Walking the Mardyke Way from Purfleet to Bulphan

A couple of weeks ago I returned to the border of Greater London to walk the Mardyke Way. This ancient river has followed the same course for over 30 million years. Today it carves a path through the Essex countryside on the edge of London. The route I took from Purfleet was around 11-miles followed by around another 3 miles to West Horndon Station. This is great walk through fields, meadows and fens.

Aveley - Mardyke Way

I started at Purfleet to capture the point of the Mardyke’s confluence with the Thames. It has an impressive wide mouth, partly marked by the huge brick 18th Century gunpowder magazine. From here there’s a path beside the river for a relatively short distance before I needed to embark on a wide detour along Tank Hill Road to the village of Aveley. The Old Ship Inn marked the start of Ship Lane with its impressive St. Michael’s Church, the oldest parts of which date from the 12th century.

St. Michael's Church Aveley
St. Michael’s Church Aveley
Mardyke Way sign at Aveley

A mile or so along Ship Lane from Aveley you can find the start of the Mardyke Valley path to Stifford. From here the route closely follows the course of the river passing through fields and fringing woodland.

Mardyke Way

It appeared that the walk had two sections – from Aveley to Davy Down then Stifford Bridge to Bulphan but there’s a walkable path the entire way with only short overgrown areas. There were vast expanses of farmland to the East of the river leading up to Orsett Fen and then beyond into Bulphan and far fewer walkers and cyclists in these upper reaches. It was blazing hot, my neck and calves toasted in the sun.

Harrow Bridge Bulphan - Mardyke Way
Harrow Bridge Bulphan

Harrow Bridge at Bulphan marks one end of the Mardyke Way but it did appear possible to follow the river little further north along the roadside. The promised footpath across fields to West Horndon Station didn’t manifest in reality on the ground despite signs at either end (or at least I could’t find it), meaning I had a precarious at times 2.5-mile walk along Dunnings Lane. An incredible walk that has added to my understanding of the landscape around the fringe of London.

Walking the River Medway

As we start to sense the possibility of Spring, plans for future walks start to take on a new tone of intent. One such plan is to pick up the trail of this enlightening walk exploring a dramatic stretch of the River Medway in Kent from Gillingham to Rainham with the brilliant Professor Kate Spencer. Last summer, we started at Strand Leisure Park, then passed Horrid Hill, Bloors Wharf, Eastcourt Woods and Otterham Creek. Kate is an expert of estuarine environments and in this video we learn about the specific ecosystem of the Medway estuary and its industrial past. This route also follows the Saxon Shore Way.
Expect the next instalment some time in Spring.

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 Beverley Brook for London Rivers Week

The Beverley Brook has been on my list of walks for a number of years now. I’d passed its confluence with the Thames near Putney on at least two occasions. Then I looked across its valley when seeking out Ceasar’s Camp on Wimbledon Common. The clincher should have been the crucial role played by the deity of the Beverley Brook, Bev, in Ben Aaronovitch’s excellent Rivers of London novels. But in the end it was London Rivers Week that gave me the final push to walk the Beverley Brook, or the Bev as I ended up calling it.

I found a Merton Council map and guide online and decided to use this as my definitive text. This route starts at New Malden, however multiple YouTube commenters pointed out the Beverley Brook rises in Worcester Park. Nevermind. The guide was excellent nonetheless. I picked up the river beside the A3 and pretty much the whole course out to the Thames was a bucolic amble across Wimbledon Common, Richmond Park, Palewell Common, and Barnes Common. All rivers deserve a deity, but it’s easy to see why Ben Aaronovitch chose Bev to play such a pivotal role in his books.

The Beverley Brook on Wimbledon Common
The Beverley Brook sign
The Beverley Brook in a culvert near Barnes

A meander along the River Shuttle in South London

I’d never heard of the River Shuttle until it was mentioned in the YouTube comments under my video of a walk along the River Quaggy. A crisp, bright, sunny Sunday felt like the perfect time to seek out this suburban watercourse. The River Shuttle rises on Avery Hill and flows through a sequence of parks and patches of woodland before making its confluence with the River Cray beside the A2 Rochester Way. The Shuttle Riverway is a 5.5-mile walking trail that follows the river.

I found the Shuttle running along a narrow concrete culvert just inside the gates of the University of Greenwich Avery Hill campus and next to the Charlton Athletic Training Ground. I remembered that my Uncle Stan had turned down a professional contract to play in goal for Charlton in the 1950s leading me to declare that the deity of the River Shuttle was a former Charlton Athletic goalkeeper. [*note: in Ben Aaronovitch’s brilliant Rivers of London books all of London’s rivers have a living, breathing deity who moves among us]. I followed the river through the campus and across the road, through Parish Wood and connected with the Shuttle Riverway as ran alongside Berwick Crescent, Sidcup. It was here I encountered my first Shuttle Riverway signage – always a great moment to add a new walking trail sign to the memory bank.

Shuttle Riverway sign for the River Shuttle walk
Shuttle Riverway

In Hollyoak Wood Park the Shuttle meets its tributary, the Wyncham Stream which rises in Chislehurst. Just past the confluence of these two rivers an egret elegantly strode along the edge of the water.
The river led me on through Willersley Park and Marlborough Park in magnolious late winter sun.

River Shuttle in Parish Wood
River Shuttle in Parish Wood
confluence of the Wyncham Stream and the River Shuttle in Hollyoak Wood Park
confluence of the Wyncham Stream and the River Shuttle

As the Shuttle crossed Burnt Oak Lane into Sidcup Golf Club I followed the Shuttle Riverway round the streets when later I learnt that a footpath runs around the edge of the golf course emerging near Viewfield Road. However, I’m grateful that my detour took me past the great pylons that straddled the houses and the stink pipe in Albany Road.

pylons in the street in Sidcup / Bexley
pylons in the street in Sidcup / Bexley

The daylight faded as I traced the river across the edge of Bexley Woods and a luminous full moon broke through the clouds. It made me think of Steve Moore’s Somnium, a brilliant weaving of the mythology of the moon goddess Selene into the landscape of Shooters Hill, not far from the source of the River Shuttle. The moon and the river seemed intricately linked. How I connect this to the goalkeeping deity of the Shuttle I haven’t worked out yet.

confluence of the River Shuttle and River Cray
confluence of the River Shuttle and River Cray

Selene guided me down Love Lane in the moonlit night to the Holiday Inn laden with ennui beside the A2 East Rochester Way. The Shuttle shimmered in the headlights of passing cars. The confluence with the River Cray was not far away. A fox slid through the undergrowth along the riverbank. Somebody had left a can of energy drink on the railing as a votive offering. It was a perfect ending. I paid my respects and then headed off into the moonbeams to Bexley Station.

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