SM 14 – Jul 12
‘Park Hill Mansion’ was one of several very large properties situated on Streatham Common North, in southeast London. They were once the homes and estates of some very wealthy people – providing, as they did, a commanding view over Streatham, and to the heights of Wimbledon and the Surrey Hills beyond.
The owner of ‘Park Hill’ during the early 1870s was William Leaf – a successful London soft goods merchant who specialised in silks and ribbons – who made extensive additions and alterations to the house and grounds before he died in 1874. Many entrepreneurs of those days dreamt of owning a house on a hill, with its own grounds, a lake, and a folly, so, given that he already had a house on a hill, with its own grounds and a lake, it is hardly surprising that he should want to complete the set. At ‘Park Hill’, his folly took the form of a ruined mediaeval gateway and tower.
He turned to the Pulhams for help, and the characteristically brief notes in James 2’s booklet describe the features as:
‘Fernery and Artificial Ruin of Castle gateway and Tower for summer retreat and view.’
He assigns the date of 1873-74 for this work, which means that William Leaf never lived long enough to enjoy it. He died soon after the work was completed, and, in 1880, the estate was purchased by Henry Tate, founder of the Tate Gallery, and proprietor of the famous sugar company that is now known as Tate and Lyle Ltd.
Tate almost immediately commissioned Robert Marnock – just before he retired – to redesign the gardens, so this was presumably the time when James 2 was called in to do additional work. James 2 had previously worked with Marnock at Berry Hill, Taplow, and Danesbury Park, Welwyn, and the work included – in another part of the grounds from the folly – reshaping the small lake and constructing a long sunken walkway, lined with rocky cliffs and grottoes, and with a stream flowing through it that was fed from the lake.[i]
Henry died in 1899, in his 81st year, and his wife, Lady Amy Tate, continued to live at Park Hill until her own death in 1919. The estate was put on the market in very good condition, but it was not until 1923 that it was eventually acquired by the Congregation of the Poor Servants of the Mother of God, an organisation dedicated to the training and education of some of the growing number of young girls with learning difficulties. They carried out laundry work for local hotels, residential homes, and the local community, and visitors from all over the U.K. and abroad came to Park Hill to study and learn about their teaching methods.1e
Fig 1 – The ruined tower and gateway at Park Hill, Streatham
Fig 2 – The bridge over the ‘rocky ravine’ at Park Hill. (Photo by Desireé McDougall)
All but roughly 5½ acres of land surrounding the house were sold off over the years, but improvements to the girls’ living accommodation were made during the 1970s. Funding and support for such large residential establishments as Park Hill ceased in the mid 1990s when the Government introduced its ‘Care in the Community’ legislation, and the Nuns were eventually left with little option but to find something smaller.
The property was on the market for some time before its eventual sale to a consortium of property developers in 2002, but the Grade II* listing of the mansion as a building of special architectural and historic importance ensured its survival, and it has now been extensively renovated and refurbished as a private residence.
Fig 3 – Rustic stone steps leading down into the ‘rocky ravine’ at Park Hill
Some of the garden features – including the folly and the sunken walkway – were also listed as features of historic interest. Part of the Planning Consent stipulated that there must be public access to the grounds on at least two days per year, so, although this is essentially private property, it does at least ensure that the public will have some limited opportunity to explore this beautiful estate, which has been described as
‘an oasis of peace and tranquillity in a country house setting which is unrivalled in South London.’
These are the words of Daphne Marchant, co-author of Park Hill, Streatham, a booklet published by The Streatham Society in 2004, and on which the above historical notes are based.
I first became aware of Pulham’s work at Park Hill when I read Sally Festing’s article about St Michael’s Convent in the GHS Newsletter.[ii] At first sight, it did not seem to be an overwhelming endorsement:
‘Not all Pulham’s work met with unanimous approval from his contemporaries. Henry Tate’s Streatham residence was voted noble by Robert Marnock, and his garden charmingly laid out in the ‘natural style’ by Marnock, with fine specimen trees, and lawns sloping to a miniature lake. But the sunk path, in imitation of a rocky ravine which formed one of the boundaries, was not considered a success by William Goldring of The Garden in 1886-88. It was a ‘decidedly important feature,’ and enhanced by the growth of trees and shrubs, yet the ‘profusion of rocks’ looked undoubtedly artificial.
Fig 4 – Part of the bank of the rocky ravine
‘He doubted that ‘even Mr Pulham, who always likes to see his works mistaken for Nature’s work,’ would praise this particular mass of rocks. The . . . Pulham garden remains much as it must have been laid out, so viewers can decide its merits for themselves. Known by the present occupants of the School as ‘The Caves,’ it forms a network of deeply set paths lined in pinkish, pebbly artificial rock, an arched bridge . . . with an acer on either side. Perhaps Goldring missed the climax of the Pulham garden, for he does not mention the ruined tower, its steps pitted with plant pockets on either side.’
Whilst browsing the internet, I came across another short article about the gardens at St Michael’s Convent. This was written by Cheryl Markovsky,[iii] who wrote that one of the Nuns’ design contributions was to turn the woodland ‘secret garden’ into a Garden of Gethsemane grottos, complete with a statue of the crucified Christ.
The ‘ruined tower’ is in a separate corner of the grounds, and, as can be seen from Fig 1, is now covered by overgrowth and not easy to photograph, but the walls of the tower have traditional mediaeval ‘cross slit’ windows, and it is possible to enter the single rooms on both floors. Unfortunately, most of the panoramic views from the upper floor are now obscured by nearby buildings, but it is intriguing to imagine what a vantage point this must have been all those years ago.
It is a short walk from here to the arched bridge over the ‘rocky ravine,’ which can be seen here in Fig 2. There are planting pockets along the top of the bank, and in the cliffs themselves, and there are also the remains of some – but not much – ashlar surfacing to the brick facing of the bridge itself. The railings are a faithful replacement copy of the original balustrading, which is thought to have been designed especially for William Leaf by John Bounaroti Papworth.
Fig 5 – One of the grottoes that the Nuns of St Michael’s Convent adorned with religious statues, and used as shrines
From here, one descends into the ravine itself, which is not as difficult as it may look at first sight. It is possible to enter via a gentle slope at the far end from the bridge, or down a flight of rustic stone steps, shown in Fig 3. Looking along the walkway is very reminiscent of many other Pulham scenes – a pathway winding away into the distance between random outbreaks of huge rocks – some with massive overhangs. As Sally Festing commented in her article, they had a slightly pinkish hue, and Fig 4 shows a typical glimpse along the ‘ravine.’
One or two of the rocks have terrible splits and cracks in them, caused by the growth of trees that, in most cases, will have self-seeded many years ago. It is difficult to know what best to do for them at this stage, because to leave them will inevitably result in the damage getting worse over time, whereas to try and remove the tree roots might destroy the rock altogether.
Fig 6 – An area of cement has broken away to reveal its brick base
Fig 7 – The rocky bank and remains of the stream that used toflow beneath the bridge at Park Hill, Streatham (Photo by Desireé McDougall)
A short way further along is the section of the walkway that Cheryl Markovsky says the Nuns referred to as ‘The Caves.’ It is a collection of grottoes that they converted into religious shrines by adorning them with statues, and it is easy to imagine how peaceful, and how suitable for their meditations it would have been for them here. The statues have naturally all been removed by now, but one of the empty grottoes is pictured here in Fig 5.
Rounding a corner, on the way back towards the bridge, there is an area of rockwork from which the top surfacing has broken away. It is shown here as Fig 6, and it is noticeable that the bricks used in the base structure of these rocks are slightly smaller than the house bricks that are normally used today.
Finally, back at the bridge itself, one can clearly see the rockwork beneath, and extending away up the slope beyond. The remains of the channel along which ran the stream that was fed from the lake can also be seen clearly in Fig 7. From here, one can return to the grand terrace along the front of the mansion, but almost all of the vases and sphinx-like models that now top the boundary wall are copies or the originals that were stolen a few years ago. It is impossible to claim positively that the originals were by Pulham, but it must be a strong probability.
This site is still in quite good condition, and is well worthy of some proper restoration and subsequent regular maintenance. One can only wish all the residents of Park Hill Mansions every possible success in bringing this particular piece of our Pulham heritage back to life.
[i] ‘Park Hill’ House and Gardens by Brian Bloice and Daphne Marchant, from ‘Park Hill’ Streatham, published by The Streatham Society in 2004
[ii] ‘Great Credit upon the Ingenuity and Taste of Mr Pulham,’ by Sally Festing. Garden History -+Society Newsletter 1988 Vol 16/1 Pages 96-97.
[iii] The Independent, 14th January 2004