Though often regarded as just another part of London, Croydon has a rich history of being a significant town in its own right and despite some of its history being fragile and vulnerable to the inexorable growth of London’s population and the change associated with it, Croydon still has many interesting, surprising and unique features that an urban explorer can enjoy.
It is currently going through a new and significant period of further change and redevelopment in its centre, which has raised some interesting issues about the preservation of not only its heritage from its earlier days, but also the iconic 1960’s urbanism and architecture for which it has become quite famous.
Since 2013, it has held an annual summer Heritage Festival, a three week-long celebration of the Borough’s past, present and future – with an overwhelming response from the local community. This year’s event took place in June with the Undiscovered Croydon theme running between 18th -26th June, including Croydon Heritage Day on Saturday the 18h of June.
The festival has gone from strength to strength putting on hundreds of events, each presented by local community groups and individuals, and welcoming thousands of visitors from Croydon and beyond to explore the borough’s heritage for themselves. From haunted walks along the Wandle, Tudor dancing workshops, talks on Crystal Palace’s Edwardian roller skating boom, a Flower Fairies Festival to behind the scenes tours of the London Tramlink Depot, it has provided something of interested across the generations.
As a reflection of the growing awareness of the area’s unique places of interest, the Croydon Tours now on offer are the brainchild of James Naylor, 25, who first took up the mission to show people there is plenty of forgotten history right on the doorstep.
From historical tours to walks taking in sites used to film the cult sitcom Peep Show, Mr Naylor is keen to showcase the town’s rich history by taking sightseers to its landmarks and feeding them details of Croydon’s history.
His tours even go to the top of car parks, where punters can enjoy spectacular views across the borough and beyond.
The Historical Old Town tour, one of five that Mr Naylor offers for small groups, takes in many of Croydon’s forgotten gems, starting outside the Whitgift Almshouses, in George Street, which date back to 1596. The tour then makes its way down Church Street, taking in Bell Hill and Middle Street, which are the only surviving medieval streets following the Victorian redevelopment of the town.
Surrey Street Market – one of the most historic markets in London – is next on the list, followed by Exchange Square, and the grand Pumping Station tower.
Speaking about Croydon’s reputation as a ‘mini-Manhattan’, Mr Naylor said: “This was the first time London experimented with the idea of an American style downtown, a high-rise office concentration away from the centre.”
In the towns conservation area the Almshouses survive alongside a Victorian water tower and the clocktower of the town hall, which many feel, is the finest town hall in London. The Old Palace, now a girl’s senior school, has parts that date back to the 1100s. Also, in this heritage area is Croydon Minster. Nearby, are ‘60’s iconic buildings including the former Nestle headquarters and Fairfield Halls.
He has recently been joined by the National Trust, who are now offering walking tours to celebrate the “contemporary heritage” of Croydon – this is the first time a borough has been recognised by the organisation, with walks having just started last week.
Included will be No1 Croydon, or the “50p” building, named because of its hexagonal shape, Lunar House built in 1970’s which showcases the ‘space age design of the time,’ and behind the scene access to Fairlfields Hall which will be seeing a £30 million refurbishment at the end of July. This is part of a £2.5 billion regeneration scheme across Croydon, aiming to turn the area into ‘South London’s Silicon Valley.’
Not only does Croydon have a unique and fascinating past, but there are certainly exciting things in store for the future.