Taking its name from Blackheath Common, a vast open plain that is connected to Greenwich Park, Blackheath is a quiet part of South London that has a village feel and is easily commutable into the centre of the city. Blackheath Common is part of the Maritime Greenwich UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is protected as it provides such a strong example of English architecture in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Although Greenwich Park is perhaps more famous than Blackheath Common, the common has often played a prominent role in English history as a mustering point for armies and rebellions. For example, the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381 and the Kentish Rebellion in 1450 both gathered here to rebel against the monarchy. In a much more grisly tale, it is also suspected that the common was used as a mass grave during the Black Death in the 1300s.
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Fast-forwarding to the present day, the scale of the Common has remained, and is extraordinary in the context of modern South East London. Perhaps as a result of this huge area of grassland, the character of the area is suburban, bordering on rural, with a feeling of disconnectedness from the capital. It is a beautiful yet eclectic place with many high-quality, well-preserved buildings, both traditional and Modernist.
Here are my favourite buildings to look at in the Blackheath area.
The Paragon – a crescent of housing – is appropriately named as it is one of the finest examples of Georgian architecture not only in Blackheath but in the whole of England. The crescent faces the Common itself and is a highly desirable location for any homeowner in the area.
All Saints Church
A short walk from the Paragon, located at the edge of the vast open space of Blackheath Common is All Saints Church. Built in the 1850s, the church has remained a beacon marking the beginning of Blackheath ever since.
This wonderfully eccentric house blends European architectural style with the famous pagoda design synonymous with China, Japan, and Korea. It is thought to have been designed by the great architect William Chambers, who also designed Somerset House and the Kew pagoda.
Mary Evans Picture Library
Originally designed to act as All Saints Church parish hall, the Mary Evans Picture Library is the UK’s leading image library. The building itself is an attractive, decorative, Arts and Crafts style building designed by local architect Charles Canning Winmill from 1927. He used to live at 2 Eliot Place, Blackheath, a 5-minute walk from this building.
1-3 Collins Square
This charming collection of black weather-boarded cottages, dating from the late 18C, is located in a small mews that’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Set in an overgrown garden, the wooden panelling on these Grade 2 listed structures, gives the houses a historic, rural quality – like a setting from a Dickens novel.
The Blackheath Conservatoire is a centre for music and arts in the South East of the city teaching art, music, and acting. Famous alumni include Kate Bush, Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis. The building itself is an imposing red brick structure decorated with ornate friezes representing the performing arts.
Not to be confused with Blackheath Common, Blackheath Park is a leafy residential boulevard lined with fine detached houses of all periods and styles. There are Georgian, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts style buildings, many of them listed. The centrepiece of the area is St Michael and All Angels Church, also known as the ‘needle of Kent’ due to its distinctive high, pointed spire.
10 Blackheath Park
In amongst the more historic architecture of Blackheath Park is a house designed by the architect Patrick Gwynne for the contractor Leslie Bilsby, who built many of the nearby SPAN developments. The modern structure couldn’t be more different from its neighbours if it tried, but it does have one thing in common with many of them; it is a listed building. Built in 1968, it wouldn’t look out of place as the villain’s lair in a Bond movie, or as the set of a 70s science fiction thriller.
The architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff called it ‘One of Britain’s most remarkable 20th-century houses’. There is another similarly imaginative house round the corner at 22 Park Gate (SE3 9XF).
SPAN produced speculative developer-led housing in the 1950s and 1960s. The housing was always in the Modernist style and largely produced in close collaboration with the architect Eric Lyons. There are five property groups attributed to Span Developments in Blackheath – pioneering Modernist developments that do not look out of place in their leafy surroundings.
Perhaps the best example of SPAN architecture in Blackheath is Hallgate which won a Civic Trust Award in 1961. Located on Blackheath Park, Hallgate features an evocative sculpture in the entrance area by Keith Godwin named ‘The Architect in Society’. It depicts a person being crushed by the weight bearing down above them – it was commissioned to commemorate Lyons’s (clearly challenging) planning battles with Greenwich Council.