The Fleet, Walbrook and Effra may have disappeared centuries ago, but here's one stream that's vanished within the last half decade. On 5th June 2005 it was still an insignificant channel running along the edge of an industrial estate. The following day it became an annoying obstruction in the way of a major global building project. Three summers ago it was scooped up, filled in and covered over by an army of marauding diggers. And today it lies somewhere underneath the southwestern rim of the Olympic Stadium. London's still losing rivers even to this day.
Pudding Mill River is, or rather was, part of the Bow Back Rivers. These are a network of channels running alongside the River Lea, and are a man-made attempt to drain the waters of Stratford Marsh. The first attempts at drainage took place more than 1000 years ago, with access across the marsh possible only via a raised stone causeway. A series of watermills were built to take advantage of the flowing streams, a couple of which survive (in more modern form) at Three Mills close to Bromley-by-Bow station. But the mill which interests us here was first recorded in the 12th century as Fotes Mill, then later as St. Thomas's Mill. By the 18th century the site comprised a water-powered corn-mill, a malt mill-house and a windmill, the latter of which apparently resembled an upturned pudding. The windmill earned the nickname of Pudding Mill, and the half-mile-long channel alongside became the Pudding Mill River.
St Thomas's Mill's vanished in the 1830s when the railways arrived, and the site looks very different today. A light industrial cluster grew up instead, a small corner of which lingers on as the Marshgate Business Centre. Head for the corner of Marshgate Lane and Pudding Mill Lane where the mill once stood, and you'll find an energy producer of a more modern kind - a village of eDF portakabins. Immediately alongside is the main entrance to the Olympic Park, where security guards screen incoming lorries, and from whose bus station white-helmeted workers depart to reach their specific construction sites. There's no river here any more, so a threadbare flowerbed planted to welcome 2012 dignitaries has to be almost constantly irrigated by a sprinkler system to ensure that the grass and flowers don't die off two years early. This end of the river vanished long before the Olympics came along, but it would have flowed immediately alongside the security fence on the eastern side of the road. This was, indeed still is, Pudding Mill Lane - a brief thoroughfare which runs only as far as the railway arches and which gives its name to the DLR station at its northern end.
Across the railway, and beyond the Greenway, the Pudding Mill River survived until much more recently. I say river, but this was more an overgrown concrete channel filled with duckweed, along which no substantial craft could ever have sailed. A series of willow trees lined the water's edge, and a wooden footbridge crossed the stream providing access to an area of lumpy wasteland alongside. Queen Mary College's Faculty of Engineering used to dominate the site, beneath whose ridged roof countless messy experiments were carried out. Money from regeneration budgets allowed the river environment to be greatly improved in the early 2000s, providing a pleasant-ish spot for workers in nearby factories to nip out for a smoke or to nibble their packed lunches. But the success of London's Olympic bid meant that these improvements were short-lived. The area was first neglected, with unsightly piles of tyresdumped along the banks, and then systematically erased. The willow trees were first to go, along with the river's stocks of fish which were systematically moved elsewhere. Then the entire banks were stripped and the river filled in and covered over. Firm foundations, not watery sludge, were required to support London's mighty Olympic stadium.
The most pleasant section of the Pudding Mill River used to be at its northern end. A meandering stretch of green-topped water, with banks lined by bushes and less intrusive litter, leading up to an arched footbridge alongside the Old River Lea. 150 years ago there was a watermill here, named Nobshill Mill, but in more recent times this was the home of Parkes Galvanising Ltd (for all your galvanising requirements). All gone, swept away beneath the stadium's security perimeter. [photo]
There'll be waterways galore in the new Olympic Park, and several of the old Bow Back Rivers are being reclaimed and restored in readiness for post-2012 legacy. Some will be revitalised to become wetland habitats, while others will be scrubbed up to provide a financially attractive backdrop for upcoming residential developments. One of these new eco-village locations might even be called PuddingMill, in eternal memory of the former medieval waterway that once passed through. But the Pudding Mill River will never again see the light of day, lost forever so that athletics spectators have somewhere to sit for a couple of weeks. You may even be one of them.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.