THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Dollis Brook Edgware → Barnet → Hendon (10 miles)
[Dollis Brook + Mutton Brook → Brent → Thames]
The Dollis Brook is essentially the first ten miles of the River Brent under a different name, running east from Edgware to Barnet, then bending south through Finchley to Hendon. If you're looking to walk one of outer London's unlost rivers it's also one of the best. At the top end it's proper pastoral, while further down it flourishes through suburbia within a thick strip of green, and very rarely are you forced away to traipse down parallel streets instead. For this we should thank Alfred Pike, Finchley's Mayor in 1937, who worked tirelessly to create a riverside walk down the western edge of his borough, and whose foresight has held back further development to this day. His Brookside Walk has since become the DollisValleyGreenwalk, a comprehensively signposted ramble from source to mouth, which I walked for pleasure at the weekend. [official DV Greenwalk guide]
Getting to the start of the Dollis Valley Greenwalk is only easy if you live in Borehamwood and arrive by public transport. In this case the 292 bus will drop you off right at the start, whereas if you arrive from the south you'll have to get off one stop early to cross the A1 dual carriageway via a subway. Drivers are stymied because Barnet Council have inexplicably closed the Moat Mount Open Space car park at the beginning of the route, but that suited me because I met nobody whatsoever for the first half mile, and otherwise the place would no doubt have been thronging with dogwalkers, doggers and the like. The first section of the walk was uphill, which was a clue that the damp notch beside the footpath wasn't the river proper. But the leafy climb swiftly topped out beside open pasture, the fenced-off path edged by spring flowers - a proper pleasant start.
It was at the summit that I met my first fellow walkers, a mixed group of ramblers studying a printed-out map and trying to work out which path to take. I considered making the Londonista secret sign, but chickened out through embarrassment, so decided that further along the walk I'd simply listen out for the key phrase ‘fine day for it’. A broad path continued downhill and into ancient woodland, a proper rural getaway and yet somehow still within the confines of Greater London. To one side a small pond marked the source of the Dollis Brook, fenced off behind a notice warning of deep water, with a prominent red canister attached containing an emergency line lest anyone should get carried away. The first of three road walks followed, along a half-residential lane lined with terribly desirable homes, as befits the north Totteridge environs. At one point the fledgling stream was seen, nothing special, before the lane headed south to meet up with the Dollis Brook's alternative headwaters.
A private track past a sports ground (they close it every year on 28th February) led back to the river, via what was the only unavoidable metre of mud on the whole walk. But the next mile was lovely, even gorgeous at the right time of year, which is now. The meadows of the upper Dollis Brook are lush and verdant in late spring, a riot in white, pink and green, and bursting with blossom and buttercups. They're also remarkably remote, the nearest mansions some distance up the valley slopes, and the only prominent sounds those of chirpy birdsong. Ahead lay Totteridge's ancient hay meadows, which are mown just once a year to maintain the butterfly-friendly wildflower mix. Every so often a small brook trickled down from the south, crossed via a plank, or rather would have trickled if only we'd had enough rain of late. And the main stream flowed crystal clear behind a screen of green undergrowth, occasionally visible through an overhanging indentation, as fluffy seeds drifted from the hedgerow in the breeze.
"Morning." Damn, I'd been enjoying the isolation, and suddenly a lady with two small dogs was bustling past. I received a "Hi there" from two joggers too, their jogging route almost certainly better than your jogging route, for what it's worth. I noted that neither of these parties had opened their conversation with Londonist's secret phrase, neither were they wielding their thumb and forefinger in the special 'L' formation, but that's local residents for you. Indeed unexpectedly local residents, as after six successive meadows the official footpath suddenly crossed to the opposite bank of the stream. Here behind a screen of trees were the backs of houses on the outer outskirts of Barnet, specifically Ducks Island, with a municipally mown lawn separating them from the river. The landscaping wasn't unpleasant, indeed the grass was impeccably maintained, yet all felt somewhat bland after the previous unspoilt mile.
The Dollis Brook was now a shallow stream a metre wide with pebbly bed, wiggling gently in a slightly deeper channel. Every now and then I heard laughs and activity on the other side of the stream, which I assumed must be bucolic youth enjoying screened-off meadows, but which later turned out to be a couple of sports grounds. On my side the land rose up to a broad river terrace used as parkland, with the first tarmac footpath of the walk snaking across the brow. From this point onwards you'll be fine in trainers, even during a muddy winter. The occasional footbridge broke off to carry a public path up the hill to Totteridge, which if I've not hinted already is one of the nicest (for which read 'most expensive') villages in London. But here on the Barnet side we got lads in hoodies, kids on pink scooters, and an invasion of crows flapping off with bounty from a freshly dumped loaf of bread.
Every so often the trappings of city life were visible on the skyline, in particular an Odeon cinema, the Northern line and Barnet FC's former Underhill Stadium. There was also a brief stretch where the river ran deep below what I could almost describe as a cliff, broached at one point by stairs down to three flat stepping stones, providing access to a field on the opposite bank. I considered crossing to enjoy less artificial surroundings but didn't risk it, foolishly as it turned out, as the dog walkers I later saw emerging onto Barnet Lane confirmed. This was only the second road I'd encountered in four miles of walking, so underdeveloped is this part of outer North London. And having followed London Loop section 16 for all that time, this was also the point where that more well-known walking trail broke off to head for Cockfosters, while we Dollis Brook devotees veered south along the riverside.
I'll write about the more urban half of the unlost river tomorrow, and whether perhaps the Londonist reader count was any higher here.