diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 09, 2017

River Graveney
Norbury → Streatham → Tooting (3 miles)
[Graveney → Wandle → Thames]

The River Graveney is the new name for the Norbury Brook, new that is if you're a droplet of water heading underneath the A23. It heads west through parts of Streatham and bits of Tooting, one neighbourhood of which bears the river's name, before entering the River Wandle round the back of Lambeth Cemetery. For a large part of the way it defines the boundary between Wandsworth and Merton, and has been an administrative dividing line since the Domesday Book. It too is confined to an above ground culvert for almost all of its length, but still presents a risk to local housing, as this flood map shows.

Hermitage Bridge in Norbury is where the river changes its name, and briefly double-channels, before threading into a modern housing estate via a pedestrians-only zigzag path. There aren't many blocks of postwar flats on this walk, the remainder of the river valley having been covered by villas and semi-detached avenues over several decades, so it feels odd to see the river as a central landscape feature. This aberration is only brief. Beyond the London-Brighton railway the river is once again hemmed in between back gardens, with locked-up alleyways running alongside for wheelbarrow access. Do not consider trying to nip through yourself, as a decaying London County Council sign warns that those found trespassing "in or on the river or its banks will be prosecuted".

This area is Streatham Vale, the valley in question that of the River Graveney, with this section of the river prosaically named Streatham Vale Reach (or, as the Environment Agency have it, Streatham Vale Reach Dangerous Site Risk Of Drowning Keep Out). Again the river is only infrequently glimpsed, and in one case on Sherwood Avenue briefly bridged so that the homeowner at 210a can get his Nissan out. I was hoping for a better view at Eardley Road Sidings Nature Reserve, because surely a nature reserve would showcase any stream flowing through it, but no. When these were railway sidings circa 1905 a culvert was dug underground to keep the water out of the way, so all we see today is a leafy rectangle of woodland thriving on coal dust, clinker and gravel.

The railway's a serious problem for those of us trying to follow the river, because there isn't a way across. The embankment runs for a full mile without a footbridge or transverse tunnel, forming an impenetrable barrier across the former fields of Mitcham. I made the mistake of turning left rather than right, thinking I might catch a glimpse of the river in the allotments on the other side, but after half an hour's diversion I discovered that these were locked off, and then faced another ten minute hike to get back on track. The river had it easy, it cut straight through.

At the bottom of Mitcham Lane the Graveney arrives in deep trench and makes a show of its antiquity. This is Roe Bridge, first built in 1652 after a merchant called Sir Thomas Roe nearly drowned whilst trying to cross the river on horseback. Although the current span dates back only to 1992, the Portland stone block carved with the arms of the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors is from the 17th century original, now somewhat faint, and made fainter by being secured behind a protective sheet of perspex. On the opposite parapet is an iron shield labelled L.C.C. in one half and S.C.C. in the other, because until 1965 the Graveney marked the boundary between Surrey and London. Little river, big significance.

The river continues in boundary mode for the next two miles, initially along the edge of an estate known as the Links, where an alphabetical series of short streets was populated just before the First World War. Only one bridge crosses the river, at E in the sequence from A to J, again with a plaque revealing it was rebuilt in the 1990s. The Graveney doglegs left through a full right angle at Amen Corner, and a big hump in the tarmac to accommodate it can be clearly seen at the western end of Seely Road. This is the hurly-burliest stretch of the entire walk, past the police station and the fried chicken shops down to Tooting railway station, where another natural dogleg swings right.

The neighbourhood ahead is Tooting Graveney, with which we'd be more familiar if only there was an intermediate stop on the Northern line between Tooting Broadway and Colliers Wood. Tooting Graveney's not named after the river, the river is named after it, and originally after the Norman nobility who ruled over the area, the De Gravenel family. In 1868 the line of the river was absorbed by the Tooting, Merton & Wimbledon Railway, so that the Graveney now runs in culvert on either side of the tracks, visible only from the train. Around this time development also began on the parallel Longley Road, which has some gorgeous detached Victorian villas with ornate frontage, plus other almost-as-nice houses filled in between as residential density increased. Sir Harry Lauder (Music Hall Artiste) lived here from 1903-1911, according to the only blue plaque on the Graveney.

Beyond Tooting High Street the now-invisible river continues along the line of the railway, somewhere. It can't be seen from the footbridge on Boundary Road, then a cemetery gets in the way, and access can only be regained by diverting via Wandle Meadow Nature Park. But this is ultimately worth it to see the Graveney for its final 150 metres alongside Mead Path, now flowing between two six-foot-high concrete walls, because you can't be too careful where flooding is concerned. For purely artistic reasons a viewing platform has been installed where the Graveney meets the Wandle, a splendid snakelike pier bending out towards the confluence, its railing wrapped around a tree at the far end. Finally the river runs free, if only for a few metres, in a leafy depression that almost looks natural... before merging with its parent river and flowing away.

» London's Unlost Rivers

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