Crescent Wood is also known locally as Upper Sydenham tunnel as it was immediately adjacent to the station of that name. Its name is omitted completely from later maps produced by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway who adopted the line from 1919.
The 400-yard, double bore tunnel was constructed between Sydenham Hill woods to the north and the proposed site of Upper Sydenham station (built in 1884) to the south.
Crescent Wood was constructed by the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway to serve the Great Exhibition when it moved (complete with the reconstructed Crystal Palace) from Hyde Park in 1852. The line opened to revenue earning services on the 1st August 1865.
This line carried trains from the junction at Nunhead to the immense caverns of Crystal Palace High Level station alongside Crystal Palace Parade. The ruling gradient for the double track line throughout was 1 in 78 and this included the only two tunnels on the whole branch which were built very close together at either end of Upper Sydenham station (the second being Paxton Tunnel).
Electrification equipment was bought from 1910 onwards but he installation was sporadic and was not completed for a staggering 15 years in 1925.
The branch was never a great financial success as its route into London traced a path through picturesque, but sparsely populated areas of the garden suburbs. This lack of paying passengers led to the line being closed and reopened several times in its short life. The destruction of the Crystal Palace by fire in 1936 finally sealed the fate of the line and its decline from this point was inexolarable.
The line first closed between 1st January 1917 and 1st March, 1919. Then, towards the end of the war, it closed again on 22nd May 1944 until 4th March 1946.
After the second closure, it was often suggested that the Bakerloo Line could adopt the line of route for its long-planned extension into south London. The extension never went ahead, of course, and when the plans were abandoned the line finally closed on 20th September 1954.
Although heavily built upon since its closure, the branch line is still easy to follow as large sections of it are now nature reserves, nature trails or public parks.
Both Crescent Wood and its southern sister, Paxton, are securely sealed by heavy steel doors with secondary high fences erected in front of them (except the southern portal of Crescent Wood which lacks the fence).
These barriers were fitted when, over a very short period in the 1980s, several local children went missing and police dogs were used to search the tunnels. Residents’ fears of the perceived danger (rather than any gruesome finds) prompted the council to seal all four portals, just leaving grilles at the very top open for ventilation to help slow the degradation of the bores.
Both the northern and southern portals are easily accessible to visit today although access is impossible. One is situated in a well kept nature reserve and the other in a modern housing estate.
The northern portal now sits in Sydenham Hill Nature Reserve. The gate to the reserve is just on the right as you come into Crescent Wood Road from Sydenham Hill and this will bring you out right next to the tunnel mouth. The old road access through Peckermans Wood is currently gated and locked and is not recommended.
The southern portal is accessible through a new housing estate off of Westwood Hill. Turning into High Level Drive follow the road round until you come to a strange square concrete structure (a vent for the Penge railway tunnel below). Turn right here into Vigilant Drive and the Tunnel is directly behind the block of houses at the end. A footpath leads around the block and brings you out onto the former track bed. Another access point is a footpath from the former station building in Wells Park Road which leads down besides the retaining wall.
- A Regional History of the Railways of Great Britain, HP White edited by Thomas and Patmore
- Londons Lost Railways by Charles Klapper (Book Club Associates)
- Lost Lines of the Southern by Nigel Welbourn (Ian Allen)
- London Suburban Railway series - Crystal Palace (High Level) and Catford Loop (Middleton Press)