks of Halford and Wickes. The path then follows initially the Ravensbourne until the path turns where the Pool tributary joins.
But just before you get there is this small brown hut (there is another further along the Pool River). The hut houses an automatic water level monitoring station, one of 2,400 supplying flood monitoring data across the UK.
The great thing is (saddo warning) that you can follow an individual water level monitoring station on Twitter. This one is called Catford Hill but has the Twitter handle @riverlevel_1243. You can find your local river monitoring station and follow it yourself.
The bridge over the River Pool
Soon after crossing the Pool where the rivers meet, keep an eye out for an unpaved but trodden path to the right that takes you down to the river’s edge. This is a much nicer walk than the main path.
You can only follow it for a few hundred metres along the river but it can be spectacular – and very different as the seasons change.
Eventually you rejoin the main path and pass the Winsford Road water monitoring station on your right (@riverlevel_1242 on twitter).
Where fools fall in
Don’t cross the bridge to the right as the Waterlink Way suggests, but instead go straight on along the grass, keeping the river to your right. At the very end of that walk come back down the other side of the river. And cross the bridge then.
That bridge is where Boris Johnson, as mayor of London, famously fell in the river while being filmed cleaning it. Molly and I had just cycled past him when it happened.
There is a serious side to this. River cleaning by volunteers is a constant along all these tributaries and rivers and plays a vital part in keeping the waterways healthy. Thanks to the likes of Thames 21 for that.
Next is back the way we came, but turning left just before we get back to Ladywell Fields. We’re heading to Blythe Hill, passing through Ravensbourne Park Gardens on the way.
Blythe Hill Fields
Blythe Hill is 70m high according to Wikipedia but the park is only 55m according the Ordnance Survey map.
The land was once part of Brockley Farm and was bought by London County Council and opened as a public park in 1935.
The main thing about Blythe Hill Fields is its great views of London to the north. You can clearly see Hilly Fields and Prendergast as well as the whole of London’s vast skyline.
We’re heading for One Tree Hill next. That means passing Honor Oak, which is named after the very tree atop One Tree Hill. The name actually stretches back to Norman times when it marked the boundary of the Honor of Gloucester, a feudal barony that covered several counties.
There have been several different ‘trees of honor’ as they have died and been replanted. It is said Elizabeth I picnicked under it.
The hill is reputed to have been the site of the final defeat of Queen Boudica by the Romans in AD61, while Dick Turpin is also said to have used it as a look-out post.
The railway line here replaced a canal from 1836, with Honor Oak Park station opening in 1886. There was another station nearby, just called Honor Oak, which opened in 1862 but closed in 1958. The embankments form part of Brenchley Gardens.
St Augustine’s church
There’s a hill to climb now. The first thing to pass is the church. I’ve been to a funeral at St Augustine’s and it’s a huge and wonderful place. It was built in response to a growing number of homes in the area, and building work started in 1872.
What I like about the story is that it was meant to be consecrated on St Augustine’s Day, 26 May 1873, but because two fifths of the money was still owed to the builders they wouldn’t hand over the building to the church. That’s how you handle late-payers.
It was eventually consecrated on 2 December 1874.
One Tree Hill
How much history can one hill and one tree have? My favourite story is when some bright spark suggested turning it into a golf course.
Heritage Gateway reports: “In 1897 the Enclosure of Honor Hill Protest Committee was set up, which included a number of local councillors.
“After various meetings held on Peckham Rye, a mass trespass of 2,000 people took place on 10 October 1897 when the fence and gate were torn down and the new golf pavilion and greens damaged.
“The following Sunday a peaceful trespass by five members of the non-constitutional group took place but the following day a larger crowd comprising 10,000 reported demonstrators faced 500 police and attempted to repeat this with the new fence and a number of them gained entry, lit fires and stoned the greenkeeper’s cottage.
“The official Protest Committee succeeded in gaining agreement of the Camberwell Vestry and Lewisham Board of Works to discuss the public rights over One Tree Hill.”
The tree itself marks the boundary of Lewisham and Southwark councils these days. And much of the site is now a registered nature reserve. The views from the top are staggering. No wonder it has been used as a beacon many, many times.
We need to walk through four cemeteries next. Sadly, during Covid-19, these are closed except on Sundays and then only to those visiting graves there. However, in normal times these are well worth a stroll.
The first is Camberwell New Cemetery. The land for the new cemetery was purchased in three lots in 1901. There’s a nice memorial stone listing the names of all those buried in unmarked graves. I might ask if this can be done in Ladywell/Brockley cemeteries as I have a friend buried there, effectively in a pauper’s grave.
The next is Honor Oak cemetery and crematorium. This is a modern graveyard, only opened in 1939.
The two cemeteries of Brockley and Ladywell appear to be a single cemetery since a dividing wall was removed in 1948. The two were opened in 1852. The list of famous and infamous people buried there is impressive and the Friends group blogs about them.
But in an unmarked grave, now with a lovingly added sign made by a mutual friend, is the grave of Themon Djaksam. Themon was a journalist from Chad who worked in London on an African magazine until months of non-payment and exploitation resulted in the whole staff going on strike.
He remained involved with the NUJ until his sudden death while at an NUJ event in Liverpool in 2010. With no family in the UK, and the union and its charity paying significant costs for his funeral, no gravestone was provided.
The graveyards are a great place to walk, to look at graves, pay respects and marvel at the lives that must have been lived. Let’s hope they reopen to the public soon.
Back to Hilly Fields and home
From the cemetery’s Ladywell entrance, it’s a cut through past the new Prendergast school buildings and into Hilly Fields, this time past the wildflower meadow and up to the top past the playground.