The name Forest Hill was originally coined from an area of woodland on top of Sydenham Hill, part of the Great North Woods. Initial development took place in the mid 1800s, with the newly built train station at its hub, then called Dartmouth Arms (after the pub next door, still open today).
Now, rich in characterful Victorian housing and with more than a fair share of mansion blocks (including some art deco gems), the area is popular with professionals and families alike. One big draw must be the views – which stretch across the City and West End – but another must be the slightly cheaper prices than neighbouring Dulwich.
In common with Brockley, the area boasts a high concentration of artists, who fling open their doors every year as part of Dulwich Artists Open Studios, with Forest Hill’s star attraction being Havelock Walk – a cobbled mews which lay derelict since the war, now a thriving community of live/work artist’s studios.
The town centre is well established, built up around the station where the busy South Circular passes through. Shops include chains such as WH Smith and a large Sainsbury’s, plus a couple of independent places like popular gift shop and boutique Bunka. The recession has left several premises empty, but this has opened the door for newcomers. Notably, an old grocery store opposite the station recently re-opened as From The Forest, a small but stylish cafe. Along the same lines, The Teapot on London Road is still work in progress, the poster in the window promising a cafe and a deli – something curiously lacking in Forest Hill.
There’s a cluster of restaurants to cater for most tastes, and a couple of key pubs help to provide more decent eateries – the Dartmouth Arms and the All Inn One Foresters. The former is the more adventurous of the two, but both serve as great gastro boozers in their own right. The Hob pub, opposite the station, is probably the closest thing to an evening ‘destination’, regularly hosting music and comedy nights, along with a ‘celebrity’ hosted pub quiz. For more nightlife options without heading into town, many Forest Hillers head up the road to East Dulwich’s Lordship Lane, or grab a bus to Crystal Palace.
Along London Road sits The Capitol, and a fine neo-classical style cinema built in 1929. It closed down in 1973, but now lives on in the form of a J D Wetherspoon. It retains much of the classic deco interior, and there are occasional tours of the building including the original projection room.
Up the hill, towards East Dulwich, sits the Horniman Museum – tea merchant Frederick John Horniman’s gift to the area in 1901, built to house his collection of natural history artefacts. The museum is all that many people know of Forest Hill, and aside from operating as a brilliant museum, it plays a key role in the community. They host regular public events in the gardens (including the hugely popular annual ‘Jerk Cookout’), organise school holiday activities for the kids and provide evening classes for adults.
At the south end of town, towards Sydenham, sits London’s oldest swimming pool, Forest Hill Pools, a grand Victorian bath that for years has had an uncertain future. Happily, plans to renovate and extend the pools have been preliminarily approved and are under public consultation.
So, Forest Hill – a suburb rich in history, with a diverse yet devoted community, looking forward to the next chapter.