I was very sad to hear about the fire at Battersea Arts Centre yesterday, especially as it has only recently under gone a refurbishment. Places to enjoy and learn about the arts are an ever decreasing thing in my beloved south west London due to the ever creeping cultural oil slick known as luxury flats. I’m so relieved no one was hurt and hope to see it back on it’s feet soon, I have such fond memories of the place.
Last year, I wrote a psychogeographical essay about BAC and Lavender Hill for Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City, a collection of works exploring London’s peaks put together by Penned in the Margins. In tribute, here it is:
Lavender Hill, SW11 (17.9m)
Dull grey skies. Commuters and casual shoppers buzz in and out of the station as I set off up the hill into an icy breeze. I’m climbing Lavender Hill: a hump of ancient glacial spew in the heart of Battersea, just north east of Clapham Junction. The road, an eponymously named section of the A3036, is my guide through this wild urban landscape. It’s a typically London thoroughfare, perennially thronging with grubby cars and lorries and bearded cyclists heading up to Westminster or down to Wandsworth, then on. At three-quarters-of-a-mile long and just under eighteen metres tall – that’s less than two tail-to-tail double-decker buses – the hill offers a tough climb, but I should be able to make it.
I follow the pavement, passing the first row of shops. School kids are beginning to swarm; a tumultuous army of blue blazers swagger into newsagents and fried chicken joints. A spit of rain falls in dark modicums on the floor. I walk up against the flow of pedestrians and, a little way along the road’s southern edge, come to Battersea Library – an old four-storey, red brick reference library with rosewood-coloured turrets that disappear up into the murk above.
I’d been past here many times before and its gaudy posters and out-of-date notice boards are all familiar to me, so too are the rowdy pair drinking Kestrel Super Strength on the wooden bench near the entrance. Two men: one a ball of tattered tweed and matted blonde fuzz, the other wearing a huge winsome grin and a wooly hat so weathered there’s more hole than hat left. In the still moments, before the wind washes the air clean, their interesting perfume – of stale hangovers and festering bodily fluids – reaches my unwelcoming nose.
Despite being thoroughly sozzled, they shiver in the cold. It’s been a mild winter, but the temperature has dropped and my hands and cheeks are beginning to feel it too – each turse lash of wind leaves my bare skin a little more raw. There will be a frost tonight, the gritty surfaces of shallow, greying puddles will freeze, but too many feet tread these pavements for it to last long. Ice rarely lasts long in London. Once though, a long time before the city, this land was covered with ice.
During the last glacial period – the time when our current ice age was at its most extreme, around 18,000 years ago – harsh winters and freezing temperatures meant that vast sheets of ice formed that, at their peak, covered a third of the Earth’s surface and claimed millions of gallons of water. Sea levels and rainfall plummeted. The air was starved of moisture and the land of colour
a barren monotony,
broken only by powdery
across white plains. Much of
Britain’s green landscape was like an Arctic tundra; a desert of wind and cold reaching all the way across Europe, unbroken by country borders or the North Sea which hadn’t yet formed.
Whole forests and mountain ranges were consumed by these ‘rivers of ice’, glaciers that became oxymorons under the sheer weight of their own mass; solids that oozed and slid and behaved like liquid plastic. The ice slowly smothered everything, devastating the landscape so that, when the world eventually began to warm and the glaciers retreated, our geography was changed forever. What hadn’t been crushed or eroded by the ice was altered by epic floods with such force that new seas were formed, dividing us from mainland Europe and trapping the Thames which, until that point, had been a tributary of the ancient German river Rhine. The chewed up remains of the old land, carried in the bowels of the glaciers for thousands of years, became the raw material for a new terrain, for some of its hills and contours. Lavender Hill is one of these glacial dumps. Perhaps not the Ice Age’s most mind blowing achievement, but useful for anyone trying to get to Westminster from Wandsworth.
At roughly the same point as the library, and the bench where Scruffy Blonde and Smiley McGrubberson are bickering over a tab end, the earth deep below the modern city begins to change. Below the pavement and subterranean electricity cables, glacial gravel merges with Taplow gravel – the granular, sand-rich foundation of the Thames Terraces. The river is just over a mile away. It’s these conditions – the good drainage and elevation – that helped give the hill its name: before the station brought an almighty wave of urbanisation just over 150 years ago, this was agricultural land ribbed with vibrant rows of sweet smelling lavender. I try to imagine the aroma as I pass the two drunks and head onwards.
The road ahead is faced with a dense entanglement of shops and houses, it’s noisy and cluttered: boxy council blocks and boarded-up boutiques; health food stores and posh estate agents. Victorian terraced houses, mostly divvied up into newsagents and dim-windowed bedsits, watch over me as I climb the slope. The incline must be hitting a heady five degrees by now. The sky has turned pale and bright and I squint against the glare.
The pleasure in higher ground usually lies in perspective, the comfort one gets from feeling small against the vastness of the landscape. The chance to, as Rob Macfarlane puts it, “look down on a city that I usually look across. The relief of relief… a way of defraying the city’s claims on me.”* But Lavender Hill doesn’t feel like a hill, despite the gradient. Most of the view is obscured by a thick fog of glass and brickwork, it hems me into the road. I can’t see out and it dampens my senses. I’ve no concept of the topography of the outlying land or the direction of anything – there is only forward or back. I don’t know if, beyond the buildings, the rest of the city is even there. For all I can see, this, right here, is everything.
The cheerful purple heads of lavender flowers yield abundant nectar meaning that, before the station brought an explosion of shops and houses that proved fatal to local farming, nearby bee hives were swimming in high-quality honey. As one of nature’s perfect partnerships, together they brought farmers here a hearty revenue from the markets. Lavender was thought to protect against disease, a cure-all, it was burnt to cleanse sickness from the air and honey was used as a medicine. Sometimes the heavily-scented oil was used as a household cleaner or mixed with beeswax to make a fine polish. They were eaten together too, lavender was added to honey to create an aromatic and indulgent treat.
At the summit, roughly, of Lavender Hill is Battersea Arts Centre. It was built in the late 19th century as the town hall of the defunct borough of Battersea, but is now a theatre and arts venue. I heave myself up the last hardy chunk of the ascent, then head inside for some well-earned refreshment. In the entrance hall I’m struck by an elaborate glass mosaic on the floor: a medley of blues, pale to bright, like a pool glistening under a hot sun, and all around, not much bigger than my foot and sort of floating, there are simple black and gold bee emblems. Some have their wings outspread as though poised for flight, others appear to be resting or feeding.
I sup a luke warm latte in the ground floor café and ask around to see if anyone knows about the bees. Are they anything to do with local lavender? No one seems to be sure. A waitress tells me she overheard a walking guide say they were part of the original council’s statement of intent, it would remind them to work hard and value teamwork. Another says she’s sure they stand for BB, or Battersea Borough. Neither know anything about lavender.
Warm and slightly buzzing, I feel set to tackle the descent. So I hit the road again in the direction of Westminster, following the chewing gum-strewn pavement as it eases down the reverse of the hill. Ashen people wait at a bus stop under an ashen sky, shrinking into their scarfs and collars against the chill. In this light, there is little that doesn’t appear grey. The houses with their peeling and water stained paintwork, the leafless bushes that spike up from behind low lying walls, the pitted tarmac and dirty pedestrian crossings. Even a patch of grass, the front yard of the Ascension of Our Lord church, is also somehow sedate and drab.
Just near the next crossing however, a clearing catches my eye. It’s a sudden and momentary break in the terraces and estates on the northern side of the road, a window out from this claustrophobic gloom. Two steps to the left or right and it would be missed, but from this one accidental spot I can see all the way across London.
A view – at last.
I stop to survey the scene, soaking in the soothing magnitude of the distant landscape. I can see for miles across the tops of all sorts of buildings: the sallow chimneys of Battersea Power station; the rolling crest of the London Eye then, tiny from here, and the sharp apexes of Parliament and the BT tower. It’s an immense chain of man-made peaks, an architectural mountain range growing ever smaller as it disappears into the horizon. People must have been admiring the view for thousands of years, yet it’s unlikely any two viewings were ever alike. Once a glacial tundra, then farmland and now a huge network of glass and steel, bombastic monuments to money and power that are forever rising and falling, a scene that ebbs and flows from one season to the next just like any natural environment. Although the height of these structures greatly exceeds that of my tiny natural hill, it feels like I’m much higher than they are. I can see our position, Lavender Hill’s place in the world, and be certain that I’m very, very small.
* The Wild Places. Macfarlane, Robert. New York: Penguin, 2008.
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