How it starts
I’ve started to become fascinated by photos of Croydon from the past.
I grew up in Croydon, so it’s not entirely without reason. History fascinates me anyway, but I find looking through photos taken of areas I know are filled little details – some things that have stood through time, others gone and only remain in photos. They make me feel rather nostalgic about what is otherwise now a grey concrete town.
I’m sure many people feel about this from their hometown. When you grow up in it, it’s nothing very special at all. But when you move away and come back, it has a different attachment.
What has always made me wonder is: who are these people taking photos of every-day street scenes? Surely they didn’t take the photo in the knowledge that somebody would look at it in fifty years’ time?
Then I began to wonder that as we take more photos than ever with our phones, is there a chance that nobody is taking photos like this anymore? For example, why would you possibly take a photo of a car park in Croydon on a cold January morning?
I decided that at the very least I would like to catalog Croydon as it goes through its biggest transformation since the end of the war. But as I explored similar projects, and returned to living in Croydon, I realised that there are so many stories to be told.
If this project achieves nothing but a few reasonable photos, then I’m happy. If one of my photos gets posted on the future’s version of Facebook with the caption “remember this?” then I’m more than happy. But, I won’t deny it would be truly wonderful to find a way of capturing Croydon at this moment in time as it goes through this change.
But for an area I should know very well, I know almost nothing about it. I’m not a typical Croydon resident, but the way things look like they’re going, I’m about to be.
I grew up in Sanderstead, a village in South Croydon. It borders Hamsey Green to the south, which leads into Surrey. To the west it becomes Purley and to the east, Selsdon, leading onto Addiscombe.
There is a church, and a duckpond. For a while there was a Do It All DIY shop (if you remember those), which has now been replaced by a Waitrose. My first pet, a hamster called Chaz, was bought from the pet shop on the high street. My Nokia 3210 was mugged off me by the duck pond on a spring evening, walking home from school.
This makes me feel old
I’m always amused by my father’s story of driving to London in the 1960s and parking outside the Royal Albert Hall, on what is now a double-red lined bus lane. How long ago it seems that you could just park in London without really having to plan ahead or worry.
My view of Croydon was limited to Sanderstead for quite some time, and the occasional trip into the town centre to buy a computer game or a new jumper. My parents used to have a silver original Mini. The time came where we had to sell it. My brother and I were a little upset because we had many fond memories with it, but it was old and unreliable. It was replaced by a brand-new red Volkswagen Polo. My dad brought it home from the garage and we jumped into it, and for a very special treat, we went to McDonald’s on Church Street, parking right outside on the street.
This now seems frankly laughable. The road is now a tramline, and I don’t think there’s any on-street parking in that area that you can just plonk your car in. But it’s a long way from the old photo at the start of this essay. I can remember sitting in the window of McDonald’s eating chicken nuggets, admiring the shiny red paint on the car parked right outside. This was 1998, and there was no Centrale or even the extension to the Whitgift Centre.
I went to university in South Wales, working for a while in Bristol afterwards. Fell in love with a girl, and moved back to my parents house with her when she’d finished studying. Just before getting married, we bought a house on the edge of Zone 6 in a town called Caterham. For a couple of years, Croydon became a milestone on my commute in and out of the city, and each time we’d arrive in East Croydon, I’d look out of the window to see the change taking place.
The long commute wore on me, and we sold the house to move into a flat in Croydon. The flat was to be an experiment for a few reasons. Neither of us had lived in a flat before, having managed to afford an entire 3-bed house in South Wales off one salary, and I had never lived in Croydon town centre before.
We chose the recently built Saffron Square at the top end of Wellesley Road. I can remember my mother and I parking here in what is now the foundations for about £3. It was a dirt car park with a ramp from the road down into the foundations of the previous building, and a man in a tiny booth collecting cash-only.
The building represents an important step for Croydon. Modern, high-rise accommodation. With 43 floors, it’s currently the highest building in Croydon. And the subtly-changing purple lights on the top make it hard to miss to people looking at the skyline.
We moved in December 2016, just around the time Boxpark opened, shortly before the new West Croydon bus station opened. Wellesley Road was still being revamped, and up until March 2017 we had to walk most of the length of the road just to cross to he other side.
When 2017 rolled in, I decided to make it a new year’s resolution to kick-start this project and start taking photos. Places, people, businesses, whatever – just start taking photos.
The first day
On January 7th, 2017, I left the flat in Saffron Square armed with a raincoat, and a camera. Up until this day, whenever I left the flat I was going somewhere. This day, I stopped by the main road and looked around me. Going out to take photos is a strange being. You walk slower, you look more. You’re not really going anywhere, your journey ends where you started.
My own camera is a large digital SLR, the Nikon D3100. It’s not especially subtle, and the lens I own not well suited to taking street photography. For this day I’d borrowed my father’s Leica X1, with its world-famous 35mm lens. However, it was no match for the sheer weight of the greyness of Croydon on a cold misty January afternoon. The buildings were grey, the sky was grey. I walked the length of the Wellesley Road down to the Fairfield Halls. I was the only person I could see at some points, wondering around the 1960s architecture trying to find something meaningful to take a photo of.
It would be easy at this point to imagine that nothing could become of Croydon. It’s too far out of London, its 1960s architecture too horrid for most people’s taste, and seems to at time just be an endless sea of concrete.
I wondered into the Whitgift Centre, which even as a child I can remember being a little old and expiring. Now that its end of life is known, it has an air of a building that’s about to be destroyed.
A little girl with a balloon took particular joy at getting to ride up and down the escalators. I wondered if she’ll remember riding these in an area that in a decade’s time will be a bustling food court and entrance to South London’s premier shopping centre.
I made my way to the top of an NCP car park, which is also due for demolition. Rather delightfully, there was a couple standing on the very top, admiring the view, chatting, and one smoking. I tried my best not to disturb them, so my photo is poorly rushed, but I admired their resilience to be up here.
You can see the two chimneys of Ikea on the Purley Way, and the disused gas holder. I fear that I am in danger of veering into pretentiousness by publishing this photo. But after my wife bought me a copy of Why It Does Not Have To Be In Focus, I realise that there is much more to photography than a perfectly framed and in-focus shot. This project serves as giving myself a subject to push myself to learn more. But that comes with a learning curve, and this photo represents my nervousness for taking photos of strangers.
Twice in February I went out again. These times I went for a walk to the park with my wife, with the understanding that I’d randomly stop on a street corner for 3 minutes trying to take a photo.
Another failed attempt at a bit of street photography. I took a photo of a lady is looking up at the Saffron Square tower, and a boy is trying his best to stop this tiny dog from dragging him away. The purple on the dog and on the shop delights me, but the rushed photo, and my own reflection in the window, makes it just another learning curve.
A new camera
In theory, I could shoot this entire project on my phone. The story is what makes a photo. The film being used in the photos from fifty or a hundred years ago are not even often able to pick up any colour at all, compared to the billions my phone can manage.
However, it does make life easier to have a tool you can depend on. Sadly the Leica X1 I was borrowing had to return home. In order to further this project, and just for my own use, I recently bought a used Fujifilm X100. I’m yet to go out for a day with it to explore more of Croydon, but I’ve taken a few on my trips through the town.
It’s late February and the roadworks on the Wellesley Road are almost finished. As I’m walking to the bus station I notice the traffic is entirely backed up around the block. It feels like it’s the first day this year that the sun has appeared. This bus driver had turned off his engine and opened the doors to feel the warm sun.
A few busy weekends in a row have stopped me making time to explore more areas or meet up with people I’m interested in photographing, but I am trying to take as many photos as possible with my new camera to get some practice in. Although these have mostly ended up being of public transport as I move around. The wet windy mornings after Storm Doris brought an end to the small warm spell we had, but at least the car park by Ruskin Square is now open.
As the weather gets better I’m hoping to make more time to find new parts of Croydon.
I am thinking about attempting to walk around the entire boundary of Croydon. I had been wondering if concentrating on the town centre closes off a lot of Croydon. It would be naive to think that everybody lives in giant glass modern flats, whereas actually Croydon is quite green and open. I think that while the change is almost entirely in the centre, it’s important to see how this is seen by those not living in the middle of it all.
Currently it looks like it will take about 12 hours to walk to walk the perimeter of the London Borough of Croydon. A weekend towards June seems sensible, when the weather is better and the days are longer.
I could end up with a lot of photos of semi-detached houses, but at least it’ll be better than photos of car parks.