THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Wealdstone Brook Wealdstone → Wembley (4 miles)
[Wealdstone Brook → Brent → Thames]
In the early 20th century, the Wealdstone Brook was described as "one of the most perfect little streams anywhere, abounding in dace and roach." You'd never describe it that way today. As Metroland spread past Wembley towards Harrow, the Wealdstone Brook was engulfed by suburbia and mostly confined to a concrete channel running between the backs of houses. It's an unexpectedly wide channel, but not a particularly lovely one, and the abundant fisheries are long gone. So what follows is quite a dull report, sorry, apart from the bit where I'm almost arrested, and the place where the brook flows unseen beneath somewhere you've almost certainly walked.
Unsuprisingly the Wealdstone Brook rises in Wealdstone, the former Middlesex village that gets second billing in the name of the local Harrow station. It's no glamorous location, more a commercial cluster and gateway to avenues beyond, with the brook's source entirely hidden underneath. For the first mile or so the old stream is culverted out of sight and thus nigh impossible to follow, somewhere between the Leisure Centre and the council recycling centre, So I started my walk proper in KentonRecreationGround, and that's where I had my 'incident'.
According to the Ordnance Survey, the first sighting of the Wealdstone Brook is behind the tennis courts on the southern edge of Kenton rec. So I trooped through, struck by how incredible empty the place was for a Saturday afternoon, although the chill winter rain may have had something to do with it. Three blokes were hanging around the back of the pavilion, so I tried to look nonchalant as I headed off across the basketball court to peer through the fence at the back. No river was obvious, but I took a photo anyway just in case and proceeded behind the tennis courts along what turned out to be a barriered dead end. And as I turned back I noticed that one of the three gentlemen was striding purposefully towards me, and forcing an encounter on my way back.
"Can I ask what you're doing?" said Adam. "I'm Adam and I'm a volunteer here, and there's been a spate of burglaries on Becmead Avenue with people sneaking through holes in the wire fence, so what you're doing behind the tennis courts looks a bit odd, to say the least, so can I ask what you're doing?" I considered telling him I was researching a blog post about a river I hadn't found yet, but thought better of it, and made some rubbish excuse about taking photos even though this was clearly neither the weather nor the place for it. I feared I was about to become chief suspect number 1 in a police investigation, but thankfully Adam turned out to be a very poor interrogator and ended up telling me about the hedgehogs in the nature reserve behind the fence instead. Nevertheless I exited the park feeling highly unwelcome, and was relieved to finally tiptoe out of sight of the watching posse.
Becmead Avenue turned out to be quite pleasant, and there between numbers 39 and 41 was my first sight of the Wealdstone Brook. I was surprised to see that its channel was already four metres wide, and with a good stream of water flowing over the weir, whereas most of the other rivers I've tracked thus far have been narrow trickles. I think I did well viewing on a wet day, as there was actually some river to see. And so the broad manmade channel continued, at least as often as I could catch sight of it, for example under the very obvious dip in St Leonard's Avenue and then in a deep concrete notch along Kenton Lane. The river's serious enough by this point to merit an Environment Agency tracking station and a depth gauge, and with more than a hint of storm drain about it.
Woodcock Park is the only part of the Wealdstone Brook's course that could be described in any way as natural. Beyond the footbridge by the mural, the river actually meanders, which is unheard of in anything artificially drainage-based. It runs between earthen banks, two avenues of trees and a pair of muddy footpaths for almost a quarter of a mile, tracked by exercising dogs, before it was all too good to be true and the brick banks, then concrete banks, return. Two consecutive schools then get the benefit of the Wealdstone Brook along their boundary, and then the river's only tributary feeds in somewhere behind Vine Court. It's called, with stunning lack of originality, the Kenton Brook, and it runs along the edge of Queensbury Park from the Morrisons on Honeypot Lane.
The enlarged river flows through the middle of a very suburban roundabout, amid an extensive estate of sweeping avenues and tired semis that you'd never visit unless you lived here. We're entering Preston, a Brent suburb that'd be much more well known if only the local tube station didn't have 'Road' at the end. A hundred years ago this was farmland, and the Met line halt was a request stop; now Preston Farm is covered with houses and the lake at Uxendon Farm has been split asunder by the Jubilee line. Trains cross the Brook on a long viaduct, the river now six metres wide and accessible down two locked ramps should the Environment Agency ever need to drive down into the channel to dredge or unblock something.
After a culverting beneath the Met/Jubilee railway junction, the Wealdstone Brook reemerges for a final run down into Wembley. Its passage behind Elmstead Avenue tracks through what used to be South Forty Farm, whereas Brook Avenue is a historic waterside lane increasingly adulterated by highrise flats. And here comes the well-known bit. If you've ever exited Wembley Park tube and walked down to the Stadium, you've crossed the Wealdstone Brook which flows directly underneath, very close to the station end. It's a proper river here too, not just water in a pipe, as you can see if you look over the railings by the Premier Inn or follow the staircases towards the student housing tower. And boo hiss to the developers currently swallowing Wembley for their own. Not content with flattening the Empire Exhibition's Palace of Industry, they're recently plastered over the Live Aid mosaic in the Olympic Way subway to make way for billboards promoting studio flats. If you want to live somewhere increasingly megabland, the Wembley Stadium environs are for you.
Having crossed beneath Wembley Way, the broad channel of the Wealdstone Brook enters its final (and least photogenic) half mile. Much of the land to the northeast of the stadium is industrial estate, including this stretch along the edge of the Metropolitan line. The river crosses North End Road three times, snaking past car-fixing joints, printshops, electronics warehouses and meat wholesalers that smell of pie. At one point the road is gated, but I assumed it was OK to walk through, and eventually reached an oppressive footpath off Atlas Road. This is the entrance to the Brent River Park, which sounds twenty times nicer than the reality, which is a wall of containers above a deep littered channel. And just down there is the point where the Wealdstone Brook feeds into the Brent, now a major river, and a 'treat' for another time.