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.

 
 
 
 

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