THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Westbourne 1) Branch Hill
The River Westbourne sprang from many sources, with the highest of these at the top of HampsteadHeath. Not quite the very top, where sits the Whitestone Pondtraffic island, because that's merely a shallow dew pond. It's named after the white milestone marking the entrance to Hampstead proper, and its waters were once used to give military horses somewhere to drink. Come 2012 the Olympic cycling road race will be passing this way, so Camden Council plan to spruce up the road junction with Yorkstone paving and safety-conscious white granite. So long as it's still possible to skate here when the pond ices over, I doubt that local residents will complain too much. [photo][photo]
Beyond a busy road junction, on the southwestern flank of the surrounding slopes, that's where the headwaters of the Westbourne still gather. An unwooded tongue of grassland cuts into the escarpment, inclining gently towards a single row of Victorian villas[photo]. Normally no surface water is evident, but after heavy rain the sandy soil can become waterlogged with squelchy puddles underfoot [photo]. It's the only sign that there was once a medium-sized pond here, adjacent to the road, at the start of an invisible river.
Branch Hill Pond disappeared at the end of the 19th century, but lives on in the paintings of local resident John Constable. He didn't just paint Suffolk haycarts, oh no, he also loved the sprawling skies and contoured landscape of his adopted London home. One of Constable's 1820s canvases shows Branch Hill Pond as a silver disc surrounded by excavated sandy upland. Another depicts the tiny figure of a red-jerkinned boy, perched on a sunlit ridge above the pond, gazing downstream towards the undeveloped fields of the Westbourne valley.
It's steeply downhill for the first few hundred yards, once open fields, now woodland-shrouded low-rise apartments. Built in the mid 1970s Spedan Close was then the most expensive council housing in the country, every property with its own individual roof garden [photo]. Further downslope the houses are more expensive still, though private, in the leafy avenues of upper West Hampstead [photo]. Where Westbourne tributaries once merged, today the only water features are tinkling fountains and bubbling fishponds. Following the Westbourne: Branch Hill, Heysham Lane, Redington Gardens, Heath Drive.