For some time past it has seemed that every time I walk up to the High Road there has been a 249 bus waiting at the bus-stop. A proper double-decker bus, too – nothing bendy or single-decker. “Anerley Station” it announces as its destination on the front. Fair enough, but I’ve lived in London all my life and I don’t know this “Anerley” – where is it, what is it? I’ve never seen an old print of it, never seen it on an old map, never heard tell of it. What might it be? The compulsion just to jump on the bus and see where it takes me has been steadily growing for some time. I’ve mentioned this to family and friends – they could tell me nothing of this soi-disant “Anerley” either. It was starting to become an obsession. I eventually resolved that this was how I would celebrate my release from the ABA presidency – simply duck out of daily duties and jump on the next bus.
And so it came to pass. A glance at the timetable indicated that this “Anerley” lay somewhere beyond Crystal Palace. Wait a minute! – beyond Crystal Palace? Family legend, I think brought back by my great-grandfather from the 1901 Cup Final (Tottenham Hotspur v Sheffield United, played at Crystal Palace, 20th April 1901) is that Crystal Palace is a ridge at the end of the world (despite my long exile, we are a North London family), beyond which lies nothing but a precipitous descent into an outer darkness – the end of civilisation. Will there be life here? Will there be bookshops?
With some trepidation then, I survey the view from the front of the bus as we weave past Tooting Common and Streatham Common, then on up past the dotty Victorian architecture of Beulah Hill to Beulah Spa and the BT mast that can be seen for miles. We swing left into Crystal Palace and then turn southwards once more.
Precipitous descent is spot on – we lurch immediately downhill. And then, and then, it all comes flooding back – I have been here before. This is the very hill on which our beloved family car expired and breathed its last some years ago when (absurdly overladen with books, obviously) it failed utterly to make it to the top. A grisly experience which I have somehow completely blotted out. Of course, the dreaded Anerley Hill. I simply hadn’t realised that Anerley was actually a place – it just struck me as being a road between somewhere and somewhere else, not an entity in its own right. It still strikes me that way as we pull into a deserted looking Anerley Station. A dribble of shops, a sprinkling of Victorian villas, almost everything for sale or to let, and a singularly unambitious town-hall by Victorian standards. A little subsequent research and the Wikipedia article confirms my first thoughts: it begins “Anerley has never existed as an independent entity”. A singularly brief history. A wealthy Scotsman built the first house here in the middle of nowhere in 1827 and called it “Anerley” – and the road became Anerley Road. It’s said that Mr Crapper, the sanitary engineer, retired here and that, somewhat improbably, Walter de la Mare later lived in the house next door. Air Commodore Arthur Wellesley Bigsworth, perchance the inspiration for Biggles, was apparently born here. That’s about it.
Nothing much to detain me really. “Bookshops?”, I ask forlornly in the cafe. None here – but there are rumours of one in Sydenham. Back to the station to investigate. The wonderful and newly joined up London Overground system is causing tectonic shifts in my mental geography of London, especially out here in South-East London, beyond the reach of the Underground. Barely five minutes later I’m in Sydenham and there, just across the road, is the Kirkdale Bookshop. Been here since the ‘sixties, apparently, but new to me, and – as they say on their website, a shop where you can browse – “an old traditional method of shopping involving imagination and surprise”. And so it is. New books, cards, etc., all nicely laid out in the front – and an unexpected depth to the second-hand books behind and below. All immaculately shelved. Enough rarer material to fill a couple of decent-sized locked cases. All jolly, all very friendly, no quibbles. I soon have as many books as I can carry – and I’m still tempted by the pre-war Anthony Powell in a dust-jacket. Jump on a train to escape the temptation and I’m home in no time. I’ll be back (to Sydenham, although perhaps not to Anerley).