It is very difficult to imagine a time when Beckenham was little more than a small country village but Beckenham is still without doubt one of the loveliest places situated on the periphery of London. However even though the ever increasing shadow of the city looms it is still possible to walk the High Street without the crush of bodies that one would usually expect. I think the areas attractiveness is due to the unusual amount of green space that is contained within the area. Unfortunately it is this very green space that is a constant draw for the many visitors and would be residents, luckily they have little impact on Beckenham.
It is hard to imagine a time when Beckenham was part of a vast forest that was home for wolves, bears and boars. Small settlements gradually established in the clearings within the forest by the many streams that chequered the area and Beckenham was one such settlement. We know that Beckenham history stretches back much further than its mention in the Domesday Book of 1086. It is recorded as “Bacheham” which means “Beohha’s” settlement or farmstead in Old English. An alternative derivation may be the Middle English beck (stream), which would be an example of a tautological name. Unusually the River Beck takes it name from Beckenham itself rather than visa versa. The source of the river is in Spring Park where Shirley and West Wickham meet and from there it flows into Kelsey Park where it is dammed and forms a series of lakes and waterfalls creating a very attractive backdrop for the estate gardens. The river is well cared for and in turn is able to sustain a large variety of wild life within the park including one of the largest Heronry’s in the South East of England.
For many years it formed the boundary between Surrey and Kent but nowadays it separates the London Borough of Bromley from its neighbour Croydon. It is the longest river in the Borough of Bromley merging with smaller tributaries until it eventually joins the River Ravensbourne and then ultimately the River Thames.
Today as you walk along high street there are few reminders of a past that stretches beyond the Anglo Saxons and Romans to the darker days of prehistoric man but if you dig deep enough the remnants of its rich heritage can still be found. Traces of a Roman road that once carried supplies from London to Lewis can still be seen in Kelsey Park as well as the adjoining Beckenham Place Park. Druid worship was still being practised here when the Romans came, and the oak groves on Wickham Common are still claimed as possible sites of these open-air temples. Worship of a different kind has continued since the 6th century on the site of the present day St George’s Church.
When the Normans invaded it was deemed unsuitable by Odo the Bishop of Bayeux and half brother of William the Conqueror, so it was rebuilt. Beckenham has at times suffered from a love hate relationship with the monarchy; in 1450 local residents joined the Jack Cade rebellion which involved 30,000 Kentish men taking up their grievances against King Henry VI. Amongst the twenty two men from Beckenham was Robert Pain who went on to become the Constable of Beckenham. At other times the people of Beckenham have fought bravely alongside their king and helped change the course of English history and this was true of the Battle of Bosworth Field. Beckenham men helped Henry Tudor to win and ultimately become Henry VII.
It was his son Henry VIII who was a frequent visitor to Beckenham using the town as an overnight stop on his travels to see Anne Boleyn at Hever Castle and the occasional visit to see Anne of Cleves.
Beckenham has been described as an island within the sea of south London and it is easy to see why, it is unique, in comparison with other towns that have eventually merged over the passage of time to become characterless suburbs or dormitories of the city, Beckenham still retains its own exclusive identity. This is in part due to the wealthy bankers and opulent merchants of the eighteenth century who wanted somewhere exclusive not too far from the city to retire to. At one time there was in the region of fourteen mansions contained within the parish which gives some idea of the exclusivity.
Quietly the village evolved into what was seen as an Anglo Indian colonial town, with the wide tree lined avenues bordered by large detached houses surrounded by vast gardens that mirrored the many country estates of the gentry. Although Beckenham’s roots have remained still ensconced within the 18th-century dream of a grand house and small estate in the country, it has had to cater for people who were less privileged and smaller houses were built for the aspiring middle classes.
It is quite acceptable for the residents to shudder at the term 'suburbia'; it is definitely a word that cannot be used to define an area that has increasingly become smarter, bigger and enormously more expensive. Quietly, behind the scenes, however, a spectacular category of housing has established itself in a small number of select areas within Beckenham; gated communities and other luxury developments are becoming the norm for an area with so much to offer and so close to London!
A Modern Day Shangri-la
Attractive towns, pretty villages, beautiful countryside and quality schools might be the Holy Grail for families moving out of London but is it really necessary to move lock, stock and barrel to find Shangri- la? The answer is surprisingly no, one of the loveliest places in which to live is on the doorstep of the city of London. Attractive period homes with large gardens and wide tree lined roads that are further enhanced by an unusual amount of open green space Beckenham is without doubt one of the loveliest little known places on the outskirts of London.
Tucked between Bromley and Croydon Beckenham is ideal for those who want a little peace and quiet and yet still keep hold of their city lifestyle. There is a fast train and bus service to the city centre and the rows of lovely period homes which would offer a heavenly retreat for the commuters who make torturous journeys into London and yet Beckenham is a little known area and is very rarely mentioned as a property hotspot
Beckenham is off the radar for house hunters and because of this has managed to retain a small town feel and charm of its own, largely due to the busy high street and the vibrancy of the many bars, restaurants and pubs. The hilly High Street is full of beautiful Victorian and Edwardian architecture that seem to dominate many other shopping centres that surround London. From the church end of the street the road leads downwards and offers the casual shopper lovely views across Beckenham. There are two main shopping areas, The Broadway and the High Street, which although fairly short has the usual selection of hairdressers, banks and estate agents but also offers a number of independent retailers from boutiques selling lingerie and clothing to sports shops that focus on individual sports. There is also a good choice of restaurants, cafes and bars where you can relax and while away an hour or two at lunch time. Within walking distance, tucked away behind the charming station is a Waitrose supermarket where you can buy all of those daily necessities under one roof.
In similarity to its rural counterparts Beckenham has a green lying close to the High Street and alongside St George’s Church. The green plays host to a variety of events from the usual fetes and funfairs to the occasional French market which fills the street leading to the green and offers the chance to buy gastronomic delights from Provence and a wide range of other top quality products for which France is renown. The choice is yours, from cheese, freshly baked artisan bread, patisserie products, olives and dried fruits to handbags, jewellery or handmade soaps.
Although there is a prevalence of Victorian buildings Beckenham has a long history that is as individual as the people who reside within its bounds. Two sets of invaders realised the areas potential, both the Romans and Saxons have left evidence of their occupation. Traces of a Roman road can be seen in Kelsey and Beckenham Place Park, this passed through Beckenham taking supplies from London to Lewes. The name Beckham is derived from the Saxon who controlled the original settlement. His name was “Beohha” and was recorded as such within the Domesday Book.
When the Normans invaded the settlement was given to Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux and the half brother of King William. This was the beginning of Beckenham’s long climb up the social ladder, leaving behind the Saxon small holders and eventually becoming the home of choice for wealthy bankers and merchants in the 18th century. In fact it became so popular with the social elite that fourteen mansions were eventually built to house them! Long before the arrival of the 18th century socialites Beckenham was a place where Henry VIII often stayed, on his way to see his greatest love Anne Boleyn; and perhaps one who could be described as his least Anne of Cleves.
The present day St Georges Church although Victorian in origin stands upon a site that has seen Christian worship for over 900 years, even before the Normans invaded! The lych gate is one of the oldest in existence and was used by “watchers” as a hiding place to spy on the body snatchers - thieves who would dig up freshly buried corpses and sell them to medical schools for dissection. Stealing a corpse wasn’t considered a felony and was punishable with just a fine, imprisonment or possibly both. It was such a lucrative occupation that it was worth the risks of detection. Body snatching became so prevalent that it was not unusual for relatives and friends of the deceased to keep watch over the burial site until the body had decomposed and posed no interest for the body snatchers or resurrectionists as they became known. This problem was nationwide and was only solved by a change in legislation that enabled medical schools to have access to a greater number of cadavers. Instead of just using the bodies of felons they were allowed to use unclaimed bodies and eventually the remains of the poorest members of society, the inmates of workhouses, hospitals and asylums.
Despite the occasional blips through its history, these days Beckenham has much to offer its residents and visitors alike, green and pretty, bustling but not congested Beckenham is still small enough to nurture its community but large enough to cater for their every need!
Why venture further a field with everything at your finger tips.
An Island in the Sea of South London
Beckenham is a well kept secret, it is very close to London in fact Charing Cross is only 25 minutes away and yet with so much green space escapism from the masses is a real possibility even though the city looms!
Beckenham is undoubtedly one of the nicest least known areas positioned at the very North West point of Kent. Attractive homes amongst woods and parks provide the kind of environment where people aspire to live.
Beckenham has much to offer its residents and visitors alike it is more like a cosmopolitan city than a suburb of London; everything is available from real ale in historic pubs to champagne and oysters in a fashionable bar. Why venture further a field with everything at your finger tips.
Populated since the Bronze Age and possibly before, the change from a settlement consisting of a scattering of hamlets to a Borough is a fascinating journey through the areas history encompassing many of the major events that affected Great Britain. Although there is very little written about the area before the Roman invasion, relics from the Stone and Bronze Age have been found in Holwood Park. The oak groves on Wickham Common were possible sites of Druid worship that continued during part of the Roman occupation. Possibly because the invaders were so busy building roads that passed through Beckenham in straight lines from Lower Sydenham, through Langley to Lewes and the coast. Traces of the road can still be seen in Kelsey Park and adjoining Beckenham Place Park.
The invaders didn’t stop at roads; there was a Roman camp in Toots Wood Road which may have been an outpost of the Holwood Camp. The name ‘Toot’ is of Saxon origin and means a beacon or look-out hill.
Looking at the name Beckenham it would be easy to assume that it is derived from the Saxon words ‘becc’ meaning stream and ‘ham’ meaning settlement or dwelling but this isn’t the case it comes from the Saxon word ‘ Beohhahahema’ signifying ‘Beohha’s settlement’ who was a Saxon leader. The village is recorded as such in the Doomsday Book. It did however move up the social ladder in later history as it developed links with royalty.
Relationships with the Monarchy have been fairly similar to that of a long married couple, starting with William, Duke of Normandy in 1067, Men of Kent and Kentish Men met the Duke and offered peace if he would allow them their ancient rights and liberties to continue. The request was granted and the motto of Kent became ‘Invicta’ meaning unconquerable personally I have always believed that it referred to the Roman occupation and the fact that Kentish chieftains were on the payroll of Julius Caesar. Knowing the rivalry between men born on each side of the River Medway it is highly unlikely that they joined forces. Anyway I am deviating William the Conqueror promptly gave Beckenham to his half brother Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, so a marriage of sorts with royalty.
Henry VIII would often stop at Langley Court to see his friend Sir Humphrey Style on his way to Hever Castle and the beguiling Anne Boleyn.
The past is never too far away from modern Beckenham, the wide tree lined streets with large Victorian mansions give us some ideas of its past, the 14th century Church of St Georges and its 13th century Lych-gate - the oldest in England, used to house watchers hidden in the beams of the roof on the lookout for body snatchers. Just like every town up and down the country Beckenham has suffered from the ‘crimes of the day’ and body snatching was one of them. The poor relatives would pay for a burial not knowing if their loved ones would still be entombed come nightfall! I would like to add that Beckenham today has a friendly, thriving community and body snatchers are unlikely to worry most of the residents.
Just 10 miles from London with its wooded hills and park land it was an idyllic place to live if you were an opulent merchant, wealthy banker or one of the fashionistas of the 18th century.
There were fourteen mansions in the area at that time and they were quickly snapped up in the housing boom at the affluent end of the market. It was not until the arrival of the railway that the aspiring middle classes were able to grab a piece of the action and it was they who are responsible for Beckenham’s move from village to town. In fact between 1850 and 1900 the population swelled from 2000 to 26,000 aided and abetted by land owners selling plots of building land. Hence the number of large Victorian properties along wide tree lined avenues spread rapidly from the station. It soon became clear that the market was saturated as there were only so many wealthy business men looking for country property that was still convenient for the city.
So it was time to appeal to the masses and smaller homes quickly spread outwards. It is this mix of housing that enriches the community and makes Beckenham such a gem! I am sure that one of Beckenham’s famous residents Charles Darwin would have approved of such diversity.
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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