Peckham: Walking the Coal Line

Rotterdam is building one, New York got one about five years ago and Paris thought of it first and has had one for bloody ages. First of all, why on earth doesn’t London have one? And second of all, erm, what is it?

Railways, like roads, bisect cities and communities, some would say divide them, so anything that can be done to reclaim them, reconnect affected areas and make them more fun is OK by us. When the Paris-Vincennes railway was abandoned in the ’70s a grand plan was hatched to turn it into a 3.5-mile linear park and in 1993, The Promenade Plantée, now one of the city’s most popular attractions, was inaugurated, allowing visitors to walk through, over and under residential, industrial and park landscapes.

New York’s celebrated High Line also allows walkers to stroll through the city along an elevated viaduct from the Meatpacking District, through Chelsea, to the northern edge of the West Side Yard on 34th Street.

The High Line, New York
The High Line, New York

And now an architect-led group of local residents is proposing something similar in Peckham. They hope to convert the disused Rickett Cockerell coal sidings into a 1km linear park connecting Rye Lane with Queens Road, linking the planned new square at Peckham Rye station to existing green walkways. They call it the Peckham Coal Line.

I had arranged to buy Deserter brother, Half-life, lunch in Peckham in return for a herb-related favour, and planned to relay all the above to him and see if he fancied joining me for a walk along the proposed route, or as close as we could currently get. I mean, why wait? I hate waiting. Waiting’s for losers, right?

‘Yeah, sorry, whatever,’ said Half-life, when he eventually showed up at the excellent Peckham Refreshment Rooms on Blenheim Grove, almost an hour late. ‘London Bridge is fucked.’

By this time I’d eaten and I explained to him that the food was kinda tapas style, so one dish might not –

‘I’ll have one of everything,’ he said, tossing the menu aside and tucking into my wine. ‘Except the chicory. I’ll have two of those.’

I filled him in on the extraordinary proposal for the Coal Line as he ate (and ate). He was rapt. Or so I thought.

‘So, fancy a walk along the route?’ I asked him, when he’d eventually finished his nosebag and was washing it down with a Kernel IPA.

‘What route?’ he asked.

‘The route of the Coal Line. That I’ve been telling you about.’

‘Not really. I’ve got the Mosconi Cup on tape,’ he said. He didn’t mean tape, the lovable old picador, he meant on the hard drive of his PVR, but I let it go. I had another idea:

‘It’s got beer at the end of it,’ I said.

‘Well, what are we waiting for?’ he replied, taking up his cane.

Forklifts, witches and brews

Proposed start of the Coal Line

The start of the Coal Line (heading east to west) will be in an alley opposite Peckham Rye station. In fact, you can still see part of the old Rickett Cockerell sign, which marks the beginning of the sidings. Steps would be created here to take walkers up to rail-level.

We found an alluring doorway that opened into a busy, working yard adjacent to the rail arches and the putative route of the walk. A sign stated that, ‘This is not a short cut’, which alerted us to the fact that, on the contrary, we may indeed be on the threshold of a short cut, so we walked boldly through into the yard.

‘Can I help you, lads?’, we were asked almost immediately by A Man in a flourescent yellow jerkin.

‘We’re looking for Mickey.’ said Half-life. ‘We’ve got his money.’

‘Mickey?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, Mickey. Mickey Forklifts,’ added Half-life, mysteriously.

Alluring door

For a moment it looked like Half-life’s subterfuge might work, but then The Man looked at me. I think it was the spectacles.

‘You can’t come through here,’ he said, eye-balling me. ‘It’s private.’

‘Bollocks is it,’ said Half-life.

‘No bother,’ I interjected. ‘Tell Mickey he can pick his money up, Tuesday.’ There was a terrible silence. ‘Or it goes back to the orphanage.’

‘Orphanage?’ said Half-life, as we made our way back out under the gaze of hi-viz authority.

‘I know,’ I said. ‘I panicked.’ And he shook his head, sadly.

So we made our way round to the path beside the multi-story car-park, the un-loved conduit to Frank’s, down which I delight in taking noobs during the summer months, and then on up the piss-stinking car-park stairs for the most unlikely Campari in London and the sensational views from the top floor.

The view from the train

On Consort Road you can see the railway line once again, and where one of two footbridges would be required on the proposed new walk, the other being where the line crosses Gordon Road.

At Cossall Walk the green space beside the railway line is clearly visible – indeed someone with an urgent need to disappear a pair of settees had used it in the not too distant past. A little way along we bore right into the top of Kirkdale Road and were able to join the existing green walkway of Kirkdale Nature Reserve, a wholly surprising (and charming) discovery which runs parallel to the railway line and will form part of the Coal Line. Here Half-life took a seat to roll a fag and say something interesting.

‘I hope you can smoke on this Coal Line. You can’t smoke on the High Line in New York. And if there’s one thing you want to do on the High Line, it’s get high.’

Take note, planners.

Seating for you and 12 mates, Kirkwood Nature Reserve

At the other end of the nature reserve we came across a curious semi-circular seating arrangement, almost as if intended for viewing a performance.

‘Odd,’ I said.

‘Witchcraft,’ said Half-life. ‘Count the seats. Thirteen, see?’ And we walked on in silence.

The last section of the walk is alluded to on the planners’ map as a ‘new path behind Joe Richards house’. We wondered if Joe Richards was aware of this plan but it turned out that it was in fact Joe Richards House, a hostel for the homeless. As there is no path currently we were forced onto Lugard Road on the other side of the line to complete our journey, but we did note that, in a master-stroke by either the planners or Late Knights Brewery, the proposed path emerges onto Queens Road almost directly opposite Beer Rebellion. Genius.

Peckham Coal Line diagram
Diagram showing route of the Coal Line. Click to visit the official website

I’ve rarely seen Half-life move so fast and by the time I made it across the busy road he’d already ordered two pints of Peckham Rye IPA – at my expense – and was in a deep discussion with two guys at the bar about the relative merits of Rush and Gang of Four.

As the light faded we took a seat in the window, smelled jars of hops and swapped drinking toasts:

‘To the long piece in Tetris!’

‘I would rather be here, with you people, than with the best people in the world!’

Eventually I broached the question of walking back to Peckham. Half-life demurred.

‘It’s got beer at the end of it,’ I said.

‘What are we waiting for?’ he replied.

The beer in question was at Brick Brewery, also on Blenheim Grove, which throws open its doors two days a week to sell its delicious wares in situ, often featuring ales you can only buy on the premises.

Ian Stewart of Brick Brewery

Fearing the nature reserve may now be closed we were forced to walk back via Queens Road. Negotiating the dual carriageway, the rush hour traffic and the forlorn short cut through Morrisons’ car park brought home what an excellent idea the Coal Line walkway would be: A safe, pleasant and efficient link between these two pearls of Peckham.

The cost of getting the Coal Line up and running is estimated at £2m. By contrast, the proposed Garden Bridge over the Thames will have initial construction costs of £175m and will be closed at night, closed for private events, ticketed for groups over seven, and will not permit cycling. Like the Coal Line, it has drawn comparisons with the High Line and the Promenade Plantée, but we know which one we’d prefer.

Safe in the beer light of Brick Brewery, I bumped into fellow ale-fan, Pompey Dunc and brewery boss, Ian, and told them what we’d been up to.

‘Who’d have thought we’d be standing here talking about creating a linear park that links a craft beer house to a brewery tap room – in Peckham?’ mused Pompey Dunc. ‘It’s not a Coal Line, it’s a Beer Line.’ And we raised our glasses.

To the Beer Line!

UPDATE: March 2015

The next phase in the project is a design feasibility study and after achieving their crowd-funding target of £65,000 last November, the Coal Line project has now appointed architectural practice Adam & Sutherland to steer them through this stage.

We can almost taste that ale.


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Further reading:

Peckham Coal Line website

The Dulwich Raider on the Garden Bridge