In this issue, by chance, appear no less than three articles which contain extensive quotations by contemporaries, writing over two hundred years ago, who lived in or visited Dulwich, then a small village. Like now, London itself was crowded and the roads emanating from it were being built up. Two of the articles, both written by poets and essayists, are concerned with their journey into Dulwich; indeed, they were accounts of a day trip both took, in the same year, and apparently separated by only a few weeks. Both seemed to have travelled on the same regular stage coach from Fleet Street and the writers comment at length about the difference in their surroundings once they start to ascend Herne Hill and turn down towards Dulwich. Another contemporary, John Ruskin, in his autobiography ‘Praeterita’, says much the same thing, as does Richard Church, another writer and poet a century later in his own autobiography ‘Over the bridge’.
What they all noted was the beauty of their immediate surroundings and the glimpses of equally beautiful countryside seen through the hedges, trees and gardens that they pass. What is remarkable is that a traveller today, even a resident taking his or her pandemic emergency exercise walk along this same route cannot but be inspired by the beauty of the surroundings, in whatever season.
In the pages of this issue you will also find an account of what must have been seen at the time as a considerable threat to this beauty. The threat took the form of a process called inclosure or better known today as ‘enclosure’, a process whereby historic common land was reclaimed by the landowner through a legal process. As the account makes apparent, Dulwich Common did not suffer the same fate as some of its fellow commons such as Norwood, Penge and Sydenham where the enclosed land was soon covered with speculator- driven housing. A pedant would indeed point out that whatever part of Dulwich’s Common was eventually built upon was more than compensated for by the granting of a park.
What is screamingly evident is that the resulting experience of the lovely landscape/townscape noted by today’s observer and his predecessors two centuries earlier, does need to be defended from intrusion.
We might well ask ourselves, how well are we defending Dulwich today? There are constant applications to extend or rebuild property, which when taken to extreme, results in pushing new builds to their very boundaries, thereby eliminating ‘the glimpses of distant landscapes ‘ so appreciated in the observers’ accounts. We continue to permit Metropolitan Open Land to be nibbled away, however good the reasoning sounds, as arguments are posited, that to preserve existing sportsgrounds it is necessary to generate more income. The solution is often seen by enlarging pavilions and other buildings to accommodate new users such as children’s nurseries. Recently, permission has been granted to destroy existing MOL with a new stadium in order to accommodate a new housing estate on its existing site,simply in order that a relatively small number of football enthusiasts can satisfy their needs at the expense of many times more who will be denied the sight of the greenspace forever.
Even small changes can affect the appearance and consequent enjoyment of surroundings. The frantic new restrictions by Southwark and Lambeth Councils affecting local roads seem to demand huge numbers of intrusive signage. The proliferation of street signage inevitably destroys the treasured views.
Your membership of the Dulwich Society supports efforts to preserve this unique place.