The river Ravensbourne provides the central spine to the catchment that carries its name. Riverbed-fellow, the Quaggy, rises less than half a mile to the E while the Pool starts its journey a few miles W in Elmers End.
The earliest recorded uses of the “Ravensbourne” are found in descriptions of Julius Caesar’s army camping near Holwood House, south of Keston, as he pursued Cassivellannus across the Thames in 54 B.C.. On seeing ravens swoop to drink at the source, Caesar decided on ‘raven’s-bourne’, or raven’s stream, to describe the place. Historian Peter Ackroyd, however, suggests that Caesar was camped on Blackheath when making the discovery, a notion unsupported by most texts as Blackheath is closer to the Quaggy tributary some seven miles to the north east of Keston.
To challenge both assumptions Hasted (1797) gives an entirely different explanation of the name and maintains that antiquarians argued that the praetor Aulus Plautius was camped by the Ravensbourne source, awaiting the arrival of Emperor Claudius in AD46, when the ravens appeared. The connection with Caesar has, however, firmly attached itself to stories about the river ever since.
Anyway, to avoid a Roman punch up, let’s crack on!
Out of the chalk upland that divides Keston and Holwood, the river Ravensbourne rises through a man-made orifice of brick and gravel and flows down into the first of three, tiered, ponds, known as Keston Ponds. From chalk to clay to Blackhead Beds (gravel) and Thanet Sands.
Caesar’s Well, the source of the Ravensbourne
Keston Ponds remains one of the few places in London where fishing is permitted and therefore it can get very busy. The banks of the lower pond are eroded and Bromley Council, the owners, plan on introducing revetments, and dedicated fishing platforms to protect the landscape. On the W side there is the SSSI of Keston Common, an acid grassland that is well looked after by the local Keston Common Friends group and by the Bromley/idVerde partnership.
Moving round the bottom of the lake and crossing Fishponds, the Ravensbourne flows on through Padmall Wood, past an old Victorian boating pond, now restored for nature, and onward in a semi-naturalised state. It’s not uncommon to see old workings here as milling was important in this area between the 11th and 17th centuries.
Old workings, Padmall Wood
Crossing the Croydon Road, the river continues straight N through Woodcock Grove, Mazzards Wood, Barnet Wood, Brook Wood, Lord’s Wood and then finally in Scroginhall Wood it comes out of its slither of private land and a variety of old culverts into the open. Through this section there are many old irrigation trenches and 16th century boundary oak trees.
River Ravensbourne in Scroginhall Wood.
From Scroginhall woodland, the river starts to leave its peri-urban existence and ventures out into Norman Park where, in 2000, the river was daylighted and planted out.
Dazed and Confused, out of darkness and into the light of Norman Park.
The Ravensbourne runs for 300m across the park into an area of allotments and paddocks before skirting Bromley FC toward Hayes Lane.
“This way, folks” Chris McGaw leads the way in Norman Park.
After negotiating an elaborate Environment Agency trash screen, the river ducks under Hayes Lane and remains confined in tight culverting through the backs of houses and tennis clubs on its way to Bromley centre.
Ravensbourne at Streamside Close, Bromley.
The Ravensbourne continues under Westmoreland Road and can be rejoined by walking up the High Street and left into Ravensbourne Road. From here it is a short walk down to Glassmill Pond (see also The Dead Coots Mystery, on this blog). Glassmill has been the subject of much discussion, many meetings and a few project proposals. Thames21 drew up a plan to restore this old millpond, which needs de-silting, reconfiguring and the weir needs to come out to enable a more naturalised flow. As there are about five outfalls leading into this site, it also suffers from pollution via road run-off.
Glassmill Pond with Outfall Safari crew
Continuing along Glassmill Lane and into Queensmead, the river is placed into a steep-sided culvert for about 200m before it disappears into a long underground tunnel.
Dave Aylward inspects the river at Queensmead
Once out of the tunnel, the river continues past Shortlands Golf Club and runs through a series of open culvert and toe-boarded sections before it reaches Beckenham Place Park.
On its way to Beckenham Place Park (Farnaby Rd).
The Ravensbourne is culverted on one side and semi-natural on the other as it enters Beckenham Place Park, where it flows and meanders naturally for 800m through the park. Now that the Catford and Lewisham Flood Alleviation Scheme appears to have been put on hold, Lewisham Council are now consulting on other ways to introduce improvements to the green space.
Ravensbourne flows through the eastern section of Beckenham Place Park
The proposals and opportunity to contribute to the consultation are HERE
The Ravensbourne in Beckenham Place Park, with Clare and Hannah conducting the monthly Riverfly Survey.
Clare and Hannah sampling for the Ravensbourne Riverfly.
Heading N the river leaves BPP and heads into short culverted section with weirs before opening out again into Peter Pan Park, a pocket park just short of Homebase and parallel with Bromley Road, the A21.
Peter Pan Park.
Leading out of Peter Pan Park the river enters a 200m tunnel that goes underneath the pond at Homebase. This tunnel is protected by a trashscreen at the Beckenham end and is very tight and claustrophobic and passing through it is not recommended.
The river then enters daylight again in Bellingham but remains highly constrained within high-sided culverts all the way down to the confluence with the Pool at Catford.
Admiring the culveting in Bellingham.
The Ravensbourne leaves this culverted section and swings a dog-leg left into the flow of the River Pool, which has journeyed from the SW. The confluence here is a very special place and not just for the meeting of two rivers. There is rich woodland and birdsong fills the air. There is also a fish pass here, as the Ravensbourne swings right to head straight N again. This small secondary channel dips away toward the Vineries and then heads back up into the Pool 25yds upstream. This is to allow fish and freshwater invertebrates to bypass the weir. Much work has been undertaken here by Thames21 and Lewisham Council, opening up areas to let wildflowers grow and the creation of in-channel improvements that both oxygenate the water and provide habitats.
Ravensbourne on the left, Pool on the right, here I am, stuck in the middle with you.
Heading N the river enters a heavily engineered section, dominated by concreted, high culverting, bridgework and tunneling. Transport infrastructure plays a major part in the oppressive nature of the river’s course here as it travels through central Catford.
Leaving central Catford.
The Ravensbourne catchment is full of contrast, light and shade, nature under capital, constraint. The short journey past the old dog track into Ladywell Fields, southern section, is such a relief. The river here, while flowing straight, has had its toe-boarding removed and there is a majority of natural substrate. Kingfishers have been known to nest in this section. There are meadows on either side, with the occasional backwater. It is teeming with life.
The Turning Tree within Ladywell Fields South (with The Downham Men)
Heading through the southern section into the middle field, and passing under the rail bridge, you could be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere deeply rural. Just occasionally there are traces of a past history, a palimpsest. Short stakes, which held Victorian toe-boarding, often punctuate the meeting point of bank and water.
Lina and Julia, Riverfly sampling in the Middle Field.
Traveling toward the North Field, the Honor Oak Stream enters from the left. This channel comes down from Chudleigh Ditch at the top of the hill to the W.
Mike Keogh of QWAG in Chudleigh Ditch.
Honor Oak Stream outfall.
Ladywell Fields (North) was restored in 2008, using mainly EU funding the EU Life Quercus project. It had been an area where crime was frequent, a river hidden behind fences and trees and an open space with much tree cover. There is a bridge over the river to Lewisham Hospital and a path leading to it from Ladywell Station, visitors to the hospital felt unsafe here. In 2008, in an attempt to “design out crime” The Quercus project, with the help of Lewisham Council, created a secondary channel to bring the river nearer to the people. It has, since then, been a great success with many people now using the park to rest and play. Crime dropped by 80% following its creation.
Ravensbourne river, secondary channel, Ladywell Fields North
Dave Webb of the Environment Agency with Thames21’s Chris Coode, along the secondary channel during London Rivers Week
Chris McGaw and crew in Ladywell Fields
Moving out of Ladywell Fields the river passes St Mary’s Church, Ladywell and away towards Lewisham. For the next 400m it is culverted with high-sided concrete. Lewisham, historically, has been prone to flooding and much of the engineering was introduced in the 1960s following a series of flood events in the town centre. The newly-founded GLC took over the construction of these flood defences from Lewisham, who did not have the money to complete the work themselves.
From this section down to Brookmill Park in Deptford, Thames21 (with EA funding) secured a number of eel tiles to the substrate, like a flattened, upside-down hairbrush that allow eels to climb up and over weirs and slopes. Since installation, eels have been seen within the Quaggy and Ravensbourne in Lewisham centre.
The river then reaches Cornmill Gardens, also restored by EU Life and the Quercus project, a year before Ladywell in 2007. A 100m section of high-banked culvert was removed to create a more naturalised space. Check out the RRC overview HERE
Lewisham GoodGym help clean up the river at Cornmill Gardens
Moving through the road and rail infrastructure of central Lewisham, the river is back in 1960s culverting after a brief interlude at Cornmill Gardens. This section is now tidal as we are getting close to the Thames!
Reece Jones of City & Guilds School of Art with his students.
Culverting between Lewisham and Deptford
Brookmill Park Friends clean up crew
Ravensbourne running high in Brookmill Park
Prior to its restoration, and flood channel diversion, the Ravensbourne was heavily culverted in Brookmill Park. Using Section 106 funding, the EA knocked out the W side and introduced meanders and banking in 1998. The funding for the project came from the developers of the DLR, which runs down one side.
Brookmill Park is a haven for nature as its inter-tidal flora attracts a broad diversity of invertebrates and birds.
Clearing construction debris from Brookmill Park.
Heron and the Bear, Brookmill Park.
It’s all about teamwork, Brookmill Park
From Brookmill Park moving N there is a very long, and often deep, culverted section down towards Deptford Creek.
Creekside Discovery Centre wade along Deptford Creek
It’s all happening in Deptford Creek. For the last decade there has been an accelerated building programme, turning old industrial sites, and artists studios, into expensive riverside apartment blocks. There is still trade on the river, with aggregate still being shipped into Brewery Wharf. Tideway are also developing a Thames Tunnel access shaft here too.
Deptford Creek leads straight into the Thames, where this Ravensbourne journey ends. I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and if you have any questions then you can always DM me on Twitter @mentalmapping Thanks, LBC 2020
Next up, the River Pool……
For more information on how to get involved with Thames21, go HERE
If you would like to know more about Creekside Discovery Centre then go HERE
Lawrence Beale Collins ran the Ravensbourne Catchment Partnership from 2014-18 and has worked along these rivers for a decade, most of that time has been with river charity Thames21. In 2020 the Healthy Rivers Project was set up, dedicated to this catchment. He was born in Lewisham and grew up next to the Ravensbourne’s source in Keston and now lives near the confluence with the Quaggy.