St Stephens: the Geography of the Parish.
How do you describe where you live? There are many possible answers to that question, depending, for example, on your experience of the area, where you are at the time, who you are addressing, and for what purpose. Here I will attempt to describe the location and principal features of St. Stephen’s Parish.
To the Diocese of Southwark (and Dulwich Deanery within it), St Stephen’s Parish is in South Dulwich, but how often does anyone use that name? Dulwich, yes, but South Dulwich …? The postal address of the Church is College Road SE21, but that is also the postal district of much of West Dulwich and all of Dulwich Village, which are not in the Parish. Network Rail call the station next door to the Church ‘Sydenham Hill’, but none of the Parish is in Sydenham. Administratively it is in the London Borough of Southwark, and part of the rather amorphous Parliamentary Constituency of Dulwich and West Norwood, but public transport only tenuously connects it with those places. Of course, some residents feel orientated differently, while others may not be aware they are in the Parish of St Stephen’s at all! We need to know more ...
The Parish forms a rough triangle, 1 ¼ miles north to south and ¾ mile west to east, located 4 miles south of the City of London, in the Borough of Southwark (see accompanying map). Its southeastern boundary runs the length of the steep Sydenham Hill and Crystal Palace ridge, but Crystal Palace is more associated with Upper Norwood and Penge than Dulwich. Our northern boundary is set by the schools and sports grounds along Dulwich Common, while on the west and east sides it is bounded by busy main roads (Croxted Road and Lordship Lane respectively). Historically, the Parish was the almost empty southern tip of the large medieval Parish of Camberwell, effectively part of Surrey’s ‘Great North Wood' (Norwood). St Stephen’s was only built and endowed in response to the rapid growth of South London in the 19th century, the building of Paxton’s ‘Crystal Palace’ at Upper Sydenham in 1856, and then the re-establishment of Dulwich College on Dulwich Common in 1881 (see Michael Goodman’s book, ‘The Story of St. Stephen’s Church: a Beacon in Times of Peace and War', available from the Church).
The Parish is a low to medium density middle class suburb set in a hilly, green and leafy environment, which makes it unusual in an Inner City. It does not have an obvious ‘core’ (a prominent historical, commercial, or community focus) within it (do we count St Stephens Church and Hall? Kingswood House? Paxton Green? Dulwich Prep. London, and Kingsdale Schools?). Its better known foci lie just beyond its borders, eg Dulwich College, Dulwich Village and Picture Gallery, the Horniman Museum, and the Upper Norwood Triangle (including the Vicar's Oak), while shopping centres are further away at West Norwood, East Dulwich, Forest Hill, Sydenham and Penge. Cheap public transport to all these centres is surprisingly limited from St Stephen’s: no bus routes pass through the heart of the Parish, and few people use trains for local journeys.
The Toll Gate in College Road Kingswood House Community Centre The City viewed from Crystal Palace
Most of the half of the Parish north-east of College Road is not built-up: it includes Dulwich and Sydenham Hill Golf Course, Dulwich Woods, playing fields, sports clubs, and allotments. The south and west half includes Kingswood Estate (a 1950-60s low-rise development), private apartment blocks, houses and gardens, and residential amenity land. College Road and the Victoria to Orpington rail line form a sharp boundary between the two halves. Many residents are retired, or middle class families attracted by the environment, its nearness to London, and the local schools. Many properties are ‘pied-a-terres’, often in cul-de-sacs (which tend to encourage social exclusiveness rather than community). Since parish employment is limited to local services and three large schools, most working residents commute to London or elsewhere from the local stations, along with hundreds of others coming up from Kent who park in the Parish. College Road is a toll road for vehicles, but it is a popular route on the London Cycle Network, and much of its traffic is now cycles and motor cycles. Most of St Stephen's congregation come from within the Parish or its near neighbours, but the Church is popular more widely for weddings, and some attend regularly from as far away as Beckenham, Camberwell, Streatham, and even Epsom!
St Stephens Parish Church from College Road St Stephen.s Church interior
There is detailed information on the Parish's physical environment on the 'Effra in Dulwich' page of this website, and samples of local walks on the next page.