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Retail decline in Forest Hill

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Joined 03-06-2005
Posted on Sunday, 19 August, 2007 - 11:59 am:   

Just last week, an employee of Lewisham Council told me that despite their best efforts it was "impossible" to attract new high quality businesses to Forest Hill. Could this, I wonder, be because of the lack of free short stay parking in and around the two main shopping streets. To make matters worse an inflexible CPZ has recently been implemented in Waldenshaw, St David's Road etc with the full and enthusiastic support of FH councillors.
I do not believe that the motor car should be given full rein; I always shop on foot. But I'm not niave enough to believe that many people shop by car and that if you don't provide adequate FREE parking they will disappear to Bell Green, Sydenham and Lordship Lane which does provide free parking.
When I complained to a local councillor about this he told me that he and his fellow councillors believed that there was adequate parking in the centre of FH for shoppers in the Sainsbury's car park. Unfortunately, this is a charging car park and whether we like it or not will put off many potential shoppers. The Perry Hill car park which allows half an hour for free is just far too short a time for most high street shoppers. And who on earth wants to enter a shopping street via a dingy underpass? Tidying up this blight on the local landscape also needs to be taken on board by FH councillors.
When oh when are elected representatives going to wake up to the reality of what is happening in FH and support intiatives to make FH a shopper-friendly environment?
Joined 17-03-2005
Posted on Sunday, 19 August, 2007 - 01:05 pm:   

There have been previous debates on this issue and comparisons with East Dulwich - I believe the key was greater housing density there and more disposable income.? I always find parking there a nightmare esp at weekends hence prefer to go by bus. Personally I see the problem to be wider than car parking facilities- a bit chicken and egg. We hardly ever shop in FHill now as there is frankly nothing there thst we want to buy - we even continue to shop at Dog Kennel Hill as the choice is better. Turning the FH Sainsburys into a ' metro' ie reducing the stock lines did not do FH any favours- we treat it now like a corner shop where we can get milk at 9.30pm at night- that can't be a good thing.

I think we need a full and honest economic assessment of the future of FH town centre to assess its potential as a retail centre and look perhaps at alternative uses and strategies to market and brand the area; personally I think it has potential as a restaurant quarter but we would need an adequate cluster of businesses in order to get things rolling. There are some good ones here already and we need to keep them open. It wasn't so long ago that ED / Lordship Lane was a dump with similar problems. I believe in FH there was also an issue with high rents which led to certain businesses moving on- Steven Harris Opticians left for this reason once the lease came up for renewal and the rent increased.

We went out to FH at 9pm on Friday evening due to the power cut preferring not to sit in the dark- shame that it took this to get us there- the experience was not pleasant as in comparison with ED it was badly lit and fairly scary with a lot of young blokes hanging around the station/ Smiths area getting drunk and rowdy and also dealing drugs. Pretty ominous therefore and felt glad to get home. In comparison ED has more footfall seems better lit and therefore feels safer. Perhaps some street lighting in FH would help, and of course there remains the issue of the station concourse and how bad this can feel at night, considering this is effectively the heart of the town centre.

The loss of Mercury will leave a whole however Finches seem to be thriving but I understand that they have a huge mail order business which is their main focus.

The Forest Hill Steering Group which was set up by FH traders and then taken over by the Council was a very useful Forum but fell by the wayside due to Council inaction. Minutes were never produced and you had about two days notice of meetings which made it continuity impossible. This should surely be the starting point for any regeneration activity, with the bringing in of partners such as the Forest Hill Society and key players such as Sainsburys and Railtrack. There was also a Public Art consultation some years ago by Michael Pinsky which had great potential but heaven knows where that went to...

If there is such as thing as an economic or retail strategy for Forest Hill already in existence then please can someone post details here?
Joined 30-03-2005
Posted on Sunday, 19 August, 2007 - 04:00 pm:   


Personally I think it is unfair that parking in Sydenham is free (in the Council's Girton Road car park), while it is chareable in Forest Hill. Obviously, motorists will go there to shop.
It really is up to Forest Hill councillors to press for free parking for shoppers in Forest Hill.
Hopefully, the ELL extension will bring prosperity to Forest Hill. The only solution I can think of is to develop a shopping centre across the railway line to link up with the Perry Vale car park.
Joined 03-06-2005
Posted on Sunday, 19 August, 2007 - 11:51 pm:   

Roz - you've made some very interesting points and I agree with many of them - reinstating the FH steering group, for instance, is essential if you want to develop new retail in FH. But surely we don't need a "full retail strategy" of FH to do something about its most obvious problems such as parking,the horrific subway, the front of the station etc etc. If we think more free parking is a priority, for example, we need to extend free parking for longer than half an hour at the Perry Hill car park and change the CPZ to the more flexible "one hour" system employed elsewhere. This isn't rocket science. With a small push from elected representatives this could be implemented quite quickly.

Retail improvemments to FH are just as much about attention to a myriad of small details than making grand strategies. Sydenham kept its steering group and is now looking forward to a 2m improvement to Sydenham Road starting next year. The steering group is also having good success in bringing new quality businesses to Sydenham - the Blue Mountain cafe opening next month close to Cobb's roundabout is the latest. Two new large developments (nurtured by the steering group) on Sydenham Road show indications that new quality national chains will take the plunge and move to SE26 as part of these developments. A few months ago the steering group were concerned about Station Approach which was run down and seedy. An agreement brokered between Southern Rail and LBL has meant the entire area has been resurfaced and two new businesses (one of them a smart new gym)have opened. We now have an attractive approach to the station which will further encourage retail investment in the high street.

This isn't easy - it requires hard work and a willingness by local councillors to champion their area and establish links between local traders,groups like the FH Society, transport owners like Southern and local entusiasts.

I see this happening in Sydenham; I don't see it happening in FH.
Joined 18-04-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 10:18 am:   

Good Luck to Sydenham , but we should also have our share of any Public Money.

There is a question of course how long the Blue Mountain will survive , there are still some seedy areas in Sydenham
Joined 07-06-2006
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 10:42 am:   

That's true of the whole of London! We are all in the same boat. Forest Hill will certainly benefit in the medium term from the fact that there is development and invesment in East Dulwich and Sydenham. I have seen this happen in West London (who would have thought that Wandsworth would ever be a desirable location??) and it will happen here, we just have to make sure that we support all such activities in the area when they happen.

The one thing that will delay development here are greedy landlords wanting to cash in BEFORE that development has happened. The businesses that come here first will be taking the biggest risk and will have to spend the most on promotion, so they need the most support. I think the same will be true in Sydenham, so I shall be popping down to the Blue Mountain in the near future to say thanks!

I must say that from a personal point of view I am coming around to the idea that parking has little to do with Forest Hill's development. What we need is more foot traffic, but for that people need to have a reason to walk to/past shops. It is a little chicken-and-egg, but businesses will rely on LOCAL shoppers in the main, and cars don't (or shouldn't once we change our attitudes a little) come in to it.
Joined 03-06-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 11:53 am:   

Rob - What you appear to be saying, and I'm sure you don't mean this, is that FH doesn't need shoppers who come in cars. FH has many empty shops - it desperately needs every single shopper it can get. I'm not an enthusiast for cars but I do realise that the reality is that people want to shop by car. If you remove easy access to free parking in the few spaces that are available close to the centre of FH fewer people will shop there. That's exactly what's happening now.
Joined 07-06-2006
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 12:05 pm:   

You are right, I am not saying this at all

What I am saying is that I don't think that we can blame our retail decline on lack of parking, nor can we build our plans for development solely around people coming in cars. If those of us who live locally don't shop here, why should those who have to drive bother?

The main businesses that people on here are asking for are a coffee shop, book shop, bakery, more restaurants, gift shops, ... None of these will depend on people who come by car, on the contrar, they require the impulse shopper who happens to be walking by slow enough to be tempted in.

I am not planning on turning people away who come by car, of course - we do need everyone, but the process does not start with planning more car parking, that's all.
Joined 24-01-2007
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 02:39 pm:   

My experience is that shopping with small children in Forest Hill is a particularly unrewarding experience. Families must surely be one of the biggest consumers groups but there is very little in FH to attract them. No cafes, no toy shops, no children's clothes shops since Mackays had a makeover, and of course no parking.

I would love to be able to shop locally, but the convenience of the Bell Green Sainsburys when you have a toddler in tow wins outright I'm afraid. Whenever I do go to Forest Hill it feels like a struggle. Firstly just getting there - too few pedestrian crossings, speeding cars, the awful underpass which you can't use anyway if you have a pushchair, no public toilets, crowded buses, and quite a few of the shops are pretty inaccessible if you are pushing a buggy.

Last Christmas there was the 'Forest Hill Winter Festival' which I guess was supposed to attract some families into the centre, but which was a bit of a let-down to be honest (and seemed to completely underestimate the number of visitors it would have).

The best thing by far that I have been to in Forest Hill is the open studios at Havelock Walk.
Joined 18-04-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 02:40 pm:   

I agree about walking . I cannot understand why local able bodied people need to shop by car in SE 23.
Exercise is good for you.
Joined 04-03-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 03:14 pm:   

I think Jane2 hit on something here. The Christmas activities were so oversubscribed this Decemeber, it was horrendous. We ended up leaving the Library and not seeing Santa. My point is, when Forest Hill residents are presented with something desirable, that they can walk to, it gets flooded. It is a bit of a chicken and egg thing. Desirable shops will get floods of customers, but Forest Hill needs floods of customers to get in desirable shops! Lewisham council and private business owners should see, evidenced by the Christams events, that an eager public is ready for better service in this area.
Joined 17-03-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 03:18 pm:   

FH is still the busiest station by a long way out of the places which have been mentioned above. This rather directly implies it is in the most convenient location for many people. Which should mean they would come here to shop if possbible.

I would agree some form of co-ordinating group is probably the missing key. It would help gove some cohesion to an overall plan and reassure potential investors. FH has at least as much going for it as Sydenham and if it is falling behind then something really is awry.
Joined 17-03-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 06:28 pm:   

Perhaps local councillors both sides of the tracks could advise on the likelihood of re starting the FH Steering Group this autumn, and establishing a regular pattern of meetings , also the local area fora which were so well attended in the past?

I agree that you shouldnt need a strategy to do whats obvious, however these particular points that Nasaroc has raised have been raised for years by various groups yet nothing moves forward ie free parking in Perry Vale car park, the station area, however I suspect that these issues have been blighted in anticipation of some bigger redevelopment proposals. I am also lost in respect of those plans for the station redevelopment; perhaps someone could update me on these also.
Joined 04-03-2005
Posted on Monday, 20 August, 2007 - 10:31 pm:   

It is easy to make excuses why Lewisham Council employees have not managed to attract more new businesses to the area. I don't think the reason is parking issues. We do have two car parks which are free for 30 minutes and we have many people living within easy walking distance of all the shops (if they happen to be in Forest Hill when the shops are open).

One of the major problems as I see it is that a number of the landlords in key locations on the high street do not want to rent out their premises, they are asking too much in rents and want to develop the sites for residential use. I don't object to some increase in residential use above the shops, but that should not be at the expense of allowing the high street to continue.

It is great to see Sydenham developing again after some difficult years for the high street. It is interesting to see it succeeding even though it faces even more competition from Bell Green, compared to the competition Forest Hill faces from Bell Green. but I would far prefer to have the Sainsbury's we have than Morrisons or Lidl.

There are many businesses that would improve Forest Hill, many of which have been mentioned above. As far as safety goes, despite the underpass, Forest Hill is generally a safe place to go in the evenings and the numbers of good restaurants and pubs, with good numbers of customers attest to that fact. I do not feel particularly safe when I go to Islington in the evening, but that does not stop it being a thriving shopping centre throughout the day and night. Forest Hill, with a museum, a comedy club, a number of good restaurants and bars, and considerable use of the local station, should be able to support more businesses than it does at present.

It is interesting that a new Polish deli opened on Sunderland Road, on the South Circular, when a similar deli in London Road or Dartmouth Road would be much more successful, if the rents would enabled such a business to get started.

I do not think it helps that two key assets in Forest Hill are currently closed, the pools and the library. Both of these facilities add to the passing trade and footfall on the high street. While these remain closed in the short and medium term, businesses will suffer and new businesses will be less inclined to open.

But if Sydenham High Street is so good then why do people who live in the heart of Sydenham feel so strongly about parking in Forest Hill? I guess there must be some shopping that they wish to do here that they can't manage in Sydenham, so we must have something right.

Regarding the station redevelopment, the latest I have heard from the council is that this is not something they are actively pursuing. They are happy with the disability access work that is planned (although I am not) and they are happy to wait until ELL comes to Forest Hill, which I believe is missing the opportunity for development now. The Forest Hill Society has been lobbying local councillors regarding the disability access to the station and demanding improved access from the Perry Vale side of the station, especially through the car park adjacent to the southbound platform. This does not negate the need for redevelopment at the main entrance to the station. It will happen one day and the sooner the better both for commuters and local businesses.
Joined 22-06-2006
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 01:33 pm:   

Just a quick post to say that I agree with most of what has been said here about future of the town centre, and also to correct a few misconceptions that have been aired.

The CPZ around David's Road and Waldenshaw Road was initiated before the elections last year, and whatever the previous councillors thought about it, the current FH ward councillors have been critical of aspects of the scheme, particularly in that only allows half an hour of free parking for shoppers, as opposed to up to two hours elsewhere in the borough. This is something that we have repeatedly raised with the parking department but with little joy so far. We will keep trying on this point, and have also been taking the issue of residents' permits for occasional car users.

With respect to the Sainsbury's car park (owned by the Council and operated by NCP), we had a meeting with Sainsbury's this week and previously have met with the Council. The current state of play is the Council have refused to extend the free parking period from the current half an hour. This is unacceptable in our view and disproportionate to the 'risk' of it being used by commuters all day. Again, this is an ongoing issue which we are continuing to work on, and it's useful to know that it is still an important issue to town centre users such as those represented on this forum.

The old Forest Hill Steering Group had no official function and was the then councillors' forum for liaising with local groups. Your current Forest Hill ward councillors have established the more open Forest Hill Town meetings for a similar purpose, to which everyone and anyone is welcome to attend. The next Town meeting is on 24th September at the Christian Fellowship Centre on Honor Oak Road (see the separate thread on this subject).

In the longer term, the Council has decided to institute 'Ward Assemblies' to cover this sort of public liaison. More details on this will be made public when they are available, but unfortunately, I don't have any additional information at the moment.

Separately to the Town meeting, there are the Safer Neighbourhoods Panel meetings, covering Policing, and your councillors meet fairly regularly with the Town Centre manager, traders, the Horniman Museum, civic socities and other residents' groups.

I hope this helps inform your debates about Forest Hill!
Joined 09-04-2006
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 02:58 pm:   

I really dont understand what the problem is with having a CPZ in Waldenshaw Road area, all of the residents were asked for their feedback and the majority of us voted for the CPZ and it was implimented. There are any number of places to park in Forest Hill, Sainsbury's is one and the Station car park is another. Let's face it, the parking charges are not overwhelming and if people want to drive to Forest Hill as apposed to walking then paying a small fee is hardly going to kill them. The problem we had as residents of Waldenshaw Road was being able to park near our homes (and I dont mean right outside) which was sometimes impossible as commuters and shoppers used the road. This is now no longer the case I am am very pleased with the professional and sympathetic way the council went about initiating the CPZ, top marks to them.
Joined 30-03-2005
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 03:45 pm:   


The Council's car park in Girton Road is free all day.
Can you ask why people using Forest Hill car park's can only have half an hour free?
This seems to be unfair discrimination in favour of Sydenham.
Joined 17-03-2005
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 04:52 pm:   

I recall the FH Steering Group to be more business led and in fact instigated and supported and chaired by local retailers. I am not actually aware of it being formally disbanded either! The Town Centre managers attended and gave regular reports and took questions. It therefore had a distinct and useful purpose.I now have no idea now who the TC manager is, what they are doing etc since this forum ceased to operate.

I appreciate that there are many other fora as Alex has outlined here but the problem is that there are too many such bodies and its hard to get an overview of what's going on. Given the crisis, ( yes crisis!) that the FH town centre is facing with empty shops and frankly identity issues, we need something more strategic than simply ward meetings to get a proper analysis and integrated response and a body that is proactive rather than reactive to development proposals. The Area Forum meetings were also a good idea for this purpose and it would be helpful for these to be reactivated.

I can;t attend the meeting on 24th but would appreciate if someone could propose a specific regeneration body made up with reps of all these groups and the public, that looks at how we can prevent further economic decline in FH and building up what was once a thriving centre. The starting point should be an economic assessment which I assume has at some point been carried out by the Council's Economic Development department.

Finally, I appreciate all the hard work that Councillors are doing, however please lets avoid the mistakes of the past and have all parties working together on these issues rather than have each seeking to make political capital. This would be a greatly refreshing approach.
Joined 04-03-2005
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 04:57 pm:   

Will the Town Centre manager be at the next Forest Hill Town meeting?
Joined 07-12-2003
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 09:03 pm:   

I think the first thing to be done is a dispassionate, realistic, cool and objective assessment of the retail potential for Forest Hill. The Council should then pursue policies which will assist the centre retrench to that size.

Most of the work on Forest Hill has considered strategies for attracting businesses, and 'sustaining' the centre as a local centre. Such approaches will just perpetuate the existing patchy, down-at-heel impression, and are unfair to the many viable businesses in Forest Hill which suffer from being surrounded by so many marginal operators.

There has also been too much emphasis on planning policies to 'protect the retail environment' etc. Planning policies cannot do that. The retail environment is best protected by conditions which enable retailers to make some money. In the case of Forest Hil that means considerably fewer retail premises.

Frankly, I don't care whether Forest Hill centre meets the definition of a district centre or anything else. What I want is a pleasant environment with a reasonable number of good retail businesses and catering to meet my needs.

Anyone who thinks we can plan or promote our way out of the current position should consider the following. There are over 150 retail premises in Forest Hill centre, 40 or more at the Kirkdale/Dartmouth Road junction, 200 in Sydenham, and a few dozen more on Perry Vale, Catford Hill etc. In this area in total, there live around 42-45,000 people. So we have one shop to every 80 people, or one shop, say, to every 35-40 households. A small unit in Forest Hill carries rent and rates of around 10,000 pa, insurance, heating, lighting, depreciation and stock costs. On top of this, assume two workers at the national average wage. Divide the figure at which you arrive by the shops average margin expressed as a decimal and you will know what income each shop needs to survive. I suspect that unless every household in the neighbourhood spends between 150-200 per week in small shops there is not much future for all of them. Honestly I think this is where the thinking needs to start.
Joined 07-06-2006
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 10:03 pm:   

Excellent stats and analysis, thanks. Obviously this is not the most positive of starting points, but commercial reality requires a heavy dose of realism.

One thing missing is the fact that some of the larger businesses will not rely solely on FH residents (yes, I know ... the whole parking thing comes out again), but some like Finches, Oliver London and Mayo Maker, can create more opportunities through mail-order. etc.

Also, most of the developments in FH from here on in will be for multiple households- i.e. flats. So assuming the popularity of FH continues its increase, the number of available consumers will increase rapidly.

I have always believed that one of the things holding us back here are the range of size of premises available - either tiny (e.g. Organic cafe) or massive (e.g. Aceri). If we could consolidate some of them it would have a positive effect on choice as well as the number of competitors.

At least this is getting constructive for a change.

Any suggestions for what should replace Mercury TV? They have a PRIME location and a wonderful sized retail outlet. Has somone already made an offer?
Joined 30-03-2005
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 10:32 pm:   

Do you know why Mercury is closing?
Joined 07-06-2006
Posted on Wednesday, 22 August, 2007 - 11:15 pm:   

There was some discussion about this on this site recently:
Joined 17-03-2005
Posted on Thursday, 23 August, 2007 - 12:25 am:   

As usual Dave is talking sense however what is the alternative for the many shop premises fronting onto Dartmouth Road? it is difficult to convert them into other things ie housing as the layout does not lend itself to other uses very well, ie they are ground floor with residential upper parts. Further along Dartmouth Road and on Honor Oak Park there are some former units which are now replaced by housing however it is arguable whether this is a good use as they do look rather odd. There may however be some potential for lateral conversions to produce fewer larger units which may be one way forward. Whilst this may never be a mega shopping area, we still need to maintain some commercial heartland, but the question is what and how. So lets have the dispassionate, realistic etc assessment, but who is going to do this exercise.?
Joined 07-12-2003
Posted on Thursday, 23 August, 2007 - 07:29 am:   

I agree with Rob and Roz on the issue of unit size. I've looked at unit size in Forest Hill, and it is noticeable that they are on the whole very small compared to other areas (probably too small in many cases to make a go of it) though as Rob also points out, a wider range of unit size might help

There is some interesting retail history here. In the late 19th century, there were over 400 units in the Forest Hill area. Numbers have fallen ever since, and I would suspect that at some point in the late 19th, early 20th century, units in Dartmouth Road were split into two by desperate landlords (look at the street numbering).

Consolidation of premises would be a good start, and something an energetic economic development team could get to work on.

Other options: (1) attempt to attract 'make and sell' type businesses who might use a double unit with one as a workshop; (2) have an architect look imaginatively at spatial potential of turning a stretch of Dartmouth Road on its back - ie creating residential space behind the street and integrating retail space from that side; (3) a few of the shops are single storey add-ons to pre-existing residential properties, so remove the shop fronts. How you would fund this sort of thing, and how you get landowners on board is another issue.

I'm not sure I agree with Rob about Mercury. I think they did a pretty good job holding out as long as they did. Their prices were reasonably competitive, and they gave sound advice on what to buy.
Joined 24-03-2004
Posted on Thursday, 23 August, 2007 - 09:54 am:   

I think David has hit the nail on the head - there are simply far too many shop units in Forest Hill.

I'm afraid the council cannot escape censure on this. It is not just a question of "that's the building stock we have - so live with it". Many of the units on Perry Vale and to a lesser extent do indeed appear to have been residential originally, with single storey retail units added to the front later. These could be converted back to full residential use without looking like a slum (cf units on the Sunderland Rd stretch of the S Circular - why was this ever allowed?)

This might stack up commercially, but one aspect of the planning system that David has nout touched on is not only what it fails to promote, but what it acts as an impediment to, and the distortions it introduces to a market.

The continuing planning designation of so much Forest Hill property as retail is doing us no favours at all.

I wouldn't hold your breath for any leadership from Lewisham on this issue. The two words cannot sensibly appear in the same sentence; the administration appears quite bereft of any inspiration. As things stand I can only see more years of decline.
Joined 17-03-2005
Posted on Thursday, 23 August, 2007 - 10:15 am:   

Perhaps this is something the Forest Hill Society can lead on however I still think its in everyones best interests for a number of organisations to work together on this including the Council.

We clearly all think this is an issue and want to do something about it. Dave, or current Councillors, can you suggest how we should start?
Joined 07-12-2003
Posted on Thursday, 23 August, 2007 - 10:27 am:   

I'm off for a couple of days, but will think about Roz's post and reply on my return.

Note to HTG: The Council doesn't insistent on all existing retailing staying as retail. The town centre was redefined in the last UDP, and now includes only London Road and Dartmouth Road to just beyond the Post Office. I think it is true to say, however, that for whatever reason little or no advantage has been taken of this greater flexibility.
Joined 09-02-2007
Posted on Friday, 14 September, 2007 - 10:26 am:   

The old Organic Republic shop is being cleared out. Any news, anyone?
Joined 19-05-2004
Posted on Friday, 14 September, 2007 - 06:59 pm:   

I beleive that there are so lovely shops in Bromley Town and also a lovely class of shopper. Separate to this useful piece of info, has Keystone gone?
Joined 19-05-2004
Posted on Friday, 14 September, 2007 - 07:01 pm:   

I believe that there are some lovely shops in Bromley Town, and just as lovely shoppers.

Separate to this extremely useful piece of information has Keystone gone?

And returning to my first point, I think the whole of Lewisham Borough lacks a nice high street. Oh, OK I forgot Blackheath.

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