diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 08, 2023

THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The Roxbourne
Rayners Lane → South Ruislip → Northolt (3 miles)
[Roxbourne → Yeading Brook → Crane → Thames]


Eight years to the day since I started this feature, here's a niche waterway which crosses the suburbs between Harrow, Ruislip and Northolt. Officially it's the Eastern Arm of the Yeading Brook, a more substantial beast, but because it starts near Roxeth it's alternatively known as the Roxbourne. 100 years ago it crossed nothing but fields and the occasional lane, then Metroland arrived and claimed the valley for its own. What follows is therefore a walk across offradar chunks of Middlesex, although hang on to the end and we will eventually reach somewhere you've heard of. [map]

The Roxbourne rises in a park off Rayners Lane, quite near the southern end, not very close to the station. If you know where Rayners Lane FC play their minor league football matches it's right alongside, and if not just nod and read on. Welcome to Newton Farm Ecology Park, a successful attempt to reclaim an old council depot by creating a variety of natural habitats. It's maintained by volunteers who meet every Saturday morning, occasionally assisted by dosh from Greggs and the National Lottery, and who (judging by the text on their interpretation board) are fighting a constant battle against litter, dogmess and visitors who fail to throw invertebrates back into the pond. The source of the Roxbourne is somewhere behind the thicket of osiers by the blackthorn hedge. If you can dodge the smokers it's an attractive start.



Newton Park is divided in two by Alexandra Avenue, the chief thoroughfare the Metropolitan Railway built hereabouts, which briefly buries the Roxbourne beneath some flats. It emerges again in Newton Park West, a former sewage works recreationalised by the council in 1952. And whilst I can't speak for the quality of the sports pitches the wetland area is a really lovely space and by the looks of it a relatively recent creation. The stream meanders along a realistic-looking channel overdraped by willows, dotted with rocks and populated by the occasional duck. Pick your path and circulate between the reeds and rushes, maybe pause on a bench, and heavens this is much nicer than your average municipal culverting.



The aluminium spire visible across the park belongs to St Andrew's, a parish church built by perseverance. The first local residents had no proper place of worship, only a mission hall in South Harrow, but managed to raise £4000 which led to the laying of a foundation stone here by the river in 1954. They took the pulpit and pews from a surplus church in Edmonton, five bells from Bethnal Green and then used War Damage funds from bombed-out St Stephen's in Poplar to pay for the 49 stained glass windows. I was delighted to be able to slip inside for a few quiet minutes and admire the interior with its vaulting roof, chunky font and vibrant glass - a true beacon of postwar optimism.



The church noticeboard calls this St Andrew's Roxbourne suggesting that the river has given its name to the locality, although little else here acts as a community focus. Roxbourne School and Roxbourne Park are all over half a mile away beside the other arm of the Yeading Brook, as is the ride-on Roxbourne Railway (which reopens Sunday 26th March). Rather closer to the stream is the Roxbourne Medical Centre, formerly Roxbourne Geriatric Hospital and before that Harrow Isolation Hospital for the confinement of patients with scarlet fever. Whatever this patch of wall-to-wall suburbia is really called, you wouldn't describe it as 'Roxbourne' if you wanted another Londoner to know where you meant.



The river then squeezes out of sight between back gardens on Leamington Crescent and Stuart Avenue, two backwaters I expect will never be mentioned on this blog again. It re-emerges at a metal screen on Field End Road where the Environment Agency scrape out gunk and check water levels. The shopping parade here is nameless but manages a Boots, a Tesco and a Greggs which is good going for somewhere mid-nowhere. Boundary watchers should note that the river has just passed from Harrow into Hillingdon... and has also entirely disappeared because Ruislip-Northwood Urban District were rather keener on burying things.



For over half a mile the Roxbourne lurks somewhere under Victoria Road, a traffic-choked feeder road lined by big sheds where NW Londoners drive to buy furniture, refrigerators, carpets and petfood. But it doesn't quite make it as far as the monumental Sainsbury's, it veers off at the appropriately named Brook Retail Park where it emerges from a dark concrete slot designed to cope with a lot more runoff than we've had lately. If you climbed down that ladder you could wade across the littered shallows into the gloomy netherworld beyond, but this is totally not recommended. Almost as unwelcoming is the waste transfer site at the end of Civic Way, which the culvert wisely dodges and instead curves away to carve beneath the railway embankment just east of South Ruislip station.



It requires a detour of almost a mile to dodge the railway and rejoin the river. Six avenues of tepid suburban semis come to a sudden halt round the back of South Park Way, the Roxbourne now dividing back gardens from the fields beyond. Only three properties lie beyond the stream, with access via a weak bridge whose 3 tonne limit must cause issues on removals day. An unsigned footpath tracks briefly along the waterside towards a squidgy wildflower meadow but is currently blocked off at the far end so best not try. Instead circle back through Stonefield Park - an underwhelming name of the first order - past a school indirectly named after the river, namely Bourne Primary. I see from a noticeboard outside the main entrance that their 'Value of the month' is Positivity, and I wish I felt more upbeat about that.



OK, now for the potentially well known bit. The 2000-seater grandstand backing onto the river belongs to McGovern Park, the headquarters of hurling and Gaelic football in the capital. Not much happens outdoors at this time of year because they have no floodlights. Across the road is RAF Northolt, the airfield many a civil jet takes off from, indeed you might well spot a financier launching over Ruislip. No recently deceased Queens are expected in the near-to-mid future. And in the southeast corner is the Polish War Memorial, better known to motorists on the A40 as a troubled road junction but actually an imposing eagle-topped pillar above a bright blue fountained pool. Also check out the joint Hillingdon/Poland Remembrance Garden behind, not because it's pretty but because it's there.



Sandwiched between the remembrance garden and the eastbound carriageway the Roxbourne reappears in a deep concrete channel wide enough to sail a boat down. You never would, the water's barely a few inches deep, but in case of mass inundation on the A40 it's good to know the infrastructure would cope. The culvert continues past the lower-than-usual lampposts which confirm an airfield is alongside, then ducks under the dual carriageway to re-emerge in a scrubby meadow. If you don't mind a grim particulate-belching walk along the A40 you can eventually reach this point, but alas there's no public access to the mid-field confluence where the western and eastern arms of the Yeading Brook merge. This arm peaked seven paragraphs back, so thank you for sticking with the Roxbourne to the bitter end.


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