A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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9 - Promenade de Verdun - a road (not a walk) with pretensions

Promenade de Verdun is a surprise, even by the standards of the Webb Estate. As I emerge from the short cut, I find, on my right at the road's cul de sac end, a small crescent-shaped area of grass, and a mini-obelisk (19ft tall) with the inscription 'Aux soldats mort glorieusement pendant la grande guerre'. It was made of granite, carved in a Cornish quarry, by The London Granite Company, from a single piece of stone. There is no pavement on this road (so it's hardly a promenade) just a wide grass verge on one side, protected by chains hanging from short posts, and planted with poplar trees. Beyond the verge a series of large gates lead to a series of very large properties.

Bizarrely, for I've seen no cars or pedestrians since leaving the Lord Robbins corner store, there is a middle-aged man, not unlike myself, standing on the grass verge. Like me, he is talking into a recorder! However, whereas I'm talking about him, he seems to be making notes about the privet hedge behind which sits a spanking new mansion, built of cream-coloured bricks.

On the west side of the road, there's fences and hedges, delineating an area of school playing fields. Originally, there were two schools - Downside for boys and Commonweal for girls - both accessed from Woodcote Lane which runs parallel to Promenade de Verdun from Upper Woodcote Village to Foxley Lane. However, they merged in 1997 into one establishment called the The Lodge School.

A school was first founded at 1 Woodcote Lane by Fred Chappell before World War One. In 1920, Edgar Dodd bought it, extended the buildings, and increased the enrolments to nearly 100. When World War Two broke out in 1939, Dodd moved the pupils to a hotel at Barton-on-Sea in Hampshire. But then, with the collapse of France in 1940, Barton-on-Sea became a potential landing-place for invading forces, and the school closed down. It reopened on Woodcote Lane in 1942 with only two students. Over twenty years later, in 1965, Dodd retired, by which time the school had expanded again to 150 pupils. His son, John Dodd, took over until 1976. Nigel Harman, who plays Dennis in Eastenders, is one of Downside's former pupils. The girls school, Commonweal, though, can boast of having had Jacqueline Du Pre, the gifted cellist, as one of its students.

Promenade de Verdun continues in a straight line, leading me slightly away from the 300 easting. At the north end, I find a noticeboard which states: 'The ministry of the interior has given earth from a sacred spot in the neighbourhood of Armentieres so that each tree may grow in a combination of French and British soil. The Lombardy poplars along this grass walk were planted in the Reverent Memory of those Brave Soldiers of France who fell in the Great War. The Public are asked to assist in protecting this arboricultural tribute.' The use of the word 'walk' is a joke, since the grass verge and the poplars are all carefully cordoned off by the hanging chains from one driveway to the next, and, besides, there's no pedestrian traffic at all between the various mansions.

If Webb had grand ambitions before the war, they grew even loftier afterwards. He built Promenade de Verdun in the hope, he said, that the tribute would ease the tensions between France and England. Some French papers did indeed reflect on the tribute and suggested it offered evidence that public opinion in England was more sympathetic to France than some of Britain's best known politicians at the time. About ten tons of French soil were transported to Purley from Armentieres, which, like Verdun, suffered from much fighting during the war. It's said that the soil was so laden with shrapnel and bullets that it had to be sifted for fear souvenir hunters might damage the tree roots; and that two sacks of metal were extracted.

As I leave Promenade de Verdun, I see Rose Walk on my right. This road was first laid out in 1907 with extensive preparation of the soil and the planting of 6,000 roses comprising 400 varieties. According to Webb's principled plan the plots weren't offered for sale until several years later, in 1911. Today, an elaborate ornamental black-painted iron gate stands at its entrance. Two slate slabs, embossed with gold lettering, advise that Rose Walk is a private road for residents only. Unfortunately, one of the slabs is completely upstaged by a big red triangle warning of road humps, and the other by a big red circle warning of a 10mph speed limit (down from 20mph in Woodcote Grove Road, and 15mph in Silver Lane - I fully expect to see a 0mph sign soon.) Just before I emerge into Foxley Lane, I pass another sign prohibiting commercial vehicles and learner drivers.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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