So I finally know a little more about the little parklet we were wondering about a few weeks ago, starting with its name – yes, I didn’t even know that.
It’s called The Dell and in case you don’t know where it is, here’s a map. It’s just at the bottom of the gardens at Mycenae House and Woodlands, but isn’t connected to either – any more. I love it because, apart from, perhaps, the odd grass-cut, it doesn’t appear to be ‘managed’ – the gates are just left ajar for anyone who wants a little peace and quiet.
I guess the fact that I didn’t know the name of the baby parklet contributed to my not finding it in Neil Rhind’s Blackheath Village and Environs II, so thanks are due to local fountain of knowledge Julian Watson who was able to pinpoint it for me.
And yes, of course the land used to be part of John Julius Angerstein’s Woodlands and remained so fairly late – it wasn’t until the mid-1920s that the Little Sisters of the Assumption, who’d taken over Woodlands sold it off, something for which I can only forgive them because they built a grotto in the bit of back garden they kept. I’ve always found it somewhat harder to forgive Greenwich Council for knocking said folly down. Aw, c’mon – demolishing a grotto is the architectural equivalent of kicking a puppy.
As an aside – it’s very easy to digress when you’re reading Blackheath Village and Environs – I note that around the turn of the 20th Century a chap called Felix Bell tried to build a hotel on the junction of Beaconsfield, Mycenae and Humber Roads. A petition was drafted, which 515 out of the 538 residents signed. The hotel was eventually not built because someone pointed out that Westcombe Park is a dry estate – not an alcoholic drink to be got anywhere (shhh – don’t tell the two Indian restaurants…) and that if Mr Bell built his hotel his guests wouldn’t be able to enjoy a drink.
But back to the Dell. That particular bit of Woodlands was used for the garden of Fairfax House, on Beaconsfield Road (where the flats are now.) It was a large Tudor-style building, built in the 1880s, that enjoyed a succession of curious owners, including a Mayor of Greenwich, Ernest Dence, who evidently snapped up the land the cash-strapped Little Sisters were flogging to fund their novitiate house.
Dence installed a boating lake and throughout the 20s and 30s used the garden for charity garden parties, ‘private theatricals’ and a craze that swept Greenwich during that time, pageants where everyone wore fancy dress (one was Tudor themed to reflect the no-doubt accurate architecture of the house.) It appears to have been compulsory for at least one wag to fall in the lake at every event.
For anyone knowing the history of the area, it’s not going to be too difficult to guess what happened next. Fairfax House was, as is traditional round here, bombed to buggery and in 1952 the flats that are there now were begun.
The Dell, perhaps surprisingly, escaped development, and became what it is today – sans boating lake, sans fundraising toffs and, save for small children on October 31, sans fancy dress. According to Neil Rhind, nothing actually remains that was planted that time – all the trees, save one, the old oak, are younger – and the oak itself is probably older even than the house. But I’m happy for it to stay as a little secret garden that everyone can enjoy, look for the marks where the lake was, and dream a little of nutty 1920s pageants…
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