About half way along the proposed route of the Peckham Coal Line, right next to one of the most remarkable Victorian brick arches in the area, can be found the headquarters of DBR Limited, a company specialising in the conservation and restoration of historic buildings. The motto of this respected firm – proudly displayed on the wall of the offices – is a familiar refrain of the heritage industry: ‘making sure the past has a future’.
As a rallying cry of the field this message neatly communicates that any attempt to protect or preserve the past is about more than simply history. First and foremost, ‘heritage’ is about shaping future worlds: worlds in which the past in myriad forms plays an active and dynamic role. But where does this leave the present? And what do we do with today, when we are busy creating new possibilities out of what came before?
Projects such as the Peckham Coal Line do not take place against the backdrop of a dead landscape. From the natural ecology of the train sidings to the thriving workplaces that surround and occupy the site, this location is emphatically alive. Indeed, Peckham is to some extent defined by this in-your-face vitality. It is, and should remain, an exhilarating part of the city – as far from the sanitised heritage spaces of some other areas as one could hope to encounter.
What might it mean then to think of the Peckham Coal Line as a site of heritage? Does this somehow risk draining the area of its unique energy? I would argue not, but with the proviso that any evocation of heritage in this context needs to take full account of Peckham present, not just Peckham past.
How might this work in practice? I think there are three key points here, which I am delighted to see being addressed in the proposals for the Peckham Coal Line, but which can perhaps be drawn out further as the project develops:
In their 2011 book Edgelands, Paul Farley and Michael Roberts argue that the heritage industry ‘tends to rely on a kind of freeze-framing of time in order to present the tourist and visitor with a reordered, partial, tidied-up account of what happened at any particular site’. What makes the Coal Line project so exciting as a heritage landscape is precisely the chance to shape something quite different – to tell the stories of the past and the present through subtle iteration rather than static interpretation. There is an important legacy of Victorian prosperity and growth to communicate here, but there are also narratives of twentieth century migration, of small businesses thriving in the gaps left by old industry, of community power in the face of corporate development. If the Peckham Coal Line can help convey just some of this complex intermingling of past and present, its future prosperity should be assured.
Written by Colin Sterling is Research Associate at Barker Langham, a heritage consultancy specialising in research driven cultural planning. A lifelong resident of South-east London, he has a PhD from The Institute of Archaeology and is a trustee of the Lewisham Buildings Preservation Trust.
Left - 1953, RC Riley, Transporttreasury.co.uk, Right - Coal workers in Peckham, Southwark libraries