The southern extension of the East London Line, which reopens today, has an unexpected ancestor. Two centuries before yellow-fronted Class 378s made their way from West Croydon to New Cross Gate, a completely different form of transport followed almost exactly the same route. Narrowboats pulled by horses passed this way, weaving through long-gone fields to the southeast of London. This was the Croydon Canal, opened in 1809, and whose nine miles are now mostly railtrack and housing. People of Brockley, Sydenham and Penge, your suburban dreams owe everything to the failure of this rural waterway. Now conveniently marked on the tube map in orange for all to see.
The Croydon Canalbranched off from the Grand Surrey Canal roughly where the East London line crosses Surrey Canal Road today. Let's hope money is finally found to erect a station here, as it would be only right and proper for the canal to earn a namecheck on the railway's destination boards. From here it headed through the new ELL depot towards New Cross Gate station (platforms 4 and 5), back in the days when this area was known as the village of Hatcham[map]. An astonishing flight of locks kicked off here, 26 of them in total, gradually raising the level of the channel as it passed south beyond the New Cross road. The greatest concentration of locks was between Brockley and Honor Oak Park - sixteen of them in the short distance now travelled from one station to the next. They weren't big locks either, which rather restricted the size of the boats which could pass this way, and ultimately led to the canal's unprofitability.
Once elevated to the 161 foot contour, the Croydon Canal became a leisurely meander with impressive views across the surrounding countryside. One surviving patch of canalside woodland is the Garthorne Road Nature Reserve (alas firmly locked by Lewisham Council to keep out pestilent homo sapiens). The canal wiggled rather more than the current railway, so in Forest Hill for example it passed to the west of the station. David's Road has an elevated pavement, said to be the height of the original towpath, on the wall of which is a modern tiled mural depicting a barge beneath a hump-backed bridge [photo]. Halfway between Forest Hill and Sydenham a tiny scrap of the Croydon Canal survives. It's in Dacres Wood, on the bend of Dacres Road, and is again locked away in a naturereserve where only schoolkids with clipboards get to pond-dip in the marshy waters.
Further south, past Sydenham Bridge, boats used to tie up at Penge Wharf. Don't go looking for either today. Rather more glamorous were the Anerley Tea Gardens, to which middle class Londoners once came for a Sunday cuppa. The railway had overtaken the canal by this point, but an old section remained allowing visitors to go pleasure boating. The tearooms were replaced by a rather-too-big pub called the Anerley Arms, and middle-class Londoners no longer have to be trained in, they live here.
And it's in Anerley that the Croydon Canal absolutely definitely still exists. Alongside Betts Park are a couple of hundred metres of artificial water which have somehow never quite been swallowed up. But they were, alas, 'modernised' in the 1930s from a characterful reedy stretch to a bland concrete channel. A blocky housing development on the western bank merely drags the tone down further. At least the flats can be obscured by looking down from the Anerley Road, where there's also a plaque with a map which reveals how the canal carved its way through the area. Squint carefully, and ignore the ducks waddling in stagnant sludge below, and you could almost be back in the 19th century. [view SW][view NE]
Onward. South Norwood Lake, now an anglers' haunt, used to be a reservoir to keep the Croydon Canal topped up. Towpath Way, east of the Selhurst railway depot, is a very modern row of houses along the line of the old canal. And West Croydon station was built on the site of the goods basin where the canal terminated. Because, like I said, it wasn't a very good canal. Within three decades of opening it had sold out to the fledgling London & Croydon Railway Company, who filled and chopped and straightened the old waterway to create commuter-friendly tracks from New Cross to Croydon. Tracks which are, as of this morning, rebranded under the London Overground banner. Take the train, and follow the canal.