THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Silk Stream Edgware → Hendon (2½ miles)
[Silk Stream → Brent → Thames]
Having rested this feature for four months, and not heard one word of complaint, now seems as good a time as any to bring it back. I'm returning with a walk along an unlost river whose name suggests lush sensuality, but whose reality is quite different. It runs down the western edge of the borough of Barnet, between the A5 and the Northern line, a path well shown on this map of its flood plain. Just for a change I'm going to walk it upstream, allowing me to pick and choose which particular tributary I follow at the top end. But don't expect excitement. [6 especially autumnal photos]
The point where the Silk Stream originally met the Brent is now lost beneath the Welsh Harp Reservoir. It's important for keeping the Grand Union Canal topped up, for yachting and waterfowl, and for flats. Developers are knocking down the council housing at West Hendon and sequentially regenerating it, with waterside plots the first to be infilled. Towers and brick blocks now loom over the reservoir's edge, while the opposite bank remains delightfully unsullied. A twisty path winds between trees and rushes, at one point opening out to reveal a wooden hide overlooking autumnal migration, inside which various potential dodgy phone numbers are scrawled. Best bit of the entire walk, this, which is sad because we're still only on paragraph one, and the river proper hasn't appeared yet. It's first seen round the back of the bowling club, but only if you cross through a clearing covered in woven twigs. Telltale litter suggests that folk were sleeping rough here only recently, the lower Silk Stream acting as their bedroom wall.
The river's first/last mainstream appearance is on the A5 (Edgware Road), although it crosses underneath so you have to be both on the pavement and observant to notice. A more obvious connection is the Silkbridge Retail Park, a minor warehouse triumvirate selling pet food, bikes and DIY, built on the flood plain where no sane developer would place a home. A good twelve feet wide, the Silk Stream is then screened behind a rather large Sainsbury's, and its car park, and a car dealers, and by now you're probably getting the idea. Much of this river's immediate valley has been put to commercial use, and is now the kind of place that Barnet residents drive to to buy multipack crisps and rawlplugs. A giant Homebase completes this unlovely trudge through The Hyde estate, so best move on.
At last the Silk Stream breaks out into the public domain, forming the entire eastern boundary of Rushgrove Park... and yet rather than shine, the closest footpath skirts at some distance. Danger, Keep Away From Banks Of Stream, Flooding May Occur, reads the somewhat neurotic notice that Barnet council have chosen to erect by the water's edge, even though no possible instantaneous inundation could ever cause risk or injury to anyone. Even the former footbridge at the top of the park has been removed, relatively recently, forcing residents of the delightfully named Colin Crescent to detour via the almost as intriguing Colindeep Lane.
Alas Colindeep Lane turns out not to be especially intriguing, with barely a glimpse of the Silk Stream meandering behind back gardens, care homes and a technology park. Indeed I'll struggle to find many good words to say about Colindale, a suburb currently enblandening itself via a particularly virulent blast of regeneration. Bricky glass boxes are rising everywhere, especially up on the Edgware Road, but increasingly now in the vicinity of the river. As recently as 2013 the British Library used to store their newspapershere, their stacks now stacks of concrete floors awaiting final transformation into hundreds of flats. Most ghastly is the so-called 'Pulse'development by the tube station, a soulless enclave of irregular apartment blocks where the promised 'community feel' appears to consist of a muted cafe and an estate agents.
Only those in the know realise there's a tiny footpath round the back of the North London Blood Transfusion Centre, crossing a tributary to enter Montrose Playing Fields. And here at last the Silk Stream is given a chance to roam free, even if only along an engineered ornamental channel. A scattering of golden leaves helps add colour at this time of year, just as they did when John Betjeman visited in black and white for a BBC programme in 1968. He describes the Silk Stream as "the Tiber of Middlesex", with more than a little poetic licence. But a low footbridge by the changing rooms adds character, and the landscape improves further beyond the next street, in Silkstream Park. Created in the 1920s when the surrounding housing estates were laid out, to ensure suitable drainage, it provides a more than pleasant spot for recreation.
The surrounding housing estates comprise Burnt Oak, the London County Council's great suburban hope, now the most deprived corner of Barnet borough. The Silk Stream flows unseen beneath the high street in the vicinity of Ali's Halal Butchery Cash and Carry, though can be followed for a short distance if you slip between the shops down the steps labelled 'Saturday Market'. Once a popular trading magnet, its stalls were locked away when I arrived during what should have been peak hours, the sole trader being a fishmonger set up outside on a table facing the station car park. Following an unlost river can lead you to the most unlikely places.
Alas the next bit of the river's hard to follow. The stream runs along the edge of the Northern line, behind a lowrise housing estate which proves that postwar architecture could also be depressingly dull. It reappears in the grounds of Edgware Community Hospital, a medical nerve centre surrounded by a glum halo of clinics and out-patient departments. And here it also splits, or rather merges, because I'm walking the river in the opposite direction to its flow. Down from the west comes the Edgware Brook, via (in reverse order) Canons Park, Honeypot Lane, Stanmore and Bentley Priory. And down from the northeast comes another tributary, the one I chose to follow, which combines here on NHS property to form the Silk Stream.
THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Deans Brook Mill Hill Golf Club → Edgware (1¼ miles)
[Deans Brook → Silk Stream → Brent → Thames]
Appropriately it's Deansbrook Road which crosses at the foot of the Deans Brook, though I'm not sure which particular Dean either is named after. Crossing the Underground close to Edgware station the stream heads below depot sidings, all of this out of public view. But there it is again under the alleyway between Brook Avenue and Farm Road, and at the bottom of a surprisingly steep dip. The semis on Farm Road are so low down that one has a small parking bay in its front garden entered at pavement level, but with a sign warning of a seven foot drop beyond. Somewhere behind the mock Tudor frontage another tributary rolls in, this the Edgwarebury Brook, though this is culverted beneath the suburban avenues beyond. The Deans Brook continues in the open, behind the back gardens of the upmarket bungalows in Highfield Gardens, whose residents get to see it and you don't.
The A41 is a massive road, launching at nearby Apex Corner, and crossed by one of those massive footbridges favoured by 80s town planners. But immediately beyond - yes it was worth walking this far - there's Stoneyfields Park. Here the fledgling Deans Brook has been dammed to create an ornamental lake, exited via a cascade of half a dozen weirs. This pretty scene is augmented by swans and other waterfowl, seemingly often fed ripped-up bread by local children in direct contravention of yet another Barnet council regulation. Following the brook's upper course requires passing beneath two adjacent viaducts, one brick for the Midland mainline, the other concrete for the M1. Alas the source is on Mill Hill Golf Course, off limits except to members. But look carefully beyond the viaducts and you might just spot a dingy road past a metal recycling yard - the back entrance to Scratchwood services...