diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 11, 2023

River Ravensbourne
ii) Bromley → Catford (4 miles)
[Ravensbourne → Thames]

The Ravensbourne is south London's longest river, winding 11 miles from a spring in Keston to the Thames at Deptford Creek. It's named after a bird Julius Caesar reputedly spotted near the source, i.e. 100% myth, and in turn gives its name to various streets, schools, housing estates and even a railway station along its length. Today I'm walking the middle course from Bromley to Catford and attempting, often in vain, to keep the river in view.
[Here's an approximate map, if approximate maps are your thing]

Bromley's High Street is well named, being 20 metres more elevated than the river which slinks, generally unnoticed, just to the west. One way to find it is to follow Ravensbourne Road, an early residential street, then follow the path at the end into Church House Gardens. Here the Ravensbourne flows into a historic millpond, not that you'd guess because the weir is concrete, the water has a fetid scum on it and the central island's all silted up. Thames Water kicked off a major restoration project here at Glassmill Pond in February and it's hard to tell if they've finished or paused midway, although the little egret standing in the middle seemed pretty content.
n.b. If you work for Bromley council's Dog Control and Fouling Enforcement department, that's not how you spell fluorescent.

The Ravensbourne flows on into Queensmead Recreation Ground confined to a drab trench, as will be its fate for much of today's post. It's deep enough that a ladder has been provided for human access but simultaneously shallow enough that the water barely covers the leaves and litter on the bed. There have long been plans to set the river free and instead create a naturalised eco-friendly wiggle, but never the money, so the foot of Martin's Hill remains severed by an unnatural barrier. It's even more hidden up ahead where it flows round the back of the houses on Martin's Road, originally in the open but since topped off by slabs of concrete to create a slightly elevated path, and overall you do get the feeling Bromley just aren't terribly proud of it.
n.b. The river was relegated to its trench through Queensmead Rec following nasty flooding in 1969.

At Shortlands the railings between the Bridge cafe and the crossroads look slightly too ornate for their surroundings, as I once remarked to a friend the last time I passed. A bit of cartographical digging confirms this was once the parapet of a bridge over the Ravensbourne, now buried, its path subsequently relegated to somewhere you might park a Merc. The river eventually re-emerges along the edge of Shortlands Golf Club, who are so keen you don't see their water hazard that the sign in their car park says NO PUBLIC RIGHT OF WAY in capital letters. Instead riverwalkers are relegated to a very long stretch of Ravensbourne Avenue, and don't worry we're only a couple of paragraphs from a nice section where you can actually see some water.
n.b. Look out for the blue plaque on number 58 for Harold Bride, Wireless Operator on the Titanic, who lived here for a decade before and a decade after the calamitous sinking.

So far we've had Ravensbourne Road, Ravensbourne Avenue and (even though I didn't mention it) Ravens Close, and now we get Ravensmead Road. It backs onto the river and has an extraordinary mix of houses with every two pairs of semis interspersed by a sleeker pair in streamline moderne style, which is much more fun than interwar architects were normally allowed. Just up Crab Hill is the ultimate in being "named after the river", namely Ravensbourne station. It appears to be a quiet halt almost rural in nature, although that illusion is shattered once you see the plague of 21st century extras they've added along the platforms. It also has a throwback Oyster sign, a tiny coffee bar tucked away outside and a weeny ticket office in a sideroom.
n.b. Yes the ticket office is doomed, according to the consultation poster on the step-free ramp.

Hurrah it's Beckenham Place Park, Lewisham's finest recreational space, and we get to follow the Ravensbourne properly again. Be sure to stick to the strip of park to the east of the railway but don't stick to the obvious path with the steady stream of dogwalkers, you need to veer off into the undergrowth and voila! It's delightful now, it looks like a proper river with pebbly shallows, natural curves, shadowy oaks and that surefire indicator of a much-loved waterway, the child's rope swing. On one bend I found a toppled tree revealing a labyrinth of roots, on another a low terrace of pebbles scattered with tiny sycamore seeds and on another the ideal spot for a family picnic with adjacent paddling, and I admit to being chuffed it was a weekday and I had the whole lot to myself.
n.b. The best part of the riverside path is narrow and part-obstructed by brambles, nettles and thistles so probably unsuitable for those in shorts, but dress sensibly and you too can enjoy the finest manifestation of the Ravensbourne so far.

It's a shame to leave the park because the river's about to lose its freedom again, confined to culverts to minimise the flood risk to local houses. In particular it can't be seen round the back of the Ravensbourne Estate, where tauntingly all the blocks are named after rivers and illustrated with a logo featuring a sylvan rustic stream. The Ravensbourne's first named tributary, the Spring Brook, feeds in here where it too cannot be seen. Three of Downham's backstreets offer a brief glimpse between the houses, though not attractively. By the time the river reaches Peter Pan's Park it's gone full-on artificial, feeding through a large metal structure called the Beckenham Hill Debris Screen. Goodness knows why you'd want to sit on the wooden platform and take in the scenery, but evidence from hot wings wrappers and lager cans suggests many do.
n.b. The park is named after the adjacent pleasure park I'm about to mention in the next paragraph, which in 1922 was the first public space author JM Barrie allowed to be named after his most famous character.

The large splodge of water at the top of Beckenham Hill Road is Southend Pond, a former millpond once at the heart of the former village of Southend. In 1922 it was transformed into the centrepiece of a children's pleasure park called Peter Pan's Pool which boasted a boating lake, informal gardens and a funfair. Today the rest of the ex-park is a branch of Homebase, the pond is the undisputed territory of a squadron of waterfowl and a sign on the adjacent A21 warns passing traffic 'SLOW Wildlife Crossing'. I have previously watched ducks waddling across the road towards St John's church but on this occasion all I saw was a very static heron.
n.b. If the Ravensbourne has a bus route that'd be the 320 which has been shadowing the river since its source in Keston, but only here at Southend Pond can it be seen from the upper deck.

Don't feel the need to track the Ravensbourne for the next mile through Bellingham because you won't see much. The culvert round the back of the Riverside Estate is distinctly underwhelming. The culvert behind Catford Bus Garage merely backs onto an industrial estate. Only the Metropolitan Police see the culvert round the back of the South East Area Traffic Unit. And after Fordmill Lane the culvert passes under the railway embankment but you can't, forcing a mile-long detour to reach the next bit.

This is the confluence of the River Ravensbourne and the Pool River, a tributary that's almost as long and, judging by volumetric flow, more significant. What elevates it above your average confluence is the open ramp leading down to river level where, if rainfall's been light, you can stand on dry land at the merging point and watch both rivers tumbling in and their combined waters rumbling on. I can never resist walking down, and once I'd had my turn a smiling father wheeled a pushchair down the ramp so his toddler could experience it too. Wait a while and you'll likely see a train crossing the Ravensbourne at just-below head height, and come back later and you may meet the grafitti artists who decorate the floodwall beyond.
n.b. This is also where I ended my 2015 reportage on the Pool and the Beck, so we welcome readers joining us belatedly for the northward continuation.

For the first time since the source the river is flanked by a broad tarmac path, lamplit for safety and well used by cyclists, walkers and even practising skaters. It passes Catford Gauging Station, which is essentially a small hut, and then rises to pass underneath a Victorian railway viaduct. This has had a glow-up recently, courtesy of a giant painted kingfisher and a colourful mural under the arch devised by Ollie Cooper Signs. Meanwhile the Ravensbourne is now a thin layer of water in a bottle-strewn trench some three metres lower down, in complete contrast to what it was at the start of yesterday's post and in sharper contrast to how it'll be by the end of tomorrow's.

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