The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

People of the park

Published in the Camberwell Quarterly

Myatt’s Fields, once all but derelict, is now the focus of an entire community, Robert Wainwright discovers

They’ve been waiting for Godot at Myatt’s Fields, or at least, waiting for someone to open the white wooden shutters of the three-storey Victorian townhouse at No. 14 Cormont Road. Boris Johnson and his then girlfriend Carrie Symonds bought the four-bedroom house, described as “a little unkempt but with plenty of charm and an abundance of character” back in July 2019, but it has been closed ever since, while the couple indulged and redecorated the more salubrious surrounds of No.10 Downing Street.

With his time in office due to end, the neighbours are eager (some not so eager) to see if Boris and his wife Carrie will actually put down roots in Camberwell, becoming the second British PM to live near Myatt’s Fields. John Major lived in Burton Road as a young man.

If Boris and Carrie arrive, Myatt’s Fields across the road will become an important part of their lives and of their two pre-school children, Wilfred and Romy. Even after London’s July heatwave, the park looks serene, filled with young parents and children splashing in the water, runners and dog walkers, sun-worshippers and teens playing football across the sun-dried expanse.

The Little Cat Café alongside the bandstand is doing a steady trade in morning coffee and pastries while a drum group provides background music to the customer chatter. In the evening the cafe switches to cocktails beneath the spreading trees, all against the sound of tennis balls being thwacked back and forth at the well-used courts.

It all paints a picture of community spirit alive and well. Hark back just over two decades and the story is vastly different. Tori Sherwin, who is now the development manager, was in the park with her baby daughter on a winter’s day in 1998, chatting with other local mums about its dire condition:

“The state of the playground in particular was terrible, so we, a group of women, thought we should do something about it. We started working together in a group that was representative of the area. My daughter is 24 now. That’s how long ago it was and how far we’ve come.”

Lottery funding helped rebuild and renew the park while group members reached out to engage older people, ethnic groups and families. Nowadays it is the volunteering and spirit of community that drives the project. There are 40 to 50 litter pickers, some working in structured groups and others simply finding space in their week to do their bit and keep the park pristine. Last year it was given a prestigious Green Flag Award.

Another 160 volunteers to do horticultural work alongside a small professional workforce, not only tending the garden beds but also the greenhouse which, remarkably, provided 45,000 seedlings last year free of charge to more than forty local schools and charities. “There’s a lot of intelligence about the way the park is managed,” said Tori. “We’ve made a switch to biodiversity and climate change resilience and are careful with water management.”

The list of activities seems endless: a gardening club, Friday Family Fun, Stay and Play, park markets, cooking classes, food hero workshops, early action partnerships, even poetry sessions. The park is home to the Lambeth Tigers junior football club and there are outdoor theatre events hosted by the nearby Longfield Hall.

Redevelopment plans are well advanced for the depot to provide a winter café and meeting rooms, not to mention the thousands who use it every day for recreation. The park is kept afloat financially by a mixture grant money, income and private fund-raising: “We try to keep the mix of park usage to 60 per cent community and 40 per cent private,” says operations manager Eliza Merchan, currently wrestling with finalising the park management plan for the next three years.

Wedding hire and football have formed the mainstay of park income in recent years: “The aim is to be self-sufficient because it’s getting harder and harder to attract grant money,” she says. “The challenge is to find that balance of a healthy income and maintain that balance of community use.”

Longfield Hall is at the southern end of the park. Opened in 1889, the same year as the park, it was described as “a most strangely beautiful place” by the Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, a passionate defender of Victoria architecture. Will Ollard has been involved with the hall since the mid 1990s and has overseen an upsurge in community use in recent years: “We were very sleepy until around 2010 but now we have 1,200 people coming in here every week,” he says, noting that things are quieter during the summer holidays.

A quick scan of their online timetable shows it is filled with health and lifestyle classes such as boxing, pilates, yoga and meditation as well as wide selection of dance, from ballet and tap to Latin, Brazilian Capoeira and Japanese Butoh. There are circus and physical theatre workshops, LGBTQ+ cabaret performance – Drag Queens and Kings - and comedy.

“It’s not just elderly white people who use it,” said Will. “There is such a variety across ages and cultures and interests. We’ve recently had a brilliant day with the children from Michael Tippett School for children with complex needs down in Milkwood Road.”

As we sit discussing the months of activities ahead, a group of teens arrive to participate in “Play in a Week” which, as its names suggests, involves writing and performing a play from scratch in a week. “There could be three or 30 teenagers turn up on the day,” said Jess Alade, the centre’s youth programme manager, having a quick sandwich between the morning and afternoon sessions. Today it would be somewhere in between the two figures, among them a young disabled woman who arrives with her carer: “She loved it last time and wanted to come back,” the carer said as she left. “That’s the sort of buzz you get,” remarked Will.

Encouraging healthy living

It is late morning on a Tuesday. A diverse group of people – young mothers, a grandfather and a young guy with a backpack among them – gather outside the Myatt’s Fields North Community Centre. When the doors open, they are ushered in, one by one, to a temporary grocery store set up with crates of fresh fruit and vegetable and shelves of items such as tinned food, tea, soup and pasta.

This is a food pantry run by the charity Healthy Living Platform. It was set up in 2018 to encourage healthy and sustainable lifestyles. There are four pantries run with the help of 40 volunteers who live in Lambeth, attracting around 200 people each week who each pay £5 for a basket of fresh food and long-life products. On Thursdays it is at Moorlands Community Centre, Wednesdays at St Stephens Children’s Centre and Fridays at Liz Atkinson Children’s Centre.

The food offered is a combination of bought fresh fruit and veg from a wholesaler to cater for the more specific items. The rest is made up of donations from supermarkets, farms other food suppliers, : “We once had bottled coconut water from Harrods,” Pantry co-ordinator Carla Thomas laughs. “It just depends on what is available. No-one is turned away, even if they don’t have £5. Some people turn up, embarrassed because they have jobs but are still struggling. We want to catch people before they are on their knees.

The emphasis is on fresh rather than tinned food. The pantry doubles up as a hub to access other services and support such as help with digital technology skills or a simple, low cost meal. The charity also offers cooking workshops through their Food Ambassador training.

“We want people to have choice. It’s no good offering celeriac to older people from the Windrush generation when they want and know how to use is plantain.”

Councillor Paul Gadsby represents Vassall Ward for Lambeth Council. He is not surprised by the need for charities such as Healthy Living Platform. Behind the well-heeled façade of elegant Victorian townhouses that surround Myatt’s Field there is the harsh reality of inner city living with several estates such as Lothian, Minet and Paulet Road, where the rise in cost of living has bitten especially hard, prompting the council to introduce a variety of financial help, including child and pensioner support packages and funding free school meals during the summer holidays.

“The Myatt’s Field area of Camberwell is no different to other communities across the UK,” he said. “We felt compelled to introduce some measures to try and lessen the consequences for the most struggling households. It’s a terrific community and we will do what we can, given the current circumstances.”

Bursting with enterprise and nurturing talent

Michelle Killington is a community dynamo. When the Quarterly sat down with her one Saturday afternoon, she was preparing for a boxercise self-defence class she hosts for women near the Myatt’s Fields bandstand.

But it hardly scratches the surface of her community projects in and around the Camberwell-Brixton area, beginning with an Artists’ Development Project for budding young music talent as well as Vinyl Sound Memories for Windrush elders who recently flocked to a three-hour session:

“Our elders don’t really have anywhere to go to hear and play the music that they remember and love,” she said. “They needed a safe place to go, not only to listen to reggae, jazz and soul but also to meet and talk about the past. It’s beautiful to see the elders get up and dance to music that means so much.”

In June, young and old came together in a musical celebration when she organised the Intergenerational Windrush Celebration Day at Pop Brixton, a showcase of 33 music and dance artists of all ages aged, ranging from 12 to 65. She also chairs the residents’ group at Angell Town, the troubled 600-home estate that borders Camberwell and Brixton where she has long championed the construction of a much-need community centre to counter the problem of traumatised and demotivated young people.

“Activism is really important to me,” she said. “I want to help develop young people to become the next generation of community leaders so they have ownership over where they live and how things are done in their community.”

Tamani “JC” Clayton and his younger brother Cavalli are among a couple of dozen young men and women who meet at Lambeth Council every Thursday evening for two hours to discuss youth affairs in the area, often breaking into groups to debate issues: “It is great to have a space and a community where you feel as if your opinion counts and people listen to you.” JC, who lives on the nearby Thorlands Estate, beams with pride when he talks about the success that he and his fellow councillors have had in a campaign with Lewisham Council youth to convince transport authorities not to scrap Zip cards for under 18s: “It was an important campaign because people, and particularly under-privileged families, need that help for their kids to get to and from school.”

The council will launch a youth summit in September, focussing on a survey of young people asking what they wanted to change about schools and where they live. The “live” survey shows that 40 per cent feel they do not have equal opportunities and half feel unsafe at times in their communities. For JC, the most burning issue is youth centres and programs: “It feels as if there have been a number of closures recently. Young people need structure. We need to open more facilities rather than less.”

Back at No.14 Cormont Road it seems that Godot won’t be arriving in Myatt’s Field after all. The shutters are open and the house is back on the market for £1.6 million. That would represent a £400,000 profit thanks largely to the appeal of a thriving community that family will never experience.

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The Camberwell Society was formed in 1970 and is the recognised amenity society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell.

The Society’s objectives, as defined by our constitution, are: to stimulate public interest in Camberwell, to promote high standards of planning and architecture in Camberwell, and to secure the preservation, protection, development and improvement of features of historic or public interest in Camberwell.

We are a charity and raise money for local charities. In the past we have raised money for Southside Rehabilitation Association, St Giles Trust, Cambridge House, the CamberwellCommunity Choir, the HollingtonYouth Centre and the Camberwell Arts Festival