The eponymous hero of Charles Dickens’ first novel The Pickwick Papers chose to see out his days in Dulwich in a house with “a large garden . . . situated in one of the most pleasant spots near London”.
Though the smokestacks and grime of the Victorian era are thankfully long gone, the writer’s appraisal of this genteel neighbourhood a few miles south of the Thames continues to ring true.
Back in London after several months of lockdown with my family in the north of England, I find it hard to think of a swath of the capital that offers as much green open space, thanks to its glorious park, the playing fields of schools such as Dulwich College and surviving pockets of the Great North Wood, a medieval oak forest whose remnants are the focus of renewed conservation efforts.
Although the area has been swallowed up by London’s suburban sprawl, the qualifying “near” in Dickens’ geography still applies — just. With its Georgian buildings and pretty white wooden signs and fence posts, Dulwich Village likes to cultivate an image of the rural settlement it once was, even if the absence of wellies and real mud spots make this more of an urban fantasy. (Although a neighbour who grew up in rural Wales once told me he sees far more wildlife living here than he ever did back home.)
As a novice gardener who has lived in next-door East Dulwich for several years, I like to draw inspiration from the many lovely front gardens here. But a stroll to reacquaint myself with the district is always an excellent excuse to avoid dealing with the weeds that have joyfully sprung up in my recent absence. To paraphrase Dickens, just like Mr Pickwick we too can enjoy a walk about this pleasant neighbourhood on a fine day.
This route is 3.7 miles and takes a fast walker around an hour, or if you dawdle a bit, 90 minutes — though that would mean resisting the temptation to wander around the parks and relax for a while.
I start my amble in brilliant sunshine at the bottom of Lordship Lane, the main shopping street that snakes its way uphill through East Dulwich, Dulwich-proper’s chichi sibling. The Goose Green roundabout is a good place to orientate yourself.
Business seems a tad slower than usual for the shops, pubs and restaurants after lockdown, but a welcome side effect is the abandon with which cyclists are whizzing down a relatively traffic-free high street.
The street art dotted across South-East London collectively known as Dulwich Outdoor Gallery provides splashes of interest. One of the best-known and easiest to spot is the enormous mural next to the East Dulwich Tavern of two men in Regency dress having fisticuffs, by artist Conor Harrington (and not a reflection on what goes on outside the pub on a typical Saturday night).
Heading uphill and turning right on to Townley Road, before turning left onto Calton Avenue, I pass the playing fields of Alleyn’s School. Public access at certain times is granted — a good option if you’re looking for an open but still quiet spot. A small plaque fixed to the railings records that a family of four was killed here by an air raid in 1940, one of several similar poignant signs in the area.
Further on, the bright red front of Village Books, another great local bookshop, signals the middle of Dulwich Village. I turn left and make my way down the main street that is marked Dulwich Village, where you can pretend you aren’t in one of Europe’s biggest cities and instead enjoy white picket fences and manicured front gardens.
Passing a large boozer, The Crown & Greyhound, on my left and Pickwick Road on my right, I continue up Gallery Road. What appears to be a small, cream-coloured chapel here is a former grammar school created to educate poor boys in the 1840s; the red and white coat of arms above the door is a nod to The Dulwich Estate, a charity whose roots go back to 1619 with a bequest from Elizabethan actor, Edward Alleyn.
I turn onto Dulwich Common and the handsome red-brick buildings of Dulwich College, with its blue-faced clock tower, come into view on the right. It’s worth popping over the road to observe the front gates and façade, more stately home than school.
Turning left onto College Road, I walk down to Dulwich Picture Gallery, one of the area’s star draws. The building, designed by Sir John Soane and opened in 1817, is England’s oldest public art gallery and houses a permanent collection of European paintings: the standouts lining its pinkish-red walls are works by Rembrandt and Gainsborough.
The gallery is still shut but the gardens and café are open. A lovely shortcut there is to take the tree-lined grove of Lovers’ Walk, which runs between Gallery Road and College Road. Grab a bench to yourself at the right moment and enjoy the silence, except for the breeze in the trees and the occasional thwump of a tennis ball.
Almost opposite the gallery is one of the nicest entrances to Dulwich Park, with a formal sweep up the road and faux-Tudor cottage on the left. I am biased, of course, but to me it is London’s perfect park: formal enough with its scenery, sculptures and beautiful café to feel like a proper outing with friends, but large and relaxed enough to cope with children’s five-a-side tournaments, hordes of dog walkers and — especially at weekends — a multitude of joggers.
The main driveway loop is exactly one mile, perfect for sticking in some earphones and doing a few laps. Its flatness also guarantees that Dulwich regularly appears in rankings of the country’s fastest Parkruns. If early starts rather than fast finishes are more your thing, my tip is to make it through the gates as early as you can in summer to see the geese graze the lawns undisturbed.
By now, it’s late afternoon and hot, so few are attempting to break a further sweat. I pause for an ice cream near the set of looping sculptures by Conrad Shawcross, leaving from the Court Lane exit. Going up Eynella Road, you pass a fine red-brick Victorian library, once a hangout of celebrated Kiwi writer Janet Frame, who called nearby Camberwell home in the late 1950s.
Turning left gets you back onto Lordship Lane, thankfully downhill in this direction. Perhaps the plant shop does merit a proper visit — the weeds can wait another day.
1. Village Books, independent bookstore
1D Calton Ave, Dulwich, London SE21 7DE
Centre of Dulwich Park, London SE21 7BQ
3. East Dulwich Picturehouse, neighbourhood three-screen cinema
116a Lordship Ln, East Dulwich, London SE22 8HD
4. Dulwich Pot and Plant Garden, garden centre
12B Red Post Hill, Dulwich, London SE21 7BX
5. Forest, hip plant shop
Frogley Rd, East Dulwich, London SE22 9DF
Map by Liz Faunce
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