The Lost Canals of Peckham, London

The lost canals of Peckham

Burgess Park is certainly not one of the most famous parks in London. Situated just off the exhaust choked tarmac of the Old Kent Road this large open space offers a green refuge from the madness of the capital's wild south east. On first inspection the park appears fairly undistinguished. It has a large lake where optimistic locals dangle rods and the largely treeless expanse plays host to impromptu football matches. It also stages the largest South American carnival of the year. But the strangest thing about Burgess Park is the iron canal bridge which sits alone like a forlorn bachelor on its southern most edge. This gently rusting structure is totally land-locked, spanning nothing but earth. Its existence is incongruous, canals and the Old Kent Road are not recognised bed fellows. Was I the first to wonder if its location hadn’t been the result of some eccentric copying the efforts of Robert McCulloch in transporting London Bridge to the USA? After all, that seemingly crazy inter-continental shift has transformed Lake Havasu into the second most popular Nevadan tourist attraction after Las Vegas.

If this were true then the experiment has failed in Burgess Park, there are no tacky gift shops or tourist hoards in evidence. However, by following the path leading from the bridge towards Peckham it soon becomes apparent that you are following the bends of an old water course which winds under two classic Victorian bridges. The physical scars of nineteenth century engineering are still evident on the landscape and when following the canal route it requires only a smidgen of imagination to visualise barges floating past the modern houses of north Peckham estate.

A little research reveals that at one time The Grand Surrey canal ran through what is now Burgess Park. Poor road links in the reign of George IV resulted in the proposed extension of the waterway to link London with Portsmouth. Unfortunately the money ran dry in 1826 with the canal only dug out as far as Peckham. The stunted waterway was adapted to ship softwood and materials were floated to Eagle Wharf, not far from where Whitten Timber merchants stands today on Peckham Hill Street. It’s worth popping into the shop to look at the old black and white pictures of the working canal and sniff the odour of freshly cut wood.

Perhaps most surprising is that Burgess Park is a recent invention only acquiring its present name in 1974. For most of the nineteenth century the 460,000 square metres had housed a thriving community covered with houses, streets and industrial buildings. In 1943 it was decided south London needed a ‘green lung’, the houses were demolished, people moved on to new estates. The canals were drained and filled in the 1970s.

How to get there

The closest entrance to the bridge is the one on Albany Road. Walk on the path closest to the southern edge of the park and you’ll soon pick up the canal. Google map.

The closest rail links are at Elephant and Castle and Peckham Rye. For bus links from there go to the journey planner at Transport for London.

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Comments

Interesting. I went to a lecture last year at the London canal museum about just this topic. Sadly the presentation was muddled and confusing so I didn't learn a great deal, but the chap giving the talk had obviously done a great deal of research and published a book about the canal. Can't remember his name at the moment.

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