West Wickham: Set upon the very edge of Suburbia!
The story of West Wickham is that of a place that has kept pace with time and grown accordingly yet has still managed to retain brief glimpses of its former self. The town has developed, not so fast as to lose it’s agricultural roots but has managed to evolve in such a way that it still retains the feeling of a village even though it is now a suburb of London.
West Wickham is neatly sandwiched between the ever burgeoning towns of Croydon and Bromley and is surrounded by Green Belt part of which encompasses the North Downs. The North Downs cover nearly a quarter of the county of Kent, stretching northwards from the White Cliffs in Dover up to the London borders and then across to Surrey. The landscape itself is as diverse as the towns and villages through which it passes, from chalk escarpments, secluded valleys and ancient woodlands all criss crossed by networks of high banked lanes and ancient thoroughfares. This landscape hasn’t escaped the attention of man and what we see today is a reflection of xxxxx.
Over the centuries the ancient woodland of Andreswald which covered a huge swath of the South East has suffered from deforestation as charcoal burners, herdsman and local villagers gathered firewood or grazed livestock. Just small pieces of the original forest remain in areas where it was too difficult to plough or it was pollarded an ancient way of managing woodland that is grazed by animals. The trees were cut above head hight for timber and to stop the animals grazing on the regrowth, it is still possible to see ancient pollarded oak trees on West Wickham Common, these days a protected habitat that is still used by residents and forms a large part of the open countryside for which the area is famed.
At first glance the name West Wickham would appear to be Anglo Saxon in origin, with “wick” meaning dairy” and “ham” dwelling, but it is now believed that the settlement was Romano – British in origin because these particular settlements, close to Roman roads were known as “vicus” (v’s and w’s were similar in meaning and quite often interchanged). The Saxons recognised the settlement as an old Roman one and merely added “ham” to the end of its name “wic”. Some believe that West Wickham is in fact the lost city of Noviomagus but there is little evidence to substantiate those claims as Roman finds have been limited to fragments of pottery and small metal objects
Early West Wickham started to grow around its church gradually spreading up the hill to where the High Street is today. With the coming of the Normans, the Domesday Book casts some light upon its size; around 110 villagers, 6 ploughs, 10 pigs, a mill and a church. Population figures ebbed and flowed in part due to wars, famines and disease, despite being a small country village West Wickham couldn’t hide from the world at large. The Black Death or what is now believed to be Bubonic Plague was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history and it arrived on our shores from Asia. Spreading along the Silk Route it was carried by fleas living on rats in the merchandise of traders. It spread rapidly from country to country eventually reaching Europe in 1348 to 1350 and it is thought to have killed between 30% and 40% of the population. Despite further sporadic outbreaks of the plague it took nearly 150 years for Europe and its population to recover The inhabitants of West Wickham suffered greatly and the population level fell to below what was recorded in the Domesday Book. The local peasants must have expected that living standards which had fallen drastically under the occupation of William the Conqueror and his heirs would improve because of a shortage of labour. Unfortunately it took a Peasants Revolt for the situation to be slowly reversed!
Having quietly slumbered its way through the centuries the population had grown to 436 and 2000 acres of land was in cultivation according to the census of 1801. West Wickham’s peacefulness made the area a favourite with the nobility and rising gentry as it was such a rural spot but within a short distance of the capital. This state of affairs continued even with the arrival of the railway from Elmers End in 1882 which made surprisingly little difference to the village. This state of affairs seemed set to continue until the death of the Lord of the Manor and the sale of his land. The late 1920’s saw the division of land amongst property developers and change quickly ensued. West Wickham began to expand on a scale that had never occurred before and continued into the 1930’s. It is amazing that West Wickham managed to retain its country aspect during the years of frantic/xxx building with its wide tree lined roads and a high street full of independent retailers despite the appearance of supermarkets. There were inevitable casualties but West Wickham still has a wealth of local retail outlets from specialist shops to restaurants and pubs, without these it would become just another suburb engulfed by the ever expanding city
A London Village
West Wickham can be found in the furthest North Western corner of Kent. On three sides it is bounded by the suburban sprawls of Beckenham, Hayes and Croydon but to the South it lies cheek to cheek with the open countryside that forms the Metropolitan Green Belt. More than half of the area that West Wickham encompasses is either woodland, agricultural or common land and this has enabled the town to cling on to the belief that it is still a rural village. This makes it an ideal place to live for young and old alike with plenty of green space and easily accessible services. West Wickham has much to offer its residents, after all no one wants to live in a place based purely on its proximity to the capital. There are restaurants that offer a diverse range of cuisines, major retail outlets and of course country pubs with real ale. West Wickham has managed a delicate balancing act, both combining the best of town life and yet holding on to the best of a rural village community.
Looking at the name West Wickham you would be forgiven for expecting to find an East nearby unfortunately you will need to travel much nearer to Welling to find East Wickham and the name is the only similarity for both places. The name itself is as ancient as one would expect of such a place; “Wic” comes from Saxon times and means a road or way and “ham” means a dwelling or small settlement. The earliest periods of settlement are swathed in mystery but it is very likely to have been occupied as a Roman road runs through the middle of West Wickham on its way to join Lewes with London. The settlement would have been ideal as it lies on high ground making it fairly safe for the people who lived there. The only drawback was the poor thin soil – scattered areas of sand, clay and chalk which would have made farming and food production fairly difficult.
The inhabitants of the time would have been fairly resilient but a few irrational old beliefs held by past residents are revived from time to time. Possibly they are mere shadows of their former selves but we should celebrate the fact that a rural ritual still exists and is performed during Rogation week. This particular time in the Christian calendar is just before Ascension Day and used to be marked by processions around parish boundaries (‘beating the bounds’) and blessing of crops. It still survives in a few places like West Wickham.
Unlike Morris Dancing which is fairly well organised groups of local young men make a great deal of noise and then run into the orchards. Each tree is encircled and they chant these words:
God send us a youling sop!
E’ry twig, apple big;
E’ry bough, apple enow!
After shouting the aforesaid incantation the rabble would then expect to be paid in kind or with money for their services in summoning a healthy crop. If the farmer was reluctant to oblige he would find his crop cursed. The ritual is more likely a throwback to pagan times when simple country folk prayed to numerous gods. It is thought that the possible god for which this ritual was practised was Eolus who was god of the winds. His name still exists in the incantation although it has changed slightly and has become Youling. The aforesaid ritual offers proof that at heart West Wickham is still a rural community
West Wickham unlike some of its nearby neighbours evolved slowly from a hamlet to a village and then eventually the West Wickham that we know today and it is probably because of the poverty of the soil that only really allowed for a few people to eke out a living from agriculture, there was nothing else to enable any enterprising young soul to turn their hands to. Figures relating to the population give us some idea of how small a community West Wickham actually was. The Domesday survey of 1086 showed a total population of 110 inhabitants, even allowing for minimal growth over the next three centuries the area was struck by the Black Death in 1348 which nearly wiped West Wickham from the map. The population levels reached an all time high in 1410 of 280; this figure changed little over the passing centuries until the arrival of the railway in 1882. The Railway Hotel was built for what was hoped would be an influx of visitors along with a few extra side roads leading off the main High Street.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century Sir John Lennard enclosed fifty acres of common land and sold it for residential development. What remained of the common some twenty five acres were saved in 1892 with the help of the Corporation of the City of London. It was lucky that such organisations existed and the corporation prevented any further development and gave the use of the remaining common to the community. In 1926 and 1927 Sir John’s son Henry gave the land at Spring Park in total around fifty two acres to the people of West Wickham. We are lucky that Sir John’s son had the foresight and the philanthropy to donate that land as it has now become a haven for wildlife. The habitat which covers some of London’s finest chalk down-land is of national importance with its ancient woodlands, wildflower meadows, ponds and some magnificent veteran trees. It’s amazing to think that the residents are probably unaware of just how important West Wickham is!
A village at heart
West Wickham is an oasis of peace and tranquillity surrounded as it is by the hurly burly of London and city living. Still a village at heart West Wickham can be found in the far northern reaches of Kent, constantly fighting off encroachments from its burgeoning neighbours namely Beckenham in the north, with Hayes and Keston in the east. It is no mean fete that it has managed to retain its rural identity despite these constant pressures. West Wickham has much to offer its residents with plenty of green space to retain contact with the natural environment and restaurants and shops that are just as necessary for modern lifestyles.
Very little is known about the earliest inhabitants of West Wickham but it is generally believed that the area had already been colonised from Roman times onwards as the Roman road that joins Lewes with London runs through the middle of West Wickham. The Romans were eventually replaced by settlers known as Anglo Saxons and it was from these people that West Wickham gained its name! The name is derived from the Saxon words Wic, a road or way, and ham, a dwelling or small settlement and small settlement is how it remained for hundreds of years.
The population of West Wickham ebbed and flowed in response to disease, famines and wars which cropped up intermittently throughout the ages. Around 1410 the population reached the heady figure of some 280 individuals but this figure dwindled over the coming century to almost a third of that number. Life within the locality must have been very hard because it took nearly five hundred years for the number of inhabitants to quadruple. This is probably in part due to the geography of the area alongside other catastrophes. West Wickham lies on high ground and the surrounding area is very hilly, with poor quality soil mainly composed of chalk and in some areas sand with clay making up the thin soil composition. This must have made life very difficult for the inhabitants trying to eke out a living from the land and keep the wolf from their doors!
The village of West Wickham continued to quietly slumber its way through the centuries with very little disturbing the peace and quiet of the residents, many of whom still worked on the land in the surrounding farms. Over the course of a few centuries the population had advanced to the heady number of 436 with 2000 acres of land in cultivation according to the census of 1801. It was the very peacefulness that was ultimately responsible for its transformation. The tranquillity of West Wickham made the area very popular with the nobility and rising gentry who built grand homes within the village so that they could partake in this rural idyll and recover from the excesses of city living.
Even with this influx of residents the village still managed to retain its rural identity. This state of affairs continued even with the arrival of the railway from Elmers End in 1882. It made surprisingly little difference to the village apart from the building of the Railway Hotel and a few extra side roads off the main High Street.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century fifty acres of common land was sold by Sir John Lennard for residential development. The effects of this relatively large scale development was largely negated by the actions of the Corporation of the City of London which came to the areas rescue by acquiring twenty five acres of common land to be used as green space by the inhabitants of West Wickham and those nearby. The common land was further enlarged by Sir John’s son Henry who gave an additional fifty two acres of land at Spring Park thereby creating the West Wickham and Coulsdon Commons. Apart from its recreational uses the common land provides a habitat that even today is rich in wildlife on some of London’s finest chalk down land. This area is recognised as an area of national importance, it contains ancient woodland, wild flower meadows, ponds and some magnificent trees.
As late as the early twentieth century West Wickham was still mainly rural and wasn’t affected too much by the excesses of property developers who had blighted less fortunate villages nearer to London. Unfortunately for the residents change was just around the corner. Even though West Wickham suffered the loss of many able bodied men during World War 1 this had little impact on the overall population because of an influx of Londoners. The city was suffering from a shortage of housing so the grand homes that once housed the wealthy fell into the hands of property developers. The ground on which these large homes once stood was soon covered in row upon row of neat semi’s and terrace properties. Despite years of unremitting growth the character of West Wickham, with its wide tree lined avenues and open green space sill looks remarkably unscathed
The story of West Wickham is that of a place that has kept pace with time and grown accordingly and yet still retains brief glimpses of its former self. Its growth was not so fast as to lose its roots but has evolved in such a way that it still retains the feeling of a village even though it is now a suburb of London. It is probably one of the best kept secrets of the South East. It has all of the vibrancy that one would expect of a place so near to the metropolis and is still able to provide the peacefulness of the countryside.
copyright© Wendy Stevenson 2011
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