diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 28, 2010

THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
Counters Creek
1) Kensal Green Cemetery


Counter’s Creek arose from springs beneath Kensal Green, on gentle slopes just to the south of the Harrow Road. Before the 19th century there was little here but farmland, then in 1801 the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal carved through from west to east, severing the headwaters of the fledgling brook. [photo]

It was on this unforgiving clay soil, sandwiched between the road and the canal, that London's first garden cemetery was established in the early 1830s. The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green was created as a peaceful final resting place for well-to-do Londoners, and was inspired by a visit to Père-Lachaise in Paris.

Over a quarter of a million Londoners have been buried here over the years [photo], and the grounds are littered with monuments, mausoleums and semi-toppled gravestones. Notable internees include engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles "Mr Computer" Babbage and the novelist Wilkie Collins.

Kensal Green is only the first of London's "Magnificent 7" Victorian cemeteries to lie along the former banks of Counter's Creek. But the ridges and valleys visible here today aren't river-worn, they’re nothing more than funereal landscaping. [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: If it wasn't for the canal, it would be really easy to follow the river's path south from the cemetery. The canal and the railway, that is. It's easy to follow on a map, you simply follow the borough boundary, but in real life the canal and the railway get in the way. Instead you have to hope that the gate out of the cemetery into Scrubs Lane is unlocked, then turn south through light industrial nothingness. A hop across Mitre Bridge, bypassing a railway maintenance depot, then duck back under the viaduct towards Little Wormwood Scrubs. All told it's a one mile detour. The river had it easy.


2) Little Wormwood Scrubs

Wormwood Scrubs, for centuries a single expanse of unfertile upland, was divided into two unequal chunks by the coming of the railways. The larger western section gained notoriety through construction of a Victorian prison, while the severed eastern 10% became the lesser-known Little Wormwood Scrubs.

Counter's Creek once ran in a rivulet along the eastern perimeter of Little Wormwood Scrubs, with the line of the river marking the parish boundary between Kensington and Hammersmith. In the late 19th century several estates sprang up on the Kensington side, and residents soon came to rely on the Scrubs for their recreation.

In 1892 the Metropolitan Board of Works decided that a "portion of the brook on the eastern boundary should be widened and kept full by means of weirs and that a gravel walk should be formed alongside with a plantation for shade". The river became a purely ornamental feature, fenced off behind iron railings, for viewing only.

Persistent drainage issues arose, which led to the channel being concreted in 1924 and ultimately covered over. Little Wormwood Scrubs feels distinctly less ornamental today, and only a meander in the concrete footpath survives as a hint to its secret past. [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: From Little Wormwood Scrubs, unlikely as it sounds, head south towards the North Pole [photo]. That's a pub on the eponymous North Pole Road, where there used to be a station but now there isn't. Counter's Creek ran roughly parallel to Latimer Road, which used to be an important thoroughfare but no longer has the traffic to justify its width. Severed in its prime by a much larger road, it no longer reaches as far as the H&C tube station to which it gives its name.


3) West Cross Route

Not content with burial beneath a canal and then a railway, almost the entire length of Counter's Creek might have disappeared beneath a motorway had post-war planners had their way.

The West Cross Route was to be one small part of a major orbital road system for London called Ringway 1. This western link would have joined Willesden Junction to the Chelsea Embankment via an eight lane motorway. Plans show the intended route hugging the existing West London railway, in places running directly above the tracks on a concrete viaduct.

Unfortunately for motorists, but fortunately for owners of the many properties that would otherwise have been demolished, only one short section of the West Cross Route was ever built. This was the M41 linking the White City and Holland Park roundabouts – much as Counter's Creek once did except more direct and rather faster.

Public outcry following construction of the neighbouring Westway led to the remainder of the Ringway plan being permanently shelved in 1973. Today only two stumpy concrete spurs off the White City roundabout, directly above the river's former course, survive as evidence of the former motorway's elevated northward threat. [photo] [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: The space under the Westway, where the river once ran, is now taken up by the Westway Sports Centre. A marvellous example of communal ingenuity, its sports hall, climbing wall and basketball courts are squeezed within and beneath the centre of a giant roundabout. There's even a 'fives' court, which feels terribly snooty for the children of a hapless housing estate, but has been provided by a long-standing charitable outreach project initiated by Harrow School. As for the Westway stables, who now run riding lessons beneath the A40 [photo], this is where Steptoe and Son used to be filmed. BBC Television Centre is but a brief clip-clop away.


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