THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Seven Kings Water Hainault → Fairlop → Little Heath → Seven Kings (5 miles)
[Seven Kings Water → Loxford Water → Roding → Thames]
Here's a London river you'd hardly notice even if you knew where it was. The Seven Kings Water drains much of northeast Redbridge, including Hainault Forest Country Park, the arable wastes of Little Heath and somewhere called Happy Valley, not to mention Seven Kings itself. It doesn't make for a great walk, but that didn't stop me trying. [Google map][1898 OS map]
The Seven Kings Water rises just outside London, by barely the length of a football pitch, on the northern slopes of Hainault ForestCountry Park. The village of Chigwell Row runs along the ridgetop, and below that a pool called the Sheep Pond, and partway down the wooded hillside the Essex/Redbridge boundary. I found only dry trenches in the trees, even after all this rain we've been having, so I'm calling the source as the boating lake instead. This was added in the early 20th century after the London County Council bought up Fox Burrows Farm and some surrounding forest for recreational purposes. I was pleased to discover the lake ringed with Michaelmas daisies, given what the date was yesterday, but the end of September is also the cue for Jeff's rowing boats to pack up for the winter.
Across the busy Romford Road, now in Hainault proper, the Seven Kings Water still follows the same angled course as it did when it was a brook across a field. On one side is the Hainault Business Park, a warehouse cluster so forward-looking that it has its own app, and so paranoid that it flashes your car's registration number up on an electronic display as you enter. I was particularly excited to discover DG Solutions, purveyors of Amazing Double Glazing, although I'm unlikely ever to require their conservatory expertise. The other side of Peregrine Road is postwar housing, which anywhere else would be bogstandard, but because this is almost-Essex a surprising number of Land Rovers are parked outside. High green railings keep residents out of the riverside strip, but haven't stopped a spate of litter getting in.
Up next is the Seven Kings Water's finest hour as the centrepiece of the Gardens of Peace cemetery. This is exclusively for Muslim burials, and much in demand because Islam forbids cremation, packed with rows of identical unpretentious mounds aligned towards Mecca. It's also been filling up steadily since 2009 so an extension has had to be opened up at Five Oaks Lane, coincidentally where another tributary of the Seven Kings Water begins. The main branch continues beneath two recreation grounds to Fairlop Waters, and runs down the eastern side between the main boating lake and the angling lake. You won't see it, it was culverted beneath the runway of RAF Fairlop in 1940, the area since used for gravel extraction and now a very popular countrypark.
The enormous wedge of farmland between Hainault and the A12 is some of London's most inexplicable Green Belt. The Seven Kings Water runs through it, as does lonely Hainault Road, plus a single public footpath I've never managed to follow. An area of fields and landfill the size of three Olympic Parks could make way for an entire new suburb with several thousand homes, but isn't even on Redbridge's radar because they're not allowed to touch it. The aforementioned tributary meets up with the main river just south of Hainault Farm, nowhere publicly accessible, and the combined flow can only be glimpsed through a fence along the godforsaken ratrun of Painters Road. I risked the pavementless verge, stepped over detritus chucked from cars (including McDonalds cups and a Pure Speed Garage CD), and barely spotted the 7KW below a temporary bridge providing access for tipper trucks. Redevelop it, I say, redevelop it all.
Civilisation is briefly regained at the A12 Eastern Avenue, after which the Seven Kings Water continues south between private playing fields and the grounds of King George Hospital. The nature reserve on the hospital side is called Happy Valley, which is a dreadful name for several reasons. The river's fenced off, so can't be reached, let alone seen. The so-called valley is almost flat. The path skirts the outer edge of the car park, with the smashed windows of the original Goodmayes (mental) Hospital on the far side. Patients are invited to head out this way as part of 'King George's Healthy Hike', a mile-long wellness circuit, but I didn't see any. The path eventually dips into woodland overshadowed by an excessive number of floodlights. I was happy to emerge at the far end into another sports ground and finally cross the river.
Seven Kings Park is the prime recreational facility for folk living near Newbury Park station. Most won't reach the far eastern edge, where the playground and skatepark are, and even fewer'll look beyond the trees to see the Seven Kings Water shrouded behind. The river's only a proper feature in the farthest corner, where access is currently part-restricted behind a taped-off oak tree surrounded by fallen branches. This is the only place I managed to stand beside the stream in anything approaching a natural state, although I was also accompanied by all the summer litter that autumn winds had blown to the perimeter, including a Warburton's bag, a bottle of Highland Spring and a ripped sachet of Pasante Silky TLC.
Finally I'd reached built-up streets, in an area rapidly developed after Seven Kings station opened in 1899. It's not far to Westwood Recreation Ground, optimistically described on its noticeboard as "a rolling parkland", and awkwardly bisected by the culverted Seven Kings Water. The river makes a pleasant backdrop to the playground, but the ornamental pond has been entirely screened off - allowing flocks of waterfowl to flap in peace - and its dammed waters tumble over a weir to return underground. I looked across to where the tennis courts had been ripped out, and the bleak concrete cricket slab which replaced the model yachting pool, and wasn't entirely surprised how empty the place was.
There is a legend that in Saxon times seven kings met at a cool, clear stream while out hunting, where they let their horses drink and then moved on, leaving the name Seven Kings behind them. Looking at the busy High Road today, a magnet for those who like driving cars, parking cars, repairing cars and eating chicken, other explanations seem massively more likely. The culverted Seven Kings Water passes down the side of the McDonald's drive-through, then zigzags beneath and beyond the railway before eventually reemerging beyond Green Lane to fill the lake in South Park. Which is where the Loxford Water begins, and where yesterday's post kicked off. If you want to see London as it really is, follow a river.