Victoria Summerley: Town Life

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When I read in this newspaper that the Clocktower arts centre in Croydon was mounting an exhibition entitled Sunshine in Suburbia, to celebrate the glory days of that borough in the 1920s and 1930s, I must confess that I had to stifle the urge to giggle.

Even Mary Webb, the diplomatic assistant exhibitions officer at the Clocktower, admits that Croydon is not seen as a cool place to live. Most people would rather die than admit to any intimate knowledge of its environs. The very name has become synonymous, simultaneously, with the fashion for ripping out town centres and replacing them with skyscrapers (known, in architectural circles, as "Croydonisation"), and a sort of social no man's land - neither chic, nor edgy, nor remotely picturesque.

Why are we so snobbish about the suburbs? Because they are inhabited by the middle classes, who have been out of fashion since Mrs Miniver helped to mobilise the Americans during the Second World War. We're all too sophisticated to admit that what we'd really like is a nice semi-detached, with a garden for the kids, in a peaceful, litter-free street that doesn't echo with police sirens every five minutes.

The great thing about the suburbs of the 1920s and 1930s is that they were specifically designed for modern family life, and all that that entails. My 1930s street in Wandsworth may not be as smart as the nearby Victorian road (average house price £2.5m), but it is wide enough, and quiet enough, for the children to play football outside.

There are no less than five bowling greens within a short walk of the house, a legacy of the dawn of the Age of Leisure. If you want to play tennis, there are two clubs and the municipal courts on the common.

I was born in Croydon and lived there until the age of 10, so I knew it at the time when the suburban sunshine was just beginning to be obscured by high-rise development. I can vaguely remember when Trinity School, with its romantic Gothic towers and verdant lawns, dominated North End (the main shopping street). Like Whitgift School, which occupied the building until 1931, Trinity School was founded by Archbishop John Whitgift, so, when it moved to a new site in 1965, the huge shopping mall that was built in its place was named the Whitgift Centre.

In those days, our greatest treat was to go on one of the three Shetland ponies - one white, one chestnut, one black - that gave rides at the bottom of Kennards' arcade, a mock-Tudor street-cum-oriental bazaar that ran alongside Kennards department store, "the Wonder Store of the South". Kennards was torn down in 1973 to accommodate the Drummond Centre, another mall, dominated by a Debenhams.

The road where we lived was lined with big, crumbling late-Victorian and Edwardian houses, which, one by one, were demolished to make way for office blocks, flats, the law courts and a hotel. Slowly, the view west from our house over the town centre - ironically, of the very clock tower after which the arts centre is named - became one of glass, steel and concrete rather than sunset.

So much for the suburban utopia to which my great-grandparents had moved from Camberwell at the turn of the 20th century. They were attracted by the idea of a modern, easy-to-run house, with a garden big enough for an apple tree and a swing. Pioneer commuters, they also liked the proximity to East Croydon station, where a train would whisk my great-grandfather to his job in the City in 15 minutes.

But there are good things about the new Croydon. The Tramlink network is excellent, with a route that has quickly made it indispensable to the locals.

When I was little, my mother used to buy vast pieces of Victorian furniture at Reeves, the Croydon auctioneers, in order to furnish our house for a song. Today, the tram takes you past Reeves Corner (the auction house is long gone, but the name remains) to Ikea, where the whole of south London goes to buy cheap furniture. From mahogany to MDF. I suppose that's progress of a sort.

Sunshine in Suburbia, at Croydon Clocktower, Katharine Street, Croydon, to 24 February

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