Just five miles or so from the chimes of Big Ben, with short, if crowded, commutes of less than 15 minutes by overground train to Central London, this south London area is a hot-spot for families. Morning and afternoon children scoot, cycle, walk or are bussed and driven in the main business of the day – the school run.
West and North Dulwich converge in ‘the village’: a wide tree-lined avenue, dotted with distinctive white wooden finger posts pointing the way across the open spaces of Dulwich Park and the many cricket grounds, tennis courts and playing fields which give the area its leafy, spacious feel. It’s the perfect place for a Sunday afternoon stroll along the handsome mainly Victorian and Edwardian streets with the odd Georgian pile or Kentish clapboard cottage to the elegant picture gallery, built by Sir John Soane, with only a short pause to ‘ooh’ at the remarkable house prices in the estate agents windows.Small independent shops and cafes provide just enough for the odd birthday gift, but serious retail therapy will have to wait. It is home to a mix of fortunate retirees, high-achieving city, media and professional types with the odd smattering of artists and well-known actors.
East Dulwich is a little more achievable, distinctively younger and more fashionable. Its high street, Lordship Lane, is crammed with bars and restaurants, a newly converted Picture House cinema and to the delight of locals a newly arrived M&S Food Hall. Mums bedeck the pavements on their first tentative baby outings.
Herne Hill meanwhile offers peaceful tree -lined roads and a tiny few shops clustered around the station. Indistinguishable from Dulwich village initially, it slips off to Brixton as it edges around Brockwell Park, becoming distinctly more urban and dominated by heavy traffic. A farmers market and popular, refurbished Lido with cafe keep residents here at the weekends. Herne Hill station is particularly well-connected, offering more trains to the City and with the new Blackfriars station Tate Modern and the Southbank are now a mere ten minute ride away.
Whilst something of a treat for those considering taking the plunge from North London, as it’s possible to swap a flat for a house, and certainly more square feet, even on some streets a larger garden, to most prices seem fairly hefty. In Dulwich village and Herne Hill houses rather than flats are mostly the order of the day, with many having been given a modern twist: glassy extensions making the most of the square footage and plenty of curb appeal. Every street has a house clad in scaffolding under-going transformations: basement dig-outs, loft conversions, the odd wine cellar.
If you’re looking for something a bit different, and better value for money there is a good stock of mid-century town houses, often in secluded closes with prices starting around £800k. In Dulwich Village a four bedroom period house could set you back anywhere from £1.3 to £3m. Double this and you gain a prestigious address close to Dulwich College, bedrooms to spare and mature gardens to the front and rear. One of the rare apartments, often conversions, with three or four bedrooms comes in at circa £700k.
Herne Hill buys you a little more space, another bedroom perhaps and often beautiful stained glass to the front. The average price of a 5 bed house is £1.5m. East Dulwich offers more choice at the lower end of the market, as there are streets of smaller terraces, former Victorian working-class cottages, now mostly spruced up with lashings of Farrow & Ball, as well as larger semi-detacheds. Three bed terraces start at £800k, whilst four bed semis are now trading at £1m, and anything at an impeccable standard and on a large scale will rival Dulwich village prices. Still a fair few properties left to renovate for those wishing to put their own stamp on things.
Dulwich has long been something of a mecca for independent schooling and this is possibly the main draw amongst new families to the area – with preps and senior schools offering single sex and co-ed, children can easily spend their entire school career from 2.5 to 18 years within the space of a few miles and surrounded by familiar faces. This may not be enough for everyone however, and plenty think further afield come 11+.
It used to be that the local independents offered something for all abilities, but attainment is on the rise and with it increased selectivity and for some pressure – this alone could be a reason to send off for a few prospectuses and hang on to the thought that there are schools outside of the Dulwich bubble. Whilst some local state schools seem content to occupy something of a so-so position, others are definite stars. With insufficient places in the best to go around, it seems just as hard if not harder to secure a place in one’s state school of choice. Careful studying of catchment areas or church admissions criteria at least two years ahead of an application would be wise. But hope is on the horizon of some pressure easing as the builders are particularly busy in East Dulwich catering for a surge in the local birth rate.
The Dulwich Foundation schools comprising Dulwich College, James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS) and Alleyn’s School, all share a charitable foundation endowed in the 17th century by the actor Edward Alleyn. Each has a prep or junior school with selective admission that bit harder the higher up the school you get.
Dulwich College set in 70 acres of the estate and housed in a splendid Italianate building with exciting new additions offers plenty of old school tradition but is fizzing with dynamic teaching, boys who want to learn and charismatic leadership. There is sport a-plenty but you can be both a sportsman and an academic here. A new bursary scheme set to diversify the intake further is worth investigating.
JAGS is diverse ethnically and socially with plenty of girls coming from far and wide across south London, even north of the river, some supported by bursaries. Piles of homework to be expected but resulting in rows of A*s for many; the results here far exceed those of either Dulwich College or Alleyn’s at 18. A vibrant music department is soon to be bolstered by a new-build music centre and sport is pretty dynamic too.
Often viewed as the more liberal of the independent local seniors, Alleyn’s prides itself on the breadth of pupils’ personal development – the list of extra-curricular activities and adventures is certainly extensive. Large numbers play instruments, art is impressive and the stunning sports facilities are on show for all to see.
The Charter School is something of a success story in the heart of Herne Hill, replacing a failed school a number of years ago. The school is tough on discipline, with a youthful, well-qualified teaching staff and children often achieve well. There’s little space outside and the renovations are now showing their age. However, the grand but dilapidated Dulwich Community hospital is soon to become The Charter School East Dulwich growing from the ground up with 240 children in year 7 in 2016.
Also a re-incarnated school, Kingsdale sits snugly up against Dulwich Prep London, in a peaceful, leafy part of West Dulwich. Its huge size may initially terrify year 7s, but there is a huge clamour for places particularly given there is no distance criteria to admissions. The breadth and quality of the music teaching and facilities is exceptional. Plenty of academic success stories and pupils say that all you have to do is ask with a dedicated staff on-hand beyond regular hours. These two or three aside, the other Southwark state seniors of note are the Harris Academies in East Dulwich, one for boys and one for girls.
State primary admissions success will depend very much in the main on the distance of your house from the school gates, so new house purchases must be considered with care. Most catchments don’t stretch far beyond a couple of streets if that. Dulwich Hamlet Junior School is every parents’ nostalgic dream of what a village school should look like. Sadly many are left gazing in wonder never to set foot inside the gates. Although it’s easier to get in here than Dulwich Village Infants a few feet away, linked to the Parish of St Barnabas and with a rigorous church attendance pretty much a must. Once inside, the schools are vibrant, creative and with exceptional music and some excellent facilities. As an alternative many families head to Bessemer Grange with a Camberwell postcode but within borough, where they are reportedly most content.
Mog fans and German speakers have taken to the new Judith Kerr free primary in Herne Hill and are currently campaigning to save their playing field from development by the Dulwich Estate. Jessop Primary in Herne Hill is equally popular and one of the very few in these parts, Dulwich Hamlet school aside, to be graded Ofsted ‘outstanding’. Rosendale in West Dulwich, not to be confused with Rosemead, is a huge state primary with 700 pupils: a popular and savvy choice in an attractive neighbourhood, strong on art and performance as well as the basics.
East Dulwich stalwarts, built in typical London Victorian red-brick, Heber and Goodrich, are tricky to get into despite so-so results and reputation whilst Goose Green tops popularity despite being one of the lowest performing primaries in the borough. The paint is almost dry on the Harris Primary Academy East Dulwich on the site of the old police station, which will be a relief to the first cohort currently camping out.
This area doesn’t offer the quantities of high performing faith primaries that one finds in South West London for instance, but head to St Jude’s C of E or St Saviour’s C of E, Herne Hill or St Anthony’s Catholic Primary, East Dulwich, for a strong sense of community and good all-round schools.
Finally, for pioneers, Small Acres on Peckham Rye but located within East Dulwich was created by parents to offer something entirely different – a primary school set in a playground with a democratic philosophy taking learning by play to a whole new level with minimal testing.
Prep-wise, Herne Hill School offers an excellent grounding in the early years curriculum in a convenient location with a surprisingly spacious and wooded outdoor play area. Parents wanting to get stuck in as part of a school community should head to Rosemead Prep in West Dulwich where the PTA even holiday together. JAPS takes girls from reception readying them for entrance to JAGS. The pre-prep is situated in a large Edwardian villa with a delightful playground/garden, the prep up the road more modern, but there is a strong sense of community and specialist teaching in music, French and PE from the start.
90 per cent of boys at Dulwich College Junior School move on to the College, without entry being automatic. Along the way they gain from first rate music, and a spirit of inclusivity as well as competitiveness. Dulwich College Kindergarten School (DUCKS) takes girls as well as boys up to 7 years in a stunningly green setting with acres of space to run around and views of the City beyond.
Alleyn’s Junior school intake begins at 4+ with only 18 places, all of which could be filled with siblings were there to be a sibling policy, thankfully a few other families do get a look-in. It’s busy and buzzy, beloved by the sporty.