THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON The Mutton Brook Hampstead Garden Village (2 miles)
[Mutton Brook + Dollis Brook → Brent → Thames]
My second unlost river, the Mutton Brook, runs for a couple of miles across the southern end of the borough of Barnet. It starts around East Finchley and heads for Hendon, approximately from one arm of the Northern line to the other, mostly following the A1. Though always more artificial channel than natural stream, it manages to pass through a lot of open public land and there are some proper ornamentally scenic bits. It'll be familiar to anyone who's walked the Capital Ring, because section 11 follows almost the entire length. And I have no idea why it's called the Mutton Brook, sorry, but presumably local sheep were once involved. There are no sheep now.
The catchment area of the Mutton Brook begins on the western slopes of Highgate Wood. The stream doesn't officially begin until rather further down, but evidence of its existence can sometimes be seen in Cherry Tree Wood, a triangular open space opposite East Finchley station. When the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway passed through in the 1860s its viaduct hindered the free passage of groundwater and the land became boggy, encouraging one entrepreneur to cultivate watercress beds. These are long gone, but in a wet January it's still possible to find stubborn squelchy pools in the muddy grass by the perimeter footpath, overlooked by passing Northern line trains.
The modern source of the Mutton Brook is alas officially out of bounds round the back of Belvedere Court, a streamlined 'moderne' apartment block on Lyttelton Road. Built just before World War 2 it counts a young Jerry Springer as one of its early residents, and I suspect the stream makes a pleasant water feature along the perimeter of the back garden. Out front the view is less appealing as the busy A1 trunk road carves through, taking direct advantage of the Mutton Brook valley to head for Hendon and The North.
To catch the river proper, cross carefully and find the entrance to the recreation ground behind the synagogue on Norrice Lea. These are the Lyttelton Playing Fields, and the Mutton Brook emerges behind the Bowls Club along the edge of the tennis courts, where you probably wouldn't think to walk. Looking down into the ditch a characteristic feature of the river is already apparent, namely wooden boards along the edge of the water to prevent the banks from collapsing. This looks a little amateur, more like a mini garden fence than a flood defence, but the old school carpentry clearly still works. To follow the river take the right-hand bank, not the more tempting route past the cafe, crossing later through the woods via a tiny footbridge. Occasionally more water pours in from a pipe, the remnants of a feeder tributary long since driven underground, but the current trickling along the stony bed remains crystal clear.
At Kingsley Way a flood marker pokes several metres out of the stream, seemingly much too high to be useful, but a sticker reading '63' suggests that an inundation half a century ago proved otherwise. Locals are generally to be found on the parallel shopping parade, bookended by two Kosher bakeries, but the Mutton Brook continues along the recreational corridor behind. Its presence is now the central feature of the parkland, cut deep in the grass and occasionally scenically spanned. On one bank are the Northway Gardens rose gardens, on the other winter-friendly tennis courts, and the artificial channel in the middle is probably at the limit of what a small boy would dare leap. Walking through, it's clear that the architects of Hampstead Garden Village did a fine job of embracing the Mutton Brook rather than hiding it away, making it the centrepiece of their sylvan vision.
Eventually the river returns to the main road, Falloden Way, and tunnels briefly to the other side. Here Barnet Council have erected a sign warning 'Polluted Water Keep Out', not that anyone'd go paddling in January, but the water almost looks appealing enough otherwise. Don't bother crossing yourself, instead continue to the alleyway off Addison Way to discover the Mutton Brook's most private section. Its channel wiggles through woodland and grassland, the banks lined by planks or concrete or occasionally even earth, with pebbly shoals stretching round some of the inner bends. Sharing a few hundred metres with squirrels and creeper-covered trees makes it all the more surprising when you cross an iron footbridge to emerge at the other end alongside one of the larger road junctions in London.
Henlys Corner is named after the Henlys garage that once stood here, at the point where the Great North Road and North Circular coincide and cross the Finchley Road. Here the car is king, unless it's the Sabbath in which case the pedestrian crossing flicks automatically into action every 90 seconds so that worshippers at nearby Finchley Synagogue don't have to press the button. Once safely past, the Mutton Brook runs parallel to the main road at the foot of a long grassy slope. The landscaping is unexpectedly pleasant for such an arterial spot, but the river's nothing special here, following a breezeblock-style channel past the bottom of several long gardens. I'd been doing relatively well in my trainers up until this stretch, but the Riverside Walk got really squelchy in places and before long every formerly white surface was coated with an unappealing brown.
A long circulartunnel guides the Mutton Brook beneath the North Circular, 1930s style, but with modern CCTV cameras at either end. I followed a very Orthodox gentleman through, and was pursued by a Polish family on bikes now with very muddy wheels. And past the playground that's pretty much it, the end of the river, at a singularly important confluence. It's here in East Hendon that the Mutton Brook meets the Dollis Brook, a longer stream, and together the two form the River Brent. Unusually the mix is very obvious, with the Mutton Brook's clear waters flowing headlong into the Dollis Brook's siltier flow, and the Brent is doomed to be brown as it continues to the Thames. For another day, I think.