Changing London

Peckham’s green dream: Imagining the Coal Line

Looking down a nondescript alley off Rye Lane it’s hard to believe this is the proposed start of “a new linear park” which will “reconnect Peckham’s neighbourhoods”. It’s here, behind Ali’s fruit and vegetable stall, that stairs and a ramp will lead to the Peckham Coal Line – a 900 metre “nature corridor” link to Queen’s Road Peckham for walkers and cyclists.

Many communities have pipe dreams for creating off-road routes and more greenery for residents to enjoy, but this project in southeast London seems like it could be a goer. The registered charity behind the scheme has recently published a feasibility study which shows how the Coal Line can be realised through a series of eight interlinked, yet self-contained projects. Development at one of these (the Old Stable Yard) is due to start this summer.

But what exactly is the Coal Line?

“The Peckham Coal Line is best understood as a network of new public routes and spaces, interwoven both at street level and along elevated decks that connect pockets of neglected space alongside and beneath the existing railway line,” says the feasibility study.

Beginning at busy high street Rye Lane, the route is intended to rise up past a number of high-rise buildings, including the Levels and the Bussey Building, to abandoned coal line sidings – which provided the inspiration for the scheme name – and run alongside a working railway line. From there it would join a newly-built elevated section offering fine view across London and passing through Kirkwood Nature Reserve. Before reaching Queen’s Road Peckham, there will be a new cafe and community space at Bidwell Street.

Local residents first started talking about the idea of the Coal Line in 2014 and then the following year a crowdfunding campaign for the now-launched feasibility study was launched. Some 928 people contributed a total £75,757 and Adams & Sutherland, the architects behind the Olympic Park greenway were appointed to the project.

The Coal Line has followed a bottom-up approach from the outset and has aimed to involve as many people as possible from the local community, with countless talks and guided walks held to explain the vision. As the different sections are completed both individuals and businesses will benefit – walkers and cyclists will be able to enjoy the greenery, while companies will be able to access 2,300 square metres of new workspace.

Made by the railways

At the beginning of the 19th century Peckham was merely a small rural village, surrounded by fields. But with the coming of the railways from 1860s, the area was transformed. Property developers built scores of new homes for clerks and artisans who wanted to escape the polluted and crowded City streets for the suburbs. Towering brick viaducts, which now house a range of local businesses under their arches, sprung up in Peckham and came to define the town centre.

Peckham Rye station opened in 1865 to cater first for the London, Chatham & Dover Railway and then also London, Brighton & South Coast Railway. The influx of new residents that these improved transport connections brought opened up Rye Lane as a busy shopping street. One of the most prominent outlets was Jones & Higgins, which started as a small shop in 1867 and grew to be perhaps south London’s most significant department store (it lasted until the 1980s).

In the 19th century several manufacturers, including a condiments company that was later bought by Heinz, moved to Peckham. At the northern end of Copeland Industrial Park, just off Rye Lane, stands the towering Bussey Building, which was originally used for making sports goods, particularly cricket bats. The 19th century structure and the rest of the complex was finally saved from demolition in 2009 and is now part of Peckham’s cultural quarter, providing home for groups ranging from theatrical societies to artists’ studios.

Coal was brought into this area of industry from the north of England via the railways, with coal depot at Peckham Rye opening in 1891, In 1945 15,573 tonnes of coal was delivered and by 1946 five wagons a day arrived at the site. Coal was dropped – hence why it is known in Coal Line plans as the Coal Drop – through holes and stored in hoppers before being weighed and distributed. The Peckham Rye depot closed in the the 1950s and is partly used as a scaffolding yard. After Rye Lane, this would form the first section of the Coal Line.

Old coal yard

There were attempts to revive Peckham from the 1960s, including the construction of the North Peckham Estate. However by the late 1970s the largely high-rise development became regarded as one of the most notorious residential ghettos in the country, with high levels of violent crime which spread over into the surrounding area. High levels of unemployment and a struggling economy took its toll on the district as a whole.

Other new developments followed the North Peckham Estate, including Southwark Council’s new Cossall Housing Estate which was built in the 1970s on the site of demolished terraced housing. The original homes in Cossall Street and Sunwell Street (formerly Athearn Street) had been built in the 1870s alongside the railway between Peckham Rye and Queen’s Road Peckham stations.

Next to the new development lies traces of unbuilt road which would have formed part of an 1960s London-wide urban motorway, known as the Southern Box. Had it been fully realised (only sections in Bow and the Westway were completed), it would have destroyed countless communities – including Peckham town centre. As costs escalated the project was thankfully abandoned and in 2000 the vacant space in Peckham was opened-up as Kirkwood Nature Reserve, incorporating planted woodland and an artificial pond added. This is an off-road section of the proposed Coal Line that therefore already exists.

Kirkwood Nature Reserve

Regenerating Peckham

People living in Peckham are a defiant lot and refuse to take no for an answer. One of the most prominent campaigning organisations in the local community is Peckham Vision is a campaigning group which describes itself as “a resident-led local citizens’ association of individuals who live, work or run a business in Peckham.” It has a “vision is to support Peckham as a thriving and sustainable social and commercial centre, and to contribute to Peckham being a good place for all in which to live, work and visit.”

Peckham Vision, which was formed in 2005 at the start of what would turn-out to be a long-running campaign to save the aforementioned Copeland Industrial Park, works with a range of other groups and individuals to improve the local area.

At Peckham Rye station I was recently able to able to look around the Old Waiting Room, which was hidden to the public for 50 years and is now in the process of being restored. The second-floor room was built as part of the station, designed by Charles Henry Driver who was also responsible for the celebrated Abbey Mills and Crossness pumping stations and numerous railway stations, including the Grade II listed Battersea Park. Peckham Rye retains many original features.

Old Waiting Room at Peckham Rye Station

Two busy railway lines crossed at Peckham – taking people from central London as far as both Dover and Brighton – so it became a busy junction and as many as 100 passengers would wait in the room directly above the booking hall. Many would have been heading to Crystal Palace, which in its day was a major tourist attraction.

The Old Waiting Room was a popular billiards hall in the 1920s, but in the 1960s as that closed and much of the Victorian station was bricked up following the Beeching cuts, it was pretty much forgotten. But in recent years architect Benedict O’Looney has led a team restoring several parts of the old station, including the cast iron staircase leading up to the second-floor Old Waiting Room. It is hoped this will become a ccommunity events space.

O’Looney’s practice was also responsible for restoring 1930s toilets (known as ‘Sanitary Courts’) which were closed off to the public when the northern part of the booking hall – now the Coal Rooms cafe, bar and restaurant – was used as a betting shop. In its toilets you can see the original green and white mosaic floor, as well as original fittings (the original women’s toilets didn’t survive, so it is now unisex and the urinals are out of use). Plans have also been approved to transform the dimly-lit arcades in front of the station and create a new public square. Work on the project is due to be completed in 2021.

Just last year a disused multi-storey car park, which has hosted the popular Frank’s Cafe during the summer months for past decade (regarded as one of the top rooftop bars in Europe and offering fine views across London), was saved from being demolished and replaced by a block of flats. It means that the newly-opened Peckham Levels has a long-termer future in providing affordable space for artists, local businesses and areas to hold events. Peckham really is fast becoming a cultural hub.

And then of course there is the Peckham Coal Line. Following the publication of the feasibility study, it has launched a £1m fundraising campaign for the next phase in its development. The charity has a five-year vision to complete three of the eight projects by 2023. Thankfully it was in included in the 2018 edition of the New Southwark Plan, safeguarding its future in planning policy

At Old Stable Yard work begins this summer on the Coal Line’s first project – transforming an old Victorian stable block and cobbled surroundings into a new development of mixed-residential housing with commercial space for local businesses. The dream of linear, off-road link between Rye Lane and Queen’s Road Peckham could have been blocked here last year as developers put in a planning application to build across the yard and demolish heritage buildings. Thankfully after local people intervened the scheme was revised, protecting the Coal Line’s route. It won’t be the last battle volunteers will need to fight, but the feasibility study proves the project is feasible and the prospect of it being completed is one step closer to reality.

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