THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The Falcon Brook (part 1) Streatham → Balham
Some of London's lost rivers are proper lost. Not just on the surface, but to public memory. Ask anyone outside a small corner of SW London about the Falcon Brook and they'll probably draw a blank, or guess perhaps that it runs through the Scottish Highlands. But this was once a dead ordinary stream down Wandsworth way, which had the grave misfortune to be located precisely where hundreds of thousands of future homeowners would want to live. Today not a drop remains. Indeed there's little rock-solid documented evidence of this river's former path, especially in its upper reaches, so much of what I'm about to write may be a little woolly. But a walk from source to mouth reveals more than a trace, both in name and in the lay of the land, so the Falcon's not lost forever.
It's wiggly tuning fork-shaped, this former river, with a couple of prongs pointing inland and uphill towards SW16. One branch started in Streatham, on the Leigham Court Estate, which is a most elegant late Victorian social housing project (nicknamed the ABCD estate after the initial letters of its four parallel avenues). It's also the only place this year where I've been accosted and asked what I was up to whilst using my camera. "Are you doing a land survey?" the two ladies asked. I told them I was, sort of, and showed them a map pinpointing the very spot we were standing as the start of the river [photo]. They got quite interested at this news, not least the potential impact on their property, and hung around chatting for a few minutes. "Ah that explains," they said, "why the shops at the bottom of the hill sometimes get flooded out". Streatham Hill, that is, where a shallow dip in the High Road between Caesar's nightclub and the Bingo Hall is a lasting reminder of the brook's former passing.
There was a lot of Streatham Hill to descend, westward via Criffel and Telford Avenues, until the ground levelled off somewhat just to the north of Tooting Bec Common. This suburban swathe of middle class niceness is perfectly summed up by the name of its local newsagent - The Cosy Corner [photo]. The brook then flowed northwest-ish across Weir Road (possibly relevant, that) and onward into deepest Balham. Again it's the dips in the land that are the biggest giveaway to the former streamlet's path. One such gentle switchback can be found where Balham Hill metamorphoses into Balham High Road, with a Total Garage marking the lowpoint. Neighbouring Oldridge Road follows the valley almost precisely, criss-crossed repeatedly by terraced streets that fall and rise. Who needs a map, when there are contours to follow?
Time to backtrack to Falcon source number two, which is to be found further to the south. Some say it's up on Streatham Hill, again, on the council estate above Kwik Fit on the High Road. The evidence looked convincing to me, with more dips in the land and - along Woodbourne Avenue - a residential slope to tumble down. But the accepted map has the Falcon kicking off beyond the Tooting Bec Road, just round the back of the council athletics track. Here it was known as the York Ditch and formed the dividing line between Tooting Graveney Common and Tooting Bec Common (now the line of Doctor Johnson Avenue). Nearby ponds aren't river-related, they're filled-in gravel pits, but are ideal for fishing, duck-feeding or jogging round [photo]. And no, the Lido's not fed by natural waters either, although the brook would undoubtedly have passed close by.
I disagreed with the published Falcon map from this point on, because there's no way that any stream can flow uphill. Instead I followed the line of the York Ditch down to the Balham High Road, where I found a Brook Close tucked inbetween Argos and a Tesco Express. More tangible evidence was provided by a modern block of flats above a row of shops, with the name Falcon Brook Mansions written in curly silver lettering over the entrance. Over-fussy from the outside, and seemingly very ordinary boxy apartments on the inside, these "mansions" looked as insignificant as the rivulet they commemorate.
Beyond the railway, at a crossroads on Calbourne Road, the Falcon's two separate headwaters once combined. Again the clues are in the contours - three streets slope up, one slopes down, go figure. And then the main stream headed north, almost in a straight line, all the way down to the Thames. I'll come back and tell you about this very different stretch tomorrow.