diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 31, 2010

The River Westbourne

That's it, that's all twelve chunks of the lost River Westbourne's journey down to the Thames. You can read them in reverse below, or all in the correct order over here. There are 60 photos from along the route to flick through, and there's also an approximate map to follow. Plus, as an extra special treat, I've assembled the entire series into a pdf which you can print out and top-left-staple, then go for a walk along the Westbourne yourself. It's not proper-marketable standard, and you'll probably get hopelessly lost if you try using it, but I hope it's of interest. All I ask is that you don't republish it, profit from it or link to it without attribution. Go West!

www.flickr.com: my Westbourne gallery
60 photos altogether (slideshow)
An approximate map of the River Westbourne's course
All of my Westbourne posts on one page in the right order
My River Westbourne print-it-out pdf (woo, yay)

The River Westbourne
12) Chelsea

Nearly there. From Sloane Square the Westbourne's lower course followed the approximate line of Holbein Place before crossing Grosvenor Row (now Pimlico Road) and continuing via a giant dog-leg down to the Thames. Once the boundary of London's premier Pleasure Gardens (of which more later), this dog-leg is now lost forever beneath the site of the old Chelsea Barracks. Once occupied by a few hundred soldiers, the Government's 2005 decision to release the land for housing unwittingly kickstarted a right royal planning battle. Too-modern plans to build a cluster of steel/glass towers were silently scuppered by Prince Charles, and so an obsequious masterplanning process is now underway to try to develop an acceptable replacement. Black-branded barriers shield the demolished site from view, but it's possible to peer in through the old security gate and catch sight of the Garrison Chapel (still standing, but threatened) and two extant tower blocks (ugly, empty, doomed). [photo]

Don't be distracted by the tidal inlet at Grosvenor Waterside, an ultra-modern development to the east of Chelsea Bridge [photo]. The central water feature is part of an artificial 19th century waterway, the Grosvenor Canal, and never part of any lost London river. Instead the Westbourne's final few hundred metres ran southwestwards, across what's now tree-lined Chelsea Bridge Road [photo], and into the grounds of the Ranelagh Gardens. For the second half of the 18th century this was the place for London's burgeoning high society to be entertained. Centrepiece of the ornamental gardens was the Rotunda - a rococo cylindrical concert hall to which audiences flocked and in which a prodigious young Mozart once played. But fashionable glory proved ultimately unsustainable, and in 1803 the Rotunda fell silent and the surrounding pleasure park closed down.

Ranelagh Gardens were ultimately remodelled, and exist today as part of the grounds of Chelsea's Royal Hospital [photo]. They may look fenced-off and private, but daily public access is generally permitted. Except during the annual Chelsea Flower Show, that is, when Britain's horticultural epicentre relocates here and echoes of the site's former glory days reverberate [photo]. The Westbourne flowed across the extreme southeastern corner of the present gardens, entering the Thames at a pleasingly oblique angle close to the Bull Ring Gate. That's just to the east of the coach-turning circle, if you're trying to locate it today, and several feet inland because the Chelsea Embankment hadn't been built in those days. But better to find ten spare minutes to trot across Chelsea Bridge to Battersea Park, from whose riverside terrace the Ranelagh Sewer outfall is clearly visible. A gloomy brick-arched portal, dribbling forth across exposed mudflats, marks the final splash of the Westbourne's seven-mile journey downstream from Hampstead. [photo] [photo]
Following the Westbourne: Holbein Place, Pimlico Road, Chelsea Barracks, Chelsea Bridge Road, Ranelagh Gardens, Royal Hospital Gardens, Chelsea Embankment.

The River Westbourne
11) Sloane Square (revised)

Hang on, we'll be at that tube station any minute. First we have to follow the Westbourne out of Belgravia and across Cliveden Place. This was part of the main road down to Chelsea, and the old river flowed beneath at a lonely span nicknamed Bloody Bridge. The name may come from an incident in 1748 when four upstanding gentlemen were attacked and robbed by two highwaymen in the immediate vicinity, or that may just be an old husband's tale. An alternative name for this 12-foot-wide crossing was Blandel Bridge, and the Victorian office block which now inhabits the site is known as Blandel Bridge House. [photo]

OK, here we are at last at Sloane Square tube station, a District line halt with a secret. Look up while standing on either platform, approximately at the foot of the stairs down from the ticket hall, and you'll see a thick black pipe passing overhead [photo]. Looks innocuous enough, but this nine-foot diameter tube is actually a Victorian sewer which carries what's left of the River Westbourne. [photo] [photo]

The stream's foul-smelling waters were finally confined to underground pipes - the Ranelagh sewer - in the mid 1850s. A decade later the District line was carved through Belgravia in cut and cover tunnel, only slightly deeper than the sewer, which lead to a spot of awkward engineering at Sloane Square. The original brickwork had to be replaced by a cast iron pipe, stretching seventy feet across the station chasm at an angle of 48°, and a complex series of trestles and girders ensured that West London's slurry continued to flow during construction. Not even a near direct hit by a German bomb in 1940 (destroying the ticket hall and killing 79 train passengers) caused any serious damage.

If you don't fancy forking out to pass through the ticket barriers, it's (just about) possible to view Sloane Square's legendary aqueduct from outside. Head round the back of the station into Bourne Street (named after you know what) and look for the gap in the terrace next to number 79. The view's not great because it's through two sets of railings, but the storm drain's metal weathershield can be readily discerned between the two platform canopies below [photo]. Alternatively head up the road to Skinner Place, a stumpy side alley which ends abruptly above the westbound tracks. You'll have to be tall to peer over the wall of the final front garden on the left, and take care not to arouse the suspicions of residents peering out of their windows, but that's most definitely the entombed Westbourne you can see down there piping across the tracks.
Following the Westbourne: Cliveden Place, Sloane Square, Bourne Street, Skinner Place.

 Saturday, January 30, 2010

The River Westbourne
10) Belgravia

London doesn't get much more exclusive than Belgravia. An enclave of luxury mansions and mews houses owned by the rich and internationally loaded. An embassy-packed precinct where the local corner shop is Harvey Nicks. Somewhere TfL don't bother routing buses because nobody would want to catch one. And yet 200 years ago this was a swampy wasteland known as the Five Fields, inhabited only by sheep, farmers and the occasional ne'er-do-well, on the banks of an unloved river.

Everything changed in the 1820s when landowner Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster, hired Thomas Cubitt to build an extensive aristocratic estate. The stinky Westbourne had to go, entombed in pipework as the Ranelagh Sewer, which immediately improved both above-ground ambience and property-sales potential. A fashionable suburb soon erupted, and Belgravia's never looked back.

Tracing the Westbourne's former path is incredibly easy here, so long as you have a map. Kensington and Westminster have long been officially divided by this ancient stream, and the border between the two London boroughs still follows almost exactly the same meandering path to this day. Along the edge of Lowndes Square (which in reality is a long thin oblongy non-square, and very posh). Fording across the gyratory flowerbed in Lowndes Street [photo] (a nucleus for uber-upmarket boutiques and eateries, plus possibly the most ostentatious Waitrose in the country). Along Chesham Place [photo] (past umpteen expensively-brief personalised numberplates). And round the corner into West Eaton Place (through a canyon of towering white stucco terraces) [photo]. Keep the Westminster street nameplates on your left, and the Kensington & Chelsea street nameplates on your right, and you'll not go far wrong.
Following the Westbourne: Lowndes Square, Lowndes Street, Chesham Place, Chesham Street, Cadogan Lane, West Eaton Place, Eaton Terrace.

The River Westbourne
9) Knightsbridge

In the undergrowth at the eastern end of the Serpentine, at the Knightsbridge end of Hyde Park, stands a lone stone urn on a plinth [photo]. It's a memorial to Queen Caroline, the Hanoverian lake-dammer, without whom Hyde Park would have been just another big royal park without a water feature. A second urn-on-a-plinth [photo], more visible but less ornate, reminds passers-by of the Westbourne's even longer legacy: "A supply of water by conduit from this spot was granted to the Abbey of Westminster with the Manor of Hyde by King Edward The Confessor." From bubbling spring to monk's goblet, these piped waters helped medieval London to grow and to thrive.

Here too is the closest the Westbourne comes to resembling a genuine river. Caroline's lake was designed with an eastern sluice gate [photo], through which the old river used to depart, and which still exists alongside the outside catering deck of The Serpentine Bar & Kitchen. But the waterfall beyond the sluice isn't original [photo], nor the sub-tropical Dell below, they're a rather more recent environmental project. And there's no escape. The Serpentine's outfall merely churns through these bowery water gardens for a few over-landscaped metres before being recycled back into the lake. [photo] [photo]

Previously the Westbourne used to flow beneath Rotten Row [photo], Hyde Park's arterial bridleway, before exiting the greenspace towards Knightsbridge. You may not previously have realised, but this most exclusive of London neighbourhoods owes its name to a crossing over the River Westbourne. There’s conflicting evidence as to whether the name started out as "Kyngesbrigg” or "Knightsbrigg" - the former because the bridge was once owned by Edward the Confessor, the latter because two medieval knights are said to have duelled to their deaths on a bridge above the stream.

The original stone bridge survived for many centuries conveying travellers on the main road between Westminster and Kensington. Sometimes the river was much harder to cross, as for example in 1809 when flooding was so widespread that “foot-passengers were for several days rowed from Chelsea by Thames boatmen." The old Knight's Bridge, two brookside taverns and the river itself were swallowed up in the 1840s during the construction of Albert Gate. These two classical Palazzo-style blocks, one on each former riverbank, are now the French and Kuwaiti embassies. More recent neighbouring developments are less architecturally sympathetic, as Knightsbridge flaunts its global wealth in high rise ugliness. [photo]
Following the Westbourne: The Serpentine, The Dell, Rotten Row, South Carriage Drive, Albert Gate, Knightsbridge, William Street.

 Friday, January 29, 2010

The River Westbourne
8) Tyburn Brook

London used to have two Tyburn rivers. The main river ran from Hampstead to Westminster, and I'll be covering that in copious detail later in the year. And then there was the Tyburn Brook, a minor stream entirely unconnected to its namesake, and which trickled unassumingly through Hyde Park. Which makes it a tributary of the Westbourne, and that's why I'm following it here.

There used to be a village called Tyburn, recorded in the Domesday Book, set in fields around the junction of two Roman Roads - Edgware Road and Oxford Street. The village green was long used as a place of execution, and gained notoriety in 1571 when a three-legged mega-gallows was erected in the middle of the roadway. For two centuries vengeful Londoners flocked here to enjoy a good hanging, with unfortunate prisoners carted through the streets from Newgate Prison to satisfy the baying crowds. Civilisation's come a long way since. The road junction's still murderous, now part of the Marble Arch gyratory, and a plaque in the middle of a pedestrian traffic island now marks the spot where the Tyburn Tree bore blood-red fruit. [photo]

The Tyburn Brook rose nearby, close to Tony Blair's house in Connaught Square. I would have taken a photo of the ex-PM's gaff, except that both his front and back doors appear to host permanent police presences, and so attempting a snap seemed somewhat unwise. Neither was it possible to take photos of St George's Fields, an ultra-exclusive ziggurat-style housing development named after the public burial ground it replaced. But I did manage to capture a shot of the Tyburn Convent [photo], a unique reverential hideaway where 24 reclusive nuns still pray daily for the souls of those who lost their lives on the nearby gallows (especially Catholic 'martyrs'). There are far quieter spots in central London, but few more peaceful.

Across the road, in Hyde Park, a gentle dip in the grassy plain reveals the course of the Tyburn Brook [photo]. Somehow it's still there, obvious only if you're deliberately looking, and leading downslope into the trees where joggers jog and unleashed dogs play. A few more clues survive - an old iron water pump in the middle of nowhere [photo], and some damp patches in the grass even when it's not rained for a while. And then it's only a few hundred more yards (past the Old Police House and the Norwegian Memorial Stone) down to the Serpentine, where the Tyburn Brook emptied into the Serpentine. Who'd ever guess?
Following the Tyburn Brook: Connaught Square, St George's Fields, Tyburn Convent, Bayswater Road, North Carriage Drive, Upper Parkland, Lower Parkland, Serpentine Road.

The River Westbourne
7) The Serpentine

Of all London's lost rivers, one glorious stretch of the Westbourne must be the most well known. It's the Serpentine through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, and Londoners have two royal figures to thank for its creation.

It was Henry VIII who first sealed off Hyde Park in 1536 to create a royal hunting ground. Formerly under the ownership of the monks of Westminster Abbey, a fence prevented stocks of deer, wild boars and bulls from escaping the royal enclosure. Henry also ordered that the trickling Westbourne be dammed in a dozen or so places to create small ponds where deer might be lured to drink. Elsewhere grandstands were erected so that he could entertain nobles and visiting dignitaries with a day of not-exactly-challenging hunting, rounded off by a slap-up banquet in a temporary marquee. This was sporting corporate hospitality on a grand royal scale, and continued throughout the Tudor years.

Queen Caroline, wife of George II, had far grander plans. Under her guidance the entire Westbourne through the park was dammed to create an ornamental lake. Its sharp central curve was thought radical in 1730, with precise classical rectangles de rigeur, but fashionable estate owners across the country soon followed Caroline's less formal trend. The north end of her lake, below the pumping station and four Italianate fountains [photo], became the Long Water [photo]. Only the eastern half, beyond John Rennie's five-arched road bridge, is officially the Serpentine [photo] [photo]

100 years later, with the creation of residential estates in Bayswater and beyond, the Westbourne's waters eventually became more sewage than sparkling. The upstream link was cut and the river's flow diverted down a parallel pipe along the lakeside. Today's Lido swimmers and pedalboat rowers are therefore likely to bump into nothing more unpleasant than an angry swan.
Following the Westbourne: Marlborough Gate, Italian gardens, Edward Jenner memorial, The Long Water, Peter Pan statue, West Carriage Drive bridge, the Serpentine, Diana Princess of Wales memorial fountain [photo, full] [photo, empty], Serpentine Lido, site of the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace (1851).

 Thursday, January 28, 2010

The River Westbourne
6) Bayswater

It's possible to trace the River Westbourne's path through Bayswater by spotting where the less well-off people live. Just south of Bishop's Bridge Road stands the Hallfield Estate, designed by Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin and erected shortly after the Second World War. Its fifteen stark blocks are in sharp contrast to acres of elegant terraces all around, but as a Modernist icon it's the Hallfield which has attained Conservation Area status [photo]. Housing association tenants are justly proud of their sunken concrete oasis, although few probably realise that one of London's lost rivers once flowed through the site.

From here, after a wiggle across upmarket Cleveland Square, the Westbourne takes the backwater route. Peer down between Craven and Gloucester Terraces [photo] and there's a cobbled row of compact mews houses [photo], and then another [photo], each with an appropriately streamy name. First Upbrook Mews, then Brook Mews North, each accessed down a steep-ish slope beneath a narrow arch [photo]. These reclusive enclaves might well be delightful places to live, but they can't be as expensive as the surrounding “great aristocratic town” because there's a 19th century sewer running directly underneath [photo].

Around the foot of Craven Hill, close to where Lancaster Gate station stands today, several fine quality springs once bubbled forth. In the 14th century thirsty horses plying the Uxbridge Road would stop here for a drink, and the spot became known as Bayard's Watering Place. The name has been corrupted over the years, by the 18th century to the hamlet of Bayswatering, and today to the better known suburb of Bayswater. [lots of very-local history]

For several centuries Bayswater's springs provided drinking water for folk living a lot further east. From a tank inside a circular stone hut, leaden pipes conveyed water towards Bond Street and then on as far as Cheapside and Cornhill. This feeder system lives on in the names Spring Street and Conduit Mews (just south of Paddington station). Bayswatering also boasted two riverside inns on the old Uxbridge Road – one to the east called The Crown (now the Royal Lancaster Gate Hotel), the other to the west called the Saracen's Head (now The Swan). Stare carefully at the steps alongside Elms Mews and the old meandering riverbank can still be seen.
Following the Westbourne: Hallfield Estate, Cleveland Square, Upbrook Mews, Brook Mews North, Elms Mews, Bayswater Road.

The River Westbourne
5) Westbourne Green

Westbourne Grove and Westbourne Park, mainstays of the Notting Hill Carnival Zone, sound precisely like the sort of place where the Westbourne might have flowed. But no, they're much too far west, and they're not even directly named after the river. The central section of this now-lost stream was originally known as the Bayswater Rivulet, and it formed the dividing line between the Manor of Paddington to the east and the Manor of Westbourne on the opposite bank. West of the river, Weste-burn, simple as that. And then the river got named after the parish to its west, becoming the Westbourne. It's all so delightfully historically circuitous.

In medieval times there were tiny settlements at both Westbourne Green and Paddington Green. Both hamlets were linked through rolling meadows by the Harrow Road, which crossed the stream via a single-arched brick bridge. A more direct footpath, called Bishop's Walk, ran across fields to the south via a footbridge much loved by local anglers.

Westbourne Green's genteel charm survived unperturbed until the arrival of the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal in 1801 [photo]. Canals and perpendicular rivers don't mix, so the Westbourne was forced underneath this new artificial waterway, approximately where the footbridge west of Little Venice crosses over today [photo] [photo below ground]. Far more drastic were the tracks carved through the area in the 1830s by the Great Western Railway Company. Their steaming chasm divided the neighbourhood, severing the old footpath close to the terminus at Paddington station. This required construction of a considerably heftier span [photo], and soon humble Bishop's Walk had become bustling Bishop's Bridge Road.

As for Westbourne Green today, any resemblance to a preserved patch of medieval turf is purely illusory [photo]. That undulating patch of grass beside the Harrow Road was, as recently as the 1970s, one of the major building sites for the adjacent A40 Westway [photo]. Re-landscaping may have restored some semblance of rural charm for surrounding residents to enjoy, but in truth poor old Westbournia has been comprehensively despoiled.
Following the Westbourne: Regent's Canal, Lords Hill Road, Bourne Terrace, Westway, Royal Oak station, Porchester Terrace, Gloucester Terrace, Bishop's Bridge Road.

 Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The River Westbourne
4) Maida Vale

From Kilburn the Westbourne dog-legged south through open farmland. Two hundred years ago its meadowed banks were lined by cattle-filled fields, with Kilburn Bridge Farm and Parsonage Farm providing dairy-based sustenance for London's growing population a few miles downstream. Arcadia didn't last. In the late 1850s the Westbourne was piped underground to create the Ranelagh sewer, allowing a tide of upmarket housing to engulf the area. This new district was named Maida Vale after a local pub – “The Hero of Maida” – itself named after a famous 1806 victory over the French.

Two broad avenues were built to follow the stream's former course, forming the cornerstone of the new estate. One's now Kilburn Park Road, the other Shirland Road, and the right-angled corner where they join was once the entry point of a tributary flowing down from Queen's Park. Kilburn Park Road marks the boundary between the boroughs of Brent and Westminster - a divide that made more sense when this extra-wide avenue was a watery brook. Shirland Road [photo] is a little narrower, and a little more desirable, and further from the council blocks that dominate the top of the hill. At the junction with Elgin Avenue a pronounced dip betrays the Westbourne's former course, with the riverside Warwick Farm Dairy a late Victorian reminder of the Vale's rural past. [photo]

Step into Fourteen Acres Field today and you'll find the BBC's Maida Vale Studios, built inside the shell of an Edwardian “Roller Skating Palace” [photo]. Only the rink's ornate doorways survive, topped off by white faux-marble carvings, each with a classical face staring out above the central arch [photo]. The building's more functional than glamorous inside, and far larger than it first appears. Studio 1 is one of the UK's largest recording spaces, home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and there are three other slightly lesser studios strung out alongside. The Beatles have recorded here, and various soon-to-be famous bands for John Peel sessions, and even I laid down a tape once with my school choir. If your band has similar aspirations, better hurry along fast before property developers knock the place flat.
Following the Westbourne: Oxford Road, Rudolf Road, Kilburn Park Road, Shirland Road, Formosa Street.

The River Westbourne
3) Kilburn

Kilburn Grange Park is one of those anonymous inner London recreation grounds where you'd go to recreate, but never to enjoy the view. It's got a children's play area, three tarmac tennis courts and a basketball space, plus an oval paddling pool that won't be borderline foot-dippable until the spring. There used to be a rather lovelier stream, long before the Municipal Borough of Willesden came along, long before any of the neighbouring streets bordering the High Road [photo] were laid out.

The first known inhabitant of Kilburn was a pious 12th century hermit named Godwyn, who hid out in the woods close to the spot where Watling Street was crossed by the Westbourne. The stream here was known variously as the Cuneburna, or Keleburne, or Kilbourne – from which the area eventually took its name. Godwyn's hermitage soon evolved into a nunnery, home to three royal maids of honour, with ownership passing to the Abbot of Westminster. One side of the convent was moated by the passing brook, which also fed a series of fish ponds. All proceeded swimmingly until the Dissolution, when on Henry VIII's orders the community was levelled.

Kilburn's prime location on a major road ensured later growth, with the efficacious springs of "Kilburn Wells" drawing spa-going crowds to the riverside Bell Inn during the 18th century. Some of the Priory's foundations were uncovered in the 1850s when the railway east of Kilburn High Road was widened. Discoveries included a selection of tessellated tiles, some ancient keys and a few disinterred bones. Other than these remnants, Kilburn Priory lives on only in the names of various local streets (Priory Road, Hermit Place, etc) [photo] and the title of a pub on the Belsize Road. [photo]

River-tracing is a little easier. Follow the contoured dip behind the High Road, past The Bird in Hand boozer (now closed) and along the appropriately named Spring Lane. The Westbourne then ran between two places of entertainment, one the Kilburn Empire Theatre (now a pig-ugly Marriott), the other the Maida Vale Picture House (now The Islamic Centre of England). For 150 years a tollgate barred the High Road here, assisted by the stream as a natural barrier. A proper-old well behind Kilburn Park station, in the middle of an unlikely council estate, is one final hint of the abundant waters that once drew spa-goers here in their thousands. [photo]
Following the Westbourne: Kilburn Grange Park, Messina Avenue, Kingsgate Road, Quex Road, Mutrix Road, West End Lane, Belsize Road, Spring Lane, Kilburn Priory, Kilburn High Road.

 Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The River Westbourne
2) West Hampstead

One of the easiest ways to spot a lost river is to look out for an unexpected dip in the road. In this case Finchley Road (the busy A41) at the junction with Heath Drive, where there's a gentle but undeniable down-and-up gradient [photo]. A shallow hollow that could only have been created by a small stream over thousands of years, carving an indentation into the slope across which this six-lane highway now passes. The traffic barely notices, but any passing geomorphologist will surely nod sagely and drive on.

Locals named this Cannon's Stream because it trickled down Cannon's Hill (which still exists, but only as a slightly posh street name). At the foot of the hill the brook flowed behind the Cock and Hoop tavern and fed a small pond on West End Green. Both pub and pond are long since gone, replaced by mansion-style flats and a grey granite drinking fountain, but the runty green survives (these days as a little more than a pigeon magnet). [photo]

This is Hampstead's West End, originally a small hamlet to the south of Child's Hill, far distant from its internationally renowned namesake. Rural isolation ended abruptly in the mid 19th century with the arrival of three parallel London-bound railway lines. Rail bosses couldn't sustain naming their station "West End" for fear of confusion, and so the area slowly metamorphosed into modern "West Hampstead" instead. The path of the main Westbourne rivulet crosses all three lines to the west of all three stations, buried forever beneath iron rails and suburban terraces. Two further tributaries ran further east, below the far end of West End Lane, springing forth around the site of the old Frognal estate. Not until reaching Kilburn, a mile downstream, do all three braids come together.
Following the Westbourne: Cannon Hill, West End Green, West Cotts, Pandora Road, Sumatra Road, Maygrove Road, Loveridge Road, Iverson Road.

The River Westbourne
1) Branch Hill

The River Westbourne sprang from many sources, with the highest of these at the top of Hampstead Heath. Not quite the very top, where sits the Whitestone Pond traffic island, because that's merely a shallow dew pond. It's named after the white milestone marking the entrance to Hampstead proper, and its waters were once used to give military horses somewhere to drink. Come 2012 the Olympic cycling road race will be passing this way, so Camden Council plan to spruce up the road junction with Yorkstone paving and safety-conscious white granite. So long as it's still possible to skate here when the pond ices over, I doubt that local residents will complain too much. [photo] [photo]

Beyond a busy road junction, on the southwestern flank of the surrounding slopes, that's where the headwaters of the Westbourne still gather. An unwooded tongue of grassland cuts into the escarpment, inclining gently towards a single row of Victorian villas [photo]. Normally no surface water is evident, but after heavy rain the sandy soil can become waterlogged with squelchy puddles underfoot [photo]. It's the only sign that there was once a medium-sized pond here, adjacent to the road, at the start of an invisible river.

Branch Hill Pond disappeared at the end of the 19th century, but lives on in the paintings of local resident John Constable. He didn't just paint Suffolk haycarts, oh no, he also loved the sprawling skies and contoured landscape of his adopted London home. One of Constable's 1820s canvases shows Branch Hill Pond as a silver disc surrounded by excavated sandy upland. Another depicts the tiny figure of a red-jerkinned boy, perched on a sunlit ridge above the pond, gazing downstream towards the undeveloped fields of the Westbourne valley.

It's steeply downhill for the first few hundred yards, once open fields, now woodland-shrouded low-rise apartments. Built in the mid 1970s Spedan Close was then the most expensive council housing in the country, every property with its own individual roof garden [photo]. Further downslope the houses are more expensive still, though private, in the leafy avenues of upper West Hampstead [photo]. Where Westbourne tributaries once merged, today the only water features are tinkling fountains and bubbling fishponds.
Following the Westbourne: Branch Hill, Heysham Lane, Redington Gardens, Heath Drive.

 Monday, January 25, 2010

The River Westbourne
An overview

Three of London's lost rivers, and arguably three of the most important, began their descent in Hampstead. They're the Westbourne, the Tyburn and the Fleet, and from here they each ran roughly southwards and roughly parallel down to the Thames. The Westbourne was the westernmost of this trio, the west stream, or "west bourne". Several streamlets joined forces on the upper slopes to form the river proper, joining together by Kilburn to form what was once a fairly substantial watery presence. Another major tributary fed in from Queen's Park, and then the main stream turned southeast through Maida Vale and Bayswater (only one of whose names is river-related). Next up is the largest remnant of any of London's lost rivers - the Serpentine in Hyde Park - here royally enlarged in the early 18th century to create an ornamental lake. And then south beneath Knightsbridge, on through Belgravia and out into the Thames in the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital. About six miles source to mouth, across some of the most expensive real estate in the capital.

It's housing that's responsible for most of the Westbourne's disappearance. Newly-built homes wouldn't sell if there was an open sewer running alongside, so developers footed the bill to culvert and cover the contaminated waterway. In the Westbourne's case this created the Ranelagh Sewer, implemented segmentally and not completely covered over until the 1850s. This subterranean Victorian infrastructure still survives and can be wandered down, so long as you're a Thames Water employee or an illegal adventurer with a penchant for muck-filled brick-lined tunnels.

In at least two places the former Westbourne still marks the western boundary of the London Borough of Westminster, most notably as it meanders otherwise-inexplicably through Belgravia. And yes, this is the lost river that supposedly flows through a tube across a tube station. But no, that's not Westbourne Park, which (for a reason) is more than half a mile away from anywhere the river once ran. There's so much to explain about the Westbourne, which I'm planning to do over the course of the next week. Two updates daily, hopefully at twelve hour intervals, all the way down from Hampstead to Chelsea. Let's go with the flow.

Other names for the River Westbourne
Cye Bourne, Kelebourne, Kilburn
Bayswater, Bayswater River, Bayswater Rivulet
Serpentine River
The Bourne, Westburn Brook
the Ranelagh River, the Ranelagh Sewer

 Sunday, January 24, 2010


On the face of it, only one river runs through the centre of London. But there used to be many more. Before our forefathers carpeted the Thames vale with homes and offices, a network of natural waterways flowed down from the surrounding slopes across several now-drained square miles. Where once were fertile meadows, now hundreds of thousands live crammed together in multicultural streets and highrise estates. Where once were trickling brooks, now Victorian culverts burrow deep beneath snarled-up traffic jams. And where once were meandering lines on a map, now an army of amateur psychogeographers can be found attempting to trace the paths of evocative waterways now hidden from view.

There's a huge swathe of central London where rivers used to be but no longer are. Along the Thames from Wandsworth down to Deptford, the mouths of incoming tributaries have been replaced by a series of storm relief outfalls. In Hampstead Heath or Upper Norwood, a raindrop landing on one side of the watershed will flow downhill in open channel, whereas a raindrop landing the other side will disappear almost immediately from view. There are no riverbanks in Kilburn, Mayfair or Brixton, not any more. Only after exceptional rainfall do these subterranean streams ever re-exert themselves along their former course, bubbling up through drains and leaking into ill-prepared basements. In quieter times nothing short of selective linear demolition can ever raise these rivers back above ground floor level, and no amount of ill-informed bluster from Mayor Boris will ever return London's lost rivers to the surface.

Believe it or not it's now five years since I spent an entire month tracing the path of the long lost River Fleet. I started up at the source, both of them, and followed the route taken by the now-underground river all the way down to the Thames. It remains the most popular thing I've ever written. Countless comments at the time, unexpected contact from blokes who've been down exploring the sewers with boots and torches, and a slew of inquisitive emails ever since from Fleet-hungry folk worldwide. Even last night, while I was writing this, a message landed in my inbox from deepest Welwyn Garden City to say thanks for all the Fleety stuff. No problem, and I bet I enjoyed writing it even more.

It's the maps that intrigue many. You can't see these rivers any more, but where precisely did they go? What's up top where the brooks and bridges used to be, and is there any remaining echo in the placenames and landscape of today? A photograph of a map of the Fleet, hastily snapped on a sodden Farringdon wall in 2004, has become one of my ten most-viewed photos on Flickr. Only true cartographical evidence, such as this, allows us to confirm that the semi-mythological Fleet used to run directly beneath such unlikely spots as Great Ormond Street Hospital and the concourse at King's Cross station.

The definitive book about London's lost rivers remains Nicholas Barton's scholarly tome, published fifty years ago. It's detailed, historical and well-illustrated, but even then fails to dig too deeply into the minutiae of what precisely flowed exactly where. It's certainly no walking guide, unless you count the must-have fold out map [jpg] [pdf] tucked into the back of the book.

And so, in the absence of any published replacement, I'm making it my task for 2010 to track and trace the remainder of The Lost Rivers of London. I've done the Fleet, so I won't be doing that again. Which leaves about ten lost rivers to explore, both north and south of the Thames, which I'm hoping to cover at a rate of approximately one each month. And I'll be starting tomorrow with one of the bigger ones. If you can't wait until then, or until December for the last one, here's an alphabetical preview of what's coming up (plus a few useful weblinks to ponder).

Counter's Creek [subterranean view]
Effra [walking it]
Falcon [walking it]
Fleet [been there, done that] [170 photos]
Hackney Brook [Iain Sinclair lecture notes and podcast]
Neckinger [Wikipedia stub]
Peck [tracked by Londonist]
Stamford Brook [unlikely mouth plans]
Tyburn [traced by Londonist]
Walbrook [Barry says] [map]
Westbourne [subterranean view]

 Saturday, January 23, 2010

dg's Moblogged Mystery Tour: That's the end of my round-London xxxxxxxx-spotting jaunt. I'll not reveal in plain text what the mystery connection was, in case you're still trying to puzzle the clues, but there are now revelatory photos to click on at the end of each post. Well done to everyone who guessed correctly in the comments (Claire, Alfie, very impressive). And remind me never to try that again. The entire journey was just short of 100 miles long, requiring six tubes, three trains, five buses and one tram. At least I now know that Oyster Pay As You Go works right across London, and that a travelcard cap kicks in if you make more than a certain number of journeys. And sorry Brixton, not this time round.
Monday update: mini-photos and helpful weblinks now added.

Wimbledon Common  Windmill4) London NW: On the northern edge of the capital, in former rural Hertfordshire, my final quadruplet lies hidden in private grounds. A potholed lane runs north from The Gate, providing vehicle access to the village hall and some playing fields. There's a kid's birthday party underway as I pass, and some rowdy football, plus a mysterious gushing sound from the garden opposite. What a garden! A huge fountain spews forth from a lake large enough to require lifebelts. The lawn runs upslope in pristine gardener-tended glory. And a mighty four-sailed tower can just about be seen over (or through) the threadbare hedge. I've heard that Tony Blackburn and Norman Wisdom live round here - maybe this millionaire's manor (and supersized garden ornament) belongs to one of them. For the rest of us, it's not run of the mill. [take a look]

Shirley Windmill3) London SE: To the southeastern stockbroker belt, where private roads lead unwelcomingly down pine-shaded slopes, and the buses are empty because everyone's packed in their cars. To a ladylike suburb which ought to have a temple but instead has oaks. I find my quarry, once proud upon the hill, recently surrounded by a redbrick housing estate. Desirable properties, no doubt, but a pastoral panorama despoiled. Temporary fencing encircles the faux village green, giving the sodden grass a chance to recover before spring. Then the rhodedendrons will bud, the wind will blow, and local residents will waft barbecue smoke aloft from neighbouring gardens. This is how London fields disappear, post haste. [take a look]

Wimbledon Common Windmill2) London SW: Right across town to visit a much-loved leafy SSSI (well, it would be leafy if only this wasn't January). Muddy tracks lead off into a labyrinth of beechy glades, while dog walkers stride purposefully across the litter-free greenspace inbetween. Here joggers, cyclists and horseriders abound, but there's acres of room for each. The place I'm seeking (BP woz ere) is closed until spring, but the car park is full and the tearooms are thriving. Soup of the day is 'Tomato and brocoli', should you be tempted. Spooked by a runaway poodle, a nearby horse rampages in fear around his muddy paddock. A few sharp words (and a breakneck dash) avert further middle class embarrassment, and Princess slips reluctantly back on her leash. It's not all plain sailing round here. [take a look]

Upminster Windmill1) London NE: I suspect I'm the only tourist in this part of London today. From the oh-so-quiet station (just me getting off, then) I've walked past a paint-splattered poster of David Cameron, a very local parade of shops and an appropriately-named pub. Over the culverted stream, up the suburban hill, and my objective looms beyond a muddy rectangle of grass. There's nobody here, not even an exercising hound, but I bet the curtains are twitching as I complete one squelchy circuit. Close by in the centre of town, mobility scooters and pushchairs ply the pavements, dipping into numerous independent stores and charity shops. This place may wish it was in Essex proper, but it's nicer here than you might think. [take a look]

dg's Moblogged Mystery Tour: I'll shortly be heading off on another anonymous journey of discovery, this time wholly within the Greater London boundaries. I'll be visiting four different locations, one in each quarter of the capital, and each more suburban than central. The four locations should be linked in some way, which might help you to work out where I'm going. Be warned that I'll be whizzing around on public transport, so getting between one place and the next might take some time. With a bit of luck I'll be able to report back on all four from my mobile before the battery runs out. But I'm not going to tell you where I am at any point, because it wouldn't be a mystery tour otherwise. See if you can guess...

 Friday, January 22, 2010

Even twenty years ago, it used to be easy to know when you had a message. Your landline phone would ring, or your letterbox would rattle (at some regular time before nine), or your neighbour would yell 'yoohoo' over the garden fence. Easily noticed, hard to miss.

It's not quite so obvious to know when you have a message today. Notifications come far more frequently than before, in a huge variety of forms, creating an electronic clamour where individual threads are increasingly easy to overlook. We may be spoken to more often, but the danger is that we hear less.

Landlines don't ring like they used to, even though they're increasingly reliable and cheap. Everybody's got a mobile now so people prefer to ring that, rather than keeping their fingers crossed you're sitting at home attached to a coiled up cable. Mobile phones are great for communication here there and everywhere, but only if they're actually switched on and audible. Many's the time I've missed a call because I didn't hear the ringtone, or missed the vibration, or simply overlooked the text message arriving unheralded in my pocket. "I called you, you must have noticed, why are you ignoring me?"

Email's a wonderful thing, so long as you spot it. That little envelope which pops up in the corner of your screen, is it there, is it there, is it there... oh, how long's that been there? And that other email account you've got, be it Hotmail or Gmail or whatever, are you certain there isn't a message waiting in another window? Take your eye off your inbox, any inbox, and unseen notifications pile up.

Numerous messaging services proliferate on the web, and you probably participate in several. Instant pop-ups, Facebook pokes, micro-Twitter, internet forums - a multitude of different locations to talk, debate and argue. Generally there's a box to type into, then a pause while you wait to see who (if anyone) will respond. This might take a few seconds, or there might be time to go make a cup of tea, or you might hear nothing back until tomorrow. Do you hang around and wait, do you come back and check every five minutes, or do you leave your return rather longer? Online messaging can be the most inefficient timewasting way to conduct any form of conversation, if you allow it.

Has your favourite blog updated recently? You could go check, or you could scrutinise the RSS feed, or you might take the lazy way out and wait for a tweet saying there's a new post instead. There are so many ways to find out, but most require you to look rather than being told. Are you sure there isn't something new out there to read? Did you miss the beep, or the ping, or the flash, or whatever? Better refresh the page, just in case, and maybe then refresh it again for good measure.

We communicate in so many different media, in so many different locations, that's it's getting ever harder to keep in touch. Notifications stream thick and fast, competing for our attention, sometimes in plain view, sometimes out of sight. Give it another ten years and there'll be so much information flooding our way that we'll need to filter out 99% or drown. Don't get left out of the conversation, but don't let keeping up drag you under.

(Hasn't he written anything new yet?) <f5> (not yet, try again later)

 Thursday, January 21, 2010

London 2012  Olympic update
  918 days to go

(in which I spot some news on the web, and then repeat it here, because that's the way blogging's going these days)

Stop - Hammers Time
Boleyn GroundNow that West Ham United has been taken over by two of its richest fans, Mr Gold and Mr Sullivan, the fate of the Olympic Stadium may be nearer to being settled. At last there's a football club with a genuine interest in moving into the Olympic Park after the Games are over, rather than leaving the arena empty apart from the occasional under-attended athletics afternoon. It's bound to be the preferred Tory solution, when the time comes. As a bonus, the new stadium would actually be within walking distance of West Ham tube station, rather than being tucked away in East Ham as at present. But there are plenty of potential problems. London promised to keep an athletics track at the legacy stadium, but that wouldn't mix well with close-up views of top flight football. G&S have offered to convert West Ham's existing Boleyn Ground into an athletics track, but that's a pretty poor swap to be honest and unlikely to be acceptable. Then there's the major awkwardness that the Olympic Stadium has been designed to be temporary, with all the toilets and important facilities relocated to insubstantial pods outside the perimeter, so it's already too late to construct a fully-fledged futureproof megabowl. Plus, quite frankly, do I want a football crowd marauding through my local mega-shopping centre every other Saturday for the rest of eternity? Forever blowing bubbles, I think not.

One of the perhaps unforeseen implications of Cadbury's recent takeover by American food giants Kraft is a subtle shift in Olympic sponsorship. Cadbury are one of London 2012's second tier sponsors, to be responsible for all the confectionery and packaged ice cream sold at official outlets at Games time. London 2012's head honcho Paul Deighton was terribly excited when the deal was first announced, saying "I’m thrilled that Cadbury - another great and trusted British brand - has come on board." Well, that sounds a bit foolish now, doesn't it? Another Olympic super-marketing opportunity has slipped overseas, and is now in the grasp of faceless Illinois investors globally famed for processed cheese. Can we now expect 2012 kiosks to serve up Philadelphia Cheesecake ice cream, deep-frozen Toblerones and Dairylea-dipped Oreos? Well, probably not, to be honest, but that doesn't stop me being terribly cross about the whole thing. This ain't no Picnic any more, it's a Fudge.

Not yet verified by Visa
Olympic StadiumYou'll be wanting Olympic tickets for 2012, won't you? The chance to sit in a security-frisked grandstand and watch some amateur frontcrawlathon or pingpongfest. But how much will those tickets cost, and when will they be available? No news yet on the first question, but tickets should be on sale by this time next year. And you'll be able to register your interest on the London 2012 website in two months time. But don't get over-excited. No reservations can yet be made, you'll merely be signing up to receive an email in 2011 alerting you that tickets are finally available. Which is surely pointless, because it'll be impossible to avoid the torrent of national publicity that'll be unleashed immediately before Olympic TicketLaunch, so nobody'll fail to notice. Let's hope that tickets for the most interesting events haven't already been hived off to international hospitality cartels by then. Oh, and sponsorship rules apparently mean that the only credit card that'll be accepted for public ticket purchase is Visa, the official Olympic credit card. If that's true, and plastic inequality is the watchword, then I may not even bother applying.

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