LONDON'S LOST CANALS Grand Surrey Canal Camberwell/Peckham → South Bermondsey → Deptford → Rotherhithe (4 miles)
The Grand Surrey Canal Company was formed in 1801 with the intention of linking Rotherhithe to Epsom, maybe Portsmouth, perhaps Southampton. Instead the money ran out by the time they reached Camberwell, and the development of a series of docks at the Rotherhithe end proved a more profitable focus. The canal successfully carried timber and other cargo for over a century until road transport eventually won out and it was sequentially closed, the last boats operating less than 50 years ago. For a fuller history, I recommend this, this eight part series, this, this, this excellent pdf, this, this photo album and this. [1806 map][1852 map][1900s map][1950s map][2019 map]
Various sections of the Grand Surrey Canal have since become housing, parkland, industrial estates and linear walks, and remain surprisingly traceable. They'd be better as canal, not least for the waterfront development they'd stimulate, but south London threw that advantage away when it filled the lot in. I've attempted to walk the entire canal, as close as I could, starting in Camberwell (and Peckham) and heading for the Thames. Today I'm reporting on the first half of that walk, and yesterday the second.
Addington Wharf - Burgess Park - Glengall Basin
The Grand Surrey Canal reached Camberwell in 1810 and stopped, because to go much further would have required building a lock. Instead a basin was constructed abutting Camberwell Road, and wharves grew up alongside. Just to the south is AddingtonSquare, a gorgeous Georgian enclave in whose first house the canal's engineer Nathaniel Simmons chose to live. Its central garden is currently in snowdrop mode, should you fancy an uncommonly tasteful place to rest before starting your walk, or else there's the cosy Tennis Cafe.
This end of the Grand Surrey Canal was the first to become disused in the 1940s, evolving from cargo channel to dilapidated safety hazard, which eventually led the council to decide to fill it in. The first mile of the canal became the backbone of a new recreational area, Burgess Park, whose construction controversially also involved knocking down several residential streets. Today it's a vast and lovely resource for neighbouring communities, but you can't help thinking it'd've been much more attractive if its water feature hadn't been converted into a straight tarmac path.
One exceptional survivor is a lime kiln dating back to 1816 and positioned a few yards from the former towpath. Barges brought coal and limestone to be burned for three days to create quicklime - a useful chemical when you're in the midst of an Industrial Revolution - and the kiln continued to be fired until 1925. I learned this from a plaque on the excellent Burgess Park Heritage Trail (although the plaque's recently fallen off and probably won't be there much longer). The same group behind the trail's construction are also responsible for the barge artwork in the subway under Wells Way, an otherwise glum underpass which replaced St George's Bridge.
The parish church, former public baths and library are all that remain of the surrounding streets. My 1950s map shows a timber wharf, mineral water works, ironworks and furniture factory along the next stretch, all now grass. But a single footbridge that once spanned the canal between the essence works and the print factory has survived, since renamed the Bridge To Nowhere. Alas it's also now The Bridge For Nobody, having been sealed at both ends to protect the crumbling steps and brickwork, and to prevent potential litigants from falling off. And beyond this the path that used to be the canal continues, unremarkably, until... hang on, we need to relocate.
Peckham Wharf - Surrey Canal Linear Park - Glengall Basin
A second branch of the canal was dug to Peckham in 1826, doubling up commercial opportunities. It launched just off the High Street at the top of Rye Lane, from a basin larger than at Camberwell, surrounded on three sides by wharves and a mill. When the end came the council found themselves with lots of surplus land at the Canal Head, hence you'll now find Peckham's sports centre, millennial square and library here, fortuitously centrally located. The Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts has recently opened on the site of what was once Eagle Wharf, and is very brown, whereas WhittenTimber nextdoor has been trading at this end of the canal since 1935.
Peckham's basin has now been landscaped, for which read blandly grassed over, and forms the start of a kilometre-long linear park/cycleway along the former canal arm. They were a forward-looking bunch around here in the early 1970s. The path wiggles appealingly, in the same way canals don't, along a wooded thread between a lot of postwar flats. And twice it does something marvellous because two 1870s bridges have been perfectly preserved, where the walk/cycleway ducks underneath the road alongside a raised section of cobbled towpath.
The first is Globe Bridge on Commercial Way, with some lovely ironwork, and the choice of walking through at ground or underwater level. Taylor's Bridge at Willowbrook Road is more impressive, being more golden, and aligned on a slant, and retaining ropemarks on the uprights, and with a larger sweep of ex-canal on the approach. Cyclists and joggers take the low road, and my word what a lot of the latter there are if you head through at the weekend. The more adventurous negotiate the upper cobbles, which also has the advantage that you'll stumble upon an original milestone (or half-milestone) confirming that the Thames is 3½ miles distant.
Immediately before the end of the branch the path passes what used to be Glengall Wharf, where in later years the council disgorged refuse into waiting barges, and is now Glengall Wharf Community Garden. Until three years ago the wall supporting the edge of the garden was original, embedded with the footings of loading chutes, but the councildecided it was unsightly and the replacement is alas more concrete embankment than heritage feature. At least you can still read about the history of the Peckham branch on an information board here, in a grassy depression in the corner of Burgess Park where the two arms of the canal originally merged.
Glengall Bridge - Cantium Retail Park - Old Kent Road
Here we lose all trace of the Grand Surrey Canal from view. It ran up the side of Bianca Road into a more industrial zone, home to tanneries, abrasive works and of course more timber wharves. Today we find leftover small industrial businesses, microbreweries and the Cantium Retail Park, which Southwark council has its eye on massively redeveloping into flats. Several hidden backstreet pockets have already been levelled, and a new station on the Bakerloo line extension would only kickstart total transformation. For now, hardware hunters in the enormous B&Q on the Old Kent Road might like to know that it was built across the canal's alignment.
Old Kent Road - Verney Road Industrial Area - Canterbury Bridge
The major road junction between B&Q and PC World is still known as the Canal Bridge junction, even though that bridge has long been wiped away. A more tangible relic is Canal Grove, a row of six Victorian houses once separated from the canal only by a row of chemical tanks, now tucked away as a private cul-de-sac enveloped by trees. These shield residents from the Verney Road Industrial Area, an extensive sprawl of old factories, warehouses and sheds adjacent to the former New Cross Gas Works. It's one of south London's larger employment pockets, originally canal-driven, now off limits to the casual passer-by.
But head to Varcoe Road to rejoin the fray. This used to be a terraced street with gardens backing onto the towpath but has since been rebuilt with an additional street tucked behind. Gerards Close comprises a single row of two dozen houses built directly on top of the former canal, their parking spaces too, and driving out requires crossing the former towpath. It's a complete residential takeover, and easily spotted on a map only because it lines up precisely with the end of Surrey Canal Road... which is where we're going next (or have already been).