Once in a while, an idea is born that is so elegantly simple and perfectly obvious, it seems incredible that no-one had thought of it before. The Peckham Coal Line is just such an idea.
A disused railway siding that once brought coal to the Rickett Cockerell coal yard in the centre of Peckham would be transformed into a new green space, taking New York’s successful High Line as its inspiration, but with a uniquely Peckham character of its own. The 1km elevated linear park would create a new connection between Peckham town centre and the isolated but rapidly developing Queens Road area – whilst bringing some much needed greenery and calm to a hectic urban environment. Passing above rail-scapes, Victorian industrial architecture, back streets and estates, the route offers a peaceful alternative to the traffic-choked streets for cyclists and pedestrians, with great views and much-needed breathing space.
Peckham has severe and enduring levels of deprivation that make it one of the poorest areas in the country. And it undoubtedly has an image issue, no thanks to a certain 80s sitcom. Rye Lane, its central thoroughfare and thriving shopping area, is not a typical high street. The narrow pavements are piled with crates of fruit and veg from the open-fronted shops; the noise of meat saws, music and traffic can be deafening; the smells overwhelming, the crush and rubbish maddening. Naming the project ‘The Coal Line’ recognises the area’s grimy ungentrified past – and present – as a centre of manufacture and toil. It doesn’t attempt to sound pretty or natural, and nor should it.
The route is pure Peckham and the plan looks to celebrate this, making the most of the vegetation that thrives along the disused railway, and incorporating the industrial fabric of wood, iron and brick into the landscape design. The project grows out of the existing landscape and enhances what is already there, while creating a space that is functional and beautiful, something for the local community to value and feel proud of. Not only would it link disconnected local areas, severed by railway lines and busy roads, it would also connect with existing cycle networks and green routes. Joined-up landscape thinking at its best.
The remains of a Rickett Cockerell Coal sign can be seen on the side of the railway bridge across Rye Lane above the former coal yard. Down the alley running alongside is a cobbled yard that is a little Peckham microcosm, housing an evangelical church, a scaffolding depot, a Kurdish street food cafe, a trendy juice bar and an explosion of street art.
Welcome to Peckham.
Along Rye Lane and into the forecourt of the Peckhamplex – London’s cheapest cinema – featuring a pop-up orchard, and embedded in the pavement an easy-to-miss celebration of plants from around the world. Above the cinema is the hipster magnet multi-storey car park which hosts Frank’s Bar and Bold Tendencies every summer, giving fabulous rooftop views over London, whatever you might think of the overpriced drinks and conceptual art, as well as a great view of the Coal Line route from above. The railway line is rejoined in the exuberantly muralled alley at the side of the building, just visible through the wild vegetation by the track.
Deviating away from the railway briefly, across Clayton Road, up Harders Road and right on to Gordon Road, a peek behind the houses in Maya Close gives a glimpse of the green tranquility that the Coal Line offers. As the route now passes through a residential area, away from traffic noise and retail chaos, the prospect of a pleasurable amble or cycle becomes apparent. The route continues along Cossall Walk, clearly visible on the right and now at a lower level as the gentle slope of the route is revealed.
Kirkwood Nature Reserve, a scruffy and endearing wooded spot, is the green culmination to the route before heading onto Queens Road. At this point the brilliance of the scheme is unmissable, such that it can only be described as a no-brainer: emerging onto the bleak four-lane unloveliness of Queens Road only reinforces this.
A beautifully bold, elegant plan which must now surely happen.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2015 edition of Pro Landscaper magazine.