Suburbs of South East London

January 19, 2007

Just to report that Ozlem and I went on a field trip to a selection of SE suburbs yesterday. Our route was: Orpington – Petts Wood – Bromley and Beckenham. We had intended to tak in Syndenham too but the bad weather meant our train failed to stop there. We also ran out of time to make it to Forest Hill but as we are both familiar with it anyway we can revisit at a later stage if necessary.

Orpington was interesting – a very long traditional high street approximately fifteen minutes from the overground route and running south north combining a large number of parades of shops, generally dating from the early decades of twentieth century it seemed. There is also a 60s or 70s shopping precinct called Walnets, rather ugly and run-down. There is a Sainsbury’s there now and was not empty on a Thursday afternoon but you would probably not want to hang arond there later on. There were the usual suburban chains such as Jenny’s and Threshers – also a large Marks and Spencers, but also a number of independent shops that looked like they were doing well enough. At the northern end of the High Street there were quite a lot of empty units and a nice looking pub that were empty and boarded up. This was rather incongruous as that end of the town was evidently originally Orpington village with some rather nice eighteenth or early nineteenth-century residences and acceptable pubs. This suggests an area going through a period of transition. Further north, beyond the High Street there were office buildings and appartments built onto the main road. Generally speaking the High Street was surrounded on all sides by classic interwar suburban semis – some quite smart. It reminded me, in some respects of Borehamwood, in being a suburban ‘town’ – though with a lot less commercial activity but at a similar remove from London.

Petts Wood we encountered in driving rain. It has something in common with Whetstone in being located either side of a busy stretch of straight road and lacking the same sense of centrality that other centres possess which feature some variation in their morphology. The fact that it is not a large centre emphasises this feeling. Having said this, there were people about and the shops were generally local and looked healthy.

Bromley is a centre on a different scale altogether from the other two. We reached in via a bus from Petts Wood and made our way through ‘outskirts’ before entering the main central area. Two features of the centre perhaps relate to its relative size: firstly, it has a key ‘ringy’ section which connects the main shopping streets to the access roads around it to the north, and secondly, the main High Street is pedestrianised and rather ‘Clone Town-like’ in my opinion, although local butchers and jewellers were also present to suggest what an older Bromley may have looked like. Going north of the High Street onto the section that allowed traffic through, it began to look a bit run down although there were some new businesses such as hairdressing (the fast-food of services). There is also a large enclosed shopping centre to the south of the High Street called ‘The Glades’. Although as anonymous as any such centre it seemed popular and well connected to the high street – although we didn’t explore this connectivity in any depth.

By the time we reached Beckenham it was dark and we were quite tired. I found it quite a curious place though. It suggested a further morphological attribute to help characterise the centres we have looked at (straight, split around a corner, y-triangulated, ringy). The High Street, which is basically divided into two sections around right-angled corner, appears to be broken up into many different sections because of topographical factors such as small bends in the road and gently hilly terrain. There may be more commercial activity in the smaller streets off the centre but we didn’t get a chance to have a look at these.

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4 Responses to “Suburbs of South East London”

  1. ozlemsahbaz Says:

    Although I agree that there is a large number of chain shops in Bromley, there also individual shops like the odd fishmonger, the corner jeweller, a few individual cafés (along side the chain cafés) which look like they have been there for a long time, and have an established identity of some sort. I can more or less tell the same mixture exists in Beckenham, although in a smaller overall scale. This mixture of chains and independents together, can be very advantageous for a centre (I think we talked about this in the case of Borehamwood as well), both can benefit from the windfall of each other and the users can go between the two types of shopping.

    Another point between the northern and southern centres we have seen; I feel the southern centres have a better sense of a beginning and an end, cut apart by residential regions. As you walk along the most active portions on the high street structure, you feel where the activity starts “dying out”, and this is felt a bit more strongly, compared to Northern suburban centres we have seen. This is probably because of different development drivers (which Muki referred to in our last meeting). Unlike the previous northern route we took, southern centres were not following a centrally prominent traffic route (and tube line) and thus not showing an as strong continuity along a line. Some more observation in the north, this time not on such a strong route, may be useful for describing this better.

  2. ozlemsahbaz Says:

    Adding on Beckenham, among the centres we have seen, although I may be wrong, this one probably has the highest ratio of individual shops in the centre, the theme being mostly food, comparison shopping such as clothes are limited to small boutique type shops. Perhaps the reason for this is the accessibility of Bromley for comparison shopping. Housing type around the centre is mostly modern, (modern housing looking generally kept and desirable) but the centre has significant amount of historical buildings, some of them prominent enough to be landmark (such as the St Paul’s Church near the station with its large plot), giving an identity to the place and draw a conceptual map in mind.

  3. SG Says:

    I think we should be wary of making over-clear distinctions between north and south London since there is large variety of centres both sides of the river. Like east-west, north-south is also a cultural geography which affects how we see these places. Having said that, I agree with what what you said! It definitely rings true with what we’ve seen.

    Also the Bromley – Beckenham relationship (and other centres in that area) do lend themselves to a study of lateral relations between suburban centres.

  4. ozlemsahbaz Says:

    I agree, what I said only covers my observations on the centres we have seen (referring to them as norhern and southern, but maybe I should say trip 1 and trip 2), that is why I say more observation is needed on this “dying out” effect. It is certainly not something we can derive from the resultant boundaries of TC project.


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