Downham in South East London

Downham in South East London is built-up residential area today but up to WWI this was still open countryside. It is probably a little-known area to those living in the more fashionable and trendy parts of London, but I believe that development there has interesting lessons for us in the 21C. 

Forster Memorial Park

Until the 1920s this area, beyond Lewisham, was farmland, the area of the ‘Seven Fields’ in which local people would walk at weekends in the early part of the 20C. But WWI changed many things.

The Forster family were major landowners here and lived at Southend Hall which had vast areas of parkland in addition to farmland. 

‘… The land for the park was given to the people of Lewisham in 1919 by H W Forster, later Lord Forster, first MP for the Borough of Bromley and Governor-General of Australia from 1920-25… Mr Forster donated the land in memory of his two sons, killed in WWI, and Forster Memorial Park was opened in 1922 by his daughter…’.

London Gardens Online, April 2012

It is hard to find this generosity in today’s property developers with their crowded housing estates. Forster Park today covers 42 acres and offers sports facilities, walking, education, and simple enjoyment. And there is a continuity of purpose as local people still enjoy the open air in the park.

Forster Memorial Park in Downham in South East London
Panorama of the Forster Memorial Park

The park is unusual in that it has preserved ancient woodlands, which according to The Woodland Trust are ‘…areas of woodland that have persisted since 1600 in England and Wales, and 1750 in Scotland. This is when maps started to be reasonably accurate so we can tell that these areas have had tree cover for hundreds of years. They are relatively undisturbed by human development. As a result, they are unique and complex communities of plants, fungi, insects and other micro-organisms…’. The many fine oak trees are particularly remarkable, but there is also a surprising area of Scots Pines.

Scots pines in Forster Memorial Park

Downham Fields aka Durham Hill

Soldiers returning from WWI had high expectations of a better life. Certainly in London the London County Council wanted to create better housing for poorer families. Lewisham Council wanted to preserve the countryside areas, but the London County Council compulsorily purchased Shroffold Farm and Holloway Farm and built the Downham Estate  of 6,000 houses between 1924-38 to rehouse families from the East End of London. 

Shroffolds Farm c.1910 (https://boroughphotos.org/lewisham/shroffolds-farm-18/)

The new housing estate was built with wide, tree-lined roads and Downham Fields or Durham Hill was preserved as parkland within the estate. Some of the trees have been sacrificed to create parking for cars, but the parkland continues as a reminder of the countryside which was once here. It is ‘…the most extensive area of flower-rich neutral grassland in the Borough..’. (Ecology Handbook 30, London Ecology Unit)

Panorama of London from Downham in South East London
Panorama of London from Downham Fields
Downham Fields in Downham in South East London
Downham Fields
Downham Fields in South East London
Downham Fields, looking towards London

Downham Woodland Walk

But the LCC went further. ‘…The Downham Estate … incorporated and preserved an existing tract of woodland from Whitefoot Terrace to Bromley Road. Now called Downham Woodland Walk it runs between the houses for over 1.5 km, and much of it is almost certainly ancient woodland, shown on maps of 1805…’.

London Gardens Trust, April 2012

Today the woodlands are part of the Green Chain Walk, and appreciated by long-distance walkers as well as local people. You slip into another layer of time as you step off a busy road, or off the pavement into the woods. The trees wrap you in greenness, and peace, interrupted only by squirrels and birds. Again there is a continuity of purpose, with the woods simply being ‘woods’.

Path wandering through the Downham Woodland Walk in South East London
Path wandering through the Downham Woodland Walk

Downham Playing Fields & the Cricket Pitch

Not far away are fields which once belonged to Holloway Farm. The fields remain today, available for sport or walking, with the Spring Brook running quietly on one side, though trees, and creating an interesting wet area before joining the River Ravensbourne.

Sunday sport at Downham Playing Fields in South East London
Sunday sport at Downham Playing Fields

If you are enjoying the sunshine continue to follow the Spring Brook through Shaftesbury Park and you will find the Downham and Bellingham Cricket Club. The LCC built a cricket pitch in 1931 for those working on the estate and it is still enjoyed today!


You could end your visit to Downham with refreshments at The Bromley Court Hotel which was built in the 1760s and became the country seat of Charles Long, Baron Farnborough, a politician and patron of the arts.

I hope you have enjoyed this little trip to Downham in South East London. Do you have similar stories from your London Borough which you could share?


Post and all photographs by Candy Blackham who is exploring the green spaces in the London Borough of Lewisham as the Enthusiastic Gardener

Sources

One thought on “Downham in South East London

  1. Who would tink amongst the hustle and bustle there within is a peaceful sanctuary.
    Thank you Candy for opening up my vision
    Chrissie Kitchen Cratfield Suffolk

    Like

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