diamond geezer

 Monday, May 20, 2024

River Wogebourne
Shooters Hill → East Wickham → Abbey Wood → Thamesmead (5 miles)
[Wogebourne → Thames]

The Wogebourne is a five mile tributary of the River Thames in the southeast London boroughs of Greenwich and Bexley, that flows generally in a northeasterly direction, from its source in Oxleas Wood in Shooter's Hill, to Thamesmead where it joins the Thames. The Wogebourne has appeared in records since at least the fourteenth century, and has been known by other names including Woghbourne, Plumstead River, and Wickham Valley Watercourse.

...and if you're thinking "What?!" so was I. How can there be a five mile river in southeast London hardly anyone's heard of, because if you'd seen a name like Wogebourne you'd think you'd remember it. And yet it clearly exists, it has a surprisingly detailed Wikipedia page, indeed my first paragraph was cut and pasted from the first paragraph there. It also exists as an annotated blue line on OpenStreetMap, also as an unnamed wiggle on an Ordnance Survey map, so I went out and walked it...

The Wogebourne rises on the slopes of Oxleas Wood high on Shooters Hill. If you know the hilltop cafe it starts a bit east of there, deep in the woods, indeed there are multiple potential sources because all sorts of boggy trenches arise and merge across the southeastern slopes. The map says it starts by a junction of footpaths, one you might know because it's part of the first section of the Capital Ring, although I found some fairly convincing furrows further up. The first sight of a water-filled channel comes beside the big green fingerpost in the middle of the woods, where half a dozen planks also form a very minor footbridge, but these channels turn out to be two tributaries and the Wogebourne plunges on down.

This feels properly rivery. A muddy notch weaves through the trees to the left of the main path, not exactly flowing at this point but that's May for you. The separate track alongside is an offbeat treat, at one point blessed with rope swings and four separate planks for adventurous youthful crossing. A fence at the end suggests the Woodland Working Party didn't really want me coming this way but hey, these mossy banks and shady clearings are well worth the incursion. Further on are additional treetrunks laid to aid crossing and also muddier stripes which made me glad I decided to wear boots. I see why they added a footbridge here.

On the far side of the woods the brooklet turns north to follow the fences along the back of Oxleas Close, but still not really carrying any water. For the next mile the Wogebourne will be marking the boundary between Greenwich and Bexley, indeed for most of the 20th century it defined the dividing line between London and Kent, which is pretty impressive for an otherwise insignificant stream. Near the foot of the slope a final mini-bridge allows dogwalkers to enter Eastcote Gardens, perhaps Welling's least known open space, and then the muddy trench heads towards an overgrown grille and disappears from view. We've reached the bottom of Shooters Hill so there's a busy road to cross, which the Wogebourne does in a pipe which is why you've never seen it.

To try to see where it emerges look for the footpath to the left of the We Anchor in Hope pub and the BP garage, just before the Welcome to Bexley sign. Unfortunately the path is sealed off by a fence, barbed wire and railings with a sign saying DANGER Please do not distract Operatives working on ELECTRICTY which is a lie because no such operatives exist. Alas the Green Chain has been blocked here since 2007 when Woodlands Farm started locking the gates at either end of their land claiming vandalism was an issue, and despite a shedload of campaigning by the Inner London Ramblers they still refuse all access. Not only does this force a mile long diversion but it means everyone gets to miss out on a streamside walk through a haymeadow which I remember being lovely. These days you can only glimpse the buttercup slopes of the Wogebourne valley through a security fence along the edge of Footpath 245, which is scant reward, and next time you see a sign saying Permissive Footpath remember that the bastards do sometimes actually close it.

You won't see the river at the far end of the diversion, by the goats, because it runs behind the back gardens of the houses on Keats Road. Nor will you see it by the obvious dip in the road outside the Glenmore Arms, a large former pub which has inevitably become nine not very large flats. Often as a minor river crosses the suburbs you'll spot a concrete culvert behind a parapet or a narrow space between two houses where it must have passed, but not here because the Wogebourne has been summarily demoted to a pipe. That's particularly baffling up ahead because we're about to enter East Wickham Open Space, a splendid expanse of undulating heath where half a mile of stream would be entirely fitting, but alas it's all been buried.

To cross East Wickham Open Space I followed the wiggly blue line depicted on OpenStreetMap. It seemed perfect as it headed off into a long thin line of greenery labelled Bourne Spring Wood where a stream might well once have run. However I grew less convinced as I started walking gently uphill, the contours increasingly suggesting the natural path would have been off to the left much closer to the cemetery. By the time I reached the final summit the cartographic wiggles were getting sillier, almost requiring some kind of waterfall, because the former stream had patently flowed along the notch in the valley some way below. I checked later on an old OS map and the blue line on OpenStreetMap had indeed gone totally the wrong way, neither was Bourne Spring Wood originally where the map said it was. It turned out that the route of the Wogebourne, and indeed Bourne Spring Wood, had all been added to OpenStreetMap by a user called carlwev four months ago and it seems they got a fair chunk of it wrong.

But on the far side, on Wickham Lane, was a dead cert indication. A stink pipe beside the road isn't always a marker for the passage of a buried river but couple it up with a borough boundary sign AND a street called Bournewood Road AND a street called Woodbrook Road and there must be flowing water hereabouts. I even saw that water just around the bend on Woodbrook Road, but not as clearly a I'd have liked because the culvert was very overgrown and because the resident of the house alongside had just come out to tinker with his white van. But this was my first sighting for a mile and a half so that was a win.

According to a reliable map the Wogebourne is joined by a short tributary flowing down from Bostall Woods somewhere round the back of Waterdale Road, and carlwev's blue line agrees. But you can easily confirm that a river once flowed here if you just stand back, survey your surroundings and imagine. Immediately to the west the land rises rapidly to the high ground around Plumstead Common, immediately to the east is the lumpen hilltop of Bostall Woods and the only thing which could have carved this narrow gash in the sandy ridge is a relentlessly erosive river. Even if you didn't know its name, the Wogebourne must have created the contours of this suburban landscape.

Many of the sideroads to the east of Wickham Lane have a distinct dip, and at the bottom of Gatling Road is a very very tall stink pipe in precisely the right location. The Wogebourne would have crossed Bostall Hill by the Jet garage - again the dip confirms it - and must still lurk in a pipe round the backs of the houses on Woodhurst Road. Its presence is signalled on Bracondale Road by a short section where they didn't build any houses, only a much less heavy row of garages. And we know that it then crosses the railway because Crossrail had to deal with it, half a mile to the west of Abbey Wood station, reburying Culvert 615 after they'd finished.

Everything between the train tracks and the Thames was once Plumstead Marshes, so any river would have braided out across all sorts of drainage channels making further route-tracing very difficult. Wikipedia says it now feeds the canals of what's now Thamesmead, a dense and attractive network, and also the big lakes like Birchmere (pictured below). Specifically it says "the Wogebourne completes its course through a man-made lake called Southmere and a purpose-built channel named Crossway Canal which empties into the Thames at Crossness". And again I thought hang on, if a proper river flowed out into the Thames wouldn't this fact be better known, so I checked the Wogebourne's Wikipedia page and it turns out it was all written four months ago by a user called carlwev. Aha, I thought.

The reason I've never blogged about the Wogebourne before, it turns out, is that it wasn't on Wikipedia or OpenStreetMap until the start of this year. That it now appears is all down to a single individual, I hesitate to say obsessive, who chose to document it online in what seems to be over-accurate detail. The gist is right, the Wogebourne flows pretty much as described, but carlwev's cartographic certainty is unfounded and his 700 words describing the river's course undoubtedly overconfident. Moderators don't always nip in, ask questions or tone things down, and that's how I found myself following a five mile river that exists mostly unseen not quite where anyone thought it was.

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