Come with me to Colliers Wood, two stops from the southern end of the Northern line. This historic corner of Merton (William Morris, Admiral Nelson, etc) lies on the Wandle, one of London's non-lost rivers. A 14 mile foot- and cycle-path, the Wandle Trail, follows the stream all the way from Croydon to the Thames at Wandsworth. But in some places, due to inadequate access, the path is forced to deviate from the river along less appropriate routes. And one of these is in Colliers Wood, at Wandle Meadow Nature Park, thanks to the Bridge To Nowhere.
I rather like Wandle Meadow Nature Park. It's not a landscaped beauty, more a patch of scrubby flood plain on the site of a former sewage works with pylons running up the centre. But it's got a bit of character, a splash of unkempt charm, and it's also where I met my very first urban fox in a sudden footpath face-off. The Wandle Trail passes through, but away from the river, forced to deviate on approach from the south up the side of a pumping station. There ought to be a path along the edge of the concrete culvert, indeed there is initially, it's the pavement of a road called Wandle Bank. A row of terraced houses leads downstream to the site of Merton Mill, once one of the largest corn mills in London, now more flats. But then beyond Byegrove Road comes a new estate, built quite recently on the site of the Connolly Leatherworks, and that's where the riverside path runs out. At the Bridge To Nowhere.
The plan was for Bewley Homes to build a footbridge over the Wandle as part of their Section 106 obligation. This bridge would allow the Wandle Trail to pass through the new estate and across the river, entering the foot of Wandle Meadow Nature Park without the need for a diversion. They designed a bridge that sloped down from the estate bank to the park bank, there being a 2m drop from one to the other. But the Environment Agency said no, the low bridge might obstruct the flow in flood conditions, so go away and think again. The housing company took their time, then returned with revised drawings showing the level structure that's in place today. They stated they'd be installing it with "the access being blocked off as we will not be constructing an access ramp", leaving this for the local authority to complete. And somebody at the council signed these plans off, so on 20th June 2007 a Bridge To Nowhere was installed.
It does look bloody stupid today. A wooden footbridge heads off from the riverbank opposite number 15 Bewley Street, part chained-off to prevent non-existent kids from running into the road. Walk part-way across and the Wandle flows beneath, relatively swiftly, then disappears behind a curtain of foliage. Step further and the trees part to reveal a scrubby corner of Wandle Meadow Nature Park. But you can't get down there, the bridge stops in mid-air, reduced in function to little more than a viewing platform. If you stood in this corner of the park you'd see a wooden structure flying in at about head height, supported on a concrete plinth. But there's no way of clambering up or down, not unless you're an urban monkey, this is a split-level dead end.
Merton Council got cross and accused the builders of going back on their legal obligation. The builders waved their planning permission document, finished their houses and moved on. And so the bridge remains incomplete, a pointless missing link requiring a sinuous detour. The Colliers Wood Residents Association recognised the absurdity of the situation early on, in 2008 creating an 'art installation' to draw media attention. On 20th June 2009 they held a birthday party, inviting local residents and the media to turn up for a singsong and cake on the bridge, and they've been holding one annually ever since. [full backstory]
Alas the residents of Bewley Street have never been supportive. They like living in a cul-de-sac on their own private waterfront, and they're happy for the bridge to stay blocked. The estate's builders laid a narrow footpath alongside their parking spaces, wiggling north along the Wandle, but someone's erected a laminated sign saying "Footbridge closed" in an attempt to keep speculative ramblers out. Attempt to walk past the footbridge towards North Road and you're met by an impenetrable fence labelled "Private Road" and "Private Keep Off". There used to be through access here before the new houses came, but no more, and a detour is required for anyone attempting to continue to the north. Inaccessibility is what local homeowners expected when they moved in, and it's how they'd like things to stay.
But maybe not for long. I spotted two unexpected signs attached to the footbridge when I visited at the weekend, one on the Bewley Street side, the other dangling above the park. Each sign announces that "an application has been submitted" for "completion of footbridge via completion of DDA compliant ramp and steps. Hallelujah! The ramp will have a scissor turn at one end where those with pushchairs or wheelchairs can double back, while those more able can head straight down via a flight of ten steps. This steel-framed timber structure will take up a fair bit of space, all to ensure 100% accessibility, but this is a very quiet corner of the park where hopefully a few square metres of vegetation won't be missed. [Elevations][Location plans][Artists impression]
The money's come from TfL, who've funded a local government grant to improve various parts of the Wandle Trail for walkers and cyclists alike. If you'd like to look up the fine detail of this particular footbridge scheme you can - it's Merton Council planning application13/P2573. This went live on 4th September and interested parties had 21 days to submit support or opposition, a period which ended just over a week ago. Merton's planning portal reveals that nobody stood up and spoke in favour - how would they have noticed when the signs went up on two ends of a dead-end bridge? But three residents of Bewley Street noticed, and felt strongly enough to email their objections...
"We are concerned that many people would use this as a short cut through the Nature Park rather than having to go over the main bridge and would bring more people into Bewley Street, with all the subsequent problems that can bring."
"Kindly note that the nature park opposite Bewley Street is a local gathering area for anti-social behaviour. The current incomplete footbridge is the only element preventing much of this anti-social behaviour from spilling over into Bewley Street."
"Furthermore there is only a small number of non-residence petitioning for the completion of the footbridge. It would not seem to make sense to invite additional crime and anti-social behaviour onto Bewley Street and potentially put the safety of the residence (including a number of young families) at risk just so that a handful of non-residence don't have to walk a small extra distance around the block to access Wandle Meadow Nature Park."
I met some of this anti-social element when I walked down, along, back up and across to reach the parkside end of the Bridge To Nowhere. A bunch of kids on bikes rode in from the estate opposite, gabbling in some Eastern European language, to hide away in the thicket and perch atop some logs. To be honest they looked like they were having a great time exploring their own local wilderness, as if taking part in some nostalgic Enid Blyton adventure. But evidence elsewhere suggested not every visitor to the park behaves so well, indeed I spotted enough used tinfoil discarded by the end of the footbridge to wrap a brace of Christmas turkeys.
The council initially demanded a footbridge to complete a missing link along the Wandle Trail, and to give residents of the new estate access to their nearest recreational amenity. Merton's planners have already declared the status quo "unfit for purpose", so I'd expect the voices of the three Bewley Street complainants to be outgunned by the needs of the wider community. If all goes to plan construction could begin next month, with completion due in spring 2014. And by next summer there'll be ramblers and cyclists passing through, and a valuable shortcut provided for nearby residents, and a brand new circuit those kids on bikes will be able to enjoy. Because the Wandle shouldn't be a private river, it's for everyone, and what's needed here is clearly a Bridge To Somewhere.