THE UNLOST RIVERS OF LONDON River Ravensbourne iii) Catford → Deptford (4 miles)
[Ravensbourne → Thames]
The Ravensbourne is south London's longest river, winding 11 miles from Keston spring to tidal Deptford Creek. Along the way it goes from narrow enough to stand astride to wide enough to send a ship down, because that's what the accumulated drainage of Bromley and Lewisham enables. Today I'm walking the lower course from Catford to the Thames, and if you keep your eyes peeled you may eventually see a fish. [Here's an approximate map, if approximate maps are your thing]
Catford is named after a ford across the River Ravensbourne, allegedly the home of wild cats, which at least makes a change from myths about ravens and Roman emperors. Two railway lines squeeze across the valley here and don't leave much room for the river, which weaves through where it can and then escapes under the viaduct via a dramatic bifurcated S bend. A lot of new housing has been squeezed in too, including a long chain of depressingly identical vernacular blocks leading to the site of the former greyhound stadium. Better to follow the river which leads instead to Ladywell Fields, easily the busiest recreational expanse we've seen so far, where afternoonfolk may be occupied with drinking, chatting, outdoor gymming or (somewhere over the footbridge) playing bowls. I additionally encountered a group of geography students emerging from the water's edge carrying tape measures, because the penultimate week of term is the ideal time for a fluvial field trip. n.b. At a guess, were I wielding that tape measure, I'd say 5m wide.
Tediously both railway lines need crossing again, one via an enormous looping double-spiral ramp. Do stop to read the information boards as you go by, not least because one confirms that the tree you're standing under is the Lewisham Dutch Elm, one of the last mature specimens in the capital. Another board explains that the dry channel in front of you was added to help illustrate the water cycle so if you pump the handle... ah, nothing happens. The last board is the best board because it explains that a second channel was dug through the northern part of the park in 2008 - back then a meandering trench bordered by inane safety messages and now a lush sinuous habitat of wildlife-friendly pools and riffles. But they had to do emergency works on it last winter because the inflow silted up and the channel dried out, which just goes to show that mimicking nature is harder than it looks. n.b. The most important footbridge is round the back of Lewisham Hospital - "proud to be a smoke-free zone" - which is crossed regularly by every employee in urgent need of a legal cigarette.
After Ladywell's flurry of pleasantness the Ravensbourne is once again confined to concrete and sent on a tour of the backside of Lewisham. It becomes visible again round the back of the shopping centre in a sliver of greenspace over-optimistically titled Riverdale Sculpture Park. When it opened in the year 2000 it held 16 sculptures but now has just one, a geometric totem by the entrance called 'Column', and the remainder of the site is a dystopian dead end loop whose benches are frequented by slurred drinkers and zonked sleepers. My advice is simply 'don't'. Conditions are less oppressive in Cornmill Gardens, a massive mixed use development facing the station, where the river forms an artificial canyon between multiple low- and high-rise flats. Local birdlife certainly loves the buddleia, but the shrubberies have proved ideal for abandoning Lime bikes and if you look closely at the so-called riverbanks and riverbeds they're merely held together by wire netting. n.b. The variegated building coloured like an 'Elmer' children's book is the Glass Mill Leisure centre, opened 10 years ago and named after Lewisham Bridge Mill which once stood nearby.
Central Lewisham is a whirlwind of redevelopment, quite unattractively so, and the Ravensbourne is the regeneration corridor it's erupting from. At its epicentre is the Lewisham Gateway project, a motley collection of towers surrounding the point where the River Quaggy arrives on the scene and feeds into the longer river. Here we find Confluence Park, a small sanitised space with insufficient seating, obstructed daylight and an infestation of invasive species. The Quaggy arrives deep and ripply, even attractive, then feeds into its larger sibling and becomes drably entrenched. The widened river then dips beneath Lewisham station, skirts the enormous Tesco and attempts to follow the historic Silk Mills Path... except that's also turning into more flats, indeed the Silk Mills have long been a stacked pile called the Silkworks, and best I shut up about flats for a bit. n.b. I deduce the big Tesco opened in 1987 because they put the date on the litter bins back then.
What happens next is that the Ravensbourne shares its valley with a park and the DLR. Brookmill Park came first in 1880, then got extended postwar following adjacent bomb damage (although it was called Ravensbourne Park back then because of course it was). When a DLR extension to Lewisham was required the river was the obvious corridor to exploit so it nabbed the eastern side of the park and the rest was tweaked with softer edges, meandering paths and wildlife habitats. Step down into the floodable bowl and you can walk on the pebblebed beside the river, indeed I believe this is the lowest point where the waters of the Ravensbourne are publicly accessible. As for the lake by the parkkeeper's hut I was admiring that when a man turned towards me and asked "Are you here for the balsam?", and I had to politely apologise for not being a member of the Pond Crew clean-up party. n.b. The Friends of Brookmill Park have devised a splendid self-guided walk which can tell you a lot more about the history of this linear greenspace.
On the approach to Deptford Bridge I looked down into the water and spotted a mysterious V-shaped ripple pushing slowly upstream. That isn't what ducks do, I thought, and on closer inspection confirmed that this was a fish propelling itself through not very many inches of water. The chub (I'm going to call it a chub until someone confirms it wasn't) was over a foot long and had fully embraced the challenge of moving, if not exactly swimming, through minimal amounts of flow. This is a tough time of year to be a big fish, not helped by the channel's dimensions having been optimised for a worst-case flooding scenario rather than a summertime trickle. I watched the plucky chub struggle onwards with its ventral fin scraping the concrete and its dorsal fin exposed to the air, and hoped very much it'd eventually reach a habitable depth, although I fear it was going in completely the wrong direction. n.b. Deptford Bridge was once the lowest bridging point across the Ravensbourne, indeed it's how Watling Street once headed out of town, indeed Deptford means 'deep ford' which is retrospectively obvious.
From here onwards the river is tidal and more usually goes by the name Deptford Creek. I plumped for the Lewisham side rather than the Greenwich side, not that you can properly see the river from either with the best view afforded to the DLR viaduct weaving high above the water. A slew of former wharves, mills and timberyards hug the creekside, some repurposed as creative spaces and the majority gone or going, the speed of change more rapid the further downstream you go. The former Creek Street, for example, starts with studio-based decay, then a planning notice confirming Evelyn Wharf is due to become student accommodation, then a lone gentrifying coffee hub called 'gaff', then a cluster of full-on highrise abominations. The most interesting interventions are the Creekside Discovery Centre, the semi-translucent Laban dance conservatoire and the Ha'penny Hatch footbridge beside the mainline railway. The latter is the first vantage point from which the sudden shift to "full on tidal with moored boats" is self-evident. n.b. The Creekside Discovery Centre has a full Open Day (and Low Tide Walk) pencilled in for Saturday 22nd July.
Today another main road links Deptford and Greenwich across the river via a bascule bridge, which is rarely lifted but still operational because the wharf just upstream continues to trade in aggregates. A plaque on the bridge's control tower confirms that 'The Domesday Book of 1086 noted many watermills nearby', which helps to explain the predilection developers have in naming everything round here Something Mill. One last creeky bend will finish it, a properly tidal basin too wide to throw a stone across, on which bob swans and gulls and in which rest tyres and trolleys, perhaps from the neighbouring Waitrose. It's fully residential around here, such is the Thamesside premium, with the main river reached just beyond a slender swingable footbridge. Abruptly Docklands and the towers of the City have come into view, plus a red navigational light advising ships never to come this way, and it's an impressive finale for a river that 11 miles back looked like it'd never amount to much. n.b. Today's walk can be easily enjoyed by following signs for the Waterlink Way, Lewisham's chief north-south cycleway.
Those of you who live out this way will know I've merely skated through the multiple delights of the Ravensbourne over the last three days. I could easily have stretched it out further but instead you got the 5000-word semi-concise version, and quite frankly if you want more why not walk it for yourself?