Living In Dulwich
Journalist Maggie Brown reflects
It is something of a surprise to find that you're settled so happily into your adopted village of London that you have stopped counting the years. The fact is I have lived in Dulwich and Herne Hill for 31 years, far longer than anywhere else, and brought up four children here, but never planned it that way. I think the fact we've settled in, with no plans to move, is down to the special Dulwich effect, a cross of greenery and charm, reminiscent of an outer London suburb, with the convenience of being so close to the centre. Oh yes, and of course, the schools. But there have been some staggering changes.
This area of South London was completely unknown to me, apart from the connection with John Ruskin, when, as a business journalist at Reuters in Fleet Street, living in Highgate, the hunt to find a decent house to buy in North London proved hopeless. A number of Reuters editors then lived in Dulwich, and pointed out that if I got on a train at Farringdon, and went South, I could be in Herne Hill in a jiffy. In those hot metal days the trains even ran through the night, for the shift workers on newspapers. There remains a fair smattering of editors writers and journalists in Dulwich.
I arrived at 3.30pm on Spring afternoon, in 1978, took a peek at glorious Brockwell Park, went to view just one house, in Fawnbrake Avenue, and agreed to buy it on the spot. The old lady, who was moving to her sister's in Brighton, had been told by the estate agent the price was nineteen thousand pounds. As we ate cup cakes together, she told me eighteen thousand pounds was perfectly acceptable. It was faded, needed a lot of work, but was a glorious and solid four bedroom home with front and rear gardens. The servant's bells were in place. She warned me that there 'darkies' nearby, but no trouble. The next door house was owned by a former comic actor who'd been in Benny Hill sketches. I went home and told my husband, brought up in Holland Park, what I had done. He was shocked, but came to love that house. But it took so long for the old lady to move that we feared she never would.
So the year of waiting before taking possession of Fawnbrake Avenue were spent scouring East Dulwich, charming Crystal Palace Road, Barry Road. Believe me, there were lots of faded, beaten up houses to be had, also at bargain prices, but I was worried then by what seemed their remoteness from public transport. And, believe it or not, East Dulwich really did seem rough and edgy, while West Dulwich, now a rather overlooked part of Dulwich, seemed a much safer bet. Lordship Lane was a frontier, fine for Indian restaurants and useful iron mongers, but absolutely not the entry point into the trendy yummy mummy suburb it has changed into. Now one of my daughters lives in Rodwell Road, and a former working man's pub, The Magdalen is her pricey neighbourhood eatery.
I date the formal transformation of East Dulwich to the arrival of the Blue Mountain Cafe in Northcross Road in the early 1990s. Suddenly a trendy editor descended from Chelsea and demanded to meet me there. But the year before that happened my Rodwell Road daughter had been randomly punched to the ground by a youth on the corner of Northcross Road.
In 1984 we'd moved to a ramshackle and neglected Victorian monster of a house on East Dulwich Grove, captivated by its large garden and open views to North Dulwich Tennis Club. (I'd been mugged in Fawnbrake Avenue and the walk from the station now frightened me). The occupant of the station house attached to North Dulwich Station around the corner kept a menagerie, and used the railway sidings to graze his goat, who was sometimes a mascot for Alleyn's School. The goat used to ramble over the tennis courts to stick his head over our fence. The children's school friends used to invite themselves around, to feed the goat. The peacocks he also kept at the station house woke us in the mornings.The houses on our side were all pretty shabby in the 1980s. The vast one on the corner of East Dulwich Grove/Red Post Hill alas, had squatters. Then a fire burnt down the staircase. One evening, as I was tending to my second baby, burglars jumped like hurdlers over the fences. (In fact, burglars walked off the street, and frequently tried to break in to our house: we soon realised it was impossible to live without a burglar alarm switched on downstairs at night. My husband was also stabbed on North Dulwich station when he told off a youth for urinating down the stairs).
But instead of it being pulled down and having flats built on the garden the Dulwich magic took effect. A wealthy businessman with deep pockets from theatreland rescued the corner house in a labour of love, building the magnificent wall around the garden. The houses in between were then done up beautifully. But as Dulwich Village became swankier and City money came pulsing through, from the mid 1980s, the local shops changed dramatically. The fishmonger, greengrocer, butcher, ironmonger (where Biff is now) and food store Cullens (Oddbins now) closed and were replaced. The Post Office moved across the road to its present location into what had been Green Onions, but managed to hang on. Most recently, Francis Jevons's interior design and antiques shop was replaced by Romeo Jones. So you can buy an excellent coffee, gourmet
food by the basketful, but not the daily necessities at sensible prices. The two stalwarts of the clusters of shops are The Village Bookshop, and Mr Green's Art Stationers.
On the plus side, the start of the National Lottery sixteen years ago has helped transform treasures such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with its generous policies towards local Friends, and Dulwich Park itself. North Dulwich Tennis Club, which was about to sink into decrepitude, has been rescued over the past six years, and now has scores of cheery children as members. The thing that needs investigating is the continuous installation of road humps, traffic measures, and traffic lights that seem, in total, to increase traffic congestion, rather than improve it. I think the local fee paying schools such as James Allen's should deliberately start favouring local applicants. I am also mystified by the sums of money sunk into North Dulwich Station, which never seems to be fully repaired, as the ineffectual scaffolding suggests. But these are the minor irritations of living in a very nice place, too good to leave.
Maggie Brown is a media journalist for The Guardian and The Stage, and historian of Channel 4.