I notice that the two houses that have been being restored on the posh side of Goucester Circus are up for sale for £ 2.5m each. I am sure that someone will tell me that that’s cheap for London but it’s still probably the steepest these babies have been up for, so I thought that today was as good as any to take a look at the joys of Gloucester Circus.
It’s an odd place – clearly intended to mirror the great circuses of Bath and central London, but you have to be careful which angle you view it from – only just over half of it is 18th Century – the rest is dodgy 1950s flats. I have always pondered to myself which side I would prefer – to live in the flats and have the view or to have the gorgeous houses and look at the flats. In reality of course there’s no contest, especially in summer – the oval central green, surrounded by railings, is full of lovely old mature trees which effectively mask each side.
It’s easy to assume that half of the circus was the victim of the wartime bombs that devastated great swathes of Greenwich, and of course the little oval road suffered its fair share of bombs (mostly but not exclusively) on the less interesting side)but the truth is rather more prosaic.
Gloucester Circus was designed by local architect Michael Searles (who later went on to create The Paragon in Blackheath) and built between 1791 and 1809. Searles, who started out as a surveyor, had grand ideas – not for him the boring old circles of most circuses being built at the time – he fancied for his Greenwich version something new – an oval. It was going to be two sweeping crescents with pediments at each end – one opening onto the Park and Crooms Hill; the other onto Royal Hill.
Trouble is, Greenwich wasn’t really posh enough at the time to take a feature such as this – there just weren’t enough moneyed people who wanted to live in what was, frankly, a bit of a grotty area. Odd pockets of grandeur existed – such as Wren’s Hospital and individual houses – and even the Spread Eagle had made a bit of an effort to spruce itself up – but South East London was, to most, just an industrialish, dock-ish sort of town. (Actually, some people I meet from other areas still regard it as a bit of a backwater. I don’t make much effort to dissuade them from this – we don’t want any old hoi-poloy coming here, do we…)
There wasn’t enough initial takeup on Gloucester Circus, which was, after all, a speculative build needing the cash from the first sales to fund the rest, and only one complete side was built – and even that took nearly twenty years to do. The pediments were finished – albeit a bit wimpishly – and a couple of extra houses built on the west side, but eventually the builders just gave up. I bet there are a few developers who’d jump at the opportunity to turf out the poor residents of the 1950s(?) flats and finish the job now, though.
Somehow poor old Gloucester Circus didn’t last very long as lovely homes for the upper middle classes. By the early 20th Century they’d fallen into disrepair and eked out a living as tenements for dockers and other working class people. It was only comparitively recently that they have come up in the world to what James Johnston is (perhaps optimistically) calling “probably the best address in Greenwich.”
Which brings us to the present. If you want one of these houses now, it will set you back £ 2.5m – but don’t forget – it will be useless if you want more than 6 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms and 3 ensuites. I couldn’t find out how big the gardens are at the back – do tell if you know. The one person I have ever met from the Circus tells me that the private gardens in the centre are today a bit of a nightmare to upkeep – they are jointly responsible for the now rather large trees. I doubt I’d complain…
It’s a popular haunt for film crews – like much of Greenwich – but sadly it rarely stands in for itself – it’s usually meant to be somewhere else. We need more films set in Greenwich.