The New River is neither new nor a river - a joke that is almost as old as the river. It was built to bring water from Amwell and Chadwell springs in Hertfordshire to London.
The idea was proposed in 1602 and work commenced in 1604. Just like modern infrastructure projects, the scheme had financial problems and faced opposition from those who thought it would affect their livelihood or amenities.
The New River, under the financial and management leadership of Hugh Myddelton and with the support of King James I, was built between 1609 and 1613, so it is 400 years old. Starting on the 100-foot contour, it was constructed to descend at a gradient of five inches per mile and relies on gravity to move the water. Over the years, other sources of water have been taken up. At one point, it seemed likely that the New River would be abandoned, but the increase in the residential and working population has meant that it continues as part of Thames Water's infrastructure. It still provides about eight per cent of London's water. Originally, it ended at the New River Head in Islington - just south of Sadler's Wells. It now ends at Stoke Newington. Over time, the course of the River has been reduced by the use of viaducts and tunnels. There is a signed walk, developed by Thames Water, along 28 miles, following the functional part of the River and some stretches of disused course. About half of the walk is in London. We will start this walk at the New River Head. The buildings of what eventually became Thames Water can be seen from Rosebery Avenue. The buildings include the Pump House of 1768, the New River Head Building of 1919 and the Laboratory Building of 1938. It is worth also visiting a viewing platform that is accessible through a gate off Myddelton Passage. There are some interpretation signs that outline the history of the buildings and introduce the walk. Although Thames Water moved its headquarters to Reading in 1993, the New River Head is still an operational site. A pump here accesses the London Ring Main and a borehole brings up artesian water to help lower the water table under London.
The walk starts in Duncan Terrace, where a series of gardens run along the original route of the New River. The Duncan Terrace garden was originally created in 1893 after the River had been put into pipes in 1861. The garden passed to Islington in 1951 and Duncan Terrace was redesigned in 2007. It includes many tall herbaceous plants and a Tree of Heaven with a large sculptural array of bird (and other creature) boxes called 'Spontaneous City' by the London Fieldworks practice. The next section, Colebrook Row, has not been replanted and retains its shady wood walk with lumps of tufa. The gardens continue along the rest of Duncan Terrace as a large street-side verge. We go up St Peter's Road to the Essex Road. It is worth going on to Islington Green, where there is a statue of John Myddelton who brought the New River project to completion. There is also a fine modern war memorial by John Maine installed in 2005 to replace a temporary memorial that had been in place since 1918.
Just beyond the Library is Asteys Row Rock Garden, which was laid out in 1950 by Vanstone of Much Hadden. It uses tufa similar to that originally used by the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association in Duncan Row. To the west of the entrance to this section of the walk is Pleasant Place Garden, a small area half laid to grass and half paved with a few trees. It is a useful place for young children to play. It is also an example of local authorities giving names to small bits of open space. Beyond the rockery walk is Astleys Row Playground and opposite this is Canonbury Gardens, which has trees and more of the tall plants that we saw in Duncan Terrace. St Stephen's Church next to the park is worth a look. It has a curious small tower with buttresses that do nothing structurally.
The next section is called New River Walk, and here the 'River' is in water. It was originally laid out as a park by the New River Company in 1860 and consists of two ponds. Only the section by the 18th century watchman's hut is the original structure with the wooden side to the River. There are a lot of shady trees. The break half-way between the two ponds is crossed using the old New River Bridge and then you cross back on an ornamental bridge. The northern pond has fountains that help keep the water aerated. Just beyond Canonbury Station is Petherton Road, where the 'filled in' River has trees and grass. There is a path along the middle of the green space. In places, the path is a simple desire line; in the middle there are wood chippings, courtesy of the friends. The path ends as bonded gravel.
The next section is in Clissold Park. The official route only enters the park to go along the short section of River, but I suggest you enter the park at the first gate and make for Clissold House. The River has been opened up and rocky beaches have been constructed at each end. There is a new metal bridge over the River and there is plenty to see in the park, which has had a recent refurbishment; gardens, deer enclosure, lots of sports facilities for a wide range of ages and abilities, and a café. Leave Clissold Park by the gate next to the park-keeper's house.
You now come to The Castle. This was originally built by W C Mylne in 1856, to designs by Robert Billings in a Scottish Baronial Style, to pump water from the New River to North West London to fight a cholera epidemic. In 1995, it was converted by Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners into a climbing centre, having stood disused from 1953. A path by the Castle follows the track of the New River, which has some water in it past the West Reservoir. The reservoir is used for boating and this is where the artesian water pumped out at the New River Head is released. Follow the pleasant wooded walk until we get to the East Reservoir, where the New River now discharges. This has been the end of the New River since about 1946. There is a mechanical weed-grabbing machine by the side of the River, which pulls the weeds and rubbish out of the River and dumps it on the bank, ready for removal. There are several of these along the River. They respond to flow rate and suddenly go into action. The two reservoirs were constructed by Mylne between 1829 and 1833. There used to be filter beds to the west, but these closed around 1990.
We are now at Woodberry Down. This is a major redevelopment programme by Berkeley Homes with Rolf Judd as architects. There are formal garden between the buildings and the path. These include some wetland beds to control run-off. At Riverside Gardens there is a spectacular waterfall and a great silver bull, where the water flow is controlled so the water runs completely over, giving a shimmering effect.
We cross the road and follow the River as it heads west. There is a long green wall in this section, which is reverting to nature. Now cross into Finsbury Park to follow the River until it leaves the park. The River runs under a large number of parallel roads, known locally as The Ladder. The route docs not follow the River here but goes up Wightman Road. It is worth noticing St Paul's Church of 1988-1993, by Peter Jenkins. It is a forceful dramatic building. The River leaves the Ladder at Hewitt Road and a short alleyway leads to a broad grass path by the River. The path leaves the River and heads towards Turnpike Lane where we go under the railway bridge and re-join the River opposite the Hornsey Pumping Station of 1905. Water treatment started here around 1850, The old filter beds arc now the site of New River Estate: modern flats with a generous, if simply designed, area of open space. As we approach the new water treatment works, we get a good view of Alexandra Palace. The path now leaves the River again as it enters a tunnel. The tunnel, built in [859, can be seen from the bridge over Station Road.
The next part of the walk is through a series of open spaces dating from 1864-1894. As we approach them, there are some wide grass verges. The road signs have a small and enigmatic logo on them saying Hornsey Park. The first park is Barratt Park, named for the owner of a confectionery manufacturing company. This has a drinking fountain commemorating Mr Barratt. It is formally laid out with a long pergola covered in wisteria The next park is called Wood Green Common; it is basically a field for informal games, A new play area has been made at the west corner. Unfortunately, this includes the only exit at that end of the park. Looking left, there is a mound by Heartlands School, which has a classical sculpture on it. We then go through . This is an irregularly shaped area of grass with some mounds and a variety of trees, Going to the right of the Swiss chalet-style Palace Garden flats, we come to (depending on which map you read) more of Avenue Gardens or the first part of Nightingale Gardens. This has the remains of the original pathways and was obviously much grander at some time in the past. This brings us to Bounds Green Road. To our left is a pretty Baptist church, in a gothic style in red brick and flint. It was built in 1907 but the design derives from the work of Pugin. Across the road is an area of open space called Trinity Gardens. The eastern part with the original rose beds dates from 1894. The western part was laid out between 1896 and 1906. The great granite obelisk drinking fountain, in memory of Mrs Catherine Smithes founder of the Band of Hope, was moved here in 1904. There are two churches, one the former Trinity Methodist Chapel faces on to the park, and the other is a former Baptist chapel, of which turret can be seen above the flats. Trinity Chapel is now the Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the Baptist Chapel is a Greek Orthodox church. We enter Nightingale Gardens, as indicated by the official signs, but when, we get to the north end, we will find that is also called the Hidden River Gardens. The gardens have been extended over time, but much of the planting has gone -leaving grass and trees. Some of the trees date from 1894, when the park was started. The final park of this series is Finsbury Gardens of 1904, which has some play equipment and a hard surface for ball games. These gardens appear to have been conceived as a series by Wood Green Urban District when created in 1894. The culverted New River probably gave some guide to the route. It must be one of the earliest linear parks.
We now make our way to Myddleton Road, where there is Bowes Park Community Garden. It is a small space with lots of shrubs and a wonderful wooden bench in the shape of a butterfly. It is popular with mums and their small children. The River emerges from its tunnel opposite this and we are back on a broad grass path. Following the signs, we cross the North Circular Road, where there is some splendid pyramidal planting of geraniums. Back on the River, we pass a jungle of Buddleia and, where the New River goes over the River Pymmes, there are masses of giant hogweed plants. They had gone to seed when I passed them. They looked magnificent: one can see why they were once popular as garden plants.
We go onto the road and past Palmers Green Library and turn south to re-join the River. From here to Enfield, the walk is mainly on wide grass paths by the River between houses and playing fields. There are some breaks which add interest to the walk. Quite soon, we are directed down some steps and past a playing field in to Climee Avenue. The River is regained at Hazelwood Lane, but, when we get to Hedge Lane, we are sent along River Avenue Green Lane. At Carpenters Gardens is the Hlghfield Pumping Station. There are several pumping stations along the River, mostly in the northern part. There are some flats with balconies overlooking the River soon after we re-join the River, Around Fords Grove the route is not obvious, but, if we go round the white building, we will find the River. The path soon leaves the River and enters some woodland. At Ridge Avenue we leave the River and walk up Bush Hill. On the left is the Clarendon Arch that carried the original course of the River over a stream. Opposite this is an entrance to the last bit of the current New River we will see on this walk. We leave the River at the junction of Bush Hill and Bush Hill Road. The original sluice house of 1795 is visible over the fence and on the left is the new Halliwick House. Myddelton lived in the original Halliwick House when the River was being built. We now walk up Bush Hill, which has large high-quality houses of the 1930s. We need to get into the Town Park. Access is not clear here – there seems to have been some alteration of the route since the signage was put up. It is probably best to go as far as Essex Road and enter the park there. Go to the bottom left corner of the park and we are now on the old course of the River. At the corner, go through the gate to follow the River. Town Park is mainly for games but there is formal planting near the main gate.
The old course of the River can now he followed through Enfield. In Chase Green there is a large sundial water feature called the Millennium Fountain, which was made by Wendy Taylor. The River goes beside and later between cottages and comes out on Parsonage Lane by the Grammar School. The parts of the old course were restored in 1998-2003. There are detached sections of the River by the Town Hall and in Southbury Road.
This is where our walk ends. The New River Path re-joins the current course at Carterhatch Lane. I had thought of continuing to where the M25 goes under the New River; it is nice to see the new infrastructure having to modify its route for the old, but that point is a bit remote from transport. The River can, of course, be followed all the way to Hertford. From here on it is more like the middle section of our walk, being the working part of the New River, but the route is more or less continuous. However, it is in Hertfordshire and not London.
A map of the full route is available on the web: search for 'New River Walk' on http://shelford.org/walks/newriver.pdf