Bridge to Nowhere

Brick and metal bridge over the former canal
The Bridge to Nowhere

The Bridge to Nowhere recalls the park’s past life, when it spanned the Grand Surrey Canal. Along most of its length, the canal was wide enough to let two Thames sailing barges pass. A late-comer in 1906, and still crossable until only recently, this footbridge saved a long walk to cross the canal at Wells Way or Trafalgar Avenue. With the canal gone, the bridge appears suspended in space and time, going nowhere.

Listen to memories of the bridge here.

Surrey Canal barges were very different from the traditional Narrow Boat seen on north-country canals: the Thames Barge was up to 30m long and 6m wide and carried up to 500m2 of sail.

Thames Barge
Thames Sailing Barge at sea

The main mast carrying two sails could be as high as 18m above the water level, and had to be lowered to allow the barge to pass under every bridge over the canal. Horses and, sometimes, local boys would have been used to tow the boats along the canal.

The canal was planned, in the latter years of the eighteenth century, to help the market gardeners and farmers of the area get their produce away for sale, but, after it opened through to Camberwell in 1811, it gradually became an extension of the Surrey Docks at the Thames in Rotherhithe. Wharves were built along almost the whole length of the canal banks. Where goods were not actually loaded or unloaded, they were being processed in dozens of different factories, stored in warehouses, or loaded onto road transport in yards and depots.

The 1801 Act of Parliament setting up the canal laid out the rates for goods transport, which now gives an interesting idea of the kind of things it carried:

For Free-stone, Lime-stone, Chalk, Bricks, Slates, Tiles, Corn in the Straw, Hay, Straw, Faggots, Dung, Manure, Stones and Clay – 2d per Ton, per Mile.

For all Cattle, Calves, Sheep, Swine, and other Beasts; Lime, Rough Timber, Hemp, Tin, Bark, Iron-stone, Pig-iron and Pig-lead – 3d per Ton, per Mile.

For all Coal, Charcoal, Coke, Culm, Flour, Wheat, Barley, Oats, Beans, Peas, Malt, and Potatoes – 4d per Ton, per Mile.

For all Hops, Fruit, Goods, Wares, Merchandize, and other Things whatsoever – 6d per Ton, per Mile.

And in Proportion for more or less than a Ton, and more or less than a Mile.1

Kids would ride the empty barges east along this stretch, or climb from barge to barge. Occasionally horse-drawn barges offered the chance of a quick horse ride. Or, if the Bank Ranger wasn’t on his rounds, there was always swimming.

Listen to memories of the canal here.

Find out more:     fingerSmall

[1] Priestley, Joseph (1831). Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, Canals, and Railways of Great Britain p.313

4 thoughts on “Bridge to Nowhere

  1. My gran lived in Calmington Rd Camberwell at 2 Eagle Cottages. The paper factory was at the end of her garden and the warning siren came from there. I remember stables and the rag and bone men’s carts. Mrs Pat Hart

  2. I lived at no 56 Cowan at se5 until 1964. I am interested in anything to do with area. I especially remember the bridge we used to call the wooden bridge. beast to the paper place. lovely to see photos

  3. The link to Joseph Priestley’s Historical Account of the Navigable Rivers, etc actually refers to a site in Japanese appearing to promote medication

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