This is an alley in southeast London that has a unique feature in the middle, but is soon to be closed to the public. It starts off fairly conventionally as a nice brick arch between a row of Victorian houses, but down here is a most unexpected surprise.
Yes, this is an alley that crosses a railway and has one of the few remaining level crossings in central London.
The railway came first built in 1852 on a raised embankment and passing through what was still mainly fields at the time. It was built to link the Angerstein Wharf next to the River Thames with the existing railway that runs between Blackheath and Charlton, and until 1898 was owned by the wharf, until it was sold to the South Eastern Railway.
Right from the very beginning, there was a small pedestrian crossing at the location of this alley, and at the time it linked two farms. When housing was later added in the area, they preserved the railway crossing, with a gap between the houses on the eastern side, leading to the road on the western side.
This happy state of affairs lasted until the 1960s when a large swathe of housing on the western side was demolished to make way for the Blackwall Tunnel upgrade.
What had been a convenient route towards Greenwich was in danger of being cut off by the wide Blackwall Tunnel Approach road, so a footbridge over the road was added.
Although technically separate from the alley, it did effectively lengthen it considerably, leaping across the polluted road below and linking up with the car park next to Westcombe Park station.
That’s the state of affairs today – an alley that crosses a railway.
If approaching from Fairthorn Road, it’s a narrow ordinary-looking passage between the Victorian houses and through to the gap between back gardens.
Here, a steep set of stairs takes you up to the railway, and a sensibly gated level crossing. Wait a moment to check there are no trains, and it takes just a few steps to cross the line.
On the other side, more stairs back down and now you’ve switched from the Victorian east to the 1960s west, with either a spiral ramp down to the remains of the old road, or the wide windswept footbridge leaping across the roar of the road traffic below.
However, the Victorian alley and the level crossing’s days are numbered.
Network Rail has long wanted to close it, tried a few times, but is now back with determined plans to remove it for good. They state that it’s the “highest risk” level crossing in southeast London, and is at risk from regular near misses. This can probably be explained by the fact that the railway curves out of sight just a hundred yards away, although trains do tend to pass the crossing at a very slow speed so can stop in time.
However, future plans to change the signalling could see freight trains stopping on the level crossing, and there’s a concern that people might be tempted to dart between the carriages to get across, with likely fatal consequences.
An alternative walking route is not that far away either, via the Woolwich Road, and will add just 4 minutes to the average journey.
However, the level crossing is a lovely little quirk of this part of London, and everyone should try it at least once before it closes.
I shouldn’t need to say this, but it needs saying just in case — cross the level crossing safely. Do not loiter on the tracks or stop to take photos on the level crossing. All the photos I took of the railway were from behind the gates, and they’re perfectly good enough.