THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Norbury Brook Selhurst → Thornton Heath → Norbury (2½ miles)
[Norbury Brook → Graveney → Wandle → Thames]
Weather's been nice, so April seemed a good time to get out and follow another unlost river. This one's easily overlooked, but fairly significant if it floods, and crosses a lot of inner suburban south London. It pretty much follows the railway from Selhurst to Norbury, or rather I suspect the railway followed it as the line of least resistance. And then it changes its name for no particularly obvious reason and flows on to become the most significant tributary of the River Wandle, so there's something to look forward to. For today it's the Norbury Brook, a wiggly ditch that ducks behind the backs of hundreds of houses and under dozens of residential backstreets.
As far as I can tell, given the paucity of online information and some contours, the Norbury Brook sprung into life somewhere to the north of the Selhurst railway depot. Today it's first visible in a culvert running immediately alongside one of the sidings, and culverted it'll remain for almost all of its journey downstream. Thankfully an accessibly scenic landscape curves around the inside of the bend, namely Heavers Meadow, a looping banana-shaped path surrounding a wetland mire. This flood meadow was created when the Croydon Canal cut through, because a canal crossing a river is always awkward, one of several reasons why this artificial waterway proved an expensive failure. But the meadows are lovely, with squidgy pools and stalky willows and yellow marsh flowers, plus a grating to draw off all the water into the culvert after heavy rain. My apologies, it's rarely good news when the most scenic part of an entire walk occurs during the opening paragraph.
Having departed the Everglades of SE25, the Norbury Brook promptly disappears underground. It runs somewhere beneath Selhurst station, then under the streets round the back of The Brit School, before re-emerging between Bensham Manor Road and Kynaston Road to perform its new role, that of water feature at the bottom of the garden. The suburbs of Thornton Heath grew up in the late 19th century, with well-turned out but unprepossessing housing, and promptly camouflaged the Norbury Brook from view. It's still there on certain roads - Swain, Ecclesbourne, Boswell, Lucerne - a brief bridge parapet squeezed into the middle of a run of Victorian houses, and a low channel perhaps visible to those who think to peer over.
For those who like a more obvious verbal clue, Brook Road is pretty in-your-face, leading northwest from the dip in the main road by the station near the car wash. This leads to the Thornton Heath Recreation Ground where the Norbury Brook almost comes into its own, released to run along one entire edge of this long thin park. It'd look nicer were it to run down the centre as a landscape feature, but instead it skulks in a channel between railings and the backs of fences, leaving room for football pitches, cricket wickets and the like. Here teenagers smoke rebellious cigarettes in the kids playground, here the girls of Class 3 invite you to peruse their panelled birdwatching guide, and here pizza delivery bikers find time to bowl a few overs before the app buzzes again. Cruelly only the river passes out at the far end, no footpath follows, and a lengthy detour is required to catch up again.
As the street names switch to 'Scottish' avenues, the Norbury Brook returns to being the dividing line at the foot of back gardens. Where it doglegs from Strathryre to Dalmeny, one house has planked over the stream to create a narrow space beside the front garden where their bins can be stored. Then near Norbury Hall the brook makes a break for the other side of the railway embankment, where a miniature arch allows only one lane of traffic and one pavement through to the other side. Cue anecdote...
Approaching the arch I noticed a lad in a hoodie on a bike with a trailer riding towards me on the footpath. I expected to have to move out of his way, but instead he vanished into what turned out to be a brief alcove where some old iron railings met a fence. I was surprised, indeed shocked, to see that he'd leapt off his bike and was busy using a large heavy plank to try to wrench one of the poles out from the railings. This was an almost perfect unobserved spot for a bit of metal theft, and suddenly it made sense why there was a low trailer on the back of his bike, to cart his haul away. I considered asking him what the hell he thought he was doing, then thought better of it because he had a large heavy plank in his hand. I considered taking a covert photo as evidence, except he had his hood up in a stereotypically suspicious way, plus I thought better of it because he was about to have a heavy metal pole in his hand. Instead I dithered, capitulated and walked on, because I was only safe so long as he didn't think I'd noticed. I didn't want to ring 999, and I couldn't remember the unmemorable number you're supposed to ring for lesser misdemeanours, and he'd be off on his bike before any police officer had even reached their vehicle, but I felt bad about it. And so another chunk of heritage infrastructure started its journey to the crooked scrap merchant, and its final transformation into a little ready cash.
Beyond the railway the Norbury Brook escapes briefly into the Manor Farm Nature Space, formerly a scrap of wasteground, recently scrubbed up by GCSE students from the neighbouring school. Though still a watery trickle in a deep concrete trench, the banks at least are clear of litter, and local residents can now peer at pristine undergrowth through the iron railings... while they remain. What follows is Norbury Park, which used to be a nine hole golf course, and where I hoped to see the Norbury Brook again. But alas no, it's hidden along the back of the allotments for about a quarter of a mile, and then plunges into a pipe as soon as it reaches the grass at the other end.
A snaking hump then crosses the grass to the far side, where finally the Norbury Brook emerges and slinks along the edge of the park in as deep a trench as ever. Nowhere in its journey has it been allowed to run freely at ground level, for fear of flooding, instead confined and disguised, the needs of suburbia prioritised around it. The brook next disappears beneath a car park, where the retailers of Norbury hope customers will leave their vehicles rather than being lured into Lidl up the road. Hermitage Bridge, which for once is an actual bridge, marks the foot of Streatham High Road, reputedly the UK's longest high street. And Hermitage Bridge is also the point at which the Norbury Brook renames itself, becoming the River Graveney as it trickles out on the other side. We'll follow the Graveney tomorrow.