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Peckham Present: A New Model for Heritage-led Development?

Guest blog by Colin Sterling

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:

1. A development such as the Peckham Coal Line prompts questions about the way former industrial sites shape the life of locations today. This latest transformation of the coal sidings should work along the grain of the historic and contemporary architecture of the site, rather than attempt any return to an ‘authentic’ condition. The extent to which the very form of the Coal Line has helped generate and sustain the many successful businesses that have emerged in its shadow is important here, and the Coal Line should reflect this complex layering in its eventual design.
2. The ways in which pedestrians, commuters and visitors might be encouraged to engage with the stories of the Coal Line should also be considered from the outset. Spaces for genuine public interaction rather than carefully coordinated community events can work well in linear spaces, as seen with San Francisco’s Market Street. Communicating the history of Peckham through an evolving and playful series of site specific installations will demonstrate a commitment to heritage as iterative and impermanent, rather than monolithic and indisputable.
3. Finally – and this is perhaps the most important point – these stories should be gathered and written with individuals and community groups at the earliest opportunity. The Peckham Coal Line must be inclusive not just in terms of the varied historical narratives told along its route, but also in the stories told in its very realisation. It would be naïve to imagine that any heritage related activity does not take place in the present – is not shaped by the needs and desires of people today – and the question of who is able to contribute to the story of the Coal Line must underpin its development. 

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.

You can be part of the Peckham Coal Line journey by supporting the projects crowdfunding campaign today. They have until the 31st October to reach their £66,000 total which will allow the project to progress to the next stage and further explore the potential for heritage led development in Peckham.
Images credits:
Left - 1953, RC Riley,, Right - Coal workers in Peckham, Southwark libraries
To read more on the history of the London Coal Railway lines, you can read this article from 1960 by Edwin Course