THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON The Ravensbourne Gidea Park → Hornchurch → Elm Park (3½ miles)
[Ravensbourne → Beam → Thames]
Don't get your hopes up. This is the Ravensbourne in Havering, not the long and important river of the same name in southeast London. It flows south between Romford and Hornchurch, missing both. It goes pretty much nowhere the average Londoner has heard of, too far east to be on the capital's radar. Unless you've lived or worked locally, my description of its route will bear absolutely no relevance to your life. But if you're still with me, let's go. [Google map][1921 OS map][1975 map]
The Ravensbourne used to rise at Gallows Corner, once a place of gibbetry, now a five-arm roundabout with flyover and KFC drive-thru. Don't go looking for the source here, it's long vanished beneath the tarmac. But what's great about this particular river is that downstream very little has been buried, so it only takes two streets for the fledgling brook to appear. It pops up on Ferguson Avenue, south side only, emerging from a culvert into a deep concrete ravine between two houses.
Initially there's only a shallow trickle, barely enough to cover the bed, but what do you expect after a month with virtually no rainfall? This upper section of the Ravensbourne once formed the boundary between the Municipal Borough of Romford and Hornchurch Urban District, so the bungalows on the west bank are older than the semis on the east. A tiny footbridge links the two parallel avenues a little further down, and then the river hits a railway cutting and has to duck deep underneath.
The obstruction is the Great Eastern mainline, otherwise known as the line out of Liverpool Street, and soon to be cast in purple. A locked gate leads down to the Gidea Park Traincrew Depot, a substantial set of sidings where several Crossrail trains will be stashed, though full of less sparkly stock at present. On the other side of the tracks are the remains of the Romford Factory, one of the very first locomotive works, which thrived briefly in the 1840s and was then turned over to making tarpaulins to cover goods trucks instead. Some of Havering's few tower blocks now cover part of the site, while the South Range, Sheet Drying Shed and Grease Factory and Sponge Cloth Laundry have been incorporated into a much more modern development. [pdf history]
The river flows on into Haynes Park, the largest greenspace in Squirrel's Heath, preserved for recreational purposes in 1937. The Ravensbourne forms part of the conservation area down the western side, edging a delightful meadow, if bleached-yellow and tinder-dry at present. I was amazed to have the entire northern half of the park to myself, a good eight acres, despite it being mid-afternoon on a glorious summer's day. Maybe nobody plays football on World Cup days, or maybe the lack of an entrance at the northern end of the park discourages visitors, but with this level of indifference on display I fear it may be only a couple of decades before suburbia's unloved parks get churned up for housing.
Northumberland Avenue has some lovely detached homes, the best on the walk, indeed the entire area's much more pleasant than you'll think it is if you've never been. Gidea Park might well be my top tip for Crossrail living, with more suburban bang for your zone 6 buck. The bus shelters in Slewins Lane currently feature a poster for a missing cat wearing a studded diamante collar. Brooklands Gardens boasts spacious semis with topiary orbs hanging out front. Only one St George's flag in Lewis Road has 'the Sun' printed in the corner. The dip of the Ravensbourne is plainly evident in Hillview Avenue, even if the tiny balustrade above the culvert is hard to spot. Somewhere behind the bungalows' back gardens, the Ravensbourne's first tributary feeds in.
Our next railway obstruction is the runtiest stretch of the Overground - the line between Romford and Upminster. To cross it requires a serious detour to find the alleyway round the back of the garages, then retracing to the rear of Courage Close. Here we find one of London's handful of pedestrian level crossings, a brief trot across a gated single track, with Emerson Park station just visible in the distance. This is why you've never been. It takes a few more minutes to hike back to the line of the river, here concealed behind the line of Lyndhurst Drive. This is quintessential 1940s Havering, and boasts more than its fair share of black cabs, plus some allotments and a salon called Hairport. The houses in this particular street, I can confirm, currently have a 5% take-up rate of flapping England flags.
Next we reach Ravens Bridge, a once-rural crossing point on the road from Romford to Hornchurch, and only a short walk from the latter. It's possible to walk alongside the river for the majority of its final mile, because this is where we enter Harrow Lodge Park, slipping down a shady path alongside the cricket ground. The stream still barely fills its broad channel, until it joins with a brief piped-in tributary and flows down a weir into something deeper that a fish could conceivably live in. The occasional discarded trolley and broken paving slab intrude, but the mown riverside path is a particular pleasure after all that pavement-bashing.
Hornchurch Sports Centre is the dominant feature at the top end of the park, then a trio of blocks of flats, and then the enormous artificial lake. The Ravensbourne was dammed in the mid-50s, and creates an impressive centrepiece, with one half for boating and the other for pedalo-free waterfowl. The Lakeview Palace cafe is a big draw, where former EastEnders can sit out front with a proper cooked breakfast and check the racing in folded tabloids, while tattooed parents take their angels out in swan-shaped paddle boats. Beyond the dividing footbridge a windpump keeps the real swans' lair properly aerated. The grass alongside is covered with downy feathers, and more unspeakable deposits, hence the wise picknicker sprawls further upslope.
And that's it for surface water, because beyond the dam the Ravensbourne returns to pipes beneath the park for its last few hundred yards. But you can still tell where it used to go, through an undulating patch of oak woodland with dips and climbs, and hidden paths few visitors follow (because the playground to the south is a much bigger draw). The river only pops up again unseen round the back of the Maylands Health Centre and Parkview Dental Practice, crossing overgrown scrubland to join the River Rom, which from this point on is known as the Beam River. And even though that's worth a walk, I've blogged it already, so just the Ravensbourne will do.