Living in Herne Hill brings many advantages and pleasures, not least because we are, er, living on an actual Hill. So we have views.
When John Ruskin and his family lived in their houses near the top of Herne Hill itself, there were more views, because there was so much less housing. Much of the time he found them blissful, but in 1854 the translation of the Crystal Palace from South Kensington to the summit of Sydenham Hill spoilt his view southwards. He described the Crystal Palace as “possessing no more sublimity than a cucumber frame between two chimneys”. (Sublimity was a big thing for him; he was not normally seduced by modernity.) Anyways it’s gone now, burnt down in 1936.
But we have other views, particularly to the south-west, and they show a world city which is still evolving. When we looked in that direction a few years ago, we would have seen the four iconic chimneys of Battersea Power Station. Though they are still there, they are dwarfed and hidden from our view by the gleaming towers of the new South Bank development generally known as Nine Elms.
This 561-acre space between Vauxhall and Battersea is transforming at a pace seldom seen in an established world city, with £15 billion total investment, 20,000 new homes and reportedly 25,000 new jobs. The Northern Line Extension with two stations is scheduled to open in 2021. There will still be the vegetable and flower market, tucked among the skyscrapers and the new US Embassy.
Poor Mr Ruskin would probably have hated it, and many of us would not actually want to live there. But we might be happy to view it from a safe distance, across Ruskin Park. In its own dramatic way, the view is perhaps sublime.
John Ruskin, without doubt Herne Hill’s most famous resident, was born 200 years ago and this year has witnessed events, exhibitions, talks and books to celebrate and reassess his life and his actions, as probably the most globally-known and influential public intellectual of the Victorian era.
He was not just an art critic and champion of Turner: his powerful criticisms of many of the damaging consequences of rapid industrialisation, abandonment of tradition, neglect of the natural environment, and inhuman living conditions heralded social changes in the 19th century, and remain relevant in the 21st.
He lived in Herne Hill from his earliest years. The leafy garden of his parents’ house on Herne Hill, just a few hundred yards up the slope from Fawnbrake Avenue, made a huge impact on his awareness and love of nature. He kept a house here as his London base and visited frequently after he had retired to the Lake District. (The Ruskins’ houses, though, are long gone.)
On Wednesday 12 June, Jon Newman, author and Lambeth archivist, will give a lecture looking at why Ruskin is still relevant today.
This important event, which is this year’s Thomas Lynn Bristowe Memorial Lecture, is hosted by the Herne Hill Society and Brockwell Park Community Partners. It will be in the Herne Hill Baptist Church on Half Moon Lane at 7:45 PM on Wednesday 12 June – everyone welcome, free of charge.
In this bi-centenary year of Herne Hill resident John Ruskin, the Herne Hill Music Festival is hoping to include a musical based on Ruskin’s only children’s story in its programme.
Professional composer Paul Ayres plans to turn The King of the Golden River by Ruskin (recently republished by Thames & Hudson with wonderful illustrations by Quentin Blake) into a musical to be performed by St Saviour’s Primary School.
However, they need, quite rightly, to pay a fee to the composer, and there are other costs of production as well.
The Festival organisers have already had generous support from the Herne Hill Society and other business sponsors, but they are still short of £350.
So there’s a fund-raising campaign
If you can help celebrate John Ruskin and give the young performers from St Saviour’s the unforgettable experience of taking part in a musical, have a look at the fund-raising page and perhaps consider making a donation.
News about Fawnbrake Avenue & neighbouring streets in Herne Hill, London