diamond geezer

 Monday, February 20, 2012

The River Crane flows from Hayes to Isleworth. It really does, it's not lost or anything. Eight miles of water - trickles, then shallows, until eventually (briefly) tidal. And part-way down is Crane Valley Park, a linear greenspace halfway between Feltham and Twickenham. It's rather pretty today, bolstered by £400,000 from the Mayor's “Help a London Park” scheme. A brand new cycle-friendly track follows one bank, while an undulating muddy footpath follows the other. The former's in Hounslow, the latter's in Richmond, with the river the natural boundary. Last autumn Thames Water deliberately flooded the River Crane with sewage, killing 3000 fish and destroying most of the river's biodiversity. They were caught in a difficult position - it was flood the Crane or fill Heathrow Airport with slurry - but their action means it may be years before full underwater life returns.

About 250 years ago, on this very site, the Hounslow Gunpowder Mills were founded. The black powder had been made here for centuries before that - Henry VIII was probably involved, and rumour has it that Guy Fawkes' barrels came from here. But it was a more industrial 18th century process, mixing local charcoal with imported saltpetre and sulphur, which helped the Crane's gunpowder business to properly take off. In those days there was no housing hereabouts, which was just as well because the work was dangerous and large explosions intermittently commonplace. One of these blew out Walpole's windows at Strawberry Hill, another was heard in the East End of London, another as far away as Reading.

The Hounslow Gunpowder Mills survived until 1926, after which almost all was erased. The Woodlawn housing estate was built on the site of the old factory buildings and surrounding blast mounds, between Powder Mill Lane and the river, and only a few traces remain down by the water. They're mighty fine traces, however, and well worth a look if you're in the area...

The Shot Tower: This is the only proper building to survive from the days of the Powder Mill, and was built in 1826 by a gentleman from Hanworth. It's an 83ft brick tower, all the way up to the lantern on top, and was used for the manufacture of lead shot via a fairly archaic method. Lead was melted at ground level, inside the tower, then carried up to the top floor and dropped through a copper sieve back to the ground. As the metal fell it formed into small balls, cooled by the water tank into which it fell, and was then graded and packaged before sale and despatch. Some shot towers elsewhere in the country were 50% taller - these made larger ammunition, because pellet size was related to length of plummet.

Today the Shot Tower is a Nature and Visitor Centre - opened to the public in 2004 by Sir David Attenborough, who lives relatively nearby. But it opens only between 1:30 and 4:00 on Sunday afternoons, so time any special visit carefully. The inside's now completely different - no more heavy metal being dropped from a height, instead a series of cylindrical rooms surrounded by spiral stairs, a bit like a lighthouse. On the ground floor is a museum of sorts, or rather a minor display showcasing the Crane and its wildlife, plus two toilets. On the first floor is an office for volunteers from FORCE (Friends of the River Crane Environment) who keep the place ticking over. On the second and third are two classrooms for outdoor education, and on the the fourth a "gallery" for the display of children's art. But the best bit is 88 steps up, just beneath the ladder to the lantern, on the observation level. Look out of the two windows and you can see Heathrow, and Kew Gardens, and more... or that's the idea. In reality, alas, the surrounding trees rise to approximately the same height as the tower so in winter branches block the view and in summer leaves completely obscure it. It'll not detain you for long, the Shot Tower, but it probably puts the facilities in your local park in the shade. [proper photo]

Crane Park Island Nature Reserve: Cross the millstream, and shut the gate behind you, to reach this five acre island in the middle of the Crane. A path leads round the perimeter, plus a twelve-stage nature trail, encouraging you to pause and stare at the millrace, or pollarded willows, or hawthorn hedge, or whatever. If you're lucky you might spot frogspawn in the pond, or water voles emerging from the banks, or even kingfishers in the trees... but probably not in February, sorry. Part of the island used to be a millpond, since drained, because most of the nature here is re-purposed post-industrial. But it's lovely - a mixture of very green and very reedy - and also very quiet - probably because there's only one bridge in. Sir David's very keen. He calls Crane Park Island Nature Reserve "one of Richmond Borough's best-kept secrets and one that is full of enchantment for all those who know it." I'd say he's not wrong.

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