diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 25, 2013

NR400: 1613 - 2013
7: Stoke Newington → Islington
(3 miles)

Today the New River runs no further than the reservoirs in Stoke Newington. But 400 years ago it ran three miles further, all the way to fields on the edge of London near the Angel. This final section became disused and was covered over in the early 20th century. But very little has actually been built over, so it's surprisingly easy to follow the route through Canonbury and Islington. Indeed as lost rivers go, this anniversary-celebrating canal is far less lost than most.

The 'Heritage' section of the New River Walk starts in Clissold Park. Ignore the two lakes to the north of the park, they're merely ornamental ponds on the line of the Hackney Brook. This stream was the last of the natural valleys the New River had to negotiate, thankfully shallow, but still requiring a Highbury-ward diversion. To continue on the New River Path walk halfway down the park to the Pump House kiosk, an original waterside building now serving drinks and sandwiches, and turn left. Hackney council have restored a short section of the New River through the heart of the park, fairly recently in fact, appearing suddenly within a fenced-off rockery. Two new footbridges have been built, each end marked with the seal of the New River Company and its motto "Et plui super unam civitatem" ("And I rained upon one city"). The waterway looks more river than canal on the corner by Clissold House - once the estate's mansion, now a Grade II listed cafe. And then the channel disappears again beyond an iron footbridge, because it isn't really flowing anywhere, in truth it's just another ornamental pond.

Another double-back leads to the New River Cafe, a 'proper' cornershop eaterie serving cappuccinos and salads. Look behind to discover a string of allotments along Aden Passage which precisely follows the original New River. There wasn't room to squeeze houses in here so they replaced the river bed with beds for beans and marrows instead. Indeed "there wasn't room to squeeze houses in here" explains much of what we're about to see. Petherton Road is a case in point. Houses were built down both sides of the New River in the 1880s - aspirational four storey terraces by modern standards - set back one road's width from the water's edge. When the New River was culverted this created a half-mile-long avenue with a space down the centre, once used for car parking, more recently turned over to grass. The local residents association are duly proud, and have thrown down woodchip in the central section to prevent their landscape feature being churned into mud. On Sunday they're holding a 400th anniversary picnic on Petherton Green, as it's now called, and will be making a flight of fishes to hang from the trees. A charming street, this.

The road continues, still wider than normal, past the Snooty Fox pub and Canonbury station. And then comes a rather splendid re-creation, New River Walk, a landscaped half-mile of which Islington council are very proud. A thin strip of green curves round from St Paul's Road to the Essex Road, overshadowed by trees, with what looks like the New River wiggling down the centre. But there are a few clues that it's not. For a start the water's not flowing, it's still, hence ideal for leafy reflection. More blatantly the channel's not straight, it bends and curves in an attractive manner whereas Myddleton's original channel cut direct. Transformation took place in the 1950s, creating a replica of a moorland stream with shrubs and rockeries of Westmoreland stone. Various sections have been upgraded since, adding wooden walkways and willowy pools, which so isn't the state of the open New River upstream. But never mind the authenticity, enjoy the ambience.

The most characterful part of New River Walk occurs near the end close to Canonbury Road. A small stone hut, thought to have belonged to a watchman, survives at a bend in the river. The channel here is the original New River, narrower as was the case in 1613, with its wooden banks (or revetments) restored. It's a favoured spot for waterfowl, and blimey if there wasn't a heron standing there clear as day keeping watch when I passed. This one's a long-standing visitor, it even attended the reopening ceremony (along with Princess Alexandra) when this particular section was restored in 1998. But that's it for water on the surface. The final section along Astey's Row is entirely dry, home to a linear rock garden (and that's Greenpeace HQ in the old boiler house alongside). Watch out for a map of the New River inscribed in the path at the far end - it's a bit faint, but a nice touch.

Essex Road is where civilisation hits. If you carry on walking down to Islington Green there's a statue to Sir Hugh Myddleton in the most prominent position possible where Upper Street divides. Islington really took to the New River's creator and the prosperity he brought to these fields, indeed he was namechecked again at the Myddleton Arms pub a few streets back. Sir Hugh's artificial aqueduct crossed obliquely beneath Essex Road by tunnel, then resurfaced alongside what's now Colebrook Row. When the Regent's Canal arrived 200 years later it therefore had to pass underneath the New River, which it does near the entrance to the Islington Tunnel. I'd previously thought that the linear parkland on top was just another garden square, and never previously twigged it was yet another manifestation of the New River. Again the houses are very pleasant here, that's just round the back of Angel tube. And don't forget to look up by Duncan Terrace to enjoy a cluster of 300 bird and bee boxes hugging the trunk of a tree, entitled 'Spontaneous City in the Tree of Heaven', part of the Secret Garden Project.

That really (really) is almost it. 28 miles down from Hertford and there's only a few hundred yards to go, cutting across City Road and Goswell Road a short distance downhill from the Angel. The New River would then have passed through what's now Owen's Field, a minor parklet alongside City and Islington College, where you could easily sit and eat your lunch or watch your dog perform without ever realising the history of this spot. A few more hints follow. Chadwell Street, named after the New River's springs in Ware, rises up to the glorious expanse of Myddleton Square. Beyond are River Street and Mylne Street, the latter named after the New River Company's Victorian chief engineer. And just off Rosebery Avenue is New River Head, the ultimate terminus of both water and walk. 399 years, 361 days, and counting.

» Map of the New River Walk: http://www.shelford.org/walks/newriver.pdf
» The entire route; my map of today's walk; map from 1834
» Click here to start from section 1

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