So it turns out I live just around the corner from where one of my favourite Victorian novelists penned her work in South East London. Follow me, as I explore the secret walk that has been named after her most famous children’s novel in tribute to her residence and discover one of London’s most gorgeous unknown nature reserves.
This house isn’t much to look at, is it? Nope, I hear you nod. Well, it didn’t always look like this. On this patch once stood the house of Edith Nesbit, the Victorian writer who penned ‘The Railway Children’, and inspired the film by the same name. If you haven’t seen it P.S. I really recommend the 1970 version! The house that once stood here was called ‘The Three Gables’. If you’re interested to see what the original house would have looked like, check out the Lewisham Borough archives. Immediately you can feel the tell-tale tendrils of inspiration stretching back through time to reach us now… the fictional house where the tale of ‘The Railway Children’ is set is called ‘The Three Chimneys’, very similar in name to Edith’s actual house in Grove Park ‘The Three Gables’, which was sadly demolished. Coincidence? I think not.
Edith Nesbit was a prolific children’s author, publishing over 40 children’s books in her lifetime, as well as an active political writer and speaker as a Marxist follower and strong supporter of the Labour Party. She also gave speeches at the London School of Economics – highly unusual for a woman during the Victorian period!
It is thought she lived in the areas of Grove Park (where I live now), Lee, and Eltham – the Southeastern outskirts of London – for about 5 years between 1875 – 1880, before she moved in with her husband, Hubert Bland, with whom she had five children. Theirs was a romantically complicated relationship, with Nesbit discovering that her close friend was pregnant with Hubert’s child later on in their marriage. Nesbit adopted the child as her own and agreed for the mother, Nesbit’s former friend, to live with them as housekeeper, only to repeat the adoption process thirteen years later when the same lady fell pregnant by her husband again. No wonder she took to her pen and the memories of her house, ‘The Three Gables’, by the railway tracks in Grove Park to return to now and again. And it is to this walk, so reminiscent of those scenes in The Railway Children that we turn to now.
Here it is – the view that would have greeted Edith Nesbit as she followed the track round the side of her house, now named ‘Railway Children Walk’, and can be found down a small passageway beside 268 Baring Road (closest station Grove Park).
The walk opens out onto what is now called ‘Grove Park Nature Reserve’ and its view not only includes a wildflower field that you can walk through, but also a heavily wooded copse with the remains of a Victorian fence hidden amongst the foliage!
This fence would once have been the only separation between the pristine Victorian lawns of these 19th century houses. A sign nearby tells us that the ground we are standing on would once have been tennis courts for ladies of leisure.
To think this fence has been here for 150 years! That’s two world wars and countless changes to the scenery and owners around it… In fact, during the Second World War, part of this park was used to house an air gun and the dip that was carved out of the ground for such a purpose can still be seen here today.
The reserve is covered in flora and fauna of all kinds, from bracken and centuries-old oak trees, to robins and blue-tits, holly and ivy. There’s a little pond with a bench beside it that has many types of wildlife you can spot on its banks, and if you sit and listen carefully you can hear the click of the tracks as the lines change over for the approaching trains, just as Edith Nesbit would have done when she sat here almost 150 years ago… although the trains would have been somewhat different!
That’s a ‘Peace Sculpture’, in case you were wondering! A relatively new addition to the reserve by local artist Heather Burrell in 2009. Behind the sculpture is the bench that is so peaceful to sit on and watch the trains go by. The view from the top of the bank also looks out onto Grove Park’s ‘Garden of Remembrance’.
Perhaps you can come here with one of Edith Nesbit’s timeless books and feel the magic for yourself…
Until next time!