A History of Blythe Vale

 

Blythe Vale lies on the border between Forest Hill and Catford in south-east London. At first glance it looks like an ordinary suburban residential road with nothing special or noteworthy about it.  However, it does have a history that goes back a long way.

 

Between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many suburban roads around London were created by property developers dividing up former farm land land and creating frontage for new build housing.  However, some roads, like Blythe Vale, had more ancient origins.  They were tracks that linked two places together. In the case of Blythe Vale, it links an ancient Saxon village called Sippenham, located at the road junction at its south end, with the heights of Blythe Hill Fields a few hundred yards to the north.

 

This road junction is hardly noticed by most locals or travellers, but it marks a track from the village to the heights of Blythe Hill Fields.

 

 

Blythe Vale 

Blythe Vale, looking north, photographed at some time between 1895 and 1910.

Photo courtesy of Steve Grindlay and the Lewisham archive.

 

Once it is understood that Blythe Vale follows the line of an ancient track, we can question its origins.

 

Possible Roman Road

 

There is a possibility that Blythe Vale dates back 2000 years, to the time of the Roman Empire.

 

During the Roman occupation of Britain, between 43 AD and 410 AD, a large number of roads were built linking together important cities, towns and ports. One of these roads was Watling Street, the south London section od which ran from Southwark to Richborough in East Kent.  The initial section of this road follows the line of the present Old Kent Road as it goes from London Bridge south east towards Deptford.  As it passes north of Peckham there was a branch going south, which was the start of a road called The Lewes Way, which went all the way down to Lewes in East Sussex.

 

The remains of this road are fragmentary and only a few sections in the London area can be identified.  Importantly, its begining has been identified as the junction between The Old Kent Road and Asylum Road, which initiates its course as it goes south through south-east London.

 

Asylum Road

The green line shows the approximate line of the Roman Lewes Way as it branches off Watling Street and follows the line of the present Asylum Road.

Image from Google Maps

 

Further south, the line of the Roman road is picked up at Ivydale Road, which runs past Nunhead Cemetry and which is heading directly towards Blythe Hill.

 

Ivy Dale Road

The Roman Lewes Way continues south along the line of the present Ivydale Road, passing the high ground of Nunhead Cemetery.

Image from Google Maps

 

After that point it vanishes and no trace of it has ever been found until it re-emerges in the countryside outside London.

 

However, the approximate line of the road as it goes towards Blythe Hill suggests it went over the hill, then along or very close to the line of Blythe Hill Lane, then down Blythe Vale, before going on south to the Pool River near Bell Green.

 

Blythe Hill and Blythe Vale

This map shows how the road would have passed over Blythe Hill and then gone along or very close to the line of Blythe Vale.

Image from Google Maps

 

The Saxons

 

After the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in 410 AD the country became open to Saxon invasions from mainland Europe.  It is important to understand that this was not a military invasion but rather a sequence of migrations by peoples from northern Germany and Denmark.  They came to East Anglia and Kent and gradually over many years became integrated into the local population. 

 

People need viable places to live, so the tendency was to follow the line of rivers, which would provide a source of fresh water and farm land.  The Thames is the major river in south-east England, well known to the Saxons.  Going south from the Thames was an important tributary, the tidal reach of which is now known as Deptford Creek. South of Deptford it is freshwater and is known as the River Ravensbourne.

 

Following the Ravensbourne south, the first settlement to be established was Lewisham. The letters "ham" at the end, Saxon for hamlet, indicatates that it was a Saxon village belonging to a person called Lewis.  Continuing south we reach Catford, the location of a ford over the river, perhaps a crossing place for cattle (not a crossing place for cats as is often said). And at Catford there is another tributary branching off the Ravensbourne and running south called The River Pool.

 

Flanked by wide meadows (used as watercress meadows right up until the late nineteenth century), the River Pool was the ideal place to establish a new village.  This village was located about a hundred yards north of the River pool and was, to the best of our understanding, exactly at the present junction between Blythe Vale, Catford Hill, Perry Hill and Elm Lane.  It was called Sippenham, or Chippenham, meaning Sippa or Chippas's Village, a hamlet belonging to a Saxon called Sippa or Chippa.

 

Blythe Vale Map

This map shows the junction between Blythe Vale, Catford Hill, Perry Hill and Elm Lane, the original location of Sippenham. The Pool River is to the right of the map.

Map courtesy of Ordnance Survey, Ed. 1894-96, CXXVIII, published 1897.

 

 It is believed that the name Sippenham evolved into Sydenham, and that its centre gradually moved west to where the present Sydenham is now located.  If true, this means that the junction at the south end of Blythe Vale is a truly ancient village and the birthplace of Sydenham.

 

The Medieval and Tudor Age

 

During the Medieval period the a Sydenham Manor House was built in Elm Lane, formerly known as Sabin's Lane. This grand house was called Place House, and it is known to have been visited by Queen Elizabeth I.

 

Place House

Place House, from a print of 1791.

Image courtesy of Sydenham Town Forum.

 

The map below shows the approximate location of Place House, its footprint being across the present Bargrove Crescent, formerly known as Creeland Grove, and on the site of a modern block of flats.

 

 

 

Junction

Location of Place House and The Elms

Map courtesy of Ordnance Survey, Ed. 1894-96, CXXVIII, published 1897.

 

At this time all the land around was farmland, much of which belonged to a farmhouse called The Elms, located in the present Elm Lane, known during the nineteenth century as Sabin's Lane.

 

Farmland

Farmland around The Elms, Place House, Catford Hill, Perry Hill and Blythe Vale in 1843.

Image adapted from research by Falkor of the Sydenham Town Forum.

 

The Land outlined in green belonged to Stephen Sabin, including The Elms, which is where he resided, and the nearby remains of Place House. Sabin's ownership explains why Elm Lane was once called Sabin's Lane.

 

The land outlined in orange belonged to Samuel Forster. This comprises most of the land to the east of Blythe Vale, extending close to the River Pool.

 

The land outlined in purple belonged to other landlords whose names I do not know.

 

The photograph below shows The Elms farmhouse in about 1910.  The owner, his family and dog are standing on the porch steps.  The house still exists, but the original porch was lost and a replica has been put in place.  It is quite rare for a farmhouse to survive in an area so close to central London.The house is now divided into flats.

 

The Elms, Elm Lane, 1910

The Elms Farmhouse, c1910.

Lewisham Council

 

At this time, the early nineteenth century, Blythe Vale existed as little more than a country track running all the way from the village crossroads at its south end all the way up to Blythe Hill to the north. It was at the time known as Stoney Lane.

 

Here below is a nineteenth century map that shows Blythe Vale named as Stony Lane. Note that this map marks The Elms as Perry Farm.  Also, there is a large Market Garden at the north west side of Stony Lane, the road that would become Blythe Vale. Two small houses are drawn as part of the market garden, the only two houses in the road. The larger of these two houses still exists and can be spotted because it is off line with the modern road.

 

Stony Lane

Stony Lane

Lewisham Archives

 

The Market Garden became the property of a Mr John Laing, who grew flowers, particularly Begonias, for which he became famous. Here below is an image of John Laing taken from one of his catalogues.

 

 

John Laing

John Laing

Image courtesy of Sydenham Town Forum.

 

At the present north-west side of Blythe Vale there is a pathway leading to a group of garages. It is a depressing grey area of lockups and concrete. However, this is the area where there used to be the greenhouses of John Laing and where he grew his Begonias.  It would have been overwhelmed with flowers.  He was proud of them and set up displays that everyone was invited to, calling them "The Grandest Floral Display in London".  He even went to America and set up exhibitions in New York, making himself world famous. 

 

Here below is a detail from the Ordnance Survey map of 1894-6 showing the north end of Blythe Vale.  It shows the greenhouses and coldframes of the Stanstead Park Nursery, which John Laing renamed Laing's Nursery. 

 

Stanstead Park Nursery

Stanstead Park Nursery

Map courtesy of Ordnance Survey, Ed. 1894-96, CXXVIII, published 1897.

 

John Laing was keen on advertising, encouraging both Londoners and "American and Colonial friends" to come and view his begonia exhibitions. Here are a couple of his adverts.

 

Begonia Exhibition

Begonia Exhibition

Image courtesy of Sydenham Town Forum.

 

Laing Advert

Laing Advert

 

Towards the end of the nineteenth century all the farm land was sold for property development and Blythe Vale was straightened into a road of suburban houses, the place we live in today.  The photograph below shows the junction at the south end of Blythe Vale as it appeared in the late Victorian period, about 1890.  Blythe Vale is the turning to the right.  In the right background is the Victorian St. George's Church, which was demolished in about the year 2000 and replaced with the present modern church.  The shops that form St George's Parade still exist, though less attractive and under different names.

 

Road Junction

Road Junction at south end of Blythe Vale.