The Camberwell Society

Society for those living, working or interested in Camberwell

A gentle stroll around Myatt’s Fields

Published in the Camberwell Quarterly

Richard Barton picks out some interesting features to look at in this pleasant walk

This area is a pleasant Victorian suburb and park with a 21st century estate. It has two of London’s most intriguing but contrasting churches. There is little public art, but there are lots of small architectural details and surprises on the skyline, so remember to look up.

Start at Camberwell New Road just before the bridge. Turn left into Camberwell Station Road and then right into Knatchbull Road. Immediately after the bridge on the right, you will be at the entrance to the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Step back to look at it. This listed brick building is one of Camberwell’s most interesting but least known. It was designed and built in 1952-58 in the Moderne (Art Deco) style, in a manner similar to many inter-war Dutch buildings. Although the orientation is unusual for a church, the architect, Donald Plaskett Marshall, conceived a clever solution for a very awkward site.

Continue walking down Knatchbull Road. It was named after Sir Edward Knatchbull who sold the land to Sir Hughes Minet. The area around and including Myatt’s Fields Park was henceforth known as the Minet Estate. The construction of the railway in 1863 led to the development of small suburban streets and houses. Restricted covenants forbade commercial uses, but some community facilities were provided by the family. Just before you reach the roundabout, look at the interesting building on the left-hand corner. It is a former pub which has now been converted into flats. There is a curious entrance door on the corner and around in Denmark Road. You can see some ornate Tudor-style brick chimneys. Whilst you are there, look at No.114 Denmark Road next door, an unusual modern house.

Continue along Knatchbull Road after the roundabout. There is a variety of housing types on your left. Look for the details, for example, two sculpted heads at No. 83, a stained-glass door and a lion-type sculpture at the eaves of No. 91. Soon you will come to the former church of St James, now converted into flats and renamed Black Roof House. The church was a gift of the Minet family and built by architect George Low in 1869 -70. Continuing along the road and on your right, you will see some purpose-built flats with unusual joint entrance doors. On the corner further on, with Burton Road on the right, is Longfield Hall. Built in 1889, this was another gift of the Minet family. The architect was George Hubbard, who also designed an ornate octagonal gothic-style library opposite. That was bombed in Second World War.

Turn back along Knatchbull Road and, at the start of the park, turn left into Cormont Road. As the road bends, you will come to the former Charles Edward Brooke Girls School and Kennington Boys School. Unfortunately, it has not been used for some years. This wonderful example of an LCC Board School, with its ornate roof, towers and spires is reminiscent of a French chateau. It was built in 1897 for the London School Board and extended in 1912 by architect JT Bailey. It is described in its listing as ‘a building of romance and fantasy’. A new use really should be found.

Continue on a few metres and you will come to No 25, St Gabriel’s Manor. This fine art nouveau building dated 1900 was previously St Gabriel’s College. A chapel on the right was added in 1903. It has now been turned into flats. There are some lovely stone details, such as the statue of the Angel Gabriel over the front porch and ironwork initials on the gates. During WW1 this building was requisitioned as the First London General Hospital. A further 520 patients were housed in huts which were erected in the park opposite. Vera Brittain worked here as a VAD nurse and described her experiences in Testament of Youth.

Cross the road and enter Myatt’s Fields. Ahead of you in this wonderful Victorian park is the bandstand and just to the right of the bandstand is the wildlife area. If you want to find the only sculpture in the park, enter to discover a delightful wooden toad. Return, and to the left of the bandstand, is a plaque which will give you a short history of the park and its surroundings. Spend as long as you like walking around, but leave by the gate which is further along Cormont Road at the junction of Calais Street. Ahead of you on the corner of Cormont Road is a large Edwardian block of flats which was built for the ‘well off’. It has a dramatic skyline of stepped gables, chimney pots like rockets and terracotta cats as finials, the cat being a symbol of the Minet family.

Cross the road and walk down Calais Street and turn left at the end into Ackerman Road. As you round the bend, you will see the extraordinary example of 1970s architectural brutalism known as The Camberwell Submarine. This concrete structure with its two ventilation shafts is in fact the subterrain boiler house designed to heat the nearby North and South Myatt’s Fields estates. It was built by Lambeth under the direction of their chief architect, Ted Hollamby.

Carry on and turn right at the bus stop just past the new health centre. You are now entering the recently redeveloped Myatt’s Field North, also now known as Oval Quarter and completed in 2017. This award-winning scheme was nevertheless a controversial public-private partnership providing over 800 homes and over 170 refurbished ones. (The Guardian published a long critical article in 2017 entitled The real cost of regeneration.) Judge for yourself the architect PRP’s visual success in creating a ‘new urban village’ as you walk down Eythorne Road at the side of the new park.

In the park opposite Cromwell Road, you will see a seven-metre high totem. To me this is one of the most interesting community art pieces I have seen. It was created by the artist, Gary Drostle and entitled Tangerine Tree. Apparently, when the area was cleared for demolition, the only tree that remained was a tangerine tree that had previously grown from a pip which had been brought from the West Indies and planted in a back garden. Go up close and see the hundreds of old photos of the area which have been incorporated in a mosaic covering the totem.

Proceed to the end of Eythorne Road and turn right onto Cancell Road. Turn left at the end and walk past the Dan Leno park on your right. This is named after the famous Victorian music hall star who lived at 56 Ackerman Road. Ahead on your right is one of the finest Victorian churches in south London, St John The Divine. It is one of the best examples of the gothic revival style. It was completed in 1874 by the architect George Street. He had several connections to Camberwell. He was educated at the Collegiate School which used to be on Camberwell Grove, he was heavily influenced by the writings of John Ruskin who lived on Denmark Hill and he had been a pupil of George Gilbert Scott who designed our parish church of St Giles. Look at the intricate stone carvings at roof level beautifully contrasting with the plain red brick. My favourite details are the delicate metal clock face half-way up the spire and the ornate hinges on the west-end doors. Although badly damaged in the War, this Grade 1 listed building was restored by Goodheart-Rendell in the 1950s.

Now turn right into Vassall Road, walk past some delightful Georgian and early Victorian houses, and then turn right into Camberwell New Road. Then, taking in more such houses, you’ll arrive at where you began.

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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