Meet the Brains Behind the Peckham Coal Line – South London's Crowd-Funded Answer to NYC's High Line

By Mark Mayne on at

In the 1800s Peckham was a proper contender. Its high street – known locally as The ‘Golden Mile’ – of shops even had a branch of Selfridges, and the local industrial employers meant that shoppers were flush – some more flushed than others, as going midnight shopping after the pub was relatively commonplace. However, as fortunes changed, coal-fired industry faded, just as farming had before it, leaving an urban area without the strongest transport links to fend for itself.

In more recent times, the Overground extensions and London house pricing has delivered a whole new influx of people to Peckham, some of whom will hopefully stay to see the completion of the Peckham Coal Line project, an ambitious plan to create a suspended green space through the heart of Peckham in the footprint of long-disused coal sidings. It’s been compared to the iconic New York High Line, a successful project to rehabilitate a disused railway line cutting through Manhattan.

Nick Woodford, from the Peckham Coal Line team, said: “It’s not the most obvious project, no, but it is one that’s been discussed for years. We finally decided to do something about it, and created a Facebook group, really as provocation. This picked up traction really fast, and our first physical meeting had 500 people turn up – to our astonishment – it really captured local imagination.”

The projected route of the Coal Line project

The Peckham Coal Line project aims to link up a series of existing spaces into a single route, just short of a kilometre-long, with the wider effect of linking up Brixton and the Thames for runners, cyclists and walkers. The route will begin near Rye Lane, passing through atmospheric Victorian brick viaducts, dropping down through the little-used Kirkwood Nature Reserve before finishing at Queens Road Peckham.

The disused route is the site of coal sidings owned by a major coalite supplier Rickett Cockerell & Co Ltd, which were decommissioned in 1958. Before that the company – appointed “Coal Merchants to the King” no less – was one of the cornerstones of the industrialised area, selling the vital fuel to factories and homes in south-east London. The first mention of a coal yard on the site dates back to 1891, and it is a feature of a 1921 Land Registry map, marked to the south of Montcrieff Street. By 1945 a robust 15,573 tonnes were passing through the site each year. The Cockerell & Co company made its mark in other ways too, entering eternal UK legal history after supplying a sack of domestic coalite which caused a small explosion at the home of one Mrs Wilson. The resulting impact on the Sale of Goods act still stands today.

Although the area has changed a lot geographically, the community spirit remains strong. A crowd-funding campaign to get the Peckham Coal Line project up and running saw 936 backers, and although City Hall chipped in a solid £10,000 of the final £75,757 raised (£64,132 target) many were more community-based: “lots of those 936 backers were locals and small businesses making very small donations, which is very much the point of the exercise,” said Woodford, “it’s a project that’s very much about community involvement. In many ways, it is a new way to approach public space, a more holistic approach where local people get their say, rather than some central government scheme imposing other ideas. In this situation, the local community are real stakeholders in the outcome.”

An autumnal artist's view of the Coal Line in action

Support for the cause has come in all shapes and sizes, one particularly palatable option is stepping back in time with a bottle of the Brick Brewery’s Railway Porter, which donates 10p from each bottle to the Coal Line project. Fitting in more than one way, as the coal line railway workers would traditionally have quaffed porter as well.

The next step is the big one though. The team have invested much of the crowdsourced funds in commissioning a detailed feasibility study from Olympic Park architectural practice Adams & Sutherland. This will be delivered at the end of 2016, and will set out costs, a proposed design, and incorporate feedback from vital stakeholders such as Network Rail, who still own the site and operate the busy train tracks on either side.

“The feasibility will be the real watershed moment for this project”, admits Woodford as it’ll set the costs, tone and basis for the next stage. “This area has seen a real ebb and flow since the coal yard was operating. I think a lot of the appeal of this project is about channelling that process of ongoing change. Do we sit back and allow it to happen to us, or do we take control?”

Sounds like the residents of Peckham have come up with an answer for that, at least.