There are some places in the world with so many tourists that you can feel guilty adding to the crowd, but Croydon is not one of them. For decades this town has been the heel of London’s boroughs and a punchline of British popular culture. David Bowie despised it, dubbing it his nemesis. ‘It represented everything I didn’t want in my life,’ he said in the 1990s. ‘Croydon – twinned with Mordor,’ comedian Sue Perkins has quipped about the town where she spent her 1970s childhood ‘when concrete was king’.
Most jabs come from the overall look of the town. Numerous bids that began in the 1950s, to evolve it into London’s third city (after Westminster and the City of London) as well as a business hub expected to rival Canary Wharf, failed. Croydon, with a population bigger than Iceland, Cardiff or Belfast, remained a town, but the attempts resulted in the forest of 1960s and 1970s office monoliths you can see today, squaring up over a vast dual carriageway.
The rising ‘concretopia’ became a very visible exception to the ‘build it and they will come’ rule. In fact, the enormous underpass and overpass meant that they built it, but most people just passed through.
That was then. Now Croydon is going through a new transition that hopes to reverse half a century of being maligned. A £5.25billion regeneration scheme was announced last year. ‘This could be the beginning of a change,’ says Rory Walsh, Croydon local and writer of this Discovering Britain trail. ‘Everyone is wondering whether this is going to be an exciting new era, or another Croydon facepalm.’
The trail begins in full view of one of the town’s most famous skyscrapers, the ‘50p building’. Reaching to the sky like a stack of coins, No.1 Croydon (to use its official name) was the town’s tallest skyscraper for almost 40 years until it was superseded by an apartment complex in 2009. In that time it has been hailed as an architectural marvel and mistake in equal measure.
Next stop is Croydon’s newest tower in Saffron Square, which similarly divides opinion. Holding 43 stories in the air, the building’s purple panelling, which has been described by critics as ‘a squashed fly’ as well as ‘a car crash’ saw it nominated for the 2016 Carbuncle Cup, an award gifted to the worst new building. ‘It’s horrid,’ says Ben, a long-time local. ‘It’s beautiful,’ counters Sri, a fruit packer from Mitcham who moved to Croydon six years ago. ‘Lots of people don’t like the purple and orange colour, but at sunset it looks fantastic.’ The purple panels are meant to represent the colour of a crocus, which is a nod towards Croydon’s etymology. ‘Croydon is thought to be from the Anglo-Saxon words croh for crocus and denu for valley,’ explains Walsh. ‘The nearby ridges of the North Downs sheltered the valley from prevailing winds, while their foundation of porous chalk allowed a series of springs and the river Wandle to emerge nearby – the perfect conditions for growing the flowers.’ The stamen of crocuses can be dried to make the spice Saffron. It is thought to have been cultivated here to supply London during the Roman era.
Heading towards the town centre, the most noticeable difference is the road. The six lanes of the A212 move into the narrow, one-way George Street, where double-decker buses career around a sharp bend to avoid the pedestrianised centre. Moving downhill through the area is like walking backwards in time: from the car-centric 20th century, through Victorian red-brick thoroughfares and finally to the wriggling remains of the medieval market town. This triangular patch of narrow roads and cobbled alleyways is the oldest part of Croydon, which was a thriving marketplace at least as long ago as the 1200s. According to local historians, traders took advantage of the slope by storing and selling corn at high ground to the east leaving the messier trade of livestock, butchery and hides at the hill’s soggy bottom. ‘The market is one of the oldest known street markets in Britain,’ says Walsh. Though the butchery and corn is long gone, the market still continues 800 years later, Monday to Saturday, 7am until 6pm.
Why did the old market become established here? ‘Because it was also one of the holiest places in the country,’ says Walsh. Starting in the 900s, a long line of Archbishops of Canterbury used this area as a rest stop between Kent and Lambeth Palace, their official London residence. To accommodate them, a palace was built in Croydon which then became the official summer residence of the Archbishop for more than 500 years. During an era when the church was often more powerful than the Crown, Croydon was considered to have gravitas and prestige. Today, the old palace can still be seen over to the west of the town, where it has been incorporated into a school.
However, nearer to the High Street is a more prominent legacy of the Archbishops, the Whitgift Almshouses. The square Tudor building was built in 1596 by Archbishop John Whitgift in order to provide a hospital and education for the poor. Today it sits among banks, chain stores and the tramlines. A young cyclist wheelies in the wake of a tram along bricks laid half a millennium ago. There can’t be that many places where such a feat is possible.
It is clear that Croydon’s recent infamy is only a relatively short spell in a much longer history – and that the worst might be over. As London prices push people into the outer reaches of the city, the town has become one of the most in-demand property locations in the southeast. Walking towards East Croydon station, ‘Boxpark’ – a new outdoor food complex duplicated from Brixton and Shoreditch – is heaving with lunch-timers. ‘The town’s regeneration is long awaited, but there is some worry from locals that it’s not being done for them,’ says Walsh. There are concerns that the luxury apartments and tech investments are prioritising newcomers instead of communities already here. Meanwhile, developments such as Boxpark and a planned Westfield shopping centre have been criticised for being a ‘copy and paste’ approach to improving the town, which ignores its distinctive character.
The issue is about making sure suburban towns can flourish without replicating the same conditions that are pushing culture out of the cities. While Croydon is a unique place, the town also holds to something universal about suburbs in the face of gentrification. ‘Walks tend to focus on scenic spots – villages, coastlines and areas of natural beauty,’ says Walsh, ‘but a lot of people in Britain come from places like Croydon and can relate to the way its changing.’
This was published in the October 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.