Park Life: On Burgess Park, the ever growing open space in south London

A map of Burgess Park today. Image: Open Street Map/Wikimedia Commons.

As anyone who’s taken a night bus in South East London can attest, the last place on Earth you want to find yourself stuck is halfway up the Walworth Road between the Elephant and Camberwell. And yet that’s the fate of Burgess Park, a green wedge whose other end reaches the Old Kent Road.

But it wasn’t always thus: once this was all fields or whatever it is actually goes on in the countryside. Then with the 1800s came INDUSTRY – a canal came through, London came down, and the open land had vanished under houses and factories. Later that century you’d get various philanthropists and do-gooders suggesting that at the very least it might be nice to let miserably poor people stand on a bit of grass while they’re being miserable and poor, but it was too late for this particular bit of London.

And then came the greatest force in British urban planning: the Luftwaffe. They dropped enough bombs on it for Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1943 County of London Plan to recommend it as a site for new green space – something the immediate area was already sorely lacking, and would require even more of thanks to plans to develop housing estates in the area. (An irony: as the wheel of regeneration has turned, those estates have since come under threat or even outright demolished, possibly in part because the nice green park makes an ideal place for a property developer to stick some nice posh flats next to.)

The area in 1945. Image: Ordnance Survey.

As it turned out, creating the new park was not exactly an overnight endeavour. For a start, while there had been bomb damage, it was far from total obliteration, and plenty of people still lived and worked in the area. Until the 1960s it remained the site of factories producing R. White’s lemonade (local legend states that this was on occasion used to put out fires after bombing raids) and bibles (praise be to him for giving us this lemonade, presumably).


Slowly local authorities, and eventually the Greater London Council, acquired land, as the factories closed and houses were deemed unfit for habitation. But this work was sloooow (which, to be fair, the Abercrombie Plan had predicted it would be). By the 1970s, thirty years after the idea had been proposed, the site was still something of a patchwork. And it didn’t even have a proper name, just a bureaucratic designation as “North Camberwell Open Space”.

Finding a permanent name for it appears to have been something of a headache. A Name That Park competition was tried - local authorities, don’t try this now unless you want a park named #ParkyMcParkFaceLOLFBPE - and either through that or inertia, the park briefly got the name ‘St George’s’ presumably after the nearby church. Finally, in 1974, it gained the name it's been known by since - in honour of Jessie Burgess, the first female mayor of Camberwell.

The somewhat sedate progress made the whole enterprise slightly contentious – especially if you were one of the people who’d been already been kicked out of your home for it, one imagines. There were even proposals to abandon the idea entirely and Build More Bloody Houses™ – but these were fought off, and by 1982 the park had even acquired a lake, whose bottom could boast that it was had the largest plastic sheet lining in the world.

Sadly it is lacking what might have seemed like a more obvious water feature: the canal which ran through the site for nearly 150 years. Shut down in the 1940s because road transport made its original purpose redundant, it was filled in and gone by 1960. No-one foresaw that one day post-industrial urban waterways could become attractive features in their own right: the disused canal was a dangerous rubbish dump you had to warn your kids to stay away from. The most obvious evidence for its existence is one of the park’s more notable sights: a bridge over nothing, leading you nowhere.

The bridge to nowhere. Image: Robin Stott.

As late as the early 21st century Burgess Park still had the feeling of being somewhat unloved, crisscrossed with bits of abandoned road that no-one had bothered to do anything about. In a rare moment of not being totally crap in 2009, Boris Johnson launched his “Help a London Park” scheme which among other things invested £2 million in sorting Burgess Park out once and for all. While this was broadly speaking good news for the local community, it was also linked to wider “regeneration” efforts in the area, i.e. trying to kick existing residents out of the nearby Aylesbury estate for the purposes of knocking it down and gentrifying it.

So is Burgess Park finally finished? Maybe not – In 2013 it acquired a flashy new BMX track thanks to an Olympic Legacy Fund. And Southwark Council still occasionally seem to be finding bits of land to buy up: in 2015, a new entrance was opened on the site of a former architectural salvage yard. Maybe they’ll just keep going, buying up more and more land until it achieves its ultimate form. ALL HAIL THE MEGABURGESS, LORD OF ALL PARKS.

 
 
 
 

The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.


“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.