A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Kip Fenn
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29 - The King's Avenue experience - Brixton Prison, Scinde House and the Territorial Army

Although there are almost no commercial premises along King's Avenue, it seems that some people have been doing good business selling cars - simply by parking them on the roadside with 'for sale' notices inside (although I personally don't see any). It is legal for individuals to advertise their own cars parked on the street, but buying and selling cars on mass is a different matter. In one attempt to deal with the problem, Lambeth Council put up warning signs on lamp posts, and in another, during the summer of 2003, 25 such cars were removed from Kings Avenue and other nearby streets.

Walking north I pass, on my left, the Clapham Park Neighbourhood Housing Office, and, on my right, Thornbury Road and Roseberry Road. Along the latter, I can see the chimneys of Brixton Prison, sometimes called Britain's worst jail. Designed in 1819 as a Surrey House of Correction, it was bought by the government in 1853 to be employed as a female penitentiary. Between 1882 and 1898 it served as a military prison, but for most of the 20th century it has been a remand prison for untried men, serving courts in and around London. More recently this responsibility has been shared with other London prisons and Brixton has been required to hold sentenced prisoners. Most of the buildings are over 100 years old, with three stories, and little space between them. There is no grass or cultivated area of any size, nor any open-air facilities but for the small hard-surfaced exercise areas, bounded by large buildings. In 2000, the population stood at around 750, and the average annual cost per prisoner was in the region of £22,000-24,000. In early 2004, the government announced a scheme which might lead to the construction of larger jails and the eventual closure of Victorian prisons such as Brixton.

In June 2003, three intrepid Brixton prisoners managed to escape, although not from the prison itself, but from a van transporting them to the Inner London Crown Court. Tony Peters (accused of robbery), Clifford Hobbs (accused of theft and conspiracy) and Noel Cunningham (accused of theft and conspiracy) all got away when two men dressed as postmen attacked the van. At the time, Securicor offered a £50,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the escapees.

King's Avenue continues in a seemingly endless progression of large houses and blocks of flats all of different styles with no uniformity and no remarkable individuality either. Victoria House, Lodge, Annexe and Court at number 84 is a building site. All are being turned into 31 new flats for 'affordable rent' by Circle 33 Housing Trust and United Women's Homes Association. A century and a half ago, this property was built by none other than Thomas Cubitt. It was named Scinde House (after a province of Pakistan now called Sindh in English) and belonged to Sir William Francis Napier for ten years until his death in 1860. Napier is most famous for his book on the Peninsular War which attempted to explain and justify the way his brother Sir Charles Napier led a British attack on Scinde in 1843. What are now called the Lodge and Annexe were the former ballroom and coach house respectively. The current works only began after Lambeth approved the planning application and granted listed building (Grade II) consent. The latter came with some 35 detailed conditions (many requiring specific separate written approvals concerning the building materials to be used), three of which are as follows: 'the original ornate gilt and gesso curtain fitting in the front reception room shall be retained on the site at all times (in perpetuity)'; 'all new rainwater goods shall be cast iron to match the original existing goods'; and 'all fireplaces shall remain in situ and should be fully protected during the course of works on site'.

I tread on northward, past Belvedere Court, Peters Court, Robbins Court and Queenswood Court, but a modern-looking school on the west side stands out. The buildings have been constructed with charcoal-coloured bricks, lots of glass, terned stainless steel roofs, and 'Windcatcher' chimneys which, apparently, ventilate the classrooms. This is part of the new King's Avenue School, one of three 'landmark' primary schools built by Lambeth in its 'Action for Education' strategy. Two old schools were combined, refurbished and extended to create one three-form entry primary school. Additional funds awarded by Sport England made it the first operational 'Space for Sports and the Arts' scheme offering sport, arts and education to the community outside core school hours.

Nearby, opposite, on the east side of King's Avenue, is a Territorial Army (TA) building proclaiming the '298 Field Regiment'. Other signs say 'Territorial Army Centre, 76 Cadet Detachment of Royal Corps of Transport, SE London Army Cadet Office'; 'B Troop 210. General Support Squadron. The Royal Logistics Corps (volunteers)'; and 'Parade times Monday 7:30 PM, Thursday 7:30 PM'. The parade ground is empty but for a trailer, painted in camouflage colours, and a wet poster on the ground, half covered in leaves. It says: 'Want something challenging to do at the weekends? Yes. Then why not join the Territorial Army.' The TA advertises itself as 'a fully functioning part of the British Army, playing a vital role in the nation's defence and peacekeeping operations, both at home and abroad'. Although staffed by part-time, voluntary personnel, it still represents one quarter of the Army's total capability. There are over 300 individual TA centres located throughout the UK. North of this TA is a Barrat building site, and behind the TA, on Lyham Road is an old Charrington Pub called The Royal Oak. Not far along Lyham Road is Ashby mill, which stands, anachronistically, on a small plot (no larger, in fact, than the land taken up by its neighbour Brixton Prison). The mill was built for John Ashby in 1817 and was first driven by wind, and then by gas. It ceased operation in the 1930s but has since been refurbished. Lambeth maintains it as a tourist and heritage site.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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