THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Dollis Brook Edgware → Barnet → Hendon (10 miles)
[Dollis Brook + Mutton Brook → Brent → Thames]
If the first half of the Dollis Brook was eastbound and rural, then the second is southbound and suburban. Don't worry, Part Two is still remarkably green and pleasant, though rather more tamed, and always with an underlying feeling that this is how Finchley council wanted the river to look rather than how it originally used to be. Stick to the footpath and you'll miss the heart of Barnet, bypass the streets of Whetstone and barely spot the outskirts of Hendon. And as before it's all terribly well signposted, thanks to a Mayoral grant from a few years ago, so there's no need to download a map before you visit. Unless you'd like proper background information, that is, in which case you'll be pleased to hear that a 9-page DollisValleyGreenwalk guide can be found here.
As the Dollis Brook bends south, the surrounding banks become increasingly recreational. The first sign of this is the Barnet Table Tennis Centre, a drab brick shed with an unnecessarily extensive car park, and then a gently sloping playing field. Here a keen Dad had set out a course of at least two dozen miniature cones and was busy delivering an intensive solo spell of football training to his potentially not-as-keen offspring. The greenspace then metamorphosed into Wyatts Farm Open Space, essentially a long thin riverside park, where you'll be glad to hear kite-flying hasn't gone out of fashion. It has two parallel paths, the lower for cyclists and the upper for those on foot, although if you'd missed the tiny pictograms at the beginning you'd never know. I took the lower path because it went nearer the river, only to get dinged out of the way by a passing peloton in black and pink lycra. I also managed to get caught up with a Dad trying to tire out his two long-haired sons, one a skateboarder, the other on a scooter and occasionally smashing into his older brother 'for a laugh'.
Across the river lies South Herts Golf Club, 50 years ago appropriately named, as the ridiculously contorted border of Middlesex hereabouts somehow failed to enclose it. The former county boundary is still marked by a large ash tree at the top of the neighbouring slope, unoriginally called the Boundary Tree, where Hertfordshire unexpectedly melted into Middlesex. The river then became the dividing line, or dividing wiggle as it must have been, because the channel is really sinuous round here. There's one particularly distinct U-bend by the path which every passingchronicler stops to photograph, although the remainder of the meanders were more hidden within a wooded envelope. And this was a really busy stretch, people-wise, which might have been throngs of Londonistas out for a Weekend Walk, but alas nobody gave the secret signal, so was far more likely because the residents of N20 already knew how pleasant it all was.
There followed a direct hit on one of the Underground's least used stations, Totteridge and Whetstone. That's not surprising, given that the railway line to High Barnet took full advantage of the Dollis Brook's valley, but this is fractionally the closest the river comes to the modern Northern line. Totteridge Lane makes a very distinct dip to cross the brook, now approaching three metres wide, and here the official path switched to the opposite bank to pass through the delightfully-named Whetstone Stray. This was another tranquil linear greenspace, replete with daisies and deeper undergrowth, and is watched over by a voluntary group of local residents. Two well-groomed joggers sauntered past me, engrossed in discussing their favourite gins, closely followed by a pattering wolfhound and a woman patiently carrying its poo in a plastic bag.
The Dollis Brook divided Laurel Way into two postcodes, then continued along a narrow path between a recreation ground and explorable meanderside. Ahead, alas, was the one point where the council's bargaining power failed and the Greenwalk was forced to take to the streets. The offending landowners are the Old Finchleians, whose sports ground blocks the footpath at a locked gate, and also the long back gardens of the houses on Westbury Road. A choice of diversions has been provided, one via Woodside Park station, although I'd recommend the slightly longer western alternative because it eventually passed a more interesting location. Through the trees could be seen the point where the Folly Brook meets the Dollis Brook (hey Ben, there's a River of London called the Folly Brook, who knew?), a junction which once marked the very bottom corner of Hertfordshire.
Beyond Argyle Road the riverside gained a more playful air, with an abundance of child-friendly equipment installed relatively recently by the council. A dull but worthy sign announced "The use of these facilities involves risk", as was demonstrated further along by child swinging from a tyre above the water, and a Dad standing in the middle of the river while his two kids climbed an adjacent tree. I enjoyed the next half mile stretch, a woodland wander down a tightly defined corridor within which the brook was free to trickle between natural earthen banks. A series of footbridges added to the random appeal, as did the opportunity to bear off briefly via a narrow jungly riverside path. But best of all, for we fluvial geography connoisseurs, was a silted up bend that had become an oxbow lake. And OK, so it was more an oxbow puddle than a lake, but the banana shape was unmistakeable, and it was possible to step onto the former neck and stand on raised mud where the river had once flowed.
More obvious evidence of the brook's erosive power is the Dollis Brook Viaduct which carries the Northern line high above the valley on the Mill Hill East spur. Its 13 brick arches rise 60 feet above the stream, making this the highest point above ground level on the Underground network, and creating a photogenicsequence of openings through its lofty gaps. I didn't wait around long enough to see a train up there, instead negotiating the third and final roadside section of the walk with necessary care. When the brook re-emerged it had been constrained to an ugly concrete channel, thankfully not for too long, but a reminder that urban rivers remain overground only so long as the risk of flooding is mitigated.
The last of the linear parks along the Dollis Brook is the Windsor Open Space, initially slim then later opening out to fill a larger recreational space. The river was more languid here, flowing past thickly-rooted banks covered at present by innumerable six-petalled white flowers (whose proper name I'm sure you can tell me). An oppressively narrow subway led the Greenwalk beneath Hendon Lane, beyond which the brook emerged and promptly tumbled over a massive concrete weir, completely out of kilter with the entire previous ten miles. The next bridge carried the A1 Great North Way, and bore the copper shield of Middlesex on its flank, beyond which the river lost its brief sense of importance and retreated behind a screen of nettles. And there coming in from the left was the Mutton Brook, which you'll remember I walked back in January, and whose confluence marked the beginning of the River Brent proper. And that's eighteen miles further to the Thames, so definitely a safari for another time.