THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON River Moselle Highgate → Tottenham (7 miles)
[Moselle (→ Pymmes Brook) → Lea → Thames]
The Moselle is Haringey's river, running from high ground to the west of the borough to enter the River Lea to the east. No relation to the French river of the same name, it's so called because it rose on what was once Mosse-Hill, from which Muswell Hill also gets its name. This river's not as unlost as most. The majority of the Moselle was culverted in either the 1830s or the 1900s, but two short stretches remain on the surface, and another has recently been uncovered and landscaped. In following the river I'm indebted to the Haringey Friends of Parks Forum who tracked down its course a few years ago and devised a walk to run alongside, at least as close as suburbia permits. They also wrote the whole thing up with map and directions to create a full colour 8-page leaflet which you can download here, or perhaps pick up a copy from the Hub at Lordship Rec. Last time I looked, there was one copy left.[7 photos]
The Moselle rises in Queens Wood, an extensive remnant of ancient woodland a short distance to the north of Highgate station. Its primary source trickles out of the earth round the back of the big houses on Muswell Hill Road, then follows a narrow rivulet down coppiced slopes. Winter's probably the best time to see a dribble of water, though not to see the muddy hillside at its best. Several footpaths are crossed, the tiny brook dipping through a succession of short pipes, then crossing a shallow clearing through a ring of thirteen oak trees. These are known locally as the Witches' Coven, although these days you're more likely to find dogs snuffling in the leaves than any paganritual. In the mire at the bottom of the wood, beneath a low brick wall, any surplus water runs into an open grille and heads underground. And that's the river's first good bit done and dusted, with several miles to go before we'll see it again.
The culvert leads downhill through the Crouch End Open Spaces, which alas aren't open to access from the footpath which runs on top. More welcoming is Priory Park, a landscaped pleasure grounds in two parts, and with a Philosopher's Garden to boot. The park has two water features, one a paddling pool, the other an ornate fountain relocated here in 1909 from the churchyard of St Paul's Cathedral. Once two rivers flowed here, the second of these being the Cholmeley Brook which swung in from a source just south of Highgate station (via Crouch End) before merging on Hornsey High Street. My walk leaflet directed me up Rectory Gardens to view a line of trees planted along the line of the covered river, then asked me to retrace my steps to walk through a housing estate where an ornamental lake no longer exists. Such are the joys of the lost-river-walker.
Hereabouts you'll find a Brook Street and a Moselle Close, plus another of the former on the other side of the New River. It's not easy to trace our river precisely through the gas works and former chocolate factories, but then a direct hit is scored on Wood Green Shopping City. The Moselle once crossed The Broadway where Argos now stands, or more likely along the alleyway to the north which would explain the gap between shops. A much more pleasant walk follows, through the early garden suburb of the Noel Park Estate. The river ran immediately behind the artisanal terraces on Moselle Avenue, although the only sign above ground today is the parapet of a former bridge on Vincent Road, easily overlooked near the laundrette. At the far end is Lordship Lane, once a country track with a brook alongside, although this now flows in culvert immediately underneath the pavement on the south side.
At the Post Office the Moselle breaks off on a remarkably twisted journey to the Lea, with a 17th century writer describing its route as "running through the middeth of the Town in a meaner fashion of the Greek Capital Omega". Its first target was the grounds of Downhills House, now the Lordship Recreation Ground, where the river finally returns to the surface. It was daylighted in 2012 as part of Lottery-funded improvement works, and now emerges into a silt pond before meandering between the cafe and the sports pitches. This wetland wiggle crossed by three footbridges is a bit of a triumph, and shows just what could be done to restore the river elsewhere along its length. Instead it plunges back down to flow beneath the BroadwaterFarm estate, named after the broad waters of the former river, and whose main amenities were all built at first floor level to minimise the risk of flooding.
From a once notorious estate to another garden suburb, the Moselle flows north into the pioneering Tower Gardens estate. Its Arts and Crafts houses are a world away from the highrise boxes across Lordship Lane, and the river was diverted beneath a straight culverted path to make way. Ahead is Tottenham Cemetery, the only part of the river's lower course never to have been forced underground. Here the Moselle meets a tributary called the Lesser Moselle, both now out in the open, merging up the far end near a splendid ornamental lake. And yet the resulting river's not quite picturesque, more a deep trench overlooked by trees and hidden between the memorials. It's not even easy to stroll beside, which is a shame when you've walked all this way to see it, and becomes considerably less photogenic as it passes the back of some allotments.
The river then reaches White Hart Lane, first the road, then the station, then the football ground. The Moselle was particularly susceptible to flooding around here, inspiring the rhyme "Highgate's rain is Tottenham's pain". It ran immediately alongside the High Road from here down to Scotland Green, where a Great Stone Bridge once stood, and was culverted in stages between 1833 and 1906. Should Coombes Croft Library be open the tamed stream can (apparently) be seen beneath a glass cover in the foyer. Nowadays the only flood is of traffic, or occasionally of football supporters, hence my progress yesterday was impeded by scarf-sellers, burger vans and a line of mounted police awaiting the post-match rush.
The lower course of the river then gets complicated. A 15th century drainage channel heads directly east to join the Lea, buried beneath a walkway known as Carbuncle Passage. The river proper instead bent south, running parallel to the High Road, its path marked by a tree-lined footpath alongside some modern flats in Tamar Way. Fifty years ago another shortcut was dug, diverting the main flow to the north of Tottenham Hale station and into the Pymmes Brook, immediately before it joins the Lea. But the Moselle proper originally veered across the gyratory, then through what's now the retail park, to its eventual mouth in Markfield Park. Beyond the former sewage works and its restored beam engine, the very end of the river is marked by an inconspicuous outflow beneath the towpath. You could easily never notice it, if cycling or walking by, but here's where Highgate's rain eventually ended up.