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.

A railway.

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.

OS Map 1869

OS Map 1914

Google Map 2009

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.

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14 comments
  1. Chris says:

    A shame it’s closing. It’s always much nicer to walk this way than along the polluted Woolwich Road.

    Plus, I can’t see Woolwich Road being a safer alternative to the level crossing when you have to dodge the traffic under the flyover. I’ve yet to see a train pass on those tracks. Couldn’t they just install automatic gates instead for the very few times that a train does go past?

  2. Elizabeth Muncey says:

    Ian. Thank you so much for documenting these snippets of local history. Amazing to see how much development there has been. Now the council are doing their best to redevelop everything, it is your photos and information that remain. Please would you consider documenting what is left of the old brick walls around Woolwich (the ones that were built to protect the tourists from themselves when Woolwich was still a functioning armoury eg the massive wall by Brookhill Children’s Centre.

  3. Barbara Davies says:

    This small crossing is alot safer than Woolwich Road. Two people cannot pass each other under the bridge – its even more dangerous for babies in buggies!! Trains are so infrequent along there – even my dog knows too wait and check it’s clear to cross.

    • ianVisits says:

      Sounds like this is an ideal opportunity to lobby Network Rail/local politicians to request the closure of the level crossing to be linked with widening the span of the road bridge so that the pavement can be increased for everyone’s benefit.

  4. John says:

    I live very close by, I don’t have much need to use the crossing however it’s fun to go that way every now and then. It’ll be a shame to see it closed. I once had the pleasure to go down that track on a UK Railtours ‘Forgotten Tracks’ tour, before setting off for the Hoo peninsula and Dungeness.

  5. harry says:

    Considering that the level crossing is at least 6 steps obove local ground level, and probably more, it surely shouldn’t take too much digging to underpass the railway and preserve it as a proper right of way.

    • ianVisits says:

      While from an engineering perspective it’s possible, it would also need the two neighbouring houses to agree to have their back gardens flattened for the construction site.

  6. JP says:

    What, no phone to call the signalman?

  7. Tony Scales says:

    This is a very pleasant and quirky way through
    It is much safer than crossing the now dangerous woolwich road
    Leave it alone railtrack stop ruining history
    It is no problem at all just another corporate intrusion and interference
    We have much more pressing and dangerous road issues here!

  8. Mary says:

    Thank you for doing this. In all the pieces I have written on this I have never really talked about coming down it on a spotters train. Took all day to get there but we stopped at the crossing and on the steps was my husband and about 20 friends with balloons and cameras, even the spotters were cheering us. But look, we still need pre 1980s photos of the crossing. I put appeals out round the railway mags but nothing much came in. We can still fight the closure. Need evidence. Thanks anyway for getting it to a wider audience than I could.

  9. Alistair says:

    I think Harry’s suggestion has merit, if Network Rail is willing to pay for it. Given how much effort was made in the 60s to build the footbridge over the A2 to preserve the footpath/right of way this does not seem unreasonable.

    Note however that Network Rail have told me that there is no public right of way across the railway.

    (Not sure why this might impact on the gardens/houses next to the path though. There is plenty of room for a ‘building site’ on the empty space at the top of Farmdale Road next to the ramp).

  10. JR says:

    Unfortunately the local MP, Matthew Pennycook, has met Network Rail and agreed they should close it. He says that tunnelling is too expensive and that they ‘should’ (ie no legal requirement) improve the narrow footpath along Woolwich Road.

    Massive disappointment. Tunnel makes more sense and should be simple as it is a scaffolding yard it’s alongside (though it’d been proposed to turn it into a pocket hotel) not gardens as stated above so planning should be simpler.

  11. David Thomas says:

    If this is the ‘highest risk’ level crossing in South East London, with only pedestrians and infrequent freight trains, where are the others?

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