50 years of change in Dulwich
By Angus Hanton
On my 56th birthday, I was asked whether much has changed in Dulwich over the last 50 years. A lot has. For a start, roads have become busier and cars bigger but they mostly travel slower. There are many more bikes, using bike lanes and bike racks - neither of which even existed in 1970. Traffic calming has tamed the car - gone are the days when Dulwich Park was a rat-run for drivers and cars would speed at 60 mph down Court Lane and Turney Road. The air, too, has improved with much better control of diesel emissions, fewer old bangers, and very few bonfires. Smokeless zones also eliminated smogs that I was just old enough to choke on in the mid 1960s.
When I was a teenager in the 1970s there was only one restaurant in the village: if you could afford to eat out the only option was the Dulwich Steak House, whereas today there are dozens of Dulwich eateries. Businesses selling real things like meat and vegetables have been displaced by supermarkets and the shops now sell services including, for example, many more estate agents. The houses are sold for eye-wateringly high prices but are mostly from the same old housing stock that existed 50 years ago but often transformed by modernisation. In the 1960s you would buy a house and just accept it as it was, but now people expect to remodel and extend their new house, adding loft rooms, extensions and new basements. Locally every road seems to have a skip parked somewhere for building works. But it’s not just about the housing stock - the type of person moving to Dulwich has changed with more city professionals and more working couples. Lace curtains have given way to shutters, black front doors to pastel coloured ones.
Even wildlife has shown shifts from the 1960s with more foxes and the arrival of parakeets. Many species have left London such as the sparrows, starlings and barn owls - which as a boy I would stay up late to listen to and occasionally actually see. And we’ve lost our old elm trees though a hedgerow of young ones still survives in Gallery Road. More domestically, dogs have changed - there are fewer stray dogs and more of those squat, pit bull types - also dog mess has mostly gone from our pavements, which was such a nuisance until about 1995. But I’ve always been slightly fearful of dogs ever since I walked to school on my own from the age of five, occasionally chaperoned by my seven-year-old sister - fewer young children walk to school on their own, and there are not so many full-time mums to collect them from the school gates.
The rise of the “superschool” has had big knock-on effects, with JAGS, DC and Alleyn’s increasing their size by taking younger children but also vastly increasing the facilities they offer. The geographic reach of the Dulwich schools has extended which in turn has brought in new residents and introduced an international dimension that was barely present in the 1960s. Secondary education outside the private sector has moved from being a desperate choice between various “sink schools” like the old William Penn to possibilities of very good community schools like “The Charter” at the same location - with the promise of another one later in 2016 at the East Dulwich Hospital site.
Several local facilities have been transformed and the outstanding one is the Dulwich Picture Gallery, moving from a sleepy backwater without so much as a tea shop to a place that is firmly on the map and whose exhibitions have made it a serious London destination. But other buildings too have been resurrected - Belair House has been rescued from being a virtually derelict building to a smart venue, the velodrome pavilion in Burbage Road will be rebuilt very soon and the Brockwell Lido in Herne Hill has been rescued and modernised.
The event I remember best as a child was the Dulwich Millennium organised by a young Brian Green in 1967 where adults learnt that Dulwich or “Dilwihs” got its name 1,000 years ago as the “field of Dill”, while children paraded, danced and played. Dressed as a court jester I was told to celebrate by going round hitting the maypole dancers on their backsides. A more regular event in the 1970s was the annual summer fete in the “archery field” by the Old Grammar School where plate smashing and sale of bric-a-brac were favourite activities. Whilst these fetes aren’t organised any longer there is a lot more going on today with the Dulwich Festival, the Dulwich Artists Open House fortnight and the various events at the Picture Gallery.
Public transport has improved hugely with ancient slam-door trains being replaced with cleaner, more reliable modern trains. Rail services also get you to more places, zipping up to the City and Victoria and more recently to East London on the new overground service. Such improvements easily go un-noticed but thinking back I remember the 37 bus route was legendary for its bunching of buses with three or four often trundling along together after long waiting times: now we have a much more regular service and in recent years electronics lets you know exactly when the next bus will arrive. Actually people nowadays don’t queue for buses as strictly as they used to, possibly because there are more different buses leaving from each stop but perhaps also because it’s now very rare for a bus to be so full that the people at the back have to wait for the next one.
We have of course lost some good things such as the Dulwich Travel agency and the electrical shop where I first stood and watched the miracle of colour television in 1969. We’ve seen two old Victorian churches burnt down but they have been replaced with far better buildings which can be used for local events - St Barnabas and All Saints. Other changes have definitely altered the feel of Dulwich - the social mix has been reduced as property prices have escalated and many of the houses that were used by Southwark Council as flats have been sold off by the Dulwich Estate mostly to well-off families. The increased wealth combined with two-career couples has meant that families are more likely to employ domestic help and the new “staff” are often from Eastern Europe.
Despite all this, many aspects of Dulwich remain much the same - white posts with linking chains, a strong local community, the influence of the Dulwich Estate, extensive green fields and, of course, Brian Green’s toy shop: it was there when my children were young, it’s still there today, and exactly 50 years ago I celebrated my 6th birthday by going to the Dulwich toy shop owned by Brian’s father to buy a teddy bear which I still keep by my bed. Birthdays make you reflect on both change and stability.