St Stephens: A Geography of the Parish.

       How do you describe where you live to strangers? There are many possible ways to answer that question, depending, for example, on your experience of the area, where you are at the time, whom you are addressing, and for what purpose. Here I will attempt to describe the location and principal features of St. Stephen’s Parish.
        To the Diocese of Southwark and Dulwich Deanery, St Stephen’s Parish is in South Dulwich, but how often does anyone use that name? Dulwich, yes, but South Dulwich …? The postal address of the Church is College Road SE21, but that is also the postal district of much of West Dulwich and all of Dulwich Village, which are not in the Parish, while the southernmost parts are in SE19 and SE26. Network Rail call the station next door to the Church ‘Sydenham Hill’, but none of the Parish is in Sydenham. Administratively it is in the London Borough of Southwark, and part of the rather amorphous Parliamentary Constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood, but public transport only tenuously connects it with those places. Of course, some residents will feel oriented differently again, while others may not be aware they are in the Parish of St Stephen’s at all!  It helps to know more ...


        The Parish forms a rough triangle, 1 ¼ miles north to south and ¾ mile west to east, located 4 miles south of the City of London, in the Borough of Southwark (see accompanying map). Its southeastern boundary runs the length of the steep Sydenham Hill and Crystal Palace ridge, but Crystal Palace is more associated with Upper Norwood and Penge than Dulwich. Our northern boundary is set by the schools and sports grounds along Dulwich Common, while on the west and east sides it is bounded by busy main roads (Croxted Road and the South Circular respectively). Historically, the Parish was the almost empty southern tip of the large medieval Parish of Camberwell, effectively part of Surrey’s ‘Great North Wood' (Norwood). St Stephen’s was only built and endowed in response to the rapid growth of South London in the 19th century, the building of Paxton’s ‘Crystal Palace’ at Penge Common in 1856, and then the building of Dulwich College on Dulwich Common in the 1860s (see Michael Goodman’s book, ‘The Story of St. Stephen’s Church: a Beacon in Times of Peace and War', available from the Church).
         The Parish is a low to medium density middle class suburb set in a hilly, green and leafy environment, which makes it unusual in an Inner City. It does not have an obvious ‘core’ (a prominent historical, commercial, or community focus) within it (do we count St Stephens Church and Hall? Kingswood House? or Paxton Green? Its better known foci lie just beyond its borders, eg Dulwich College, Dulwich Village and Picture Gallery, the Horniman Museum, and the Upper Norwood Triangle (including the Vicar's Oak), while shopping centres are further away at West Norwood, East Dulwich, Forest Hill, Sydenham and Penge. Cheap public transport to all these centres is surprisingly limited from St Stephen’s: no bus routes pass through the heart of the Parish, the Toll Gate on College Road cuts it off from much of South London, and few people use trains for local journeys.

 The Toll Gate in College Road;            The City viewed from Crystal Palace;  Kingswood Hse CommunityCentre   

          Most of the half of the Parish north-east of College Road is not built-up: it includes Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Golf Course, Dulwich Woods, playing fields, sports clubs, and allotments. The south and west half includes Kingswood Estate (a 1950-60s low-rise public housing development), private apartment blocks, houses and gardens, and residential amenity land. College Road and the Victoria to Orpington railway line form a sharp boundary between the two halves. Many residents are retired, or middle class families attracted by the environment, its nearness to London, and the local schools. Many properties are ‘pied-a-terres’, often in cul-de-sacs (which tend to encourage social exclusiveness rather than a sense of community).  Since parish employment is limited to local services and three large schools, most working residents commute to London or elsewhere from the local stations, along with hundreds of others coming up from Kent who park in the Parish. College Road is a toll road for vehicles, but it is a popular route on the London Cycle Network, and much of its traffic is now cycles and motor cycles. Most of St Stephen's congregation come from within the Parish or its near neighbours, but the Church is popular more widely for weddings, and some attend regularly from as far away as Beckenham, Camberwell, Streatham, and even Epsom!

           St Stephens Parish Church from College Road                                                St Stephen.s Church interior

        (There is detailed information on the Parish's physical environment in the 'Effra in Dulwich' page of this website, and samples of local walks around it on the next page).

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Below is part of an article written for the Autumn 2018 edition of St Stephen's 'Spire ' magazine, celebrating the Church's Sesquicentenary (150th birthday!:

                                        St Stephen’s Parish in 1868

St Stephen’s Parish was established at a time of great social and economic change in and around London. Here I imagine an exchange of correspondence between two men who were in the midst of those changes in the hitherto most rural part of the ancient Parish of Camberwell. While there is no extant evidence of such an exchange, the Reverend John Meek Clark as Vicar and Charles Barry as Resident Estates Architect would certainly have met and discussed issues such as those raised here.

To Mr Charles Barry Esq, FRIBA,                                                      The Vicarage,
Lapse Wood House, Sydenham Hill.                                    Penge Road, South Dulwich.

                                                                            Dated this day of our Lord, 19th August 1868

Dear Sir,

            I have recently been appointed the first Incumbent of the new Parish of South Dulwich, whose handsome Church and capacious Vicarage you designed, and I am writing to you in order to learn more about the Parish and its environs.

           As local Directories and the eminent art critic Mr Ruskin of nearby Herne Hill assure us, the beauties of Dulwich, its woodland scenery, and its subdued country aspect have not yet died away. It has still the gentle hills, the dark damp valleys, the spreading groves, luxuriant fields, and magnificent prospects which have been its boast since the time of Edward Alleyn and before. However, it is evident that great changes are taking place in many of the villages south of London as a result of the desperate shortage of suitable residences for the burgeoning population of that great City. In particular, the new highways and railway lines spreading their tentacles into our area have made it an attractive proposition for those wishing to combine the ambience of rural living with the opportunities presented by profitable employment in London. I am also concerned about the huge impact of the ‘Palace of the People’ that looms over the hill above St Stephen’s, and the ramifications of the enlarged and reconstituted ‘College of God’s Gift’ being built on Dulwich Common.

                 Can we be sure that in a few years hence the same bountiful supply of nature’s treasures will still be present? It seems to me that you, as a highly respected local resident involved in the design and implementation of many of the above changes, would be the ideal person to consult in relation to such matters. I would like to meet with you, and perhaps engage in a leisurely perambulation around the Parish, during which you might highlight some of the changes which might affect us now and in the future.

                                       Respectfully yours,

                                                          John Meek Clark (Revd.)

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To: Revd J Meek Clark MA,                                                                     Lapse Wood House,
St Stephen’s Vicarage, South Dulwich                                                        Sydenham Hill

                                                                                                                              23rd August 1868

Dear Revd Clark,

                 Thank you for your letter. I am of course very familiar with your church and its locality, both as local resident and parishioner, and as chief Architect and Surveyor to the Governors of Dulwich Estates, and would be pleased to enlighten you regarding the changing nature of the parish you serve.

                 Let me first reassure you that the Governors of Alleyn's College of God's Gift wish to continue the land management policies that have been so successful in retaining the rural aspect of the Manor of Dulwich since the time of Edward Alleyn. During that time the steep northern slopes of the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill ridge have been maintained as woodland, with statutary restrictions on timber cutting and water use that have been in place since the time of Queen Elizabeth. Similarly, the private enclosure and development of common land used for pasture requires Acts of Parliament, and has traditionally been vigorously opposed by the Governors, thus helping to preserve the pastures that characterise much of Dulwich, including the Common.
                 The Estates have also continued Alleyn’s own practice of encouraging long leasehold conveyancing of property rather than freehold ownership, so that they had a ready source of income from ground rents, and could control how the land is used in both the short and the long term. There is no village or meeting of highways within South Dulwich which might be a focus for residential or commercial development, and the heart of the Parish was isolated and almost empty until the London, Dover and Chatham railway was driven through it to the Penge Tunnel, giving it access to Kent. St Stephen’s Church was built on a site provided by the Estates on the steep slope above the tunnel entrance, but the Governors were required to maintain the access lane between the Crystal Palace and the hamlet of Dulwich you know as Penge Road, with some housing along it.
                   You will be aware that most of the Parish is free of housing development, apart from some large pre-existing houses and their grounds, nearly all of them along the roads which make up the Parish boundaries, such as Sydenham Hill, Dulwich Common, Lordship Lane, Gipsy Hill, and Croxted Lane. New building is being restricted to infilling along or close to those same roads.
On the specific matter of the impact of the Crystal Palace, I would point out that its potential for generating both much-needed income and unwanted nuisance is greatly limited by its closure on Sundays, and access to it from London is mainly by way of Norwood, Penge and Sydenham rather than Dulwich (my Railway Terminus alongside the Parade notwithstanding!). The new Dulwich College is being built on land already separated from St Stephen’s by toll gate, and I understand that the sons of potential new residents will be offered reduced fees at the College, which will have the incidental benefit of increasing the number of your parishioners and therefore the value of your living.

                    I hope the above will go some way toward allaying some of the concerns you have expressed; I suggest more detailed consideration might await the meeting you propose, to which I look forward.

                             Yours faithfully,

                                       Charles Barry Jnr  (Banks and Barry, Architects, London)
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Extract from my 'Carols' article in the Christmas 2018 edition of 'Spire':                                                                                                                                                                        
. . .  St Stephen’s Church will celebrate its 150th birthday with a specially commissioned Parish Mass setting on November 25th 2018, before we look forward to our usual Christmas musical celebrations. We will host many Seasonal services in December: Advent Lessons and Carols, led by our Choir, with St Margaret Clitherow (RC) Church, and Kingswood Community Church (December 16th). Local Schools will be holding their Carol Services in St Stephen's: from Dulwich College, Dulwich Prep, Kingsdale Foundation School, 'Ducks' and Montessori Nurseries, and Dulwich Wood Juniors. Over Christmas itself are three more services in which our Church Choir takes the lead: the Christmas Eve Crib Service (when the children build the Crib in costume, and the Vicar scoots his way around the Congregation and blesses it!). Later that evening is the traditional Midnight Mass (often set to Charpentier’s Messe de Minuit, with an instrumental ensemble), and the glorious Family Eucharist on Christmas Day, after which children’s toys which have been placed beneath our Christmas Tree are distributed to needy children elsewhere in the Diocese. In the following days we also have St Stephen’s Feast Day (Good King Wenceslas went out …), and Epiphany (We three kings of orient are ...)!                                                                    Finally, I offer two spine-tingling musical moments to savour from those celebrations:                 ‘Once in Royal David’s City …’ sung by a candlelit treble in the darkened church on Christmas Eve, and ‘Yea Lord, we greet thee …’ sung jubilantly by a packed congregation on Christmas Morning in blazing light; I warmly encourage you to come and share them with us!  . . .

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The Easter 2019 edition of  St Stephen's 'Spire' magazine was a celebration of Trees in our Parish Environment, and of Dulwich Woods in particular. Here is an extract:

   . . . Why are Woods so important? Quite apart from their aesthetic, sculptural, and spiritual properties (see page ... ), trees and plants are major elements in all the world's land ecosystems, without which life as we know it would be impossible. They regulate oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the air, filter and absorb pollutants, and hence reduce the incidence of global warming through the Greenhouse Effect. Trees also modify the local weather by reducing wind speed, temperature ranges and evaporation rates, and by intercepting rainfall; they provide us with shelter and shade, and protection from ground frost. Leaf litter is the main natural store of soil nutrients  (fertility), and trees are the main means by which ground water and soil nutrients are seasonally recycled. In addition their roots help to bind the soil together, so reducing soil movement and landslips. Our Woods offer vital protection and habitat for many wild flowers and plants that are both attractive and useful, as well as for many sadly declining woodland birds, pollinating insects and other important creatures. Our Woods have also provided clean water, and useful resources for industries such as shipbuilding, charcoal burning, tanning and medicines . . . Let's not forget too that Sydenham Hill offers some of the best views in south-east England, so get out and enjoy our Woods with family and friends . . !

  (Further contributions to 'Spire' may be published here from time to time  . . . )