THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The Falcon Brook (part 2) Balham → Battersea Reach
Strengthened by merged headwaters, the Falcon Brook once flowed north from Balham to the Thames. It used to run through the gap between Wandsworth and Clapham Commons, but the intervening meadows have long since been carpeted over by housing. Very desirable housing, in many cases. I was particularly taken by Montholme Road - an unblemished street of 100+ white-faced bay-windowed Victorian terraces. With Arcadian plasterwork around each door, and maroon and gold tilework in every porch, the local estate agents must rub their hands together every time a property lands on the market. I'd advise buying on the eastern side of the road, though, to avoid a subterranean river bubbling up through the cellar during particularly heavy rain.
The next street directly on the Falcon's track is NorthcoteRoad. If you've never been before (and I hadn't), this is a half-mile shopping street with a difference. Of the numerous independent shops strung out along its entire length, a surprisingly high proportion are targeted squarely at Mummys, Daddies and their middle class broods. There's Trotters for children's clothes, Sally's for children's hairdressing, and even two separate branches of Jojo Maman Bébé to cater for maternitywear demand. There's even an "artisan" food market outside the Peppermint pushchair emporium, where I unexpectedly succumbed to a filled croissant from the pop-up Bread Stall. Throw in a homeopathic chemist, a bijou toy shop and London's only honey-specific retail outlet (complete with front-of-house hive), and it's no wonder you can't move for happy families buzzing around at the weekend. They flow down into the Falcon valley from the surrounding inclined sidestreets, forming a human river where once was only trickling water. May Northcote Road's independent character never be diluted.
Between Battersea Rise and Lavender Hill, on the western side of St John's Road, there used to be three large rectangular ponds fed by the river. Long since departed, these are now completely covered over by a meander of mainstream shops. The most imposing department store hereabouts is Debenhams, formerly Allders, formerly Clapham's legendary Arding & Hobbs[photo]. A South London staple for over a century, the sweeping frontage is now somewhat diminished by the presence of a sublet TK Maxx halfway along. On the opposite side of the St John's crossroads stands the most obvious nod to the lost brook's memory - a pub called The Falcon[photo]. With a surviving Victorian interior, and real ales on tap, and reputedly the longest continuous bar in Britain, this isn't your usual town centre binge joint.
After the Falcon pub comes Falcon Road. The river once flowed this way, obviously, underneath Clapham Junction's umpteen tracks and onward into flat territory on the other side. Almost everything over here seems to be named after the Falcon - a furniture shop, the doctor's surgery, a housing estate, even Wandsworth's bleakest park. I'd hope never to have to return to the latter - a crescent of grass hemmed in between railway viaducts, ideal only for five-a-side and rampaging hounds. But that was nothing compared to the Winstanley Estate, an ugly cluster of concrete blocks where Wandsworth Council houses its poorer citizens. The grim shopping parade at the end of Ingrave Road, with its shuttered off-licence and padlocked pharmacy, is so far removed from affluent Northcote Road as to be almost on a different planet. [photo]
Nearly at the Thames now. There's York Gardens to cross, a patch of park whose least attractive feature is also the most relevant - Thames Water's Falconbrook Pumping Station. Stormwater doesn't simply disappear when there's no channel to carry it away, so this building helps to keep Battersea flood-free. The brook used to flow under York Road at York Bridge - approximately where the candle warehouse stands today. This humpback span is echoed in the name of Bridges Court, one of the mega-glass towers to line the Wandsworth riverside [photo]. Face the wrong way and your apartment stares into a car park, or suffers from sporadic rotor noise from the Heliport nextdoor. But pay a little extra and you can revel in the Thamesside panorama, high above the spot where Streatham's stream once emptied, and very definitely no longer does. [photo][photo]