24 May 2017 | 10 °C

When Part Of Peckham Was Almost Obliterated For The Channel Tunnel

When Part Of Peckham Was Almost Obliterated For The Channel Tunnel
Photo: Tim Parker

When thinking of Eurostar and London, the iconic terminus at St Pancras — or perhaps its former home at Waterloo — spring to mind. Few, if any, would think of Peckham.

However, this area of south London almost became the site of a major junction for the high speed continental link. It would have changed the nature of the area forever.

When the Channel Tunnel got the green light in 1987, Waterloo was quickly identified as its first terminal, with an additional terminus planned for a new station underneath King's Cross station. Planning then turned to the high speed link from the tunnel to the capital. On 9 March 1989, British Rail announced its preferred route into London, entering a tunnel by Swanley at the south eastern fringes of the capital. Peckham found itself slap bang in the middle of it all.

Warwick Gardens, a small park with a children's playground, just west of Peckham Rye station, was to be the location of the junction where trains bound for Waterloo would leave the tunnel and join the existing domestic lines.

Warwick Gardens today.

Explaining the route to MPs in the Commons, then Rail Minister, Michael Portillo tried to offer reassurances to concerned MPs from all parties that while Warwick Gardens would have to be dug up to construct the sub-surface junction, it would be restored and returfed afterwards.

Nevertheless, the gardens, bordered by the Holly Grove conservation area of attractive Georgian and Victorian housing, would have been transformed into a massive building site for years before becoming a major junction of the rail link.

That wasn't all; the threat of demolition loomed over residents in the immediate area as British Rail compulsory purchased over 100 properties.

Even fictional residents of the south London suburb weren't safe. In March 1990 the issue was covered in an episode of Channel 4 sitcom, Desmond's. In it, Desmond's best friend Porkpie finds his own flat at risk from the wrecking ball. He took to the streets with placards reading 'Dem K'Yant Do Dat', and on the reverse, 'Mash Down Me Flat for De Tunnel'.

At the end of the episode, Porkpie successfully brings his plight to the national stage via a letter to The Sun. The plans — available to view in the national archives (some remain classified until 2021) — do not show whether all the houses purchased in the area would have been demolished.

The real life residents of Peckham and other affected areas mounted a vocal campaign against the proposed route. Under pressure, the government asked British Rail to look again at possible routes for the high speed link, including two that entered London via the east rather than through south London.

British Rail's report in the spring of 1991 again found the southerly approach, including the junction at Warwick Gardens, was the best option — both operationally and from a cost perspective.

From Peckham, the tunnel up to King's Cross would have closely followed the Thameslink route by Walworth Road and over at Blackfriars.

Interestingly enough, one of the ventilation shafts for the tunnel was slated to be located by the then-disused Bankside Power Station, now Tate Modern. Had the southern route gone ahead, one can only wonder what impact this would have had on what became one of the most famous art galleries in the world.

Fortunately, Peckham found itself an unlikely saviour.

In 1991, with a general election looming the following spring, senior Tory MPs were worried that a southerly route for the high speed link could cost them seats in south east London and Kent.

Michael Heseltine, back in the cabinet following the fall of Margaret Thatcher, was also taken with the eastern route for the potential it offered for the regeneration of the Thames Gateway and Stratford. Transport Secretary Malcolm Rifkind duly went to the Conservative conference in Blackpool in October, confirming the government was now backing the eastern route, saving Peckham.

A fuming British Rail chairman Bob Reid, given little or no notice of the u-turn, said the whole process had been a pantomime.

With the threat to Peckham lifted, British Rail then had to sell all the properties it had bought for the project. In another misfortune to hit the soon-to-be-privatised organisation, it bought the houses at the start of 1989 just before a massive house price crash which had wiped up to 50% off property prices in London.  

And there was one last twist in the tale. In 1994, ministers decided that the underused St Pancras would be a much better option for the new Eurostar terminal, rather than an underground box at King's Cross. Whatever else came before in planning for the high speed route, at least they got that bit right.

Last Updated 24 April 2017