By Councillor Richard Chellew, Merton Council (Conservative, Village ward)
Following the recommendation by the Secretary of State for Culture’s advisory panel that Merton Priory consider applying for inclusion on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, now is the time to consider the Bigger Picture between Heritage and the Wandle Valley Regional Park.
Regional parks have a major impact on our society today, whether they serve to protect some of the more remote parts of the country, or whether they protect an oasis of green in the centre of the concrete jungle.
Although these examples represent two extremes, it would be difficult not to agree that they are united, in so far as they both serve the community as well as being designed to safeguard something that we recognize as in need of our protection.
Consequently, we must take careful stock of all the advantages and disadvantages before determining how best to develop any open space and the Wandle Valley Regional Park is no exception.
Therefore the question we must ask is: what makes this park so special?
I believe it is its heritage. I also believe its heritage is the key to overcoming its problems.
The Wandle Valley has witnessed the coming of the Saxons, Romans, Normans, and the Industrial Revolution, and each in turn have left their mark.
It has seen the rise and fall of one of the largest priories in England whose daughter houses stretched from the abbey churches of Saint Lo in Normandy to Holyrood in Scotland.
It also witnessed an event that was to have a profound impact on many people throughout the world.
Nevertheless, before attempting to develop any vision, big or small, it is necessary to understand both the difficulties and advantages that that scheme has to offer.
For example the geographical layout of the park and the removal of some of the intrusions are not easy issues to resolve.
Nevertheless, we must address them if the park is to reach its maximum potential. Then as always there is the problem of finance.
Unlike the Lee Valley Regional Park that has a guaranteed income, as yet the Wandle Valley has none. The people of Southwest London receive no benefit from the Lee Valley Regional Park because of its inaccessibility to those living in Southwest London.
Therefore, the Wandle Valley should either receive a percentage of the substantial Lee Valley Regional Parks levy, a levy that is currently imposed on all the London Boroughs, or those boroughs in Southwest London should be free to contribute to their own regional park.
Now turning to the problems created by the parks geographical layout. When we talk of a regional park we generally envisage a vast expanse of open space such as those to be found in Yorkshire or the Lake District.
However, the Wandle Valley Regional Park does not sit happily with that definition; for although it is over thirteen miles in length, it covers little more than 500 hectors of land and is extremely narrow in places.
In other words the Wandle Valley is made up of a patchwork of open spaces joined together by slithers or ribbons of land, as I am now told, sometimes no more that hundred yards in width.
Unfortunately, the parks geography also highlights another problem. Straddling at least two thirds of the Wandle Valley are the National Grids Pylons, and as can be seen when visiting the area their presence is overpowering, pun intended, and in some places these pylons straddle two thirds of the total width of the park. Hence a way must be found of removing them if those visiting the park are to escape the pressures of modern life.
Although these problems may be difficult to overcome, the rewards once they have been achieved will be truly tremendous. For it will produce a corridor or ribbon for wildlife stretching from the south bank of the River Thames in Wandsworth to Carshalton in Surrey. It will also give a recreational facility to many thousands of people in southwest London, and it will provide that facility where it is most needed.
The key in bringing this together lies within its heritage therefore I intend to give you a whistle stop tour of the area, only stopping of Merton Priory and Mitcham Cricket Green.
The river Wandle is of course at the heart of the regional park. We have already discussed where its starts and finishes but I should also explain that it has a drop of 38 metres over its length, which makes it quite a fast flowing river. This is important to understand because as long ago as 1086 it was recorded as having thirteen watermills along its banks.
Today no less than 49 watermills have been identified, four in Croydon, 10 in Wandsworth, 16 in Merton and 19 in Sutton with as many as 13 working or at least recognisable.
No one would suggest this is a record but its versatility is quite remarkable. They embraced every type of watermill imaginable Undershot-mills, Breastshot-mills and Overshot-Mills.
The mills ground Snuff and Tobacco, and of course Milled Corn and flour, whilst also providing power for Iron mills, Copper mills, Gunpowder mills, Parchment and Paper Mills, Textile spinning, Dyeing and many others. It is a splendid example of how rural areas went on to help fuel the industrial revolution.
There are of course many examples of the diversity of our heritage to be found in within the Wandle Valley. For example, for those of you who are interested in the Art and Craft movement, we have Merton Abbey Mills, which is synonymous with the names of William Morris and Liberty; or the Pre Raphaelite De Morgan Centre in Wandsworth. Then there is Young’s brewery also in Wandsworth a museum. However, the two examples I wish to discuss are quite unique, but in very different ways.
My first example is Mitcham Cricket Green.
Mitcham Green is an amazing place, irrespective of whether or not you have an interest in cricket. ‘The Independent’ newspaper claimed it to be the oldest cricket club in existence with the club having continually played on the Green since 1685.
During its most recent history the club has provided three players for England together with Molly Hide who captained England for 17 years and later became president of the Women’s Cricket Association.
However, it is not just its history that makes this green so special, it is its setting. To start with, it has a clubhouse with a balcony running down its entire length, which is only surpassed in London by Lords and the Oval.
But unlike those famous grounds the green is further enhanced by the existence of Regency Houses, Cottages, Almshouses and four public houses, two of which were originally staging inns, and of the four, three also have balconies overlooking the cricket pitch.
It is difficult to imagine, a more idyllic setting for a cricket match, but what is more important is, it is a fine example of the many delights to be found within the proposed outer limits of the Wandle Park.
My second example is Merton Priory
Most of us have never heard of Merton Priory so why is it significant?
It is not just in terms of our heritage of that there can be no doubt. Its significance for the park is that by raising it profile, it would in my view, be the key to resolving many of the current problems currently hindering the parks progress.
For about 400 years Merton Priory was to have a profound influence on all those living within Surrey, it was also one of the prime centres of scholarship in England being the place where both Thomas Becket and Walter de Merton were educated.
Walter de Merton who adopted the name Merton from his schooling became a solicitor by trade and eventually Lord Chancellor of England.
It was of course he who built Merton College Oxford, and it was he who decided that the Merton College should adopt the rules by which he had lived whilst receiving his education in Merton Priory, a set of rules that were eventually to be adopted by all Oxbridge Colleges.
However, the most important event in the Priory’s history was to occur on 23rd January 1236 when Henry III met at Merton Priory with the Archbishop of Canterbury, other bishops and the greater part of his earls, barons and others, to discuss the common good of the realm.
Of course our monarchs had gathered together the nobility on many occasions to impose their will upon their subjects, or to succumb to their demands, but what was significant about this meeting was that it was not made under any form of duress.
Furthermore, it also embraced people beyond the Lords Spiritual and Temporal because the records state that others attended.
Therefore, unlike Magna Carta in 1215, when a resentful king had unwillingly yielded to demands forced upon him, the Statute of Merton, the name given to the agreement made at Merton Priory in 1236, was the result of debate.
It is also the first Statute of Law in England and therefore heralds the birth of statute law. This extraordinary document provides the basis for the principle that it should no longer be left to just one person to dictate the law.
This meeting was indeed the first Parliament and more than 3 billion people now live under a system of law that derives from the Statute of Merton.
As I have already explained finance, intrusions and the geographical layout of the park are all issues that must be resolved if this park is to reach its full potential and the key to that success lies behind its heritage.
The heritage would give purpose to the bringing together of the patchwork of green spaces, it would add weight to the removal of the intrusions and it would help to justify why we should be given the necessary funding to create a park that also protects our heritage for the benefit of all those living in or visiting southwest London.
In June 2010, an application was made to ‘the secretary of state for culture’, in an attempt to raise awareness of Merton Priory by giving it world heritage recognition.
Earlier this month, an independent expert panel advising the Secretary of State for Culture recommended that Merton Priory consider applying for inclusion on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, a list of documentary heritage which holds particular cultural significance and includes treasures such as the Bayeux Tapestry in France and the Rigveda in India.
That recognition should now give purpose in uniting a patchwork of open spaces.
It should help demonstrate the need to remove the pylons, not just because it is wrong in this modern age for so many people to be forced to live beneath their shadow.
It is also because it will make people aware of the misery the National Grid have inflicted upon the people of southwest London.
In addition it will highlight their total disregard for our heritage by building on a site that is already classified as an Ancient Monument, and all this for the sake of an infinitesimal slice of their profits.
It should help to highlight why this park should receive its fair share of funding.
It is a beginning in meeting the criteria I first spoke of, by serving the community as well as protecting those things we recognize as being in need of our protection.
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