THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON River Rom Stapleford Abbotts → Romford → Dagenham (6 miles)
[Bourne Brook → Rom (+ Ravensbourne) → Beam → Thames]
Well what did you expect the river that flows through Romford to be called? It's a long one too, given three different names on its downhill journey. The River Rom rises just beyond the M25 as the Bourne Brook, a dully tautological name, but thankfully that's in Essex so I've not got to walk that bit. Three miles down, in the village of Stapleford Abbotts, it turns south and transmogrifies into the Rom. Then below Romford, at the confluence with The Ravensbourne (no, not that one), it changes its name again to become the Beam River. This last three mile stretch perfectly defines the border between Havering and Barking and Dagenham, which just goes to show how crucial rivers are in defining modern London. Checking on a map before I set out I assumed I'd be walking a lot of the route along roads, but this turned out not to be the case because there were extensive riverside paths. Indeed what I'd been expecting to be a trifle purgatorial proved anything but, although I doubt the riverbanks would be quite so welcoming in February. [10 photos]
Stapleford Abbotts is the first village out of London on its far northeastern rim, located a few dips beyond Havering-atte-Bower. As such to reach it requires travelling on one of TfL's least frequent buses, the 90-minutely 375 from Romford, and some carefully coordinated scheduling. About half of the passengers on the post-shopping run alight in H-a-B, while the rest of us continue to the straggly strings of mostly modern houses that define S A. The Bourne Brook has its own bus stop, which is more than this trickle of water between cottages rightly deserves, and its own lane which doglegs off towards Lambourne End. The stream next appears at Bourne Bridge, as a barely perceptible feature, and it's from this point down that the river is officially known as the Rom.
A footpath tracks the Rom's first few hundred metres, running up the side of a house with horses, then across a field littered with evidence of their diet. Within a clump of trees two narrow footbridges lead across a tributary (the Spurgate Brook) and then the main stream, now at least with perceptible flow. The next mini footbridge may not look significant but it's where London begins, as can be deduced by the Essex-style footpath marker on one side and a Havering-esque roundel on the other. Alas by now the river has darted off across private land, the local landowners confining ramblers to a narrow strip of grass between paddocks so that their horses can safely graze.
You'll know the next bit if you've ever walked London Loop section 20, ascending a low hill along the wooded edge of Havering Country Park. There's also a fantastic view across central London, from the spiky Dome and dense Docklands cluster to the familiar silhouettes of the South Bank and City. I've trained my camera on the horizon, across the green indentation of the Rom valley, and very definitely not on the farmer and his family out inspecting the horses at the foot of the nearest field. Nevertheless I'm unnerved to see his Shogun slowly ascend the slope, pull over alongside and wind down the window for a chat. In the awkward conversation that follows he moves from outright suspicion to inviting me to pop down to the farm to share the negatives, and I think we're both equally relieved as the other moves on.
That's it for fields. The Rom hits built-up London alongside Carter Drive, where some suspiciously young lads in baseball caps sit in souped-up motors waiting for me to get out of the way. This is Havering Park, a low-spec interwar estate which would have swamped the valley to the north had not the Green Belt been slapped down. I'm expecting to have to walk the streets but was pleased to find a freshly-mown waterside path to follow between the backs of tiny gardens - the Collier Row Green Link. The river is barely visible beneath lush billowing vegetation, a more than pleasant scene which will be repeated at several other points downstream. And yet absolutely nobody else is out taking advantage of this half mile natural amenity, presumably because local residents are more car people than walkers.
I enter Collier Row Recreation Ground behind a trio of young girls leading their toddler brother towards the playground. "Run!" they shriek, "the old man's going to get you!", and the littl'un runs with all his might. It's a very friendly borough, Havering, so long as you fit in. The Rom gets a namecheck on the bridge at Collier Row Road, flowing through its first drab concrete channel between a builders' merchant and the Gospel Hall. And then it dashes off across inaccessible nomansland, past allotments and the back of a school playing field, so please bear with me while I walk fifteen minutes of pavement.
King George's Playing Fields are a triangular kickabout space, seemingly for the walking of dogs around the perimeter, with the Rom forming a decorative border along one side. Approaching the 'Teenage Area' the river looks at its most normal, a shallow brook overshadowed by trees, with the mandatory blue rope dangling above the shoals. And then the river escapes again, ducking beneath the Eastern Avenue dual carriageway to enter a wedge of retail sheds to the north of Romford town centre. The cul-de-sacs leading off North Street have names like Brooklands Approach and Riverside Close (very close, if you live in the latter).
Romford has learned to be cautious of its namesake river. In August 1888 the Great Flood inundated the High Street to a depth of several feet, destroying shopkeepers' stock and washing thirty thousand beer barrels far downstream. It took the town six months to clean up, and the disaster finally spurred the council to build better drainage across the town. In the 1950s the Rom was reengineered as a deep concrete channel, with what looks like a slightly-raised footpath to one side, the banks now much beloved by grafitti artists. Meanwhile the section between the ring road and the railway was permanently culverted, much of this stretch now covered by The Brewery superstores complex, or more accurately its car park. Little do they realise as they hunt for a parking space, or take the scenic escalator to the cinema, or waddle into the Toby Carvery, that the town's namesake river lies beneath.
The Rom reappears beyond the viaduct, still tamed by concrete, emerging to public view on the ring road (round the back of an office building which, damn, I've been trying not to revisit for over 15 years). The river has been honoured with its own streetname, Rom Valley Way, and consequently by the Rom Valley Way Retail Park (which boasts both a Mothercare and Carpet Right). It's a shame there isn't a computer warehouse for some wag to name Rom ROMs, but the river always feels tolerated rather than celebrated round here. And then we're at Roneo Corner, named for the Roneo Vickers factory that once stood here, now an extra-busy road junction. It's here that the boundary with Barking and Dagenham feeds in, and continues to the Thames, but we'll do that tomorrow if you don't mind. Or even if you do.