Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum. Photo & text: David Secombe.

AsylumRoad(c)David Secombe

Victuallers’ almshouses, Caroline Gardens, Peckham. Photo © David Secombe, 2002.

From Georgian London, John Summerson, 1945/1969:

There were plenty of other institutions, some educational, some charitable, some newly-born, some perhaps half a century old, which housed themselves with some grandeur. Almost all were Greek, with good, simple fenestration, and a portico – Doric or Ionic – to mark the status of the institution. Some of these buildings still stand. There is the pleasant, spacious courtyard and porticoed chapel of the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Peckham, built about 1831. Others were damaged in the war and have disappeared since.

As Sir John pointed out, the Licensed Victuallers’ Asylum at Caroline Gardens – almshouses built for retirees from the brewing trade – is a rare survival in the unsentimental city. The Asylum is pretty enough to make one wonder at how it has managed to avoid the wrecking ball, as its very elegance must have been a goad to generations of developers and civic engineers. It is an oasis of Grecian calm just a few steps away from the bleak, business end of the Old Kent Road, and in its present context its charm seems positively defiant, even heroic: an assertion of a charitable ideal in architecture that is both grand and humane – and a welcome corrective to the lurid, day-glo Toys ‘R’ Us shed across the road.

The Old Kent Road remains one of the strangest of all London roads, as well as one of the oldest; it incorporates part of Watling Street, the Romans’ highway from Dover to London and far beyond, to the wild Welsh Marches. A walk along The Old Kent Road today – between New Cross and the Bricklayers’ Arms roundabout – is impressive by virtue of the vast contrasts in tone and scale. On the one hand you have the massive gas works, the acrid colours of the new retail sheds, the abandoned or decommissioned pubs, the unwelcoming wasteland of Burgess Park, the brutalist road scheme and the endless stream of traffic thereon … yet on the other you can see repurposed evangelical churches in former office units or light engineering premises, occasional glimpses of Georgiana subsumed into offices for tyre warehouses, and little runs of genteel villas and terraces which form tributaries off the churning thoroughfare. (The Victuallers’ Asylum is on Asylum Road, one of the most architecturally interesting streets in south London.)  On a summer evening, the Old Kent Road has a strangely foreign quality; one could be in a dodgy suburb of Miami or Los Angeles. This may have something to do with its untended nature; even the Holloway Road doesn’t look this abandoned by civic authority. Perhaps any road in any city, left to its own devices, ends up looking slightly American.

With the repurposing come the artists, and it is no surprise that the ragged districts which line the Old Kent Road are increasingly hip areas for ambitious young artists to set out their wares. I have heard both Peckham and New Cross being described, with varying degrees of conviction, as ‘The New Hoxton’ – a statement which ignores the fact that Goldsmiths’ College has been churning out YBAs for decades, so one might say that New Cross was the ‘old Hoxton’. The Victuallers’ chapel was disused for many years but it has recently been adopted as an arts space by a group that calls itself ‘Asylum‘. Tomorrow, Saturday 8th December, it will be hosting a performance of ‘Christmas Mysteries’, a ‘musical adaptation of the nativity from the traditional Medieval Mystery Plays’. An atmospheric venue for it… photos of the interior of the chapel may be found here.