Researching Paxton Tunnel proved to be quite confusing because it has carried various names at various times. Originally named Paxton Tunnel to fete Joseph, the genius behind the cast iron structure of the Crystal Palace, it is referred to as Sydenham tunnel on the later rail maps of the South Eastern & Chatham Railway. To complicate matters, it is also known locally as both Upper Norwood or Nunhead.
The tunnel was built between the proposed site of Upper Sydenham station (built in 1884) in the North and the approach to Crystal Palace High Level (known as Crystal Palace High Level and Upper Norwood from 1898) in the south.
The 439-yard, double bore tunnel 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 immense caverns of Crystal Palace High Level Station, alongside Crystal Palace Parade, to the junction at Nunhead. 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 Crescent Wood 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 Paxton Tunnel and its northern sister, Crescent Wood, 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. Sub Brit is talking to Lewisham Council for permission to photograph the site and if we are successful, those photographs will appear here in due course.
The two mouths are situated in modern housing estates with good road access.
The northern portal can be found just off of Westwood Hill. Turn into High Level Drive and follow the road round until you come to Gradient Drive on the left and turn into it. The tunnel mouth is easy to see behind the football pitch at the end.
The southern portal can be seen from above at the junction of Crystal Palace Parade and College Road. Access for a closer look can be gained from Farquahar Road, then into Bowley Lane, follow the small estate road round to the left and the portal lies at the far end.
- 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)