By Matt Gilbert:
As quests go, this wasn’t exactly an epic. There was no Green Chapel to be found, no Mount Kailash to be reached, nothing but a pond next to a busy A-road, on the fringes of Croydon.
Beulah Hill Pond is named after a farm that was once here, before the area was built up. According to Croydon council’s website, the place was also known locally as ‘Big Pond’. The site had long been used a ‘watering place’ for horses and cattle and a bar had been placed across the middle to prevent livestock from straying too far in and drowning. In the past, when it froze, people liked to skate on it.
Other than that, there is nothing exceptional about the pond: no rare species make it their home, no famous historical events occurred there and it doesn’t lay claim to a ghost. As ponds go, this one is almost utterly unremarkable. Almost. Yet something about the place caught my imagination.
When we first moved to this part of South London, I noticed the pond on an A-Z and wondered what it was doing there. On a map the pond looked a little lost; wedged into a corner between a road, a pub and a row of houses. I made a mental note to go and take a look sometime, before forgetting all about it.
A couple of years later I read a story in a local paper about a pub called the Conquering Hero, which was home to a pig. The pig – a Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, called Frances Bacon – had been barred from wandering about near the bar, because it had taken to deliberately knocking over people’s pints to drink them. The report jarred my memory – this was the pub next door to Beulah Hill Pond. This was a sign, finally it was time to pay a visit.
I felt a mild, but nagging sense of guilt. I thought about an old ad for Time Out, which showed London’s famous tube map with all the station names blanked out, except for two. One of these, near the edge of the page, was marked Home, while the other, near the centre, said Work. The headline read: London without Time Out. I used to scoff at the idea that I would ever inhabit London, my adopted home, in this way. Now, here I was about to visit somewhere a few minutes’ walk from my home, that I had never seen before, via roads within my postcode that I had never previously set foot upon. The distance between us was negligible, but Beulah Hill Pond simply wasn’t within my orbit. Last year, one early morning, I set out to change that.
This bit of what is now South-East London used to be Surrey, but today belongs to Croydon and Lambeth. The area is also known in places as Norwood; a name derived from the Great North Wood – as in north of Croydon – that once stretched over land to the south of the Thames, where the ragged edges of London shaded out into the Surrey hills. However, unless you go back to prehistoric times, this territory was never covered by some vast wildwood of the imagination. For centuries, stands of trees and coppices dotted the land, but for the most part were managed as commercial enterprises – many by the Lambeth and Croydon manors of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Tiny remnants of this sylvan heritage can be found scattered across south east London – Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Woods being the largest examples. Local place names including Forest Hill, Penge, Honour Oak and Gipsy Hill, also carry traces of this bosky past.
Looking at some old 18th and 19th century maps online, I was intrigued to see that some of today’s streets appear to follow the course of the edges of former fields and land boundaries, but on the ground, picking up such historic traces proved hard.
As I walked I tried to imagine ancient fields and tracks that once hugged the same curves as the tarmac and paving slabs beneath my feet. Sparrows in straggly, uncut hedges, near occasional grassy lanes leading to garages, made a desperate stab at evoking a greener past. Mostly though, as marching rows of Victorian terraces on Tivoli Road gave way to 1930s semis, I had a greater sense of multiple daily dramas being acted out behind door after door after door.
Steam from central heating snaked into the air from outlet pipes. Music rattled out of windows. Kettles boiled. Parents yelled at children to get dressed for school. Others readied themselves for work. Or not. The relentless everyday of human life.
Nearing my destination, I rounded a corner onto the A215. Cars sat in long queues waiting to pile into London. I glanced up and in the morning sun, confused glinting wires that fanned out from a pylon, for a series of highly choreographed aeroplane vapour trails.
I looked back down, and there it was, my stray pond. I don’t know what I had expected really, but I was a little disappointed, to find the pond fenced off behind iron railings. A couple of benches set on concrete next to the road faced the water. A sign showed photos of birds you might see: Herons, Moorhens, Ducks. I peered through a gap in the railings. A yellow polystyrene burger carton floated in green water. From out of the reeds behind it, a lone moorhen bobbed into view.
I recalled a conservation volunteer I’d once met telling me about a clean-up session he’d been involved with here, where they’d found a mummified Terrapin. Thick ranks of small trees and shrubs surrounded the pond on three sides. Perhaps somewhere behind the wall of vegetation more aquatic life was in hiding. I looked again at the fence, it made the place look like an enclosure in a zoo, but at last I was here. I had found it, a village pond without a village.
Matt Gilbert grew up in Bristol and now lives in London. He blogs about place, books & other diversions at richlyevocative.net and tweets @richlyevocative