Nobody likes the Falcon Road railway bridge. Dark, dirty, loud and always mysteriously wet, the prospect of running the gauntlet of drips from the leaky bridge structure (or – worse – from the many resident pigeons) discourages non-residents from venturing up the Falcon Road. But like it or not, it’s unavoidable lowlight for those of us who live north of the railway.
This isn’t good for Clapham Junction. There’s long been a north/south divide in Battersea, with a ‘north’ dominated by towers and estate layouts, and a ‘south’ filled with a sea of Victorian terraces – and performing better on just about any socioeconomic indicator. Having little more than this lugubrious underpass linking the two worlds only reinforces and entrenches this split.
The grim and faintly menacing nature of Falcon Bridge also limits the trade for the businesses on the Falcon Road – which don’t see much benefit from being so close to St John’s Road and the otherwise successful wider shopping district.
It will also be a bit of a headache for Taylor Wimpey as they start to sell the extra flats that are set to be built as part of the Winstanley redevelopment, no doubt on the basis of the appealing town centre nearby – especially as their recently opened sales office (pictured, right) happens to be in the railway arches just off the bridge.
So – can Falcon Road’s bridge be improved?
To be fair, Wandsworth have certainly tried. A few years ago the lighting was made brighter, the tiles were deep cleaned, and orange & pink feature lighting was added to a few of the girders above. For a while, the bridge looked much better – and everyone noticed. But it wasn’t maintained, and deteriorated back to the current state of affairs after a few years. With hindsight the project, while a commendable effort, wasn’t up to the true scale of the problem. And to make matters worse a major rail signalling upgrade led to large cable ducts being installed above head height on each side of the road, undoing some of the work by making the pavements feel even darker and more enclosed.This problem isn’t unique to Clapham Junction, and London is full of examples of bridges that have been improved, and even turned in to features. Feature lighting, lots of fresh paint, internal panels to protect the pavement from drips and the birds lurking overhead have all been used to good effect elsewhere. Southwark street – which used to be similarly gloomy – got comprehensively cleaned up, and now has one of the UK’s largest artworks on display under the bridge (pictured below).
The above was part of the “Light at the End of the Tunnel” project, which improved about 50 bridges and railway arches stretching from Vauxhall to Bermondsey – with relatively simple aims of cleaning the viaducts, increasing illumination with creative lighting techniques, commissioning new public art, transforming the pedestrian experience, and generally creating tunnels and arches that were safe, viable and functional. It was a big success – and it explains why so few viaducts on the south bank are now as dismal as Falcon Road.
More recently, Loughborough Junction bridge has been transformed from an eyesore to a work of art – thanks to no more than a deep clean and some clever paintwork. In this case the difference is really noticeable, it’s lifted the whole area around the bridge.
What really needs doing is quite simple – a proper clean, some drainage at the top of the tiled surfaces, bright colour on the girders, a lot more light (including upwards lighting), and some form of pedestrian drip protection (maybe drawing from Latchmere Road where a corrugated tin roof has been installed years ago under the bridge girders).
If resource allows, there’s lots more that could be done with art and feature lighting – making it a real feature – maybe even akin to what Battersea Power Station have done with the similarly gloomy bridge that is currently the main entrance to their site (picture to the right), which has become quite visually dramatic on the exterior, but which has also seen a comprehensive interior cleanup, waterproofing and lots of new lighting.
Indeed Wandsworth (with financial support from developers in Nine Elms) have run a design competition to do something about the run-down underpass at Thessaly Road, which has attracted over 100 entries from ambitious emerging architects. The budget is around £200,000, allowing for quite extensive works, and the plan is for the winning design to be installed later this year – expect something unusual! [read our article HERE]
In a different approach, Wandsworth have also supported a “heritage” makeover of Earlsfield bridge. It’s now resplendent in Victorian railway green with the original station name restored, and has been generally well reviewed. In this case the project cost £200,000, and thanks to someone making a Freedom of Information request we know this was made up of £15k for preliminaries, welfare, set-up and cleaning, £25,000 for labour, and £160,000 for preparation, re-painting, traffic management, pigeon proofing and graffiti prevention. Wandsworth contributed £100,000.
Back to Falcon Road – there would also be some merit in cleaning, lighting and painting the overhanging viaduct along Grant Road, where the small businesses in the dozen or so railway arches have long struggled to attract the footfall that you’d expect for the edge of a major shopping district with almost 100% occupancy of retail units, next to one of the UK’s busiest railway stations. This is an interesting structure that could look good with a bit of TLC and some of the arches are impressively large – but it feels like there’s a great deal of missed potential here. Derelict and abandoned vehicles in the car park under the viaduct only add to the general feeling of decay and neglect. Any improvement would go some way to making these feel a bit more like a part of the town centre worth visiting.The big challenge, as ever, is funding. Everyone stands to benefit from this – it’s helpful to the retail centre, to residents, to developers. As a very central and visible bridge with huge levels of pedestrian traffic, and scope for quick implementation, any improvement ought to play well politically. It’s probably essential before the Winstanley development really gets going at scale. But at around £200k (maybe more given the size of the bridge) these things aren’t cheap, and the only source of ready investment at the moment is community levies on new developments, which have been mainly spent.
A secondary challenge is complex site ownership, as the pavement and lighting belong to Wandsworth, but the walls and viaduct belong to Network Rail – however this seems manageable. Fairly or otherwise, Wandsworth get a lot of the blame from residents for the poor state of the bridge, and also have every interest in unifying North & South Battersea. While Network Rail no doubt expect longer term development of the site associated with Crossrail 2 and station upgrades, there’s clear benefit in the meantime as a landlord in helping make the area more attractive.