Burgess Park is hands-down one of my favourite places I’ve visited as part of the 33 Butterflies Challenge; it’s the pinnacle of what an urban park can achieve with well thought out planning and effective community engagement. Even though I visited on a thoroughly gloomy August day when the sky was full of clouds the colour of days-old snow on a roadside, the beguiling charms of this progressive green space shone through.
My walk began in Peckham Rye and followed the ‘green corridor’ that was once the Grand Surrey Canal route. 150 years ago, this area was a busy, prosperous hub of industry thanks to an ambitious canal project that ran from the Thames at Rotherhithe, through Deptford and Kennington and out into Surrey. Following the rise of road travel and due to safety concerns, the canal was filled in during the 1960s and 70s but there are still glimpses back to its past including grooves in the stones of the remaining two bridges, worn smooth by the tow-ropes of horse-drawn barges. Today, the canal way is still the artery it always was but with bikes replacing barges and feet stepping where hooves once trod. The route has been sown with wildflowers and planted with native tree species, including hawthorn, blackthorn and spindle which combine to make a thoroughly leafy lane and an excellent habitat for wildlife.
At the end of the Canal Walk, Glengall Wharf can be found, a thriving communal garden that has replaced a refuse wharf for the canal. Around the garden are mounds covered in wildflowers that were abuzz with bees and hoverflies and the occasional white butterfly – no doubt attracted by the copious brassicas growing in the raised beds next door. I’ll confess that although many people had mentioned Burgess Park to me as a great place to visit, I hadn’t done any research before arriving and so naively thought that perhaps this area to the east of Trafalgar Avenue was the extent of the ‘wild’ areas. To be honest I was pretty impressed with just that small part, however, upon entering the park-proper across the road, I was blown away by the extent of rewilding that has taken place.
Rolling hillocks carpeted with wildflowers rise and spread out on all sides contrasting well with mown areas kept short for games and picnics. Foamy yarrow, starbursts of ragwort and lilac chicory jostled for space amidst wild carrot baskets and bind weed trumpets. Paths weave through the meadows allowing for an immersive experience and every so often I caught a glimpse of The Shard or The Gherkin and was reminded of just how urban this park is.
Apple trees, heavy with rosy fruit and rich red hawthorn berries added to the autumnal feeling in the park and a wood mouse busied itself beneath the trees growing alongside the large lake. Flocks of young sparrows chittered to each other as they feasted on chicory seeds and clusters of fleabane flowerheads gave a golden glow to the water’s edge, each one looking like a child’s drawing of a sun. A grey heron, statue still, kept a watchful eye.
A blue plaque told me that the lake was added in 1982 and holds 12 million gallons of water, that year was also when the park progressed from being a mish-mash of separate pockets of open space into one large parkland. The park’s rich backstory is celebrated through its heritage trail – Bridge to Nowhere. Blue plaques have been placed throughout the park narrating the unique history of notable points including a Grade-II listed lime kiln built in the early 1800s; sites of the R. Whites Lemonade and Watkins bible factories and the Chumleigh Gardens in the grounds of what was the intriguingly named Female Friendly Society Asylum.
The park’s diverse habitats provide the perfect home for invertebrates to feed and breed and upwards of twenty species of butterfly can be seen there throughout the summer, including Marbled White, White-letter Hairstreak and Brown Argus. One particular butterfly species, the Camberwell Beauty, has a strong historical association with the area after two were first discovered on Coldharbour Lane in 1748, very probably Scandinavian immigrants. Although not native to Britain and therefore not seen in the park, its presence is still felt thanks to a stunning mural on the side of the Lynn AC Boxing Club building (formerly a public library and baths) on Wells Way.
I read recently of the Marble Arch Mound, a temporary installation by Westminster council of a 25m fake hill designed to try and encourage visitors back to Oxford Street. Now being described as ‘London’s worst attraction’ the £6 million project has been widely criticised as an eyesore with poor planting choices and no view worth climbing the steps for. Looking at the gloriously wild mounds in Burgess Park, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more could have been achieved if that £6 million had been used to rewild areas of Westminster’s parks providing long-lasting attractions worth going to visit, hugely benefitting wildlife, and helping to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis.
Vision is required to achieve such far-reaching aspirations, the sort of vision that Jessie Burgess had. Camberwell’s first female Mayor and after whom the park is named it was largely down to her that Burgess Park rose from the rubble of buildings damaged by bombing during the First and Second World Wars. She drove forward The Abercrombie Plan, a masterplan for London that highlighted the need for more green space. Thanks to these strong beginnings and with continued intervention, innovation and financial support, the park is now a leading example of how industrial landscapes can be repurposed to effectively meet the varied needs of a diverse local community.
By celebrating its past, diversifying its present and investing in its future Burgess Park looks set to thrive for generations to come.