On The Street Where You Live - Peckarman's Wood by Ian McInnes
The original large Victorian houses on this site, numbers 7-21(odd) Crescent Wood Road, had been subject to requisitioning by Camberwell Borough Council during the War and had also appeared on that Council's 1946 list of potential sites for compulsory purchase for council housing. While the Dulwich Estate were prepared to accept, reluctantly, that they would lose some of the Estate (Kingswood and 48-60 (even) Sydenham Hill), by the early 1950s they considered enough was enough. In negotiations over the Dulwich Development Plan (finally approved by the London County Council in 1955), the Ministry of Housing agreed that Camberwell would forgo their right to compulsory purchase this site as long as the Estate carried out their own new development on it.
In February 1956 the Estate Architect, Austin Vernon, flushed with success over his nephew and partner Russell Vernon's successful negotiations with the LCC on the DDP, proposed a series of 3-4 storey flats and maisonettes along the top of the slope along Crescent Wood Road. By November 1957 this had become '50 small houses in small terraces with garages...the scheme has been laid before Messrs Wates Ltd who are interested in the project.' However requisitioning was still in force and Wates qualified their enthusiasm by saying that they 'would be very pleased to take on the development of the above site when the properties have been derequisitioned subject to terms and to a mutually satisfactory redevelopment plan.'
There was also one other complication. In January 1958 the LCC had written to the Governors regarding their intention to purchase the former Crystal Palace High level railway land as public open space and their requirement for an access on to it from Crescent Wood Road -through the proposed development site. The Governors thought that it would be much better to arrange access from Cox's Walk and, after some further negotiation, this was agreed. At the same time they managed to persuade the LCC to allow the old railway land to revert to the Estate on the basis that the Estate would be prepared to allow 'a public walk through the Dulwich Woods with an outlet in Low Cross Wood lane, the walk to be fenced, patrolled and maintained by Camberwell Council.'
In January 1960 the Estate accepted a surrender of the lease of Beechgrove, 111 Sydenham Hill, from the King Edwards Fund for London, with the intention of incorporating it into the proposed development. During July, Russell Vernon, who had taken over as Estate Architect from his uncle, presented a detailed report for a development on both sites noting that the 'site is a particularly difficult one, due to its precipitous nature, which calls for a rather specialized and costly development ..... My proposal for the redevelopment of the first phase, illustrated by the detailed layout plan and the model submitted, is for 101 houses which have been very carefully sited in order to retain the woodland character of the site and to maintain the views to the north and west.... Every effort has been made to keep the wooded character and to treat it in a scenic manner, possibly on the Swedish pattern.'
Delays in sorting out the requisitioned properties and re-housing existing tenants meant that it was not until late in 1962 that a detailed scheme was ready to start. By then there were 30 houses at the top of the site, 12 in the centre and 42 at the bottom. Malcolm Pringle, the design architect, who had joined Austin & Vernon & Partners from John Poulson's office in 1961, confirmed that the unique ranch style houses in the centre were reduced in number and rearranged as a direct response to the contours on the site and to ensure the retention of more existing trees, and that a further house type, a split level town house, was added to keep up the density. The road at the bottom of the site was also designed to be used as an access to the adjacent site for a future development that never took place - growing local opposition to development in the woods stopped it in the 1970s.
Work started on the first phase during 1963 and Wates found that the site had large areas of unstable clay and, as the Architect reported '45 foot piles have had to be driven to provide a stable foundation for the two and three storey houses.' The houses at the top of the site were similar to those built earlier in Dulwich Wood Park, with an open plan living area and a roof 'loft room', all positioned over a double garage. The split level ranch style units were described as 'being designed with a bungalow appearance on the higher level and two stories on the lower level. Each house comprises; on the entrance floor (or higher level) a hall, small dining room with kitchen adjoining (with a screened yard) as well as a bathroom, laundry and separate WC. At the lower level there are two double bedrooms and a bathroom, and at the higher level from the hall a living room with a balcony, and either a fourth bedroom adjoining or a dining room or study. With the living room upstairs, views are obtained across the woods towards London.'
The first completions took place in mid/late 1964 just after the general election which saw Harold Wilson installed as Prime Minister. Political uncertainty combined with high prices (in part a function of the extensive ground works and site infrastructure works) meant that sales were slow. Wates managed to have the estate featured in an article called 'Living In' in the Observer Weekend review of 8th November 1964 written by Audrey Powell. She wrote 'Motoring correspondents are fortunate. Car manufacturers lend them new models so that they can live with them before making a fair assessment of their virtues and vices. Property correspondents are less fortunate. The most we can expect is a conducted tour of a show house. But I have just experienced a pleasant change from this routine: Wates 'lent' me a new house on the Dulwich College Estate. I stayed for a few days in one of their terrace designs in Crescent Wood Road, on the edge of Dulwich. The house has four bedrooms and a double garage and sells at £9,750 on a 99 year lease
She thought the house was generally well planned, that the setting was pleasant and the district quiet with attractive views, 'perhaps a little far from the shops'. She called the design 'modern, but not breaking any new ground' but thought that more attention should be given to the standard of finish 'In the garage the metal runners for the up-and-over doors jut out and could cause six-footers to bang their heads. I have a torn pocket to testify to an awkward, wedge shaped end to a banister rail. The inside of the letter box looked unfinished. And, for a price approaching £10,000, I would like a matwell for my front door mat.
As far as the structure was concerned she had no complaints and noted that 'Wates have the lion's share of new private building in the area....The Crescent Wood Road development will end up with over 300 homes. These will include the terrace houses (of which some are still available); a split level four-bedroom design, on five levels at half storey heights, 42 to be built, selling from January; and 12 Swedish-type two-storey houses in groups of three, which will be ready by mid-summer.'
Many houses in Peckarmans Wood were bought by journalists, media and television workers. The late film critic Sheridan Morley, in a Sunday Times article in the 1990s called 'My first Home' described his time there 'In 1967, Margaret, my first wife, was pregnant and we decided to buy a house. In our Sunday paper there was an advertisement by Roy Brooks, an estate agent who made a living doing anti-ads. It said: "Ghastly small terraced house on golf course in Dulwich, not worth looking at." It turned out to be a lovely, house overlooking Dulwich College, on a Wates estate called Peckarmans Wood.
I discovered that the whole of Fleet Street lived on the estate. I was an ITN newscaster and we would move from house to house to have drinks and talk about deadlines. Wates did not believe in doors or walls, but it wasn't just the houses that were open plan - you'd hear rows five doors down. A wonderful row would erupt between a Sunday Times reporter and his wife, about his mistress, and you'd know who was getting divorced next.
When a family moved in who weren't journalists, they had a dinner party. We all said: 'Let's prove that we're not obsessive journalists.' We arrived at 7:30pm and it was so boring, I heard myself saying: 'Alas, I have to work in the morning so I mustn't be late'. Outside, my wife said: 'Do you know what time it is?' It was five past nine. It taught me a sharp lesson, and now I never leave a party until 3am just in case I am being rude."