Opinion

An Ode To The London Trams

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 14 months ago

Last Updated 04 April 2023

An Ode To The London Trams
The inside of a tram with its lime green posts
"Trams are, in so many way, superior to buses." Image: Londonist

I once had a teacher who told us to be buses not trams. 

Trams, his logic ran, were doomed to forever shuttle back and forth over the same prescribed lines, whereas buses could think outside the box, go anywhere they pleased. In retrospect this was ropey advice, because trams are — in so many ways — superior to buses.

Seconds after touching in and leaving the platform on the Beckenham Junction-bound tram at Wimbledon, you're shooting through the darkness beneath the station, then careening through south western suburbia.

A tram reader
Trams run on the same 'hopper' system as London buses. Image: Londonist

While buses trundle and splutter and lurch, London's fleet of 35 trams are fast and powerful; they are frankly full of themselves. While the average speed for a London bus is 9.2 miles per hour, their trammelled counterparts average 13 miles per hour — but can reach up to 50 — plying through open countryside, before slithering nimbly through city traffic, like lime green electric snakes.

In fact when Tramlink — or Croydon Tramlink as is was then — opened in 2000, the livery was red, but that was switched up in 2008. Maybe it was thought they looked too much like their arch nemesis, the London bus.

Trams don't take shit from anyone — and isn't that the best advice a teacher could give to a kid about to be let loose into a brutal world?

Zooming past the back gardens of suburban houses
Plenty of sneaky peeks into back gardens on the Tramlink. Image: Londonist

Hurtling through Dundonald Road and Merton Park you're given the chance to engage in a spot of cryptoscopophilia, gazing through the stream of bi-fold windows, and working up some serious garden envy. A couple of foxes doze on a shed roof, inevitably saving up their energy to shriek through the small hours of tomorrow morning.

You see a different kind of London from a tram; the 16 miles of tram track is a sort of servants' staircase, creeping through a hinterland of back gardens, timber yards, Big Yellow Storage facilities, banks tussled with iced brambles, and golfers who've chosen to pretend that the fairways aren't frozen solid.

Passing the sprawling Morden Park — trams take you on a whirlwind tour through south London's green spaces, as well at its industrial estates. Image: Londonist

From Morden Road, there are fleeting glimpses through the trees and hedges of the sprawling Morden Park — with its wetlands and picturesque snuff mill. The River Wandle winds through here too and, approaching Phipps Bridge, the tram skips right over it, before slowing for Belgrave Walk, heralded by and egregious electricity pylons straight out of a 1980s public information film in which Jimmy gets frazzled.

Grey and green tram moquette
The tram moquette is a visual representation of 'city meets country'. It's comfy too. Image: Londonist

By the way, you're sitting on a visual representation of what you can see out of the window. The grass-green/concrete grey seat pattern of the trams is the work of Wallace Sewell, who do of all TfL's moquettes. Their brief this time was "a suburban theme; city meets country".

From Mitcham until Wandle Park, you're riding along invisible history; the Tramlink line follows the old Wimbledon to Croydon Railway, which in turn follows the route of the Surrey Iron Railway, a shortlived horse-drawn route, quickly gazumped by the introduction of steam engines.

Weather-defying golfers on a frosty fairway. Image: Londonist

Trams, of course, are nothing new to London. The last 20th century tram in Croydon was waved off in 1952, at a time when the town was going through a mid-life crisis, and making all kinds of knee-jerk self improvements it'd later sorely regret — like bulldozing most of itself into rubble.

If you were doing a Tramlink pub crawl (and you can certainly do a decent one), then Mitcham Junction might be your second port of call, after Wimbledon. Alight here for Drop Project — one of London's best purveyors of pale ales and IPAs. Although to find the place, you've got to cross the roaring A237, navigate the fly-tipped woods, and traverse the eerily empty industrial estate. Turns out the name Elusive Brewing was already taken.

Two huge chimneys viewed through the tram window
On weekends, the platforms at Ampere Way are filled with carless IKEA shoppers with freshly-bought houseplants. Image: Londonist

If you staying on the waggon/tram, it's on through Beddington Lane (which sounds like a euphemism you'd use to send a toddler to bed), past the Tramlink Depot — where the vehicles are washed, have their sand hoppers replenished, and are also put to bed — then onto to Therapia Lane (which sounds like somewhere you'd go for homeopathy treatment).

The twin chimneys of the old Croydon power stations have been looming for a while, and at Ampere Way, they fill the tram windows. This is the stop for IKEA, and you can almost smell the meatballs. On Saturdays the platforms become a miniature garden, as carless customers line the platforms — their faces poking out from behind Strelitzias. If you ever wondered how many BILLY bookcases you can fit onto a tram, this is the place to run your experiment.

A razor wire fence with a sewage works behind it
The old Croydon Gas Works, where until recently you'd have been greeted by a glorious gasholder. Image: Londonist

The landscape grows ever more industrially foreboding towards Waddon Marsh, where a razor wire fence runs down one side of the tracks; behind it is the site of the old Croydon Gas Works — until recently announced by a gasholder, but now torn down. (Apparently having learnt nothing from its ill-advised heritage-shredding, Croydon is still hard at it.)

Croydon Minster amid the high rises
Rising above the rooftops just after Wandle Park. Image: Londonist

Before you've had a chance to bemoan the unsightly landscape though, it changes yet again — the picturesque bandstand and ornamental boating lakes of Wandle Park coming into view. In true 1960s Croydon form, the powers that be cemented over the eponymous river running through the park, although in this case the braindead operation was reversible — and that's exactly what happened in 2012, thank god.

Suddenly, you're taking off into the air as the tram is lifted above the rimy rooftops, and you get your first proper faceful of Croydon; its handsome Victorian Minster where six Archbishops are buried, and the multitude of fugly high-rises behind it, which surely prompt said six Archbishops to turn in their graves.

A white picket fence with a furniture store and church in the distance
House of Reeves has been here since 1867, originally as Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe. Image: Londonist

The flight doesn't last long; you're rudely plunged back down to road level, and in fact for the first time, become one with the road itself. The tram flies across the A236 and rounds a bend into Reeves Corner. You may think IKEA is the only furniture store to get its name slapped on the transport map, but you'd be wrong; Reeves Corner takes its name from the furniture store which has stood here since 1867 — and infamously lost a chunk of its glorious Arts and Crafts facade in the 2011 riots.

A tattoo parlour with a mural of a girl with her face painted white on the side
Turning out of Reeves corner, up towards Croydon centre. Image: Londonist

This is also the point of the Tramlink's loop; from the other direction heading from East Croydon, you'd travel by way of George Street, home to one of the — shall we say liveliest? — Wetherspoons in London, and then down Church Street, whipping past the fruit and veg stalls of Surrey Street Market, which harks back to the 13th century, and is surely the jewel in Croydon's retail crown.

But on the Beckenham Junction-bound route, Centrale is next; its name conjures images of a grand European station, and never fails to disappoint/bemuse newcomers, when it reveals itself to be a moribund shopping centre, home to a scruffy NEXT outlet and a Crystal Palace FC shop which I've never seen anyone in. Still, Centrale was deemed important enough to warrant its own tram station, and to date it's the only station to be added to the network — upping it from 38 to 39 stops.

A curved deco building with Matthews Yard written on it
Matthews Yard — a totem of Croydon's very gradual gentrification. Image: Londonist

Now you're heading into the thick of the action; skipping over the junction of London Road/North End, past Matthews Yard (life drawing classes last Thursday of the month FYI), past West Croydon station, with its questionable orange trim, and the unquestionably handsome West Croydon Bus Station (which deservedly won a RIBA award in 2017).

A tall pink and purple building
Saffron Tower - something approximating an evil villain's raspberry and blackcurrant-flavoured HQ. Image: Londonist

Now the tram whips off to the south, and puts pedal to metal — racing the buses, and zooming past the ludicrously-lofty Saffron Tower — something approximating an evil villain's raspberry and blackcurrant-flavoured HQ. Wellesley Road is the stop for Lunar House, another disquieting building — and it must be even more so for anyone coming come here to get their UK visa extended (it is, after all, the headquarters of UK Visas and Immigration).

Rounding a corner onto George Street — the NLA Tower creeping into view.

Croydon is now in full swing; as you round the corner past Wendy's and up George Street, you might catch a glimpse of the axe-throwing range through the windows at Boxpark. In a few more seconds you're at East Croydon station, although the building that demands your undivided attention is the one that has as many names as it has sides: No. 1 Croydon/NLA Tower/Threepenny Bit/50p Building/Weddingcake/the Bandersnatch building — call it what you will — greedily gobbles up the skyline, as is its prerogative.

Trams aside, this is the true icon of the town; seen everywhere from lamppost banners, to the fake headquarters of the fantastical Croydon Spaceport.

The space age NLA Building
The NLA Tower in all its sci-fi glory. Image: Londonist

Crane your neck to take in every last bit of it, because already you're ploughing back into relative suburbia; the mock Tudor houses of Lebanon Road, half of which seem to be dental practices, towards Sandilands.

Here, the tram slows at a sharp fork in the tracks. It's the place where, on 9 November 2016 — the same morning Donald Trump was declared the 45th President of the United States — a speeding tram overturned, killing seven passengers, and marking one of the darkest days in living London history.

Lebanon Road tram stop
Image: Londonist

Veering southwest, you'll head through the Sandilands Tunnel towards New Addington, via the surprising expanse of Lloyd Park; the so-rural-you-might-see-a-horse-there Coombe Lane (from here you can also ascend the Addington Hills on foot, for views of London looking stunning, and Croydon slightly less so); Gravel Hill (which may sound unremarkable but is in fact home to the 17th century Addington Palace, today a swanky wedding venue, and a formerly a summer residence where Archbishops put their feet up); Addington Village (in whose church five of those Archbishops have now put their feet up for good i.e. are buried); Fieldway (if anyone knows anything of note about Fieldway aside from the fact it overwhelmingly voted for Brexit, please contact me); the magnificently-named King Henry's Drive; and New Addington itself.

This small town — which boomed dramatically post war — was arguably the spark that ignited Croydon's tram renaissance; before then, New Addington's residents had to endure a tortuous 45-minute bus ride into East Croydon. Something had to be done about it.

Hurtling past houses at Addiscombe. Image: Londonist

On this route, though, it's onto Beckenham Junction, through more back garden hinterlandish landscapes to Addiscombe (where a pretty little cafe called The Tram Stop does an all day Scottish breakfast); Blackhorse Lane (not to be confused with Blackhorse Road); and Woodside (where a disused train station finds new life as a tram stop, and is apparently tube fanatic Geoff Marshall's favourite stop).

Speaking of rail fanatics, if the headmasterish voiceover on the trams — telling you where you're headed — sounds familiar, that's because it's trolleybus enthusiast and former newsreader Nicholas Owen.

The Jurassic Park-like fence at Arena. Image: Londonist

Arena comes into view, although an arena does not (it's there, just hidden away). What you can see is a towering perimeter fence, hinting that someone might've cooked up their own version of Jurassic Park out here in the relative solitude of Croydon's outskirts. The truth is that this is an adventure golf centre — so no velociraptors to worry about — although there are fibreglass dragons.

Passing by a cemetery
Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery, final resting place of the inventor of the first commercially successful sheep shearer. Image: Londonist

Soon, there is another fork in the tracks, with some trams making for Elmers End. A photo from 1999 shows a Nescafe branded tram being tested at Elmer's End; there were also bright pink Magnum ice cream trams at one point, and right now, some of them wear special purple 'Love Croydon' liveries.

For us, it's onto Harrington Road, where a Santander Cycle's been left for dead in a spinney. The real cemetery, though, is dead ahead towards Birkbeck; Beckenham Crematorium and Cemetery is the final resting place of socialite Doris Castlerosse, hirsute cricketer W.G Grace, and the aptly-named Frederick Wolseley, inventor of the first commercially successful sheep shearer. And to think just moments ago, it was all Wendy's and Taco Bells.

A tram at the platform
Beckenham Junction, where this article terminates. Image: Londonist

As you head through Avenue Road and on past Beckenham Road, you're flying past plots of a different kind — namely allotments — which at this time of the year have fewer visitors than the cemetery. In the distance, the Crystal Palace Transmitter extends into view; an extension to Crystal Palace has previously been mooted (wouldn't that be amazing), but doesn't look to be happening anytime soon.

An empty tram
End of the line. Image: Londonist

It's into the final approach now, which is not without a frisson of drama; here, the tram and the mainline tracks go cheek by jowl, and you suddenly find yourself running right alongside speeding Southern trains. Beckenham Junction marks the end of the line — most notably a cavernous Waitrose, but it's home to all number of south London attractions, from the eccentric 'Chinese' Garage, to the sylvan swimming lake of Beckenham Place Park. Your adventure's only just begun.

As for this article, though, that terminates here.