Walking the Norbury Brook

What is it with these South London rivers? Probably my favourite walk of 2023 was the River Shuttle walk I did in February. I was guided into the dark by a brilliantly luminous full moon that made me think of Steve Moore’s magical book Somnium, which is set around the summit of Shooters Hill, not far from the source of the Shuttle at the foot of Avery Hill. I’d started the year by continuing my walk along the fantastically named River Quaggy – the whole route a delight. And then the Beverley Brook walk to celebrate London Rivers Week was one of the most bucolic and relaxing London walks of the year. The Norbury Brook continued this trend of South London river walks that entered my soul.

Norbury Brook at Heavers Meadow Selhurst
Norbury Brook at Heavers Meadow Selhurst

I started my Norbury Brook walk on a blustery November day at South Norwood Station, a name that calls to mind the Great North Wood that covered this part of South London. I only had a blog post from the brilliant Diamond Geezer to guide me, other online sources were scarce, but the brook is well marked on maps. The Norbury Brook rises a mile or so away from the station, just beside Selhurst Railway Depot, which is where I first encountered it as the brook emerged through a brick arch from beneath the tracks and ran along the side of Heavers Meadow. The first sighting of a river is a magical moment, when the river deity casts its spell upon you.
We then soon lost the river as it descended beneath the road which gave us the opportunity to admire Maud Milton’s wonderful mosaic roundel on the front of Selhurst Station. I filmed Maud in her studio when she was creating this mosaic for Southern Rail, the tiles embossed, designed and conceived in collaboration with the local community forming a unique portrait of the area and its heritage. The Norbury Brook was there alongside Amy Winehouse, Adele and Wilfred Zaha among the names of Selhurst luminaries celebrated on the tiles.

Selhurst mosaic by Maud Milton
Norbury Brook mosaic tile Maud Milton

(Sub)urban river walks always involve a bit of zigzagging through the streets to catch glimpses of the watercourse as it flows between the houses. We commenced our river dance in Swain Road, swerving round into Ecclesbourne Road, Boswell and Lucerne. The brief absence from the river making the heart grow fonder and I was wowed once again by its beauty as it elegantly opened up the landscape.
We crossed into Thornton Heath and walked down Brook Road. There were some classic old iron park railings in Thornton Heath Recreation Ground that guard the river as it flows along the edge of the open space.

Norbury Brook at Heavers Meadow
Norbury Brook at Heavers Meadow
Norbury Brook
The Norbury Brook from Swain Road
Ecclesbourne Road, CR7

Exiting the recreation ground the brook crosses Braemar Avenue and Strathyre Avenue before running along back gardens popping into view again in Ederline Avenue and Dunbar Avenue. Walking beneath the railway bridge that crosses Manor Farm Road, a fine phalanx of iron railings alerted me to the presence of the river. And there it was, blessing a culvert carved into one side of Manor Farm Nature Reserve before ducking under a brick arch to cross Norbury Avenue.
The brook next leads us into the expansive Norbury Park, purchased by the Corporation of Croydon from a builder in 1935 after it’d briefly been a golf course. Previous to that, this had been a series of open fields owned by Pembroke College, Cambridge. There’s an article on the history of Norbury Park via the Norbury Watch blog: 
“In 1583 the area that we know today as Norbury Park was then known as Palmers Fields and it comprised of 75 acres. In 1583 the executors of the will of Archbishop Grindal (who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1575 to 1583) purchased Palmers Fields for £500 on behalf of Bees Free Grammar School in Cumberland which had been Archbishop Grindal’s native home. In 1606 the governors of Bees Free Grammar School leased Palmers Fields to Pembroke College Cambridge for 1,000 years at a nominal rent in exchange for the maintenance of a fellow and three scholars at Pembroke College.”

Where the Norbury Brook heads under the grassland to cross the park it seems to pick up another water source via a large concrete outlet – could this be a tributary or maybe just drainage from the park or adjacent allotments? It was carrying quite a substantial flow.
I wondered if this was the tiny tributary I’d crossed on Norwood Grove earlier in the year  that was said to be a tributary of the River Graveney – which the Norbury Brook becomes once it leaves the park. But that might equally have been the Donny Brook or the Falls Brook which make their confluence with the Graveney further along its course in Streatham. I will now need to walk that rivulet from Norwood Grove to see exactly where it ends up.

Norbury Brook
Thornton Heath Recreation Ground

Hermitage Bridge on Streatham High Road marks (more or less) the spot where the Norbury Brook becomes the River Graveney. The brook somehow becomes a river and changes its name to one associated with a local family who owned this land in the middle ages.

River Graveney
River Graveney

 I pursued the Graveney into the sunset as it led me into Streatham. I watched it catch the golden light as it drifted across Sherwood Avenue. I spied another slice of this suburban magic from Helmsdale Road before my final sighting of our glorious river running fast and loud as it crossed Streatham Vale. The light was fading fast, it was nearly dark, and I had no chance of reaching the confluence with the Wandle, 2 miles away or more, before it was pitch black. Satisfied I had walked the Norbury Brook, I decided the save the final reaches of the River Graveney for another day.

Walking the River Brent

“And so it was that we returned to the valley of the River Brent”

Patrick Keiller, London (1994)

Brent Cross tube station is a place that holds a deep sense of nostalgia for me. It links me back to walks with Nick Papadimitriou. I could almost see him waiting for me on the wooden bench in the ticket hall in 2007. On the way there, it’d only just struck me how apt that I’d chosen a walk along the River Brent to be filmed by an MA student and their friend for her Visual Anthropology project.

A Focus on the River Brent

Being filmed walking a territory I’d filmed someone else walking added an intriguing layer to the excursion. But the real highlight was walking a section of the River Brent I’d only glimpsed while crossing its course. Surprisingly, in all my previous walks through this terrain, I never set out with the sole intention of following the course of the Brent, from its starting point here at Brent Cross to its convergence with the A40 Western Avenue.

While the Brent often made cameo appearances in our previous explorations between Brent Cross and Perivale, it never received the attention it deserves. Today, the river itself took centre stage.

River Brent at Brent Cross
John Rogers being filmed walking the River Brent near Neasden

A Brief Detour to Brent Cross Shopping Centre

Before we embarked on our journey along the Brent, we made a brief detour to Brent Cross Shopping Centre. The confluence of arterial roads in this area creates its own power, with the Hendon Way and the North Circular intersecting. On the far side of these roads lies Brent Cross and, with the River Brent meandering through the concrete kingdom.

Brent Cross was the UK’s first out-of-town shopping mall, opening in 1976. The grandeur of this place left a lasting impression on me when I visited as a kid in the early 80s. In Patrick Keiller’s seminal film London, the central character Robinson chooses Brent Cross as a location to write poetry, in the spirit of Parisian flâneurs haunting the 19th century arcades. The scene in Keiller’s film also subtly invokes Walter Benjamin’s epic Arcades Project.

We caught sight of a small intense man sitting near the fountain reading from a book by Walter Benjamin. Robinson embraced this man and they talked for a long time. But when he tried to call him later he found that the number was a public telephone in a street in Cricklewood and we never saw the man again.

London, Patrick Keiller, 1994

Robinson and his friend later return to the Brent Valley to walk along the River Brent.

River Brent
Liv and Milo

The River Brent’s Juxtaposition

Returning to the banks of the River Brent, a stark contrast unfolds. On one side lies the discarded refuse and the presence of rats scurrying through the undergrowth. On the other side of the road stands the towering cathedral of consumerism.

Such a stark juxtaposition makes me think of the river deities personified in the Rivers of London series of novels by Ben Aaronovitch. The abuse of this living body of water is intrinsically linked to the grand shopping centre beckoning with its enticing offerings.

A lost London village

After surviving a detour through the bowels of IKEA and it’s enormous car park, the river led us to the lost village of Monks Park. I’d first visited the area with Nick Papadimitriou for a recording of our radio show in 2009. This is an old Middlesex village absorbed into the West London industrial belt that followed the Brent, the name now largely erased beyond the recreation ground. I discovered Monks Park from the same source as Nick, in fact it played a pivotal role in how we first bonded. It’s the subject of a chapter in Gordon S. Maxwell’s The Fringe of London published in 1925 (which I never stop mentioning) ‘Rural England. Four miles from the Marble Arch.’ When I first found Maxwell’s book I became convinced that Patrick Keiller must have encountered it when making his first short film Stonebridge Park shot nearby in 1981. A subsequent email to Keiller many years ago revealed that it was merely a coincidence.

Monks Park
Monks Park walk, 2009 – photo by Peter Knapp

The End

At the A40 our walk conjoined with my northbound strolls along the Brent from Brentford through Perivale, and so I wandered with Liv and Milo along the Western Avenue to Hanger Lane tube. It’s a walk that even 3 months later sits in my mind calling me back.

Walking the River Wandle Trail

Back in June 2021, my friend, geologist Professor Kate Spencer, joined me on this great walk along the River Wandle.

In 1805 the Wandle was said to be the ‘hardest worked river for its size in the world’ – by 1831 there were 90 mills along the Wandle. Our walk along the beautiful River Wandle starts at Carshalton Ponds in the London Borough of Sutton. This chalk stream passes through a number of beautiful parks and nature reserves – Poulter Park, Ravensbury Park, and Morden Hall Park, Merton Abbey Mills, passing through Hackbridge, Merton, Wimbledon, Summerstown, and Earlsfield, finishing the walk at the confluence of the Wandle and The Thames at Wandsworth.

Link to the downloadable Wandle Trail map we used for the walk

This is one of a series of walks I’m doing along London’s Rivers

A walk along the Dagenham Brook

This walk following the Dagenham Brook was the fourth in my series as psychogeographer-in-residence for Waltham Forest Borough of Culture 2019. The Dagenham Brook started life as a humble ditch rising in Higham Hill with sewage flowing into it from Walthamstow. The name comes from the ‘Dagenham Commissioners of Sewers’ under whose jurisdiction it fell.

We start the walk on the corner of Ruckholt Road and Orient Way where an embankment and trenches from Roman or Romano-British earthwork and Roman burials were excavated, leading some historians to speculate that this may have been an important waystation on the Roman road between London and Colchester.

Leyton F.C

We then follow the Dagenham Brook across Marsh Lane Fields (Leyton Jubilee Park) then through the Warner Estate and onto Lea Bridge Road. I was joined on the two guided walks by artist Lucy Harrison who explored the life of the Warner Estate in a fascinating project, WE. We take a look at the abandoned ground of Leyton F.C once one of the oldest football clubs in London, founded in 1868 – now derelict.

From here we cross Lea Bridge Road and walk down Blyth Road (also part of the Warner Estate) and up Bridge Road to Markhouse Road. This is one of the old roads of Walthamstow crossing Markhouse Common. The name derives from ‘maerc’ meaning a boundary as the boundary between Leyton and Walthamstow ran through Mark House manor. Markhouse Common was sold to property developers in the 19th Century.

We turn into Veralum Avenue then Low Hall Road and South Access Road passing the Walthamstow Pumphouse Museum. Low Hall Manor was a 14th Century Moated manor house with extensive grounds – two-storey timber framed building like the buildings in Tudor Close. The 17th Century farmhouse was destroyed by a V1 flying bomb in 1944. The Dagenham Brook probably fed the moat.

Dagenham Brook

We walk around Low Hall Sports Ground and into Low Hall Wood Nature Reserve to look at Owen Bullet’s artwork, The Clearing, and pick up the Dagenham Brook. Turning into North Access Road we see the River Lea Flood Relief Channel and pass by St. James Park. We walk beneath the railway bridge and turn into Salop Road then Elmfield Road. We follow Elmfield Road round until we reach Coppermill Lane and the end of the walk.

Many thanks to Max ‘Crow’ Reeves for joining me on the walk. Take a look at Max’s photo book following a season with Clapton CFC.

Hooksmith Press maps

Further history of the Dagenham Brook can be found here in the Victoria County History

Walk along the Walbrook – the City of London’s Lost River

I first did a version of this walk along the Walbrook back in November 2011, but was keen to return starting nearer to one of the supposed sources and also visit the recently opened London Mithraeum that sits upon the banks for this ancient stream. The route I followed in early December, drew from two principle sources – Nicholas Barton’s classic book, The Lost Rivers of London, and a sketch map of London Under Henry II by Marjourie B. Honeybourne from Norman London – An Essay by Professor F.M Stenton (pub. 1934). Stenton’s essay and the map is informed by a contemporary Norman description of London by William Fitz Stephen.

London Mithraeum

The route starts at St. Leonard’s Church Shoreditch, and goes past the Shoreditch Holy Well in Bateman’s Row. From here it follows the course of the river down Curtain Road to Blomfield Street where it was partially excavated during Crossrail works. Then we cross London Wall and go through Angel Court where another part of the river was uncovered in the 1970’s. We go behind the Bank of England at Lothbury then follow the buried river down Walbrook to the Temple of Mithras. From here we go down Dowgate Hill to where the Walbrook makes it’s confluence with the Thames near Canon Street Station.


Click here to see my video of another walk along one of the ‘Lost rivers of London’ – the Tyburn


Old map of London’s Lost Rivers

map of London rivers

This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).

In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:

“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”

Thames basin diagram

This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.

Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:

“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”

We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.

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.