Paul de Zylva, Chair of the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG), tells the story of London’s supposedly ‘lost’ rivers, and how recovering them plays a key role in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.
Everyone knows London’s river – Old Father Thames – but can you name some of London’s ‘other’ rivers? The Fleet, perhaps, or the Westbourne?
Nowadays, you’d be hard pressed to see the Fleet as it flows from Hampstead Heath beneath Camden, Kings Cross, and Clerkenwell, to dissect Ludgate Hill and Fleet Street before emptying into the Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. The Westbourne is also largely hidden as it also heads from Hampstead, this time via Kilburn – another watery name – Hyde Park and Sloane Square (in a metal tube above the Underground tracks and platforms) before reaching the Thames near Chelsea Bridge.
When in central London, I imagine walking above the Cock and Pye Ditch as I head from Seven Dials down St Martin’s Lane to St Martin’s-in-the-Fields. The ditch runs beneath them, before entering the Thames near the blacking factory which gave a young Charles Dickens much to write about in later life.
Other rivers also give their names to places. Brent and Wandsworth boroughs gain their names from the Brent and Wandle rivers respectively.
London’s many ‘other’ rivers and waterways are often referred to as being ‘lost’, but they are still there beneath the surface, pumping like veins and waiting for sense to prevail.
A tale of two rivers
25 ‘other’ rivers flow directly into the Thames, from the Beam, Effra, and Lee/ Lea to the Longford, Neckinger, and the short Walbrook in the Square Mile. Many more rivers are tributaries – feeding these and other main rivers rather than flowing directly into the Thames themselves.
In deepest Bromley, the Ravensbourne rises from Ceasar’s Wells at Keston Ponds. It flows behind Bromley High Street, between Queens Mead Park and Martins Hill, before heading down to Catford where it is joined by the River Pool coming from Sydenham. Then, it’s through the restored Ladywell Fields to central Lewisham where the Ravensbourne meets the River Quaggy.
The Quaggy also rises in leafy Bromley – at Locksbottom, not far from the Ravensbourne’s source. It runs through Petts Wood and Sundridge Park, before entering Lewisham at Chinbrook Meadows in Grove Park. It crosses into its third London borough as it enters Sutcliffe Park in Greenwich, where a hugely successful river restoration has revived the park, brought back wildlife, and kept everyone much safer from flood risk.
Lewisham’s official borough crest shows the confluence of the Quaggy and the Ravensbourne, but for years the borough’s leaders, including one notable MP, cast disdain on the river. When Christopher Chataway was Conservative MP for Lewisham North between 1957 and 1966, he condemned the Quaggy as “a curse and an eyesore”. Formerly an Olympic athlete, Chataway was clearly no front-runner when it came to knowing how treating rivers well makes them more friend than foe.
Back into Lewisham at Lee Green, the river is largely confined by the A20 and residential roads, but it has helped give life to treasured green spaces at Manor House Gardens and Manor Park. Finally, in central Lewisham, it vanishes beneath the landmark Clock Tower and Europe’s largest police station before being seen, albeit in a concrete channel, in front of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s St Stephen’s Church.
The last stretch of the combined rivers follows the route of the Docklands Light Railway from Lewisham, through the award-winning Brookmill Park to Deptford Creek. Here Henry VIII built his Navy and Peter the Great of Russia studied shipbuilding while staying at Sir John Evelyn’s Sayes Court (now Sayes Court Park). Today you can enjoy low-tide walks in the Creek itself, thanks to the fantastic Creekside Educational Trust.
What rivers tell us about our city
London’s many rivers – visible or ‘lost’ – show us so much more about where we live. They can, for example:
- show how London was formed across mind-bending geological time – some of the rocks in the River Quaggy are over 50 million years old;
- reveal more recent history, such as how the Vikings rowed up the rivers to settle (at Ladywell) and how early mixes of concrete were trialled for river walls in Napoleonic times (at Manor Park);
- help us see our city in ways other than via the usual routes we take (roads, trains and buses) or the maps we use (A to Z or Google);
- allow us to appreciate wildlife other than squirrels in the local park kingfishers, bats, damselflies and fish.
Turning our back on our rivers
Mills on the Ravensbourne once made glass, paper, and silk, hence the names of some streets and venues in downtown Lewisham, but the arrival of the railways and expansion of housing for workers saw London turn its back on many of its rivers, and start to view them as a problem.
Building work continued right up to the riverbanks, and – surprise, surprise these new homes and properties flooded. Flooding is a natural process, and rivers that flow through floodplains – such as that on which London is built – will flood. But engineers and builders in the late 19th and 20th centuries thought they knew better. Major public works were ordered to straighten, canalise and often cover over rivers. The view was that these harsh methods were the only ways to protect life, limb and livelihoods.
The utter folly of this was seen once the rivers could no longer be seen down in their ‘concrete coffins’, as members of the river restoration community often call the deep encasings in which rivers were put – devoid of light, and of little or no value to nature.
River restoration works
The decades-long blame game has taken a long time to change – but change it we have.
The River Quaggy was one of the UK’s most abused and heavily-engineered rivers. It’s still stuck in masses of concrete for much of its length, but local volunteers have shown how restoring the river, instead of continuing to mistreat it, cuts flood risk, brings back and supports nature, and complements local parks and spaces, improving them for recreation, learning and more.
Rivers also link up places that otherwise have little to do with each other – rather like bus, tube or rail lines, but in a more natural and cultural sense. The Quaggy, for example, is the only thing that people living in Orpington and Petts Wood have in common with people living downstream in Hither Green, Lee Green and Deptford.
Rivers cross borough boundaries, and making them better requires local councils to cooperate. That is a challenge, but is made easier by the existence of Catchment Partnerships which bring together community groups, councils and others across an entire catchment instead of within borough boundaries.
The Ravensbourne Catchment, for example, covers the whole of the boroughs of Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham, and part of Croydon. Councils can learn how to work across wider landscapes by cooperating from source to sea on river restoration, pollution control, de-paving and other measures to cut flood risk, capture and store free rainfall, and boost the resilience of our streets and neighbourhoods to excess heat, which is increasingly a threat to health.
Thanks to patient, community-led action, south-east London is now a beacon of successful urban river restoration with major restorations in Chinbrook Meadows, Sutcliffe Park, and Ladywell Fields, and many smaller-scale improvements at points in between.
The world even comes to see. We have given tours to people from as far afield as Northern Ireland and Hong Kong to see how it’s done and how it helps cut flood risk, boost wildlife, and improve places for people.
Restoration across London
Across London, communities are acting to reverse decades of damage to rivers, waterways and wetlands:
- In south-east London, Bexley’s Thames Road Wetland is hemmed in by roads but is now accessible, and offers a rare sanctuary for many important wild species.
- In the south west, the Hogsmill is the focus of efforts to bring beavers back, while in the north beavers have already returned to restored rivers and wetlands in Enfield and now also in Ealing.
- Threatened eels are returning, as rivers are removed from concrete or as physical barriers to their movement up rivers are knocked-out; even half-inch high steps built into concrete river bases are hard for eels to get over.
- In the west, brilliant work is being done by the River Crane Partnership.
- In the east, the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics saw decades of neglect left behind as the river Lee-Lea was opened up. Efforts are underway to improve other maligned rivers such as the Roding in Barking.
- Across London, river action complements the well-established good work by Friends of parks and gardens groups, and others.
When you look at your area, or look at a map of London, remember that Old Father Thames is fed by many more humble rivers that tell us more about London – and make it work better – than we might think.
For more information about QWAG’s projects and membership, visit www.qwag.org.uk