ARENA to BECKENHAM JUNCTION
1 1/2 hour
The Croydon Tramlink is a tram built in the 1990s because the borough of Croydon complained about having no convenient access to the Underground network. The route followed on this walk links one of the main train lines to Kent with Croydon, making commuting easier. There was no such connection in the past because this involved fiercely competing train operators. Between Arena and Birkbeck, the tram uses tracks laid specifically for the purpose. Beyond Birkbeck, it runs parallel to an older train line linking Crystal Palace with Beckenham Junction.
The tram started as a private company that kept the ticket proceeds, but changes in the overall London fare system made it ever more complicated to calculate the appropriate compensation payments and the public authorities (TfL) purchased the system in 2008.
Nearly all stations on the Croydon Tramlink use standardised platform furniture. There is no office or building, just a glass awning and vending machines, and I therefore don’t need to comment on architecture. Please note that the Croydon Tramlink normally uses ticket readers like on a bus, but that a special, highly confusing regulation applies in Wimbledon, potentially causing overcharging.
Routing note: This walk connects in Arena with Tramlink walk 3. It connects in Birkbeck and also in Beckenham Junction with Victoria train networks walk 14. I wrote a different route for the tram as it serves additional stations. Finally, the walk connects in Beckenham Junction also with Victoria train networks walk 10.
The stop was created together with the tram itself in 2000. It is a tram junction where tracks coming from Elmers End (my walk 3) join the Beckenham to Croydon line. By the way, the name comes from a nearby sports facilities – stadiums are more fashionably called arenas nowadays despite not involving gladiators and wild beasts like in Roman times.
Follow the tram tracks north towards the track junction. The right-hand fork continues to Elmers End and features in my walk number 3. Cross the left-hand fork and take the public footpath L parallel to the tram tracks. It leads towards a sports centre and playground.
You are crossing part of South Norwood Country Park. Most of it is a large expanse of flattish land. It was originally farmland prone to flooding and was bought by local authorities as the location for a sewage farm, the idea being that the effluent could percolate through the soil. This would be better than just dumping effluent in a river as this was known to contribute to epidemics including cholera. The scheme was ill conceived as it made no sense to drop sewage on waterlogged ground with a clay underground. The area was left abandoned except for occasional use by the Army or to get rid of bomb rubble after World War II. The bomb rubble explains the hill in the area you are crossing on this tour.
The borough finally made the country park more accessible in 1989 by building paths and tracks throughout the area except for a corner near Elmers End station that was set aside as a nature reserve because of a lake with reed marshes attracting many birds. My Victoria train network walk 14 passes the lake while my Tramlink walk 3 visits the open spaces along the brook in the middle of the park. On the present walk, you get to see the hillier, partly wooded section.
The footpath ends at an access road
R on the access road walking along a pitch & putt course
The course reuses the site of the old sewage works. The ground hopefully had time to clean itself as the works closed in 1962, more than 30 years before the public was allowed into the country park.
L at the next opportunity on a public footpath along an other fence of the course
Ahead and L towards the tram tracks for
The stop was created together with the tram itself in 2000 in order to give easy access to a cemetery. There were also vague plans to build a tram junction here, additional tracks running then towards Crystal Palace and replacing a suburban railway line. The plan was dropped as connections between Crystal Palace and Croydon are quite good already.
Enter Birkbeck Cemetery using the access road that crosses the tracks
Cross the whole cemetery to the main exit, passing the crematorium
The cemetery was opened in 1876 and was run by a private company, as usual in London. Because the owners lost interest once the cemeteries were full and did not generate any additional interment fees, boroughs usually ended up buying the grounds. This particular cemetery is still open for business and has therefore not turned into a wood, as was the case for example in Nunhead. There are no celebrity memorials but the chapel is quite nice. Unusually for the 1880s, the tower is square with no steeple on top and the style is early gothic rather than the more usual high gothic.
L Elmers End Road
The train station opened in 1930 when the number of residents in the area justified building it. It was originally a normal station with two platforms and a building, but the building burnt down in 1983 and one of the platforms was converted for use by the Tramlink in 2000. You see on my picture a wire mesh fence between the train tracks and the Tramlink tracks. I think this was installed in order to prevent Tramlink users from crossing the tracks illegally as they might step on the electrical third rail of the train tracks and get injured.
Cross under the train and tram bridge
R Mackenzie Road
Between Birkbeck and Beckenham Road, you cross a particularly bland suburb. This is the kind of suburbia that was easy and profitable to build in the 1930s but was heavily criticised by planners for lacking public amenities and bringing no feeling of community. Legislation was indeed passed at the end of the 1930s to make this kind of “ribbon development” less ubiquitous.
R Avenue Road
The stop was created together with the tram itself in 2000. The tram is normally single track while running alongside the railway line, but there was room to build a passing loop and two platforms here. It is a very minor stop in terms of traffic.
Cross the tram tracks using the footbridge
L Blandford Road, the road ends at the next tram stop
The tram stop is located a little awkwardly on top of a curving embankment but actually uses a location planned originally for a train station. The station was called Penge and was only used between 1858 and 1860 as a more convenient Penge station opened soon afterwards on an other train line.
R Beckenham Road (a busy highway)
The road crosses a train line and passes soon afterwards the Baptist church for Beckenham. It is an unusual church for this denomination as Baptist churches were systematically modest, strictly neo-classical buildings until the mid-19th century. The neo-gothic style was usually avoided as it reminded too much of the established Church of England, a church Baptist members were not very fond of. In the case of Beckenham, I am reminded of an early gothic village church as you would see in the French provinces.
The road passes soon afterwards the fire station. Surprisingly, you do not see from the road a conspicuous hall for the engines. Even the tower is rather modest and the brick cladding makes it less conspicuous. The whole building is in strikingly red bricks, probably the best colour for a fire station.
The road passes several elegant late Victorian houses and ends at a roundabout with a very nice flower bed in the middle. The surroundings are interesting with an Art Déco post office on one side. The brickwork is very plain but you get the typical rounded corner.
On an other side of the crossroads, there is a film theatre in classical Art Déco design. Beckenham must have been a modest suburb at the time as the theatre did not have the stunning front you can find in Streatham or Rayners Lane. It opened in 1930 and is one of the rather few theatres in London that have always been operated for films and that were not converted into a bingo hall or an evangelical church.
Cross the roundabout and continue
Ahead High Street
Follow this road as it snakes first L, then R
Some of the commercial buildings along High Street have a rather nice neo-Tudor appearance, in particular one that was probably a pub and has been converted into an Italian restaurant. The name of the chain is hilarious in French, a “zizi” being a childish name for the male reproductive organ. What does set Beckenham High Street apart is that many buildings are not aligned in height or roof shape, giving them a pleasantly individual style.
Opposite the junction with The Drive, you can have a look at St Edmund’s Roman Catholic Church. The church is from 1938, which shows primarily in the massive, geometric tower with tall transparent windows. The main façade is neo-gothic, which is unusual for a catholic church of that period but might have been mandated by the appearance of the other churches in the vicinity. I was short on time and did not try to look inside, but the website shows a few interesting furnishings.
A bit further on, you pass the most impressive commercial premises on High Street, now operated as a barber’s. What sets the building apart is that it has medieval shapes and a Tudor-style brickwork with black glazed bricks inset in the reddish background. As opposed to suburban fancy neo-Tudor as seen at the start of the street, this shop is historically more correct Tudor – except for the too geometric corner niche that would shelter the statue of a saint in authentic houses from the period.
When the street again bends right, you pass a pub with a white clapboard façade advertising itself as an “historic inn”. The location is historical but the house was rebuilt around 1900. I found the butcher’s next door more interesting as I had seldom seen such a choice of rather appetising sausages in London. Unfortunately, I have never found out how to cook them properly as German and French sausages need to be cooked very differently.
High Street reaches shortly afterwards a corner with Kelsey Park Road. There is a low building recessed behind flower beds at this spot. You might ignore the building as it only shelters public conveniences, but the flower beds are very impressive at the appropriate time of the year.
Continue on High Street. The road turns sharply L uphill towards the parish church and ends at the train station.
St George’s church was a venerable medieval church but was completely rebuilt in 1887 in a style interestingly defined as “confident” at the time. It is a rather standard type of neo-gothic construction except for the rather impressive tower. The four corner pinnacles are inspired by examples in France; in original gothic times, only very significant towns could afford such an elaborate tower. The church suffered bomb damage during World War II but was rebuilt in the same style.
I have read that there are a number of interesting memorials inside but the church is usually closed apart for services. I just had a walk around the churchyard, a rather pleasant green space in the middle of the town bustle. In the part of the green space away from the church, you will find a few panels with details about the history of Beckenham, particularly about the World War II events.
The station was opened originally in 1857 as the terminal for a train line coming from Lewisham. The tracks are still in place but there are no passenger trains using them nowadays on a regular basis. The station was then extended in 1858 when a new train line from Crystal Palace was opened. This new line continued towards Bromley.
A further extension was needed in 1863 with the opening of the new main line from London Victoria through Penge.
Beckenham Junction is also used as a terminal for the spur of the Croydon Tramlink since the year 2000. The tram platform is independent of the train station and uses the standard colour scheme without any building.