London River Walk – from the Ravensbourne to the Beck

The idea was Iain’s, noticing that I rarely ventured south of the river he suggested a walk through his manor, Beckenham, following the River Beck. In the course of deciding where to start we somehow settled on the mouth of the River Ravensbourne at Deptford Creek.

River Ravensbourne

River Ravensbourne

We worked our way South through morning Greenwich and over Deptford Bridge, through Brookmill Park to Lewisham, where we gave a nod to the River Quaggy. The passage through Ladywell took me back to the walk I did for This Other London in autumn 2012 to Herne Hill Velodrome that passed this way over Ladywell Fields. Where I peeled off that day over Blythe Hill, Iain and I carried on beside the waters of the Ravensbourne across Catford Bridge to the Linear Park where the Ravensbourne departs and we followed the Pool River to Bellingham.

confluence of The Beck and the Chaffinch Brook

confluence of The Beck and the Chaffinch Brook

In Cator Park, Beckenham (after a David Bowie detour) we find the confluence of the Pool and the Beck (and also see the Chaffinch Brook) and from this point, entering early evening and pushing on for 15 miles for the day, we are now fixed on the source of The Beck.

Families are out in force perambulating around the broad waters of Kelsey Park, it’s a good time to stop for ice cream. It gives us the legs to push on through outer suburbia bound for Shirley.

source of the River Beck

source of the River Beck

I won’t spoil the end of the video, but the moment of finding the source, not quite where we expected, was a moment of mild euphoria. 21-miles river walking through South London, two middle-aged men gazed with love and amazement at a trickle of water dribbling from a pipe in a narrow strip of woodland in Shirley.

 

Pudding Mill Lane, Sugar House Lane & IKEA City

Pudding Mill Lane

I hadn’t been back to Pudding Mill Lane on the edge of Stratford for at least a year and the area around Sugar House Lane for around 2, so I was keen to see what was happening there now.

Pudding Mill Lane Station is all slick and new, seemingly fully completed and you can now exit without walking through a tight tunnel of plastic fencing, although construction around the station appears to be still at an early stage of development.

 Marshgate Lane Stratford P1040006

The Lost River

Marshgate Business Centre is still intact – a final reminder of the old industrial Stratford. Digging out copies of ‘Your Park’ from 2007 & 2008, the glossy pamphlets that were dropped through our doors in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics, there is an update in September 2007 about the relocation of newts from the Pudding Mill River before the river can be drained. It was ultimately filled in and I believe the Olympic Stadium was built on the site.

City Mill River

It is also curious to note that on a ‘Walk the Olympic Park’ map published in July 2007 the section of the City Mill River where it crosses Marshgate Lane is marked as the St Thomas Creek. The most detailed description I’ve found of the network of rivers that branch off from the River Lea once it passes through Leyton, is in a 1936 publication celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formation of the Borough of West Ham. ‘Fifty Years a Borough’ published by the County Borough Council West Ham, makes no mention of the St Thomas Creek, so it raises the question of where the Olympic Park cartographers got the name from.

 Danes Yard Stratford

The Ikea City

Crossing Stratford High Street I pass down Sugar House Lane into a vast building site. The former light industrial zone has been flattened to the ground. Diggers move back and forth flattening the muddy earth creating a blank slate from which the property development arm of flatpack furniture retail giant IKEA can build what has been dubbed as ‘IKEA City’. So far the only visible sign of what’s to come is a peculiar wicker-looking sculpture rising into the sky from Danes Yard. The rest of Strand East will consist of 1,200 new homes, workspaces and a designer hotel. Insert your own jokes here about allen keys and flatpack construction nightmares. One of the many security guards on site told me the ground preparation work will continue for another year before a 3 year building period.

Strand East Stratford London P1040102

Three Mills

I cross an iron bridge onto Three Mills Island where the Bow Creek, River Lea and Three Mills Wall River meet – an auspicious spot. Three Mills Studios continues to form a vital function in the London production sector and over recent years has been the location for Tim Burton animations, Big Brother, 28 Days Later, among others. In the week that London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced his intention to make London the most film-friendly city in the world the future of Three Mills must surely look bright.

Three Mills Island London P1040162

The Prescott Channel

The sunset attempts to crack through the hard cloud shell and signals that it’s time to head home. The path along the edge of Three Mills Green gives a final cross-section view of the Strand East site, the only two standing structures a late Victorian brick building and a tall chimney on the West of Sugar House Lane. The Prescott Channel branches off from the Three Mills Wall River at the far end of Three Mills Green and what appear to be geese make a noisy crash landing on the waterway startling a bunch of gently drifting ducks.

 

Trailing the Pymmes Brook

The Pymmes Brook has been on my itinerary for a while – usually noted down as I walk north up the Lea Valley striking for territory beyond the M25. A fine day in August following a torrential downpour the day before that scuppered an expedition along the River Pinn, provided the perfect opportunity.

Tottenham Marsh
Although the Pymmes Brook makes it confluence with the Lea at Tottenham Hale, the official Pymmes Brook Trail starts slightly further north at Pickett’s Lock and then follows the Salmon Brook part of the way. I decided to stick to what I saw as the full course of the river starting early afternoon near where the Pymmes Brook makes its confluence with the River Lea at Ferry Lane.

Tottenham Marshes are a great oasis with views across to pylons and the highlands of Epping Forest. A smattering of cyclists and joggers. The Pymmes Brook slides along a deep-sided concrete culvert passing by Stonebridge Lock. Men emerge from the undergrowth onto the footpath that curves through Wild Marsh West. The information boards include a mention of the Tottenham Outrage that reached its bloody conclusion not far away on 23rd January 1909.

Pymmes Brook
The river splits in the middle of an industrial estate containing an Electricity Substation and the Tottenham Gas Holder just before Angel Road and the North Circular with the Salmon Brook snaking northwards. It’s a heavily gated area and I’m forced down Leeside Road past a burnt out car. This is classic North Circular industrial edgeland – large warehouse units down dusty roads, blackberry fronds reaching out through the spiked metal fencing, warnings of the danger of death and “multiple hazards”, reminders that every step is being recorded by CCTV cameras. And yet nobody is around. The angry buzz of a remote controlled car scooting round the vast empty IKEA car park fills the air.  Looking at my mid-1950’s Georgraphia Atlas IKEA occupies the site of a ‘Gothic Works’ which appears to have been a type of elaborate metalwork rather than anything to do with the Sisters of Mercy.

Leeside Road

The Pymmes Brook briefly re-emerges snug within its culvert where the North Circular passes high overhead before disappearing beneath the ground. The walk now hugs the North Circular till the old Roman Fore Street where the Pymmes Brook is released from the underworld in Angel Place and moves on around the edge of Pymmes Park. The Park formed part of the grounds of Pymmes House originally built by William Pymme in 1327. The Elizabethan manor house, once the home of William Cecil, was destroyed by fire in 1940. The old walled garden remains.

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It flows through an 1980’s-looking council estate before finally escaping the concrete prison of the culvert near Silver Street and running free through a small grove along smooth muddy banks with trees drooping boughs into the water. A cat hunts in the undergrowth along the riverbank. Here my walk meets the official Pymmes Brook trail in the grounds of Millfield Arts Centre before crossing back under the North Circular and leading me round the edge of Tile Kiln Lane Open Space and a network of picture-postcard north London suburban streets in Bounds Green.
Pymmes Brook Trail
Now late afternoon, the weather warm, I start to hanker after a cup of tea. I’d had doubts about this walk but so far it’d been a revelation – opening up a previously unexplored corner of north London. I still wondered whether I would make it to the source before dark though.

Pymmes Brook Trail
5.45pm and I find myself tucking into a bacon and cheese roll at the Grand Café on Clock House Parade, Palmers Green. Despite the quality of the crusty roll and comfortable seating the café is a tad generously named but does occupy a good spot on the curve of the roundabout at the intersection of the A10 and North Circular. It’s been a hot and humid day and I’m tired with a few miles to go to the source at Hadley Common and only a couple of hours daylight.

With the bacon and tea working into my system it’s time to find the energy for the final push uphill. The Pymmes Brook is back encased in a deep open concrete sleeve for this passage through classic north London bow-fronted suburbia. The New River crosses paths on its journey between Amwell Street, Islington and Amwell Springs Hertfordshire, one of the many journeys I keep promising to do.

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At Arnos Park the Brook is once again liberated, the waters within touching distance for the first time today as they meander beneath a series of quaint wooden bridges around the perimeter of the park. This is the part of the walk I’ve been most looking forward – deep Nick Papadimitriou territory, my old walking comrade who I haven’t stepped out with for over 18 months. The Brook flows alongside a spectacular viaduct that carries the Piccadilly Line across the park. We filmed here in February 2008 doing the first walk and shoot for what became The London Perambulator. I send Nick a text to tell him where I am – he never replied.

Pymmes Brook
As the brook works its way through a wooded gully I catch a whiff of sewage and hope it’s merely my imagination. Sadly London’s waterways are prone to becoming polluted from industrial waste and drainage overflow. Just the other day the London Waterkeeper posted a photo on Twitter of chemicals pouring into the Pymmes Brook.

Oakhill Park
Moving now into a summer sunset across Oak Hill Park full of evening football training, joggers, group workout sessions, tennis matches. A man sits sucking down a can of strong lager behind the concrete pavilion and hurriedly moves on as I approach. A large tree lays prone across the Brook.
Pymmes Brook

By the time I’m through East Barnet Village the light has almost entirely ebbed away. A fox and cub mooch around some undergrowth on the verge of a housing estate as the Brook nears its source. The final climb from Barnet the first real sense of gaining altitude through foothills of peak suburbia.

Hadley Common Lake

I reach the lake on Hadley Common where the Pymmes Brook gurgles up beneath the still surface at 9pm – stumbling through pitch-black woods guided by the chatter of fishermen. I linger for a while and shoot a time-lapse before heading off back into the housing estate for a bag of chips and the road to Cockfosters Station.

On the trail of the Dagenham Brook

Leyton Sign Ruckolt Road

Something magical happens when you pack your bag for a walk, even on a day like today when my enthusiasm is thin. In goes the notebook and 2 pens, a copy of Rachel Lichtenstein’s new book Estuary, OS map of the Lea Valley & Epping Forest, camera + mini magnetic tripod, a light jacket, and finally a cap I stuff down the side. All of this crammed into a messenger bag that was given away by the thousand at the London Film Festival 12 or 13 years ago.

I contemplate the journey ahead over coffee at Costa in Leyton Mills – the vast carpark here with its expansive Lea Valley skies is one of my favourite open spaces in London – it’s like the American Midwest of my imagination. The prospect of the relatively short walk along the Dagenham Brook increases in appeal as the caffeine kicks in. These minor urban excursions can easily snowball into epic quests. It’s the anticipation of the unknown buried within the familiar. Of becoming lost in a suburban swamp.

Dagenham Brook
I navigate my way across the grid system of the Asda car park and over to Orient Way, under the Leyton sign to find the point where the Dagenham Brook disappears underground before making its confluence with the River Lea. This is so close to where the Fillebrook momentarily appears above ground (in a reversal of fortunes) that I wonder if these two brooks merge before running into the Lea as a single watercourse.

A broken hole in the thick undergrowth gives me my first glimpse of the Dagenham Brook. I slide down the bank getting snagged in the brambles in the process and struggle to extract myself once I’ve logged my encounter with the river. Urban river hunting is not as easy as it seems.

Dagenham Brook
Fifty yards or so further along a recently surfaced new path hugs the river as it meanders through Marsh Lane Fields. I remember the Beating of the Bounds here on a wet May Sunday afternoon 10 years ago just after we’d moved to Leytonstone. It had been organized by the brilliant New Lammas Lands Defence Committee and was my real introduction into the culture of this section of the Lea Valley with the deep passionate attachment to the landscape. Marsh Lane has had a powerful hold on me ever since.

Dagenham Brook Leyton FC
The brook curves round behind the goal of the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C. – the weeds thick, nearly enclosing the watercourse. I call artist Lucy Harrison to see if she’ll give me a quick 5-minute interview about the Warner Homes that straddle Lea Bridge Road and have the Dagenham Brook running through the gardens. Lucy did an interesting project with the residents of the Warner Estate and I wish I knew more about them – now would be my chance.

Warner Estate Leyton
Lucy obligingly popped out into Blythe Road and told me about how the houses had been built around the beginning of the last century to provide quality affordable rentable homes and had gradually been sold off since the 1960’s. Although they have lost the tidy uniformity of their early years when Warner staff trimmed the hedges and painted the doors and window frames green and cream – they retain a distinctive architectural style with the arched double front doors and elaborate gables. You know when you’ve strolled into a Warner Estate.

Dagenham Brook p1010216
The Brook gently flows on into territory where I can’t follow it closely – behind cul-de-sacs, round the back of industrial estates and allotments. There are allotments all along the course of the river – even more so than along the Filly Brook. The occasionally waterlogged, spring-fed land unsuitable for building or industrial use, I guess good for growing crops fond of wet soil.

Pumphouse Museum Walthamstow
I eventually rendezvous with the Brook again near the end the W19 bus route where it winds around the edge of Low Hall Sports Ground. I pay homage with a nod, a photo and a few seconds of video before moving on back along the road unable again to walk along the riverbank. In truth physical encounters are a bonus with urban river walking for me, it’s more of a simple device to open up what might appear an unpromising landscape unenthusiastic about yielding its secrets. The brook sets the route and tells you its story, guides the way.

St James Park Walthamstow

The Dagenham Brook suggests I take a look at St James Park, one of those backstreet open spaces known mostly to the locals but a beautiful spot. There are only a handful of people in the park – a lady sitting on the ground appears to have positioned herself dead centre of a large empty section. An access road leads down the middle of a wonderful grand avenue of lime trees. The park occupies part of the site of the 14th Century Low Hall Manor which was purchased by Walthamstow Council in the late 19th Century.

Dagenham Brook Walthamstow p1010264

The brook slides behind park and under the railway bridge now running parallel with the broader River Lea Flood Relief Channel. I’ve seen discussion online suggesting that the Dagenham Brook is also a man-made watercourse, a drainage ditch. Old OS maps of the area show an elaborate tapestry and ditches and ponds adorning the landscape – nearly all now buried or filled in occasionally rising again to flood a basement or waterlog a garden.

Seb Lester mural walthamstow
Moving beneath the railway you are greeted by a sequence of murals on the end of terrace walls. On the corner of Chester Road a verse from Ewan MacColl’s timeless song written for Peggy Seeger is painted in elaborate filigree font
                           The first time ever I saw your face
                          I thought the sun rose in your eyes

Louis Masai walthamstow

On the other end of the block is a work by Louis Masai of a Fox, Badger and Bees – the bees carry a placard appealing to ‘Save Us!’, the badger sits behind a sign saying ‘No to the Cull’. Around the corner is a colourful abstract work by Italian street artist Renato Hunto.

Mural Walthamstow
Moving in to Coppermill Lane I can’t see any further trace of the Dagenham Brook as it appears to have merged with Flood Relief Channel. I stand on a concrete block and look north along the course of the Lea and bid my farewell to this understated, wonderful watercourse.

sunflower walthamstow