What is the link between a well known Impressionist painting and an abandoned railway line? The answer is to be found in Dulwich. The painting is Pissaro's 1871 ‘Lordship Lane Station’ which can be seen at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery at Somerset House. The railway line is the long closed Crystal Palace High level line which ran through Dulwich and terminated at Crystal Palace High level station on a site now occupied by a housing estate.

The line was first authorised in 1862 to run from Peckham Rye. At Nunhead Junction it diverged from the Greenwich Park branch, turned south and after a mile parted company with the line to Bromley. It climbed continuously at 1 in 78 all the way, after 1 mile reaching Honor Oak station. Continuing south it bridged London Road, passed Lordship Lane station and Upper Sydenham station (1884), which was located between two tunnels, the second of which gave access to Crystal Palace High Level Station. This was connected to the Palace by a fan-vaulted pedestrian subway in finely detailed red and cream brickwork. This subway and an adjacent courtyard survived the 1936 fire, and was used as an air raid shelter during the war. It is now a Grade II listed building. Although the subway is now sealed off, it is sometimes opened to allow organised visits.

The line was opened in 1865 without any intermediate stations, but later that year Lordship Lane and Honor Oak stations were opened, followed by Nunhead in 1871. As there was all ready a station to the south of the Palace with a direct service to Victoria, the line was really built too late to capture the main Crystal Palace traffic, though there were originally 33 trains a day. The Crystal Palace was already in decline, not helped by a ban on Sunday opening.

However the area was being developed and in 1884 another station was opened at Upper Sydenham. This did not bring any substantial increase in traffic as the stations were near existing LBSC stations. The line's catchment area included cemeteries, very low density villa development and extensive open areas of the Dulwich College estate which had demanded restrictions prior to the building of the line imposing special architectural treatment of some of the railway structures. In 1908 there was further competition after the introduction of electric trams and later buses.

Owing to manpower shortages the line was closed in 1916, but re-opened in 1919 to take advantage of the Army demobilisation centre at Crystal Palace. Service was initially only to Blackfriars but was extended after electrification in 1924 to London Bridge as well. The destruction of Crystal Palace by fire in November 1936 resulted in even more loss of business and traffic had dwindled to a mere trickle, so when war broke out in 1939 service was reduced to just a shuttle service to Nunhead. In January 1946 the line was re-opened again with the same shuttle service and a few peak hour trains to Blackfriars, Unfortunately passenger figures did not improve with many trains running empty, and with a host of repairs required it was decided to close the line in 1954. The last electric train ran on 18th September and a final steam special the following day. This was the first permanent closure of an electric line on the railway system. The track was lifted in 1956/7 and the land
was sold to the LCC who passed it on to local councils for housing and open space development. 

Although much of the route of the railway has now been lost to residential development, it can be traced in places. Architectural features remain such as the ornamental portal of the Paxton Tunnel just north of the terminus. Of the route today from Nunhead there is nothing to be seen until Brockley Way where the route can be seen through Brenchley Gardens. Cross Forest Hill Road, and pass Camberwell Old Cemetery and you can pick up the route adjoining Horniman gardens which is now a nature trail managed by the Trust for Urban Ecology. The section between the Cox's Walk footbridge , from which Pissaro painted “Lordship Lane Station” and the northern entrance to the Crescent Wood tunnel is managed by the London Wild Life Trust and is known as Sydenham Hill Wood nature reserve.

Bernard Victor

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