THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Pymmes Brook Monken Hadley → Arnos Grove → Tottenham Hale (6½ miles)
[Pymmes Brook → Lea → Thames]
I'm following the Pymmes Brook along the Pymmes Brook Trail, a ten mile waymarked path through the outer suburbs of North London. And I've already walked the best bit, so if you choose to follow my footsteps in what follows, don't say you weren't warned.
At the far end of Arnos Park, Pymmes Brook disappears down a concrete channel with walls much higher than we've seen thus far. At the same point the Pymmes Brook Trail heads off at right angles, out of the gate and up a busy avenue, and it'll be three quarters of an hour before we see the river again. The next destination is Broomfield Park, deemed more interesting than a backstreet yomp, and rightly so. The park started out as the garden of a 16th century house, much altered and enlarged over the years until 1984 when disaster struck. A fire took out the roof and some of the top floor, allowing a further fire in 1994 to make the entire structure unsafe. The decaying remains now sit beneath a protective roof, but money for renovation has alas not proved forthcoming and demolition looks the most likely outcome. But the walled garden at the heart of the park is a delight, with lush borders and ducky ponds, and crowds of locals flock to enjoy the play area and the minigolf, if not the rather bleak looking summer funfair.
We've reached Palmers Green, and a run of middleclass shops leading up to the station. This again would be a fine place to end the walk, because what follows is more of a trudge. After all that's come before it feels odd walking through what's essentially a town centre, but it is a useful place to pause for provisions (if not a pack of biros, because WH Smith closed down last month). Don't get your hopes up on Oakthorpe Lane because that welcoming waterway's not Pymmes Brook, it's the New River, their crossing point unseen downstream.
What's about to become clear is that one of London's busiest roads exploited the natural line of Pymmes Brook in its construction, for several miles, specifically the North Circular. The river ducked underneath a short way back, but for pedestrians crossing points are rare, so an exhaust-fumed hike is required to reach the next subway at Chequers Way. How swiftly the environment, and local house prices, change. From florists to coin-op launderette, and from smart garden to light industrial hub. The dairy silos of Arla Foods dominate Tile Kiln Lane, a dead end where employees park up out of the way of incoming lorries, leading to the rundown home of Edmonton Rangers Youth FC. The riverside path at the far end is technically a nature reserve, not just a lager-littered gap between fence and water, but not even four environmental information boards and an outdoor classroom site can raise the tone.
Which brief respite leads straight back to the North Circular, specifically the Great Cambridge Roundabout, where a complex web of brown cycleways and pavements weaves above the heart of the traffic. The brickwork's almost attractive, if Eighties chic is your thing, but must make living round here somewhat of a trial. And once you've found the correct exit, which is not well signposted, we reach a road with a much longer heritage, namely Silver Street. Here the trail looks like it might enter the grounds of the Millfield Arts Centre, or else walking across the lawn past the big house might be trespass, it's hard to tell. The look the groundsman gave me suggested the latter, but an unexpected sign on the far side at the water's edge confirmed this was indeed the way.
The brook emerges from culvert beneath the A406 and passes a lowly council outhouse, before dividing the backs of flats from tightly-hedged allotments. The waterside path is isolated and somewhat fly-tipped, even a fraction scary, emerging past a rundown bakery and a pile of empty cooking oil canisters. And then a one-off for the Pymmes, a couple of bends of angled apartments looking down over a deep brick-lined channel overhanging with vegetation, which much have been a real selling point when the development was built, though thirty years later rather less so. Still, at least the river's visible, which it won't be shortly, as a sudden split into two divided conduits strongly hints.
Hurrah, here's PymmesPark, home in 1327 to landowner William Pymme who gave his name to the brook passing through his estate. I bet you've been wondering. The mansion's most famous owner was William Cecil, chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I, but none of the buildings survived the last war and these days the grounds belong to the council. They've done a good job of restoring the Victorian walled garden, and the enormous central lake is a delight too, although it's not actually on the line of the original river. This now scuttles beneath the North Circular, resurfacing only briefly in the far corner before wending off underneath the platforms of Silver Street Overground station.
The Pymmes Brook Trail has already given up on Pymmes Brook by this point, preferring to cross the more scenic parts of the park and then heading defiantly north rather than east. It's aiming for a brief cemetery-side stretch of a completely different river, Salmon's Brook, and then abandoning that to reach the River Lea at Picketts Lock. You can walk that way if you like, it's the official route, and I'll recommend Londonist's authoritative account of the entire Trail if you want to do it properly. But I noted that Pymmes Brook actually enters the Lea more than two miles south of Picketts Lock, so decided to head there instead. I was making a rod for my own back, truly.
There is no Pymmes Brook for the next mile, only the throbbing North Circular, until the river pops out again close to Mothercare on the Ravenside Trading Estate. From here it heads round the back of IKEA's car park, and then the back of IKEA itself, all on private inaccessible land, so there was no point in attempting to walk that way. Instead I trudged south and east and south and east to Leeside Avenue, one of those Upper Lea Valley streets where light industry is still very much the order of the day, and which occasionally smells like it. Crossing the railway I looked down over the vast brownfield site which Enfield Council desperately wants to turn into Meridian Water, a mixed use mega-development with ten thousand Barratt Homes, but somehow the start of the project has never yet quite materialised. And at the dead-end of the lane, just when I was giving up hope, the river again.
When you hear the word 'brook' you generally think of reeds and ripples, but here Pymmes Brook is simply a risk management minimisation strategy, a broad deep concrete channel to prevent the local populace from occasionally drowning. Sometimes it overtops with vegetation, sometimes the walls drop bare, and later a spiky metal fence will rise up entwined with convolvulus. We're on the Tottenham Marshes, a relatively inaccessible strip of grassland beneath chains of pylons, along the side of the Lea where the towpath isn't. For a mile and a half Pymmes Brook runs close but parallel, and mostly just out of sight behind a thick green veil.
Footfall only picks up at Stonebridge Lock, because there's a car park, and because the towpath switches sides. Again most stay by the Lea, but choose carefully and you'll remain marshside for big open skies - the ceramic map by the car park will explain. Only when the allotments kick in do the two watery threads really squish together, Pymmes Brook deliberately kept separate until just after Tottenham Lock at Ferry Lane. You might have walked or cycled across the low cobbled bridge several times without realising it's the outflow of a river which rose on a Barnet battlefield almost ten miles distant. It's not really worth following the brook from source to mouth, but keep an eye out for its passing, and the string of parkland pearls along the way.