THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON Pool River Beckenham → Catford (2 miles)
[Pool → Ravensbourne → Thames]
Best start with a quick hydrological summary. Most of southeast London's rainfall ends up in the drainage basin of the River Ravensbourne. The main river rises in Keston and flows north via Bromley and to enter the Thames at Deptford Creek. It's joined at Lewisham by the Quaggy, which is quite the best name of any river in London. Meanwhile the other main tributary is created by the joining together of the River Beck and the Chaffinch Brook, both of which rise to the east of Croydon. These merge near Beckenham to form the Pool River, a two mile flow which joins the Ravensbourne just to the south of Catford. But if the Beck was a charmer, then the Pool (into which it metamorphoses) is rather less so. Sorry. [Here's an approximate map, if approximate maps are your thing]
I remember Cator Park as a lowpoint of the Capital Ring walk. Whereas in most green spaces a water feature might be a boost, here it's anything but. The two contributory rivers carve through the park in deep concrete furrows, limiting passage to a single footbridge, before amalgamating in a large wishbone-shaped fork. The riverbed is so low down that you can only see it by wandering over to the iron railings and looking down, which few do. A further culvert feeds in a few metres further downstream, emerging from a letter-box shaped slot beneath the grass. For this is the reality of river management in urban London - what's most important is that houses don't flood after heavy rain, not how pretty the drainage channel looks.
This is also the start of the Waterlink Way, a walking and cycling route following the Pool and Ravensbourne all the way to the Thames. It's part of National Cycle Network route 21, so has plenty of blue signs, and also enhances access to the riverside along the eight miles to the north. Not that this is riverside you'll always want to be up close to. The path first heads down a narrow passage between some allotments and the New Beckenham Sports ground, its mock Tudor pavilion far larger (and more symmetrical) than would seem absolutely necessary. Beyond this the riverside opens out somewhat, but the Pool has the drab feel of a natural feature that's been municipally landscaped. Two parakeets and a handful of daffodils helped brighten the outlook, if only temporarily.
And then the "why am I walking this?" bit. The path leaves the river to become Kangley Bridge Road, the spine road of a trading estate, lined by skips and warehouses and some very 1980s-looking Business Centres. If you need bathroom tiles or your recycling crushed and stacked, you're in the right place. On a weekday afternoon the place is full of shaven-headed men in overalls, hopping into truck cabs or hanging around outside depot gates for a smoke. In the midst of this sits Lower Sydenham station, better placed for work than home, overlooked by a chimney that still thinks DYLON is a pretty cool brand.
While the Waterlink Way continues north, now inappropriately named, the Pool has diverted off to the other side of the railway. At Worsley Bridge a paved path runs briefly alongside a shallow channel strewn with blocks of stone, bequeathed to local residents by a long-gone (and clearly over-optimistic) town planner. And then comes a lost opportunity - the recreational cul-de-sac of Southend Park. Beyond the playground a hump-backed footbridge indicates a river once flowed here, but the park is dry and the Pool long buried underground, probably alongside the central line of trees.
I nearly injured myself attempting to cross Southend Road. The eastbound traffic is relentless, there being no signals to pause it, hence I ended up attempting to walk through a pavementless arch beneath the railway in the face of oncoming vehicles. It turned out there was a footpath beneath the viaduct fractionally further up, alongside a bend in the river, but I missed that. Unnerved I found myself on Riverview Walk at the entrance to the River Pool Linear Park. This specially landscaped zone follows the river for a mile all the way to Catford, with no road crossings whatsoever, hence a return to walking and cycling nirvana.
Something's happened to the Pool by this point - it is unashamedly a little river in a flood channel built to contain a torrent. At least the concrete walls meander a little for visual variation, which is useful, because it helps take your eye off the giant retail park (Sainsburys, B&Q, etc) sullying the western bank. More striking is the colourful mural of out-of-place sea creatures painted by students from local schools under the tubular bridge, another welcome diversion. The former Bell Green gasworks have been transformed into a nature reserve and play park, and the river here has recently been expensively landscaped to look illusorily natural. I think this is the place, by the weir and the brushed steel sign, where the Mayor lost his footing while helping to clean out the Pool a few years back. His stumble was fairly minor and no tousled hair was dampened, but my how Youtube buzzed at the time.
After this brief stretch of overplanting, the Pool returns to more mundane flow. By now the Waterlink Way is a few yards away, running alongside what may one day be the Bakerloo line, the river mostly screened from sight. But there is a point, if you know where to look, where a minor path heads off into the undergrowth and follows the riverbank proper. A decent five minutes can be spent beside the water's edge, stepping over roots and ducking beneath blossoming branches, as the Pool ultimately (and only just in time) redeems itself.
Because the footbridge ahead marks the end of the line. It's immediately beyond this the Ravensbourne swings in from the right, beneath both of Catford's railway lines, and swallows the waters of the Pool whole. But check out the four panels on the bridge before you pass on, and wave your phone's QR code reader to hear the animal sounds if you can. They're part of an artsproject called Here Comes Everybody which created an interactive "User Generated Surveillance adventure" down the Pool in late 2013. The idea was to listen to 12 chunks of intimate narrative, or something, I'm not quite sure because the app has since been deleted. But it's a strong hint that the Pool's open accessibility makes it something of a rarity amongst urban rivers. And it probably looks much lovelier in the summer.