Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Hilly Fields: saving Deptford Common

For the existence of Hilly Fields park we have to thank those who campaigned against it being built on in the late 19th century. The campaign first came to national notice with a flurry of letters in The Times in 1888. 'Vulpes' wrote on September 18 1888:

'An opportunity still exists, though it is rapidly passing-away, of securing an open space of about 40 acres, lying off Loampit-hill to the south of Deptford, and known as the Hilly-fields. Any one unacquainted with it, and feeling interested, should take the train at Cannon-street or London-bridge, alighting in about ten minutes at St. John's, where a walk of five minutes more will take him to the spot I name. I venture to think he will agree with me that the preservation of this glorious hill is not merely a matter of local but one of metropolitan - I might even say of national-importance, for I doubt if another spot in the world can exist more eloquent in interest to all imbued with affection for our existing institutions or our past history.

On reaching the summit of the hill at the back of the West Kent Grammar School, the eye gazes unimpeded on an amphitheatre of charming beauty and pathetic interest. To the north lies Deptford, backed by the river Thames with its shipping, and in the distance the heights of Highgate, Barnet, and Epping Forest, the Deptford spires, rising amid stacks of chimneys and clouds of smoke, pleading eloquently for the preservation of this, the poor remains of what was once its common, for as "Deptford-common" this spot is still described on maps of even modern date, though now, through what means I know not, owned by private proprietors, and apparently destined in the immediate future to be the prey of the insatiable maw of the speculative builder.

The local tradition is that Queen Elizabeth in the generosity of her heart took this common from Deptford, and as an expression of the national gratitude presented it to Sir Francis Drake and adjacent property being still owned by a family of his name gives some colour to the report. If it be true, very hard measure was meted out to Deptford, which it would be a graceful act of the nation at large now, as far as possible, to repair, by securing to it what yet remains of its common unenclosed and uncovered by bricks and mortar.

To the east of Deptford lies Greenwich with the twin towers of its world-famed hospital, backed by the heights of Blackheath; farther round, the eye rests on Lee Church, the woods of Eltham hiding the ruins of its fine old palace, equalling, it is said, in its architectural design, Westminster Hall. Bromley, Chevening Park (beneath whose oaks one of our noblest philanthropists felt the inspiration which culminated in the abolition of slavery), and the Weald of Kent display to us the prominent figures of the famous Knockholt Beeches,which stand boldly above the horizon recalling to our minds the name of Darwin, who lived and worked and sleeps under their shade...'

This was backed up on 25 September by Edward J Swain (40 Adelaide Road, Brockley) who wrote:

'what a grievous loss it will be to thousands, both young and old, if the only remaining hill is ultimately built over. There is no finer view near London than, looking south-east, can be got from the side of the Grammar School,and in several particulars it is unique. I cannot but think there are hundreds of householders in the richer districts of Blackheath, Lee, and Eltham who would readily bring their influence to bear upon those with whom rests the preservation of the hill, and who would gladly assist, if any local fund was started, towards securing this end'.

Crucially, the campaign secured the support at an early stage of Octavia Hill of the Commons Preservation Society, who wrote on 27 September:

'These fields lie within moderate distance of the large, poor district of Deptford. If ever I happen to see a glass of wild flowers in the homes of the people there, I am invariably told that they were gathered in the Hilly-fields, probably on the Sunday afternoon's walk. What a source of pure, healthy enjoyment and refreshment such a walk is to those living in a neighbourhood like Deptford'.

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