Coventry Hall still exists, but only in name. The street I live on, Hopton Road, is part of the Coventry Park estate, built on the hall’s grounds. The road leads to Streatham Common via a haunted space, where a manor house stood from at least the Norman Conquest. It was probably the seat of the Abbot of Bec, who owned what is now both Streatham and Tooting Bec. His abbey was, and still is, at Le Bec-Hellouin in Normandy. A succession of buildings on the site passed through the hands of many owners including the Colbrand family, Sir Richard Sackville (Anne Boleyn’s cousin), the Marchioness of Winchester, the Howlands, and the Dukes of Bedford. The latter were Lords of the Manor, and this was their seat. The house known as Coventry Hall was built by the Earl of Coventry in the early 1800s. It survived until 1982, long after its surroundings had changed entirely.
A late 18th century engraving shows the hall in a country setting, a man in a tricorn hat, blue coat and pink breeches posing with his dog in the landscaped grounds of a substantial manor house. Its successor was smaller, more of a town mansion, but secluded in large gardens. In the late 19th century the house was the only Anglican convent in Britain, belonging to the Order of St. Andrew which was set up for women unable, at the time, to join the priesthood. After the Second World War, when the building was converted to flats, ghost stories circulated involving benevolent nuns who were said to remain in residence.
We walked this route several times each week during lockdown, through the red brick blocks of the Albert Carr Gardens Estate which were built in the grounds, after the Second World War. There is no sign of the house itself, which was eventually replaced by a Lambeth Council building with no discernible character at all. The only reminder of the vanished mansion and its formal gardens is a large cedar next to the war memorial, which actually belonged to the house next door, called The Chimes, which was destroyed by a V1 rocket. The layered past of this relatively small site is just a fraction of the complexity that lies beneath the seeming logic and order of the South London streets. The lingering atmosphere, which belongs to this spot and no other, is a reminder that our experience of places is nothing more than a short series of adjacent moments that are soon obscured from view.