One of London's busiest disused railways runs through Croydon, specifically to the east of the town centre. It's the Woodside & SouthCroydon Joint Railway, a minor and underused service which opened in 1885 to link two existing railways, and promptly closed in 1916 due to lack of interest. Undeterred the line had another go at operations in 1935, somehow surviving Beeching's axe until finally closing for good in 1983. Most of the line was then taken over as part of Croydon's tram network, which is why it's so busy today, but the southern end is an overgrown discard running between the backs of houses and almost entirely overlooked. You can also get a nice cup of tea halfway along. [Londonist video]
We'll start at Elmers End where trains veer off towards Hayes, and our disused railway used to continue straight ahead. That's now Tramlink Route 1, departing from the same platform the shuttle rail service once used, and a fairly unwelcoming piece of infrastructure all told. Trams continue to Arena, which was never a station, then to Woodside, which was. Indeed the station building still stands, as a boarded up shell facing Spring Lane, with some very faded lettering hinting that a "radio cars" company once operated here. Both of the original staircases down to the platforms survive, though one is bricked off, and one of the platforms has been dismantled for re-use on the Swanage Heritage Railway. As for the ramp to one side, this might look like a modern access facility but was in fact laid in the 1880s to allow horses to reach the adjacent racecourse. Unfortunately for the railway the Croydon Races were a rowdy affair and ceased in 1890, which after a five-century run was damned bad timing.
The tramstop at Blackhorse Lane, not to be confused with Blackhorse Road, was also never a station, but it was where the railway we're intending to follow diverged. The original line continued (briefly) to Croydon, or rather to Croydon Addiscombe Road, which was far enough out of the town centre not to be terribly popular. The station's name evolved to Croydon (Addiscombe), then the more honest Addiscombe (Croydon) and finally to plain old Addiscombe, with passenger numbers dropping off in response. Eventually only a peak hour shuttle service to Elmers End survived, the last train running in 1997, which left a short stubby spur of land unused. The end result is Addiscombe Railway Park, a half mile reserve under the guardianship of a group of local volunteers who are creating a linear wildlife haven. The eastern end is mostly path, while the western end opens out to a broad grassy plain where goods sidings once splayed out, now with added orchard and raised saffron bed. As for Addiscombe station, this was bulldozed in 2001 to create a long thin housing estate of little architectural merit, and today only a retaining wall remains.
Enough of the sideshow, let's grab that tea. The main Woodside & South Croydon Joint Railway headed more directly south from Blackhorse Lane, originally rising on an embankment to cross Lower Addiscombe Road. The low bridge proved an impediment to double deckers and lorries so was removed when the line was taken over by trams, along with thousands of tons of earth to bring the tracks down to ground level. It's here that you'll find The Tram Stop cafe, opened in 2014 and painted a classy shade of green, even if the tram depicted in the logo bears no relation whatsoever to the single decker Euro-trams whirring by. Expect "avocado, grilled tomato and smoked salmon with choice of eggs" breakfasts, rather than a greasy spoon, plus independent coffee and cake. Just don't turn up on a Sunday else all you'll see is empty chairs through the window. The neighbouring tramstop is called Addiscombe, no relation to the original station, although there was a station called Bingham Road fractionally to the south. Originally popular due to its proximity to a tram terminus, by 1980 barely 100 passengers a day used the elevated platforms, which have also wholly vanished between two modern level crossings.
A cunning ploy was required to corral the next stretch of railway line into two lines of Tramlink. Trains ran in cutting, whereas trams from Croydon town centre arrive at Sandilands at ground level, so tracks were laid down a freshly carved ramp before diverging perpendicularly, in one direction towards Woodside and the other towards New Addington. The southern route is the most interesting, entering three successive tunnels beneath the Addington Hills. These brick excavations were the engineering marvels of the original railway, the triple sections required because of a change of soil type partway through. Where steam once puffed up from the Woodside (266 yards), Park Hill (122 yards) and Coombe Lane (157 yards) tunnels, now sleek green snakes carry shoppers from the Whitgift home to the slopes of upper Parkway. I've made that sound more exciting I ought, but trams in tunnels that used to take trains is still semi-special by Croydon standards.
And when the trams take another right-angled turn to glide along the edge of Lloyd Park, that's where Coombe Road station used to be. When the railway opened in 1885 this was the only intermediate station, with platforms built from railway sleepers, later improved somewhat but now totally demolished. Larcombe Close takes its place, a nondescript cul-de-sac of turn-of-the-century houses. But look across the road to see evidence of the former railway on a low overgrown embankment, disappearing off along the side of a back garden. The alignment of the W&SCJR is preserved from this point southwards, and can be seen more clearly where footpaths cross the former tracks. The first of these leads off Spencer Road towards South Croydon Sports Club, but the real treasure is the next footpath south where a railway footbridge remains intact. This was the site of Spencer Road Halt, a desperate throw of the dice by the Edwardian railway in an attempt to drum up custom. They hoped passengers would alight here to interchange with South Croydon station, ten minutes walk away, but they hoped wrong, and the halt closed within ten years. The lattice bridge has seen better days, but remains functional, and affords views down into a thicket of birch trees growing up through two sets of rusting rails. 100 years on, such an anomaly really shouldn't still exist, but rejoice that it does.
Within a few metres the disused railway crosses Croham Road at lofty height, the bridge convincingly intact enough that you could well believe a train might cross at any time. If a pressure group gets its way, it could even happen. BML2 is a pipedream plan for a new Brighton Main Line through Uckfield and Oxted which would utilise this disused railway to link the Croydon area to Lewisham and London Bridge. But while this mile of overgrown tracks might be convertible, implementation would require the demolition of houses further up and then the complete realignment of Croydon's trams at vast expense, so it'll surely never happen. BML2 also plans to reinstate the original interchange station with the Oxted line at Selsdon, once the final stop on our journey, now another sea of trees and undergrowth wedged between the backs of new housing. Again a footbridge provides decent elevated views, probably clearer at this time of year than three months hence, of a disused railway that is simultaneously both very much dead and very much alive. [13 photos]