Review: National Trust ‘Edge City: Croydon’ tour

By - Wednesday 27th July, 2016

What happens on tour stays on tour? Breaking all the rules, Bonnie Stephensmith reveals what happened on the National Trust’s Edge City: Croydon Tours

Photo author’s own.

The popularity of the National Trust’s latest venture meant many people missed the opportunity to explore Croydon. My inner-London friends were dismayed the tours were on for just eight days – and sold out so quickly. So, I’m going to break the code – what happened on tour won’t be staying on tour.

The pre-event promotion of ‘Edge City: Croydon’ pointed towards a focus on architecture and changing perceptions. However, the usual negative press was put to one side as our 90-minute experience focused on a town that was futuristic and fascinating. For once, there was a positive interpretation of our 1960s concrete as our National Trust guides, clad in leafy green t-shirts, described 1960s Croydon as a forward-looking and progressive suburb with big dreams for the future.

With panoramic views not just of Croydon but into central London, our tour began at Ruskin Square’s marketing suite in AMP House. We were told how the Croydon Corporation Act of 1960, and a policy of decentralising central London offices, had created an opportunistic and ambitious attitude to transforming the town. This had led to speculative buildings creating a new urban landscape between East Croydon and Wellesley Road and, as we looked over the Ruskin Square development and other buildings currently changing Croydon’s skyline, we could visualise history repeating itself.

We started to visualise Croydon as a sci-fi masterpiece

Venturing down Dingwall Road, the tale became still more futuristic as our guides discussed how some of the most eminent 1960s and 1970s architects made their influence felt in Croydon. We reached Corinthian House, designed by Richard Seifert, who also was behind No. 1 Croydon. Seifert often partnered with multi-millionaire Harry Hyams, notably on Centre Point and the Natwest tower, but their marks on Croydon were made independently. Hyams designed the twin structures of Apollo and Lunar Houses and the names not only bring home the Space Age townscape which emerged in post-war Croydon, but also reflect his interest in the Space Race. Another of Hyams’ notable London buildings was named Space House.

Starting to visualise Croydon as a sci-fi masterpiece, we progressed across the intergalactic highway, better known as Wellesley Road. In line with Sixties ideals and technological advances, Croydon was planned as a city of cars – with more car parks than Manchester or Birmingham and an intricate network of main roads, flyovers and underpasses.

Through the underpass, we arrived at the Whitgift Centre, like Apollo and Lunar built on the site of a former school. The double-decker style of the pedestrian shopping centre echoed the aspirations for height on our skyline and was one of the earliest pedestrianised shopping malls in Britain. Originally open to the air, the centre housed Allders, at the time the third largest store in the UK behind Harrods and Selfridges. Our guide emphasised how the Whitgift Centre was a revolutionary development and a forerunner of all in-town shopping malls – a piece of history which will repeat itself when it is replaced by Westfield and Hammerson’s technologically advanced retail development.

Visitors to ‘Fair Field’ paid sixpence to see a downed Messerchmitt during WWII

Photo author’s own.

Further along the Wellesley Road we were encouraged to take notice of the 11-storey Norwich Union development, Norfolk House. The suspense as to why this height was so significant was revealed just before we entered Fairfield Halls for the next stage of the tour, our guide pointed across to St George’s House (more commonly known as the Nestlé Tower), which was reportedly commissioned to be ‘at least twice as tall as Norfolk House’.

As we entered Fairfield, only just closed for a two-year refurbishment programme, the venue’s Operations Manager John Bartliff brought the now empty 1960s building to life with tales of its past.

John’s whistle-stop, yet fascinating, overview began with the original, undeveloped site, the Fair Field, through multiple unrealised schemes including an outlandish plan to turn the entire site into one giant air raid shelter, large enough to house 30,000 people and 800 cars. A further notable anecdote followed a Messerschmitt that had plummeted to ground on the Surrey Downs during the Second World War and was displayed at the field. A fence was erected around the plane and visitors paid sixpence to see it – an enterprise that raised almost £5,000.

It is good to hear that other guide companies now plan to arrange similar tours

A circular journey around the key venues within Fairfield took in the Ashcroft Theatre, Concert Hall and Arnhem Gallery. John explained some of the stories behind the theatre’s famous safety curtain, designed by Henry Bird, and we were privy to behind-the-scenes workings of the theatre and plans for its future. Secrets behind the outstanding acoustics in the Concert Hall were revealed, positioning Fairfield as the venue in which its designer, Hope Bagenal, put right all the mistakes he had made at the Royal Festival Hall. We even took a trip to the worst seat in the house, the Royal Box, complete with its own royal toilet!

I thought I knew my home town pretty well but my afternoon with the National Trust made me still more proud of this Space Age mini-Manhattan. Although the guides were not local, their knowledge was extensive and had been impressively committed to memory. The content and organisation of the event could not be faulted and Croydon Council should also be praised for supporting the venture.

It is good to hear that other guide companies now plan to arrange similar tours and I hope these reach many of those who missed out this time around. The fusion of traditional English heritage with modernist urban architecture was ingenious and I hope visitors will now consider Croydon’s concrete in a new light. If we are ever to properly change people’s perceptions of our town, what happens in Croydon shouldn’t just stay in Croydon.

Bonnie Stephensmith

Bonnie Stephensmith

Having spent most of her life in Croydon, Bonnie is a great advocate of the town. She now works at local marketing and events agency, White Label, who are involved with many key events in Croydon and surrounding areas. Her role particularly focuses on the Croydon’s regeneration via White Label’s community interest company, Develop Croydon. Having completed a masters in English at Exeter, she enjoys spending her spare time indulging in books and films, and is regularly found in Matthew’s Yard eating burgers.

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  • Robert Ward

    I was less impressed for my £9. The NT guide’s knowledge of the buildings was reasonable but knowledge of Croydon and anecdotes to bring things alive were less good. Who had performed at the Fairfield, David Bowie’s attendance at Croydon College, that Croydon Airport was London airport, where for example Neville Chamberlain brought back his “piece of paper signed by Herr Hitler” all seemed to be news to them.

    A highly irritating bbc local reporter chattering in the background and interrupting the NT person didn’t help either.