THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON River Ravensbourne i) Keston → Bromley (4 miles)
[Ravensbourne → Thames]
The Ravensbourne is southeast London's most significant river, rising deep the in woods of Bromley and flowing north into the Thames at Deptford Creek. Along the way it crosses fields and commons, slinks through suburbia, threads across parkland and broadens into a tidal creek shadowed by stacks of newbuild flats. I've already blogged about its tributaries the Pool and the Beck, and back in April brought you a report of a walk along the Quaggy. Now it's finally time to walk the length of the main river, all 11 miles of it, just to show that pesky ChatGPT how a travelogue should be done. Today it's the unpopulated first stretch from the village of Keston to the hubbub of Bromley. [Here's an approximate map, if approximate maps are your thing]
The Ravensbourne rises on Keston Common, a significant expanse of heathland astride the road to Biggin Hill. Specifically it rises at Caesar's Well, an ever-reliable spring conveniently located for the car park at the foot of a set of wooden steps. It's named after Julius Caesar because allegedly the emperor was camped nearby in need of water and observed a raven was a regular visitor to the camp so asked his men to follow it and only then did they find this spring - an anecdote which opens unbelievably and only gets more improbable. Today the spring rises to the surface within a pebbled circle inside a brick-edged pool, then flows down a narrow conduit beneath a fallen beech tree into the first of three large ponds. You'll know the spot if you've walked London Loop section 3, or if you're local and have some kids to tire out because it's a lovely place for a runaround. n.b. I had to wait fifteen minutes to get my photos of Caesar's Well because it had been overrun by man-bun dad, legginged mum, their two pink-wellied girls and Rubix the dog, such is Keston Common's magnetism for family days out.
The ponds are favourites with fisherfolk and are currently topped by yellow-budded waterlilies and a selection of waterfowl. The embryonic stream tumbles down a concrete cascade from each to the next, and the surrounding paths can be muddy because the Ravensbourne emerges at the geological borderline between dry sand and squidgy clay. Beyond the last dam is an untrodden meadow thick with wildflowers, which alas I suspect peaked last month, but the mix of thistle, bird's-foot-trefoil and 'that small white plant' still attracted a dazzling number of butterflies. That it all looks so attractive is thanks to the Friends of Keston Common, a voluntary body who conserve and maintain the site, send out a working party every Friday morning and run a website that puts other SSSIs to shame. n.b. A number of arrowed waymarkers point their way round The Ravensbourne Trail but this is a 2½ mile nature-focused circuit not a deliberate attempt to follow the river, indeed it barely grazes the Ravensbourne at all.
The river is now a shallow rippled trickle, still narrow enough to be crossed by a footbridge the size of a tabletop, and still gently losing height over a series of natural weirs. It threads onwards through Padmall Wood, an ancient coppiced woodland, passing quietly between birchy glades, brambles and rosebay willowherb. The path eventually becomes a boardwalk made from railway sleepers and crosses a boggy stretch overshadowed by alder and sweet chestnut before veering away towards the site of a former timber yard, where an information board provides sufficient facts to ensure any one-time visitor can sound impressively over-knowledgeable. But that's the last you'll be seeing of the river for the next mile and a half as it tucks itself away amid private land on BromleyCommon, which it turns out is barely commonland at all. n.b. What follows is a chain of thick woodland so far from streets where people live that even dogwalkers don't trouble it much. It's fabulous for getting away from it all, assuming you like woods with a web of footpaths that could be heading anywhere, and rarely have I been anywhere in London where I've had to open up a map on my phone quite so often to check I was going the right way.
Colyers Wood is the easiest to traverse because it has broad tracks with tyre marks suggesting forestry employees often zip around. Further evidence comes from a large unnatural clearing amid the beech trees and a massive stack of sawn trunks piled up neatly at the northern end of the site. Barnet Wood is denser and more bewildering, so arguably more fun, and relentlessly thick with oak, holly and bracken. The Ravensbourne can be briefly heard gushing beneath a ratrun backlane on your way in, and briefly seen at a footbridge near Bromley Common Cricket Club on your way out. I stopped and listened midway and only heard birds, the wind in the trees and the inevitable plane. n.b. Last year when I was dashing around trying to visit all the OS grid squares in London I'd never been to before, two of them unsurprisingly were here.
The only way ahead - still not beside the river - is now a broad grassy track hemmed in between unkempt paddocks. Some are awash with clover and long-eared grass while others contain a few actual horses, and in one case a man furiously riding a pony and trap round in a big circle. Many of the paddocks include a shed or caravan acting as a home from home, occasionally with a family attempting to entertain themselves in the great outdoors, as if these are the equivalent of beach huts for the impecunious equestrian set. During my passage two hooded cyclists emerged from a track signed Private No Access, a tiny child bounced on a distant trampoline, a faded sign tied to an electric fence warned DON FEED HO, and I moved swiftly on. n.b. Sorry to go on about this, but it's rare these days that I can walk for two miles across London without being anywhere I've ever been before, such is the offlimits nature of this intersuburban bufferzone.
And then it's back to the chain of woodland. I didn't find a brook in Brook Wood, I suspect it's seasonal, but I did find a deep clay depression which I suspect is a challenge to cross at damper times of the year. This wood's predominantly birch with the occasional splatter of manure on the footpath and absolutely no directional signage whatsoever. It leads to the delightfully named Scrogginhall Wood where thick pollarded oak trunks line the main path and hurrah, it's finally time to walk alongside the Ravensbourne again. The stream's only broadened slightly and the flow's not much stronger but it has carved a slightly deeper trench with larger roots now poking from its earthen banks. No way are any fish going to survive in waters this shallow but the surface is alive with the flickers of darting flies. n.b. I suspect it's a lot busier in the woods when neighbouring Bromley College is in session. It used to be a grand mansion called The Rookery whose owners tweaked the Ravensbourne to create a keyhole-shaped ornamental fishing lake, but alas that's still private and marginally invisible.
Suddenly you step through a hedgerow and voila - people! This is Norman Park, the town of Bromley's largest recreational space, which boasts an athletics track at one end and acres of sports pitches across the rest. The Ravensbourne was daylighted here in the year 2000 and now forms an attractive meandering wooded divide at the halfway point. Most visitors alas just walk or jog around the perimeter so miss out on the shady shallows, the secluded paths and the wildflower intrusion, even the carefully positioned footbridges, because the river remains inside a pipe to either side. Unless you have the key to the locked gate on the far side of the park prepare to say goodbye again to the Ravensbourne as it heads into some allotments, then vanishes into (and under) the home ground of Bromley FC. n.b. If you've been itching to spend some money then the ice cream van in the car park is the first place in today's post which sells anything (and if that's not flogging 99s the Trackside Cafe welcomes allcomers for coffee and cake, not just athletes).
At the turn of the 20th century the Ravensbourne crossed Hayes Lane at a lowly ford, whereas today it disappears into the gaping jaws of an Environment Agency trash screen. They can't have underground culverts getting clogged up, and there are about to be a few of those on the final approach to Bromley town centre. The next culvert dodges a large school directly named after the river you can no longer see, then silently re-emerges around the back of the local tennis and squash club. Sandford Road (four miles from the source) is the first residential street to rub up against the Ravensbourne, which can be briefly seen from the end of a short cul-de-sac called (with stunning unoriginality) Streamside Close. Here I looked over the wall at a bland concrete trench, the water maybe a couple of inches deep, while a fox stared me out from the opposite pavement as if to say "what the hell is anyone else doing here?" n.b. And as the commercial heart of Bromley looms let's leave it there, because today I'm heading back to walk the next bit and tomorrow I'll be able to tell you what comes next.