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The Boroughers, 02/09/18: Croydon Shirley you can't be serious

Oh my god it's two adventures in a week! Talk about making up for lost time 'n that. I mean, by rights we should be well into the 20+ boroughs by now were we still aiming to complete our quest to visit them all before 2018 finishes – but hey, 2 in 7 days is pretty good going. Also we really wanted to wash the stench of Redbridge from our minds. Croydon should do that, right?

Where?

Croydon! Butt of many jokes and scene of various pivotal moments in my childhood, the south London borough that neither SE London nor SW London really wants to claim for their own, and UK home to the friend of new mothers across Africa, Nestlé.

I thought I knew everything worth knowing about Croydon before we went there so finding out interesting facts would be tricky. Oh how desperately wrong I was. Did any of you – Mark, I'm including you in this. And Tom if you're reading – know that Croydon:

  • had the first self-service Sainsbury's
  • is where Amy Johnson set off to fly to Australia from
  • is responsible for the invention of dubstep

Well now you do! Actually there was fucking tons of good trivia about Croydon: the Whitgift centre used to be the country's biggest shopping mall; they unsuccessfully lobbied for city status 4 or so times in the last ~60 years; Terry and June, George and Mildred, and Peep Show are all based there; I bought my electric guitar there; me and my sixth form mates had an eating contest at Deep Pan Pizza Co where Lewis won, but only because he nipped to the loo to throw up and make space midway through; etc!

Croydon

I dunno why I sound so excited. In reality the main reason we went to Croydon on Sunday September 2nd is that the two main things on our list are only open on the first Sunday each month, plus Helen had banished us from the garden due to sealant on the patio and I made a powerful argument that a visit to Kew Gardens can wait. Anyway. I'm hungry on Sunday mornings, let's eat.

That there is a ham and cheese sandwich in the shape of two planes and some clouds. Because Croydon, see. They were made while I did errands, which largely comprised putting rubbish in wheelie bins while being stared at by "Johnny Manx", our neighbourhood grumpy tail-free cat.

Later, as we prepared to leave the flat proper, he sat down with most of his body in the lower bit of the wall, and his front paws on an upper bit. It was a very funny pose. You'll have to take my word for it though eh.

Also I'm very excited that Adobe Spark Page has added this extra layout option where I can flow text to the side of images and that, in landscape mode. Seriously, it has made me unreasonably happy and I am likely to heavily overuse the feature throughout the rest of this story, I predict. Presumably you won't notice if you're on a phone.

Rail strike be damned, we arrived on the platform well timed for a train to Wimbledon and changing onto the Croydon Tramlink. Our vessel told us exactly how to feel.

We might!

Half an hour or so later, Helen is still glued to her phone staring at a range of small greenhouses and planters made from wood while I'm full of "oi! We're in Croydon! Start judging!" enthusiasm. We're here at Waddon Marsh, next to a fairly miserable retail park and a bus stop that's no longer in use. Oh. Well, up and on the Purley Way there's another bus stop, with the glory of Croydon B's Ikea-branded chimneys staring down at us.

Purley Way is a horrible main road. Noisy and loud and busy even on a Sunday with nice weather.

Our bus arrives to take us to the airport, which is also on the Purley Way. It really is one big busy main road, and it's an unpleasant stop-start traffic-jam of a journey, with only "Kevin News" and this Wing Yip supermarket to entertain us.

We go past masses of giant retail units, then some slightly less giant industrial units, with a handful of houses and smaller shops. It's shit. Disembarking at the Colonnades – a set of giant retail units – we cross the road and are at the airport. Croydon airport. You heard.

What looks like a typical building full of serviced offices on the same main road as a load of giant retail and industrial units is, in fact, an atypical building full of serviced offices because it's a historic airport. Like, no shit. That Amy Johnson fact from up there? Yeah. She flew from here.

Inside, we're staggeringly embarrassed to discover that between us we only have £2 to put in the "you should really donate £4" box. Initially declining to join a guided tour we're told that if we don't we'll see pretty much fuck all, so OK then, we'll go stand with the guide named Neil and 4 other members of the public out front.

He starts off telling us with a nerdy giggle that the plane in front of the building is a replica of the last plane to ever take off from here, when it closed in 1959, and was in fact CAPTAINED BY A MAN WITH THE SURNAME "LAST". I mean, you couldn't make it up.

He tells us how it initially started operations in around 1915, if you include the site about half a mile away. The building is important for being pretty much the first purpose built passenger terminal in the world, where some actual thought went into the process of getting people checked in, fed, watered, immigrated, customised, and onto a plane – rather than the previous haphazard "go stand in a hut and we'll figure shit out" nature of early airports.

Back in the 1930s when air travel was still largely only for the rich and/or famous, Croydon airport would see around 73,000 passengers a year but, on the roof of the building and the hotel next door, around 70,000 spectators. It was a big deal! And as well as terminal history, it was indeed where Amy Johnson set off to fly to Australia on her lonesome. Apparently, Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport is named after the fair dinkum Aussie bloke who replicated the feat in reverse a year later. Well I never.

The "you should join a tour" bloke was obviously right, because back inside (and scooting around the other, much larger, tour groups) we were led into the visitor centre proper, behind closed doors and up in the old air traffic control tower.

It's two floors of small rooms, but really quite interesting. A lot of it is given over to Amy Johnson's exploits – she flew from here numerous times, not just that Oz trip – but there's also loads of excellent paraphernalia of early passenger flight. Like this seat.

Yep. On the first flights – travelling at "only" 140mph, mind – you sat in wicker chairs with no cushions, no belts, and they weren't even attached to the floor. Holy shit!

Things got better quickly though. I presume the novelty of desperately unpleasant flight wore off quite quickly, and yer rich and famous decided they'd quite like a nice sit down.

In the luxury planes between the wars, it would take around 2 weeks with loads of stops to get from London to Australia. The addition of a steward was quite a revelation, and their job was to source provisions for the next leg of the journey at every stop. The passengers would stay in the same accomodation as, and dine with, the captain. It all sounds impossibly exotic. I mean I like my fancy pointy-end flights and Neil reckons people want to get from A to B as quickly as possible but fuck that, put me in one of those 2 week jaunts!

WOMEN: TAKE PLENTY OF UNDERWEAR. See? You don't get this kind of advice in the pre-flight services email from BA these days now do you.

The view from ATC used to be of the apron, tarmac taxiway, and grass runways. Now it's of giant industrial units. Shame.

Champagne glasses seem curiously missing from the table service. In fact it's basically only tea and spoons, plus a book about making cocktails.

It was very busy. I guess that's what you get when you open only once a month. Really interesting though. Lots of bits of old planes lying around too – propellers and wheels etc – as well as models of stuff.

The stairwells and corridors are full of fascinating photographs of the airport during its years of operation, including the slightly jarring sight of a Lufthansa plane in the mid/late-1930s with a large swastika on its tail. Story goes that Lufthansa took a slightly circuitous route to Croydon back then, as all their "civilian" passengers were in fact undercover military folk doing reconnaissance in preparation for bombing us to fuck a few years later. We did the same when Imperial Airways or BOAC or whoever went to Berlin, mind.

Croydon airport, innit.

Back on the ground floor for a quick scoot around the models and posters: "better to face the bullets than to be killed at home by a bomb" isn't really selling war to me, I must say.

And then we're out, crossing the road back to the Colonnades for an on-foot journey to the giant drive-thru Costa Coffee. Helen's weird coffee milkshake thing was, she said, so disgusting it almost made her feel sick.

Our bus from here actually started here, so we were able to time things perfectly such that we had to run across in front of the bus to stop him setting off without us. Behold, the 119 back up the Purley Way and into residential Waddon, past the nice-ish little green where there's a sign saying NO GAMES ON THE GREEN. Not "no ball games", just no games at all. I'm half tempted to jump off the bus and go sit there to play Threes on my iPhone and wait for the police to arrest me.

But no, we're staying on this bus for ages. Through Croydon town centre proper, past the lovely high-rise office blocks and the flyover and the huge road which destroyed the sleepy village back in the 50s. I didn't want to let my previous opinion cloud my judgement but jesus, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon Croydon town centre is grim.

Helen was whatever-the-opposite-of-fascinated-is about all my stories. "I did photocopying for Direct Line there". "I did data entry for Network Southeast there". "Down there is the Wetherspoons where I used to drink alone at lunchtimes". And etc. Past Boxpark and East Croydon and further east, we're on our way to Shirley. There's a windmill around here.

Yeah, that's it. Shirley windmill innit. Sat between some fairly well-to-do housing at the end of a little cul-de-sac, it's instantly better than Wimbledon Windmill because you can actually fucking see the whole thing. It actually looks really impressive.

You can only go inside if you're on a guided tour, and as with the airport we've timed things absolutely perfectly: there's a tour starting literally 10 seconds after we arrive. First, we're shown some models and given some spiel about how it was a post mill that burnt down before the current structure was thrown up. Slowly we're shown around the outside. It's ace this.

The weather is spectacular and our guide is super enthusiastic about everything. In much depth we have it explained to us why the loading door is on the first rather than ground floor. In short: because wheels back then were huge.

At the entrance Helen decides to bail out of the main tour, and not without good reason. We're going to be shown around all 4 or 5 floors, and the way between them is up and down narrow, shallow, steep stairs that are only really safely navigated like ladders. I'm not too much looking forward to the ascent or descent either but I'm captivated by the tour.

Honestly, I'm not joking. For some reason nothing ever stuck in my mind at previous windmills, but the all the mechanisms and physics are so well explained here, and we're actually inside a mill that would take very little to put into working order (rather than a museum) that it all makes so much sense. I'm really very impressed.

The tour starts on the top floor, which takes a while to reach because each staircase involves waiting for another group to descend out of our way. Once up there, in the dust room, we can see the fan tail and all the hoofing great iron and woodwork which harnesses the wind power directly.

The metal is cast iron – good because you don't have to grease it, which would create mud with all the flour and dust and stuff – and the wheel it meshes with has teeth of wood, for ease of maintenance and replacement.

The fan tail is how windmills of this sort automatically move to face the wind. If the wind is blowing sideways on to the main sails, they do nothing but the fan tail catches it instead, powering a mechanism that moves the entire top section around, slowing down as the angle changes enough such that the sails are now getting powered again. Much better than the previous style of mill which required the miller to actively move the whole thing around whenever the weather changed.

Beneath the dust floor is the bin floor, where all the wheat and stuff is put in giant bins ready to feed down a level. Basically the main storage room of the raw materials for whatever the miller was currently producing – flour, animal feed, whatever. There are a series of vertically aligned trap doors on each floor through which runs a sack hoist.

Down another level is the stone floor, where the real work happens. These big fuck off stones are what actually grind stuff up. This mill has two stones but some had as many as six. We were told about how people would "dress the stones" for a couple of weeks, basically repairing any damage from the normal course of work. Doing so was a labour intensive episode of basically smacking it with metal, bits of which would fly off and embed themselves in the labourer's hand. This is the origin of the phrase "test your mettle". Or something. I haven't looked it up so maybe I've got that wrong.

Down to the spout floor and that's where the stoneground flour would come out into sacks... only to then be loaded onto someone's back and taken back upstairs, to be fed once again through another piece of kit that's basically a giant sieve. Also here is a "governor", for regulating the distance between the two stones to ensure things remain fine even during gusty weather. Gusts of wind would cause the stones to come further apart thanks to centrifugal whatsits.

After one last demonstration of hand milling techniques on the ground floor, I'm out. I've been in that tour for over an hour! Thank fuck it's a lovely day and Helen had phone calls to make anyway. Also she'd done some research, and was leading me to a mystery stop just up the way.

The mystery stop was a garden centre. A really really shit branch of Wyevale, in fact. So shit that she found literally nothing she wanted to buy except for the magazines. Even I was gobsmacked by it. It didn't even look like a garden centre from the outside, but more like a Co-op or Spar.

I looked for a welcome sign up the way on Google street view but couldn't find one, only a welcome to Bromley and that can fuck off. Also it's the wrong direction and at least 20 minutes away. Instead, we go back to Croydon town centre for the last thing on our list: Matthews Yard. The bus comes promptly and is a grim shitty ride dropping us off near George Street, which is grim and shitty. A left turn past some grim and shitty pubs and shops and then down an alleyway.

Because the way to get to Matthews Yard involves walking PAST THE DUTCHIE ON THE LEFT HAND SIDE and this is the greatest thing that's ever happened.

Matthews Yard sounds like it's a big yard with loads of stuff going on, but in reality it's a small yard and there's just a pub there. Good job, I mean, it's the pub we were interested in, but the name is strange. Perhaps it's different on other days.

I like the juxtaposition of architectural eras on display nearby.

BRGR & Beer is a place that sells burgers and beer. Hurrah! I like those things! We get a pint and a half of their own lager, and apparently the last two burgers of the entire day. Good timing, again.

There's not many people about. It's quite a nice place actually. I almost want to play table tennis, but not really. Instead, I am hoping the deliciousness of the food – and it is delicious – will soften Helen's anti-Croydon sentiment, which by now is overflowing, enough that I can convince her we can go find a welcome sign.

I'm really glad it's not in some poxy brioche bullshit.

Bollocks! I just somehow lost a paragraph of sumptuous prose because I had to take a break and eat some Syrian food which took over 90 minutes to arrive. Bah!

So, yes, the welcome sign. After much cajoling and promising to wait hand and foot on her between us arriving home and Dragons' Den o'clock, she agreed to let me drag us to a "nearby" border. Past the laughable bullshit that is "Croydon historic old town" and to the more realistic "Croydon Flyover" bus stop, we're back on a 119 – crowded, noisy, hot, full of people with giant luggage. Through Waddon and we're off, just next to the still-super-busy Purley Way, this time with added peril as we take 5 distinct crossings so we can walk next to the loud traffic and turn left on the A232 towards Beddington.

I totally scouted this place out on Google Street View before coming here. Didn't I? I'm sure I did. I mean, I did scout out at least two places, but this was the one where I actually found a welcome sign, isn't it?

No. Apparently it's not. Taking another 30+ minutes out of our day on a wild goose chase we find a welcome to Sutton sign, but not a welcome to Croydon sign. There is this thing though.

As we wander back up one main road onto another and Helen leads us to Wandle Park tram stop, I'm looking online on some heraldry wiki and shit the bed, that's Croydon's coat of arms. So there we go. There's a "you're in Croydon" sign, but it very much is not a welcome sign. Perhaps that's why I got honked by a white van man while taking the photo?

The walk to Wandle Park is inauspicious. Some of the locals are enjoying the weather, using it as a reason to eschew the tyranny of buttons on their shirts. In-keeping with her earlier chastising of me for bad-mouthing the borough out loud on an intra-borough bus, Helen is keeping schtum with her opinions but actually chomping at the bit to throw some low numbers at me. Well, there's a border coming just up at Therapia Lane station and after that we can write down our scores, OK?

Scored for life

I dunno why I "explain" our scoring system each time, as if I'm regularly increasing my audience. Just seems like the sort of thing episodic tale-telling warrants. So, yeah: we're each going to rank Croydon on a 1-7 scale across 3 categories for a total score out of 42.

Darren

  • Fun: 6! Anyone who's read more than, like, one or two of these surely knows by now that I tend to have fun whatever shit we're doing. In fact I even said to Helen that this category could be, in hindsight, a poor choice. But whatever!
  • Learning: 7 (seven). Absolutely learnt so ridiculously much, about airports and dubstep and windmills and how little Croydon has changed, in many respects, since my teens.
  • Nice: 4. Still a bit of a shithole, innit. But being loyal to south of the river I'm unable to go below the middle ground.

Helen

  • Fun: 4. Most of the day was spent walking on dual carriageways, which is not something I consider to be fun.
  • Learning: 5. I learnt that Croydon's bus stops are very far apart; the location of a second knife amnesty bin; and, courtesy of Darren, that "when the wind blows, things turn".
  • Nice: 3. Croydon is 90% industrial estates and busy roads. And it smells a bit funny.

So, that's a total of 29/42. Shamefully, this puts it a notch higher than my home borough of Merton. My teenage self is disgusted with my middle-aged self, while Helen's genuinely trying to bail out of the whole project before we're even halfway through because we keep visiting places she dislikes. Boo!

Created By
Darren Foreman
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