Virtual Tour of the River Pool

Welcome back. The final section of river to be covered in this series of Virtual Tours of the Ravensbourne Catchment is that of the River Pool. The most western section of the catchment and possibly the most engineered, the Pool comprises a number of streams within its broad watershed. A journey N to S would see the Pool leave the Ravensbourne at Catford and travel S before the Beck and Chaffinch Brook split within Cator Park, in Beckenham. The Beck continues SSE, with the East Beck moving away east at Langley Park. The Chaffinch Brook travels SSW with the St James’ Stream later providing an SSE branch with the South Norwood Stream coming in from the W, and the foot of the Crystal Palace scarp, which separates the Wandle Catchment from the Ravensbourne, at South Norwood Lake.

Pool River to the W of the Ravensbourne Catchment

The Beck, arguably the longest river in the Pool section of the Ravensbourne, rises from a chalf aquifer near Spring Park, West Wickham, and travels NE through Blackheath Beds, skirting Thanet Sands to the E and London Clay to the W. The Beck flows north through underground culverts and piping and is occasionally overground through back-garden ditches until it reaches Langley Park Nature Reserve.


River Beck in Langley Park Nature Reserve

Silt transportation is a big issue along the Beck. With so many small outfalls and ditches coming into this river from a very broad watershed, when it rains it becomes very “flashy” and carries a good deal of debris downstream.


An autumn Beck, with sandbags to prevent washout and slumping

From the east we welcome the East Beck, with its origins over in Pickhurst Green, where it ducks underground to eventually reappear and feeds the pond in Langley Park Golf Course before proceeding NW towards the nature reserve and Unicorn School. This is the first of the big project opportunities within the Pool branch of the Ravensbourne catchment. First, the Environment Agency KSL (Kent, South London) branch were proposing flood mitigation measures to prevent flooding amongst residential properties, these included the introduction of bunds to prevent over-topping. The second considered opportunity, which is a Thames21, and possibly Bromley, project that seeks funding and aims to redirect high flows from the East Beck into a meadow leading to the resurrection of an old pond. This would act as a wet woodland and flood storage area, which would ease pressure downstream and become an excellent area for outdoor riparian education.


East Beck


The Beck continues onward and reaches Kelsey Park, where it feeds into the ornamental lake. Transported silt finds a home here and it is possible for ducks to stand up in the middle of the lake. Of course the silt needs draining but money is always an issue.

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Kelsey Park Lake

From Kelsey Park the Beck runs under central Beckenham to reappear in a narrow and often tight culvert on its way to joining the Chaffinch Brook in Cator Park, where it will wait for a minute.


The Beck as it enters the Chaffinch Brook at Cator Park.

The Chaffinch Brook begins life at the Stroud Green Pumping Station in Croydon. This situated over an aquifer and pumps the water out.

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Stroud Green Pumping House ©Thames Water

The Chaffinch Brook then travels through allotments, over Poppy Lane and then opens out briefly across the end of Laburnum Gardens. Heading NW the elusive brook ducks in and out of gardens, resurfaces at Fairford Close before a 300m tunnel under Elmers End Road before it runs partly as the old moat stream at South Norwood Country Park and partly parallel, underground along the roadside.

From the W the South Norwood Stream enters the country park ftom its source at South Norwood Lake. This channel travels through Blackheath Beds following their denundation through the surrounding London Clay.

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South Norwood Lake ©

The Chaffinch Brook and the South Norwood Stream both travel through eroded and damaged channels within the country park before exiting through and out into Dorset Road Allotments. This conglomeration will now make its way toward Cator Park, where it will meet the patient Beck.


Chaffinch Brook within South Norwood Country Park


Chaffinch Brook near Dorset Road allotments

The last of the Chaffinch Brook triumvirate is the St James’ Stream. The St James originates in Shirley, within the old Spring Park Farm. This is now known as Millers Pond. There is an active Friends group looking after this site.

Millers Pond ©Paul Browning “Running Past”

The St James’ Stream flows due north through Monk’s Orchard, above ground with many minor order streams joining at this point, after this it proceeds mostly in engineered open channels up and beyond the western perimeter of Bethlem Royal Hospital. The EA, mainly due to drainage issues, annually undertake channel maintenance.

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St James’ Stream in culverts (©Paul Browning “Running Past”)

The stream remains in a concrete culvert, flows under Upper Elmers End Road before discharging to the Chaffinch Brook, NE of Elmers End station, this culvert is 1.2kms in length and contains various surface water sewer connections. This would explain the Environment Agency’s determined efforts to try and resolve this particular issue, with planning for swales, bunds and SuDS projects as well.

With the St James’ Stream now joined with the Chaffinch Brook, the river carries on straight N into Cator Park, within a culvert. It is met first by the Penge Stream from the W before the Beck enters from the E.


Penge Stream enters the Chaffinch Brook at Cator Park


The Beck arrives at the Chaffinch Brook in Cator Park.

Cator Park is an area of huge opportunity with park land on either side of the river, concrete culverts that could be removed and possibilities for meanders, swales, reedbeds etc. This would not only slow the flow, and reduce flood threats downstream, but could introduce a range of biodiversity currently lacking in this well-manicured park. Maybe a secondary channel, incorporating the Penge Stream, could be attempted. At Cator Park all of these tributaries become the River Pool proper.

From here the concrete culvert broadens, with some nasty outfalls adding pollution into the mix.

Polluting outfall at Lennard Road

Joe Pecorelli of ZSL explains: “At the moment, reporting of problem outfalls is ad hoc from members of the public who happen to spot pollution entering our rivers. Once notified, the Environment Agency and Thames Water put the offending outfalls on a list. Reported outfalls are resolved over a five-year investment period by Thames Water’s Surface Water Outfall Programme (SWOP) team.

Many of the polluted outfall material between Cator Park and the River Pool Walkway Open Space at Lower Sydenham appeared to be builders material that had been dropped down a roadside drain. This happens often. In Bromley, Glassmill in particular, there have been instances where DIY oil changes have taken place above ground and the dirty oil has been poured into the run-off inlet, and out into the river.

All of these incidents had been reported to Thames Water during the debrief session following the October/November 2017 Outfall Safari along the whole catchment.

The Pool breaks out of the the culvert by the HSBC Sports ground to the E and becomes more naturalised by the River Pool Walkway.

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River Pool Walkway Open Space

A wade in the river at this point becomes treacherous, for a variety of reasons. Firstly there is a lot of immediate overhead tree cover.


Julia Grollman (Ravensbourne Riverfly) demonstrates the overhead hazard in Lower Sydenham.

Wooded debris in the river itself has allowed the river to gouge out the substrate, making it very deep in places. Lastly, there is a spray paint business along this stretch and it is apparent that much of the waste paint finds its way into the river. Ethnographical evidence from the walking public further down the river suggests this is a regular occurrence. Moving on, and under Southend Lane.


Southend Lane Bridge with Donna Davis and Tim Gluckman.

N of Southend Lane sees the start of Linear Park, and the Waterlink Way. This is also Cycle Route 21, which runs to the Thames from here. The next section of the Pool, all the way to the confluence with the Ravensbourne at Catford, has been restored and managed by Lewisham Council, Thames21 and in particular Vic Richardson and his gang. Vic is an entirely capable, rough and ready type unafraid to take on any kind of restoration and improvement job in a river. He also provides camp fires, tea and cake for all his volunteers.

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Chris Stafford, unknown & Vic Richardson clearing the fish passage.


Den Collier guides a corporate group up the Pool

This has become a beautiful section of river with plenty of in-channel features that both provide habitat for invertebrates and birds while doing the important work of oxygenating the river itself. Introducing stakes and faggots to narrow the river at certain points also provides a variety of speed and depth that fish, and future Prime Ministers can take advantage of. Boris fell in during the 2009 3 Rivers Clean Up. The 3RCU is still an annual event along the catchment. This year’s event may be put back until the autumn given the current restrictions.

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Boris Johnson makes a meal of it with Thames21 CEO Debbie Leach getting soaked as well, trying to save him.


Tom Moulton (L) leads a nature walk along the River Pool

This stretch, down by the water, is now passable on foot, having been cleared by volunteers. Sparrowhawks have nested here and kingfishers are common.

There is an outfall, to the W, and just upstream of the Ravensbourne confluence, where the fish passage exits. The weir at the confluence is too steep and so the passage circumvents this obstacle to allow fish and eels to move upstream.

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Thames21 deputy CEO Chris Coode measuring the weir height at the end of the Pool

As in the Virtual Tour of the Ravensbourne, I am posting a photo of the Pool/Ravensbourne confluence.

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In Early to Medieval times in Britain and elsewhere, the confluence of rivers was a place of spiritual renewal and of worship. The wells within the Ravensbourne catchment were thought to contain water that would heal ailments to the eyes. Gatherings would take place at river confluences and ceremonies be performed. When we look at our man-made constructions around river confluences within this catchment, it is good to just take a minute to think about this. The sound of the meeting of rivers, the light reflecting off the riffles and pebbles gleaming.

This is the final installment of the three virtual tours of the Ravensbourne’s rivers. I hope you’ve enjoyed them and I look forward to seeing you on the riverbank, and possibly in the river, when we can finally break off the shackles of this current pandemic.

I am indebted to the following for advice, ideas and general help with this section: Donna Davis, Julia Grollman, Vic Richardson and Paul Browning.

Paul Browning’s absolutely fantastic blog on local rivers, history, events etc is HERE and I thank him again for letting me use some of his images.

Thames21 have some good background to London rivers and are currently running a number of Lockdown exercises to keep us match-fit, they are HERE

The London Borough of Lewisham has funded the restoration of the Pool, and most of Vic’s work along there, and their great nature-based blog is 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. He was born in Lewisham and grew up next to the Ravensbourne’s source. He now lives near the confluence with the Thames.

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Virtual tour of the River Ravensbourne

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.

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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.


Keston Ponds

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.



Ladywell Fields


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

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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.

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Culverting between Lewisham and Deptford



Brookmill Park Friends clean up crew


Ravensbourne running high in Brookmill Park


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. He was born in Lewisham and grew up next to the Ravensbourne’s source. He now lives near the confluence with the Thames.

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Virtual tour of the River Quaggy

Hello Lockdown Lovers, this is the time of year when we would normally be working along the Ravensbourne river catchment, up and down the rivers Quaggy, Ravensbourne and Pool, along with their associated feeder streams. We would be running clean ups, removing invasive flora such Himalayan Balsam and Giant Hogweed and generally sunning ourselves. Therefore, over the next week I will be putting together a virtual tour of the catchment, starting with the River Quaggy.

The river Quaggy rises, as the Kyd Brook, within Ninehams Wood, a privately-owned woodland just S of the village of Locksbottom on the Kent/London borders.


Near the source of the Quaggy, as the Kyd Brook, at Ninehams Wood, with Pamela Zollicoffer and Mike Keogh of the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG)


LBC just downstream of Ninehams Wood, viewing the Kyd Brook as it passes under the A21.

The river proceeds underneath Locksbottom village to Tugmutton Common and Farnborough Recreation Ground, where the breadth of the watershed becomes apparent with a number of first-order streams gathering to become second-order streams as they develop into the Kyd Brook proper within Gumping Common. Gumping Common, Sparrow Wood and Crofton Heath form one great SSSI just S of Petts Wood.


Gumping Common. LB of Bromley. Very flashy with plenty of storm damage (Kyd Brook)

At this point the river wends its way through to Petts Wood, where it remains overground while forever negotiating through residential gardens and roadways.

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Kyd Brook through Petts Wood

Through this section it is mostly culverted into a tight channel and every so often, while passing through privately owned gardens, it is toe-boarded and the gardens themselves become its floodplain, and it often floods here. It is some relief, therefore, that once through this congestion it can breathe again when it crosses the railway into National Trust Pettswood, on the Hawkwood Estate.


The Kyd Brook as it runs through NT Pettswood, on the Hawkwood Estate, near Chislehurst


Kyd Brook at NT Pettswood

As the river heads toward the A222 and Chislehurst Station it moves into an elaborate trash screen and hi-flow escape channel, this is managed by the Environment Agency.

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EA trashscreen nr. Chislehurst Station on the Kyd Brook

From here it moves NW and soon it is within Sundridge Park Golf Club, a large heavily managed greenspace. It is here that the Kyd Brook becomes the Quaggy, as the Milk Ditch to the W joins in. After more underground shenanigans the river enters Chinbrook Meadows, the first of the Quaggy’s restoration successes. In 2002 the river was broken out of it’s concrete overcoat and freed, after great work by the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG). The S section of the park is owned by Bromley but managed by Lewisham, it is here that the proposed Thames21 Chinbrook Rainscape Project will take place, re-directing the polluted Grove Park Ditch into a series of filtration ponds.

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Dr Nathalie Gilbert tests the Grove Park Ditch waters.

Under the railway bridge is the N section, owned and managed by Lewisham.


Quaggy in spate at Chinbrook Meadows


Lewisham volunteers in Chinbrook: l-r Chris, Jess (LB of Lewisham), Jane and Ray.


Quaggy at Chinbrook (with Judith Watling of Glendale)

The Quaggy flows straight N from here and bypasses Sydenham Cottages and the City of London School Sports Ground to enter the start of a huge area of opportunity. To QWAG this is part of the Quaggy Links proposal, where non-accessible banking and disused woodland is made accessible with walkways and cycle paths and therefore a link may be created toward Sutcliffe Park in the N.


Quaggy along Mottingham Lane during the 3 Rivers Clean Up.

The Quaggy crosses Winn Road and Mottingham Lane into a beautiful, tight, naturalised section where natural processes are allowed to take place. Many unnatural processes take place here too, such as fly-tipping and scooter dumping, making the annual 3 Rivers Clean Up such an important effort by local volunteers.

As the river moves through this section, and stares the A20 in the face, the Little Quaggy joins from the East. With its origins up by the Tarn in Eltham, this is another river with both problems and opportunities. Problems because often polluted water joins the river by way of run-off from the A20 and also the much-troubled feed into and out of the Eltham Pleasance lake at the Tarn.


Thames21’s John Bryden, Pete Ehmann from the EA and Nick Pond from Lewisham Council inspect the Tarn.


Chris Stafford negotiates the Little Quaggy.

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Quant Hogweed along the Little Quaggy

The opportunities along the Little Quaggy lie with the Natural Flood Management potential of the site, with riding paddocks on one side and a beautiful wild flower meadow on the other. After the confluence of the Quaggy and the Little Quaggy, the river proceeds through a lengthy culverted section, incorporating other potential break-out sites at Colfe’s School playing fields.


Outfall Safari team move through Colfe’s playing fields.

This section is about 800m in length before it hits the EA trash screens at Horn Park and then Sutcliffe Park. Sutcliffe Park itself used to be a series of football pitches, with the river in dilapidated Victorian pipe underground. It was here in 1984 that I played right-back for the Press Association against the Guardian on a very muddy pitch, we lost 10-0.

In 2004, the Quaggy was restored above ground, in a hugely ambitious Flood Alleviation Scheme, that would protect residential Lee, Hither Green and Lewisham. Following much persistence by Matthew Blumler of QWAG, this project, that was doubted by many, was brought to fruition and has been an outrageous success, with the resulting riparian greenspace one of the best for wildlife in Sth East London.


Chris and Vic, and one of Vic’s boys, in Sutcliffe Park.


Re-positioning the bird platform at Sutcliffe Park during an EA day out. Remember, these used to be football pitches and everything you see has arrived post-2004.

The Lower Kyd Brook and the Well Hall Stream both enter the Quaggy’s additional underground overflow culvert as it moves through the park and they all outfall together through the John Roan Sports Field and head N towards Weigall Road. As it meanders through sports fields and commonland, the Quaggy reaches a large EA pinch-point structure, an engineered flood management facility aimed at snagging any large items of wooded debris. This is intended to deflect the river waters over into open ground when in flood.


The EA pinch point as the Quaggy heads towards Lee.


OK then, the river flows toward Manor House Gardens

The river continues North into an area of heavy residential development, through Lee, Hither Green and Lewisham. While the river at this point has semi-natural banking, it is bordered by buildings and gardens with two more greenspaces before it reaches Lewisham, Manor House Gardens and Manor Park, the latter restored in 2006.


QWAG chair Paul de Zylva with volunteer clean up crew


QWAG crew admire a reclining Mike at Manor House Gardens.

From Manor House Gardens the river continues through, skirting Hither Green, into Manor Park.


Chris Stafford carefully demonstrates how you deal with Giant Hogweed, with fellow invasive plant, the Himalayan Balsam, in the foreground.


Joe Pecorelli of ZSL demonstrates kick-sampling to the Ravensbourne Riverfly (RMI) team at Manor Park. The RMI project has been running successfully in the catchment for a number of years and allows us to monitor water quality via the freshwater invertebrate population.

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Ravensbourne Riverfly team, training at Manor Park


Just N of Manor Park, Himalayan Balsam on the Quaggy.


The Quaggy deflectors, as it runs behind the properties at Gilmore Road, SE13.

The Quaggy leads away from Manor Park in a fairly naturalised state, bordering residential back gardens on one side and then supermarkets etc on the other. At Gilmore Road it goes underground again, under Europe’s largest Police Station, and out into the Lewisham Gateway development, where it was recently re channeled to accommodate more hi-rise development. The new substrate has actually been glued together for aesthetics, thanks developers!   Here is the old version…


Quaggy (L) meets the Ravensbourne just north of Lewisham centre. My preferred view of the rivers. I like the British Rail brickwork.

There you are, I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief intro to my fave London river. Of course there maybe omissions, mistakes, etc, but this is a little foray into our catchment.

Next up: The Ravensbourne…….


For more reading on the River Quaggy go to the QWAG website: HERE

For a near complete set of films I made for QWAG, led by Matthew Blumler, go HERE

Lawrence Beale Collins ran the Ravensbourne Catchment Partnership from 2014-18 and has worked along these river for a decade, for most of that time with river charity Thames21. He was born in Lewisham and grew up next to the Ravensbourne’s source. He now lives near the confluence with the Thames.

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The ‘reawakening’ of nature goes viral

This week, whilst working in the garden, I realised that I could not only hear the birds in the garden, and it’s immediate surround, but I could also pick up birdsong a hundred yards away. Under normal conditions this would be impossible, usually there would be a cacophony of traffic from Lewisham Way, a reasonably busy artery leading into, and out of, London and aircraft overhead, on their way to Heathrow. This invasion has now been muted. Birds appear to be suddenly enlivened, enjoying the experience of hearing each other clearly at the most important time of year, for them, as they find partners, build nests and have young. In recent years, the general hubbub of urban life has caused birds, such as blackbirds and robins, to sing to each other at any time between one and four in the morning.


Dunnock, in the garden. LBC 2019

Such a re-connection for urban birdlife would, in turn, lead to more successful reproduction and a much-needed increase in the bird population.

As we head towards a general “lockdown” in an attempt to control the spread of coronavirus, the lessened footfall and polluting traffic may also benefit invertebrates, such as bees and other pollinators, which, in turn, would be a shot in the arm for all fauna including wildflowers and fruit trees.

Sitting at home wishing we had bought more crisps and bemoaning the broadband signal, as it dips in and out of consciousness,  might also be an opportunity to press the “reset” button on the relationship we have with our neighbours in nature. Of course, fewer people walking our streets and parks means less litter, less litter means our rivers run more freely and cleanly and the surrounding wildlife has fewer barriers to overcome. Aesthetically, it would also have a really positive impact on our souls.

Washing your hands to Bohemian Rhapsody or cleaning the house to Beethoven’s 9th also means that anti-bac products and wet-wipes, in particular,  have been flying off the supermarket shelves in roughly the same direction as bog roll. Unless wet-wipes are binned, as they should be, we may also see a surge of wet-wipes entering river systems in the months ahead as these “unflushables” are flushed away from our homes to begin their 100-year journey to full biodegradation.

Self-imposed isolation may also be an opportunity to try and play a musical instrument a bit better, learn a language or make pasta interesting. It could be an opportunity to read the often interesting prefacing in the guide books we use to ID birds, trees, butterflies etc, as we prepare for when the stable doors reopen. Understanding nature makes immersion in nature much more of an experience and the authors of these field guides often share experiences and tips that are not normally found in the image-driven identification pages.

In 1980s Amsterdam I remember noticing mirrors, car mirrors, vanity mirrors, jutting out from many first and second floor windows of the old 16th Century terraces. I learnt that this was for the housebound to see what was going on in the street without getting out of their chairs. Well, at the moment, there is very little going on in the street, but there is plenty going on in the garden and in the parks and open spaces as nature bounces back. Let’s hope that when the all clear is given, everyone treads more lightly alongside our neighbours in nature and respects the space they have claimed, both within the landscape and within our hearts.

LBC 2020


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Travels with The Downham Men

…an adventure downstream

It was a crispy February morning and I was on the Westerham bus as it nosed its way through busy South Circular traffic in Catford before emerging onto the southbound A21. Soon, schoolchildren on the bus were replaced by men decked head to toe in ‘outwear’, these are The Downham Men.

Sitting at the front of the bus, on the top deck, I was soon told to get my head out of my phone and join them, like naughty boys, at the back. They were off on one of their regular jaunts with Thames21 (me) and are led (herded) by Trevor, who works with Age UK and the Blue Ribbon Foundation, a charity supporting men’s health awareness.

This time we wanted to walk the Ravensbourne from its source to Downham, which is a suburb in South East London. I did what I was told and was pulled into the fold. Eventually, we all piled off the bus close to Keston Ponds and, after a brief diversion to look at the Wilberforce Oak (under which Wilberforce met Pitt to plan the abolition of the slave trade), we headed down to Caesar’s Well, which is the source of the River Ravensbourne. The day’s task was to walk beside the river all the way to Beckenham and then Downham, some 10 miles as the river flows, and discuss anything and everything about the river along the way; landscape, politics, hydrology, history and species identification if we could manage it.


Workday for The Downham Men

It sounds like a cliche to say that such a walk is a ‘journey through time’, but it is exactly that. After walking around the tiered and terraced ponds of Keston, heading north, we soon enter Padmall Wood, once gifted to Bishop Odo by his brother, William the Conqueror, and the site of the first of the catchment’s mills recorded in Domesday. Now it is an old coppiced woodland dominated by sweet chestnut, birch and hazel. These woods, fields and orchards remain palimpsest.

Through Woodcock Grove, Mazzards Wood, Barnet Wood, Brook Wood, Lord’s Wood and Scroginhall Wood. In the middle of these is the ‘area of uncertainty‘. This is where, in the days prior to leading such a walk, I get on the phone to those I have walked with through here before to find out the best route, my ‘phone a friend’ on this occasion was Chris McGaw. Chris now works in East Anglia but back in the day he facilitated much of Lewisham’s hugely popular Rivers and People Project, which introduced many to the flora, fauna and landscape of the Ravensbourne’s rivers in the borough.

Chris revealed that, he too, imagined the area between Barnet Wood and Woodcock Grove as large room from which there are ten possible doors to choose from, therefore, take your pick. After a discussion we pressed on and made it into this matrix of woodland, punctuated by huge oak trees planted as boundary markers by landowners of the 16th Century, and old irrigation channels that fed off the Ravensbourne that had emerged from a short Victorian culvert into Scroginhall.

It is astonishing to think, in this world of urbanisation, that it is possible to walk from Keston to Bromley without seeing another house or another person, but you can. One of the Downham Men knew this last bit well and led us straight into Norman Park where the river once ran in a concrete pipe but now sits proud, meandering through toward Bromley Football Club, via allotments and stables. Coming out onto Hayes Lanes, we walked up to see the Environment Agency trash screen just before the river goes under the road.

From the old footpath, over Hayes Lane and heading North, we move up to the back of the grounds where Bromley Hospital once sat, there are snatches of river through hedges, over fences and through gardens before it disappears again under Westmoreland Road.

We decide to go up and over the High Street and along the appropriately named Ravensbourne Road, to have a look at Glass Mill Pond. This is the collection point and silt trap for the main river, a couple of small tributaries and various outfalls. We had a brief discussion about what would happen if you knocked the weir out at the northern end, which is one plan being considered, and came to the conclusion that there would be no pond left. We left he ducks behind and continued parallel to a now heavily culverted section of Ravensbourne before the river disappeared completely.

We were now urban walkers in search of a river and, after walking through Shortlands and into Ravensbourne Avenue, out it popped again next to the clubhouse at Shortlands Golf Club. After peering up the tunnel from whence the river came, the lads bumped into a mate loading his clubs into the boot of a car. He regaled them of how he’d just won the monthly stableford competition, how he was going to spend the proceeds and laughed when we told him we were following the river. Time to go.

We crested Crab Hill, down through woodland and housing, and strode into Beckenham Place Park it felt like home. The Downham Men had given up their time over the years to improving the river in the park and we took this opportunity to revisit the site. Along the semi-natural riverbank, poached in many places by the numerous dogs that run free, past the fallen tree that the Reverend Nick, amongst others, spent a morning sawing up so that the footpath could be reopened, round the back of the Millwall Training Ground to an open space in the park, just inside the Old Bromley Road. The spot where we normally meet and now the spot from where we will depart. We had done it and it had been a beautiful day. Having said our goodbyes we all started heading in the same direction, which made us laugh. Nature Cure, is what Trevor had said to me a while ago, when we were talking about working and walking in nature, for its well-being benefits. At that point I think we all felt it. A little tiredness in the legs but a huge sense of achievement and a lot of smiling faces.

LBC 2019

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Mayfies and Mattresses: A life on the foreshore

“It’s a cemetery full of cats and Degas is buried there,” said Nic. “And Truffaut”, I added. And so the conversation goes as we gather by the Mother and Child sculpture by Battersea Bridge early one morning. Jono, who is a web-based radio DJ, might come in at that point with a scat-jazz number or blast of the Clash, partly because he has an uncontrollable urge to sing and partly to throw down a challenge to today’s guests as they start to drift in from all directions. Together, we are a team and we work the foreshore from Erith to Isleworth with corporate groups from the City of London to Shanghai and our job is to remove plastics, wetwipes and other detritus. Sometimes we will count everything we find, and this data will be handed to our Thames River Watch colleagues and the rubbish will be recycled by the Port of London Authority. We (Thames21) generally remove approx. 250 tons a year.
Wandering through the throng of volunteers might be a roaming mudlarker, bucket in hand and looking like someone who lost their wedding ring the night before. Often distracted, eyes down, walking, kneeling, sifting and scraping, the larkers always know what the tide is doing, as do we, and are great value to chat to. Sometimes it might be Sylvia if in Greenwich and sometimes, if we are working the northern foreshore, it might be Steve “Mud God” Brooker, a legend in knee pads. Often, when working West, we encounter someone we call Dave, who is dressed head to toe in clothing found on the foreshore. He’s not so much looking for a George penny but some new trainers. Generally we find him lurking, strangely enough, below Anthony Armstrong Jones’s old house in Pimlico. He has a mate, known as Jason, who always walks 30yds behind and is looking for pottery and military stuff, he is wearing an old Royal Engineers blouson and a New York Yankees cap.

Battersea Bridge, Sept 2018

Our plastic-picking crew at Battersea often also contains Jeff and Simon, a volunteer lock-keeper who used to run the District and Circle lines, and the latter a guide at St Paul’s Cathedral. Earlier this summer Jeff discovered a large, heavy, wooden bench on the Southbank shore, as the tide was receding. At the end of the day he slung it over his shoulder, carried it to Waterloo and took it home on the train. It now sits in his garden. When it comes to artfacts in the garden, no-one comes close to the Mud God who, by his own admission, has a superb collection of bricks, tools, shell casings and other wildly diverse findings. Many larkers just go for pottery for mosaics while our Nic makes necklaces out of bones and clay pipes. Our event support team changes wherever we are so we are often catching up with old friends in far-flung places. We get to where we’re going an hour before the corporate group, this enables us to set up, have a chat and, if we are at Newcastle Draw Dock or Battersea, make a cup of tea for homeless or travellers drifting through. We will often have a chat and sometimes they stay with us all day. Often members of the River Thames Society will stop for a chat and a catch-up on the latest riverside gossip. If you see a strange group, often with Thames21 logos everywhere, come and have a chat too, and a cuppa, because you will be most welcome.

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Adventures with a mapping app: The Ravensbourne Outfall Safari

The Outfall Safari Lexicon:
An Outfall: a pipe that leads into a river channel.
An Outfall Safari: a survey of all pipes, polluting or otherwise, leading into river channels.
A Volunteer: someone brave enough to say “yes” to identifying and mapping all pipes leading into river channels.
The Ravensbourne river catchment: Situated in South East London and often cited as the most engineered of all London river systems, with approximately 50% of the rivers Pool, Ravensbourne, Quaggy and Kyd Brook placed in either concrete culverts, tunnels or toe-boarded, the river system runs South to North and contains 66kms of waterway. 
The Outfall Safari, the first of its kind within this catchment, is designed to identify all polluting outfalls so that future citizen-science monitoring of water quality, such as the Riverfly Monitoring Initiative, can be more directed. 
Much forward planning was undertaken with logistical and mapping support from the Environment Agency, Thames Water and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), with the safari itself run by Thames21. The volunteers selected themselves by generously giving up their time for the training and making themselves available for the Safari itself.

Ravensbourne Outfall Safari Training Day 2017

Of the 14 or so expeditions, the final stretch of river covered over the three-week Outfall Safari was one of the more entertaining. On paper, it was a wade along the Ravensbourne from Beckenham Place Park to Glassmill Pond in Bromley, in reality we were traveling into the unknown. Joined for this final wade by Clare Cheeseright and John Caitlin, who both took park in the Outfall Safari training overseen by Joe Pecorelli (ZSL), we knew that there was a gap on the map where no river was visible and we were going to investigate. Having gone through a relatively easy wade of a half-mile we exited the river, at a particularly deep section even for our thigh waders, onto Shortlands Golf Course, interrupting a four-ball of elderly women about to tee-off. I apologised profusely and said that we would be quick in passing, lots of grumpy faces, I explained that we were looking after the river for the local community, still lots of grumpy faces and mutterings. We passed them onward to an easier entrance back into the river. I looked back to see the grumpiest of the grumpy women top and hook her drive back into the river. There were lots of dark mutterings and pointing in our direction. But we soon entered a large covered culvert, the “gap on the map” which extended for an arduous, twisting and turning, 500mtrs and, although we had headtorches, we were thrilled when Clare rounded a corner and spotted daylight the other end.
An Outfall Safari comes with an App where such outfalls are recorded, GPS marked and photographed. In daylight, such mapping takes three minutes with a signal. In a tunnel there is no signal so I had taken the necessary photos quickly to upload later. 


Polluting Outfall, Lennard Road

We emerged within Queensmead Gardens in Bromley and, after much shenanigans involving a vertical ladder, a large set of keys I had and an additional Thames Water padlock that should not have been there, we managed to scale the wall, unlock a gate and, thanks to Terry Hollidge of Bromley Parks Dept, prise open a rusty bolt to freedom. We walked down to cover the outfalls at Glassmill Pond, for the record, and the Outfall Safari was over.
Some 18 volunteers had contributed to the catchment survey over three weeks, either in the water or surveying from the bank, and in total approximately 28kms of river had been covered. Only one day had been lost to bad weather which, for October, sounds like a miracle. 
Surveys, such as this one along the Ravensbourne, are essential if both water quality and biodiversity is to improve. Joe Pecorelli explains:
Misconnections and cross connections, on which Thames21 has campaigned, between the foul sewer and surface water network are a serious environmental problem, responsible for degrading the ecology of rivers in the capital.
As I worked with members of the Catchment Partnerships in London (CPiL) group to create a position statement on the issue early last year, what became clear was that it is still a deeply ingrained, knotty problem despite a great deal of effort being put in by many people to resolve it over many years.
CPiL members have committed to help tackle the issue with, among other things, the generation of evidence to determine the scale and impact of polluting outfalls.
At the moment, reporting of problem outfalls is ad hoc from members of the public who happen to spot pollution entering our rivers. Once notified, the Environment Agency and Thames Water put the offending outfalls on a list. Reported outfalls are resolved over a five-year investment period by Thames Water’s Surface Water Outfall Programme (SWOP) team.

Ravensbourne Outfall Safari coverage 2017

The mapping App used for the survey, Epicollect5, allows the user to select from a variety of visual and olfactory options to record an outfall’s impact on the river. Of the hundreds of outfalls recorded during the Ravensbourne survey there were possibly a dozen that were fouling the river, either from industrial or domestic sources. These will be inspected again by the supporting agencies and hopefully resolved. Many of these outfalls exhibited heavy traces of concrete degradation and rust from metal piles within the concrete that made up the culvert or rust from crumbling pipework. There were a handful of obvious pollution issues, most notably upstream of Cornmill Gardens in Lewisham centre where a torrent of material was coming off a building site, also along the Quaggy and just downstream of Marvels Lane

Polluting outfall along the Quaggy

where a serious domestic misconnection discoloured the water and riverbed and we noticed evidence of this 800mtrs before we got there and lastly at Lennard Road in Beckenham where silty material was pouring out of a pipe under the road bridge with no obvious source in sight. A large percentage of the rivers within the catchment are under public ownership but there were a couple of occasions where either access was denied or the river was within a gated site. These will be revisited at a later date and the data will be uploaded. While we have called a halt to the Safari so that a report can be written on the findings so far, we will be calling on our fantastic volunteers some time in the future to join in and help us finish off mapping the catchment.
LBC 2017

Our thanks goes to:
Donna Davis, Stephen Kenney, Clare Cheeseright, Daisy Cairns, Anne Slater, Juliet Cairns, Tim Gluckman, Rosemary Gluckman, Hazel “Chickenwoman” Savill, John Briggs, John Caitlin, Joe Pecorelli ZSL, David Ferguson, Jane Ferguson, Lina Allu, Thea Cox ZSL, Pete Ehmann EA, Kyle Cullen EA, and Lucy Hayes for getting in the water and to Pamela Zollicoffer (QWAG) for the tour of Bromley. Also, finally, to Penny Read and Terry Hollidge of the London Borough of Bromley for getting us out of a fix at Queensmead.

Lawrence Beale Collins and Julia Grollman (Thames21 Outfall Safari Organisers)



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The Dead Coots Mystery and other stories from the river

Often, when working along the river I have a song running through my head. I prefer to work in a silent environment, but still, I have a song running through my head. This week it’s all about early REM and the week started with their song Little America and when that was all played out it moved on to Seven Chinese Brothers. On Monday morning a good friend working for another river NGO emailed me to ask if I’d heard of the seven dead coots in Bromley? And had I specifically been dealing with the oil spill at Glassmill, an old millpond in a valley to the west of the town centre. I hadn’t, so I started to. In between trying to track down the substitute Environment Agency Officer, the original had gone on holiday the day after taking the call, while also trying to have a chat with the Thames Water officer, who was actually on site, positioning his absorbent booms and nappies, I got another email from someone ‘very concerned’ in Bromley, also reporting seven dead coots and an incident involving ‘barrels’ of oil. It seems that the coot story emanated from the same person who had seemingly pressed the ‘send to all’ button. So, along with the Chinese brothers, I headed off to Bromley. I was giving a talk to the Friends of the Earth in the evening so I decided to go up there late afternoon to check the coots out. Also ringing in my head were two phone conversations I’d had that afternoon. First, the Thames Water officer who had been on the ground said that a) he thought it was about three litres of oil and b) its source would be impossible to determine as there were many pipes leading up to the outfall into Glassmill. They had pumped out what they could but the culprit, probably doing an oil change in their Corsa, would remain on the run.

Thames Water pontoon & mats, Glassmill 4/4/17

Second phone call was from the Agency. The Agency chap said that they did not attend the Glassmill incident. OK. This means that they did not attend but took a call to their Incident Line (0800 807060), gave it an Incident number and called Thames Water, as it was their infrastructure through which the oil had passed.
People call the EA, and they should more often, when they see anything weird in the river, and oil is weird and shouldn’t be there. Anyway, they didn’t attend. Which is unsurprising as they are training-up new officers for the area so remain short-handed for the time being.
On arriving at Glassmill I had a walk around the site and noticed a couple of morehens on nests, a Canada goose having a gentle stroll through the island within the pond and a good number of in-channel booms and pads designed to mop up the oil. There was a small amount of surface oil within a backwater, just enough to give off that distinct whiff of fuel, and not much else so the Thames Water estimate had been near to the mark. A couple of lads walked past with skateboards tucked under their arms, they peered into the pond next to me so I asked about the seven dead coots. One said that there had been a moorhen upside-down a week before the oil went in. A woman with a pram suggested I go and talk to Barry at No.2, as he loved birds. I do too so I went and knocked on Barry’s door. He answered, clearly mid-meal, and reeled off all the species he’d seen at Glassmill over the last month. He wasn’t in the least bit worried about the coots, or the moorhens, on the pond. I left Barry to his dinner and headed off around the surrounding streets to see if I could spot any oil around roadside drains, I couldn’t see anything so I jumped back into the van and headed up to the Quaker Meeting House, where I was seeing the Friends of the Earth group. I talked for an hour before a lengthy Q&A session and at no time were coots, or moorhens, mentioned, however, they were very keen to find out if Tideway, who are constructing the Thames Tunnel to take sewage from West to East London, were going to build a biomass energy plant down at Beckton. I couldn’t answer this and assured them I would ask Tideway, who come and do river clean-ups with me along the Ravensbourne and generally have a strong connection with Thames21, my (now ex-) employers. My talks to FoE was entitled ‘Caddisflies and Car Parts’ and was an edited and updated version of last year’s presentation ‘Mayflies and Mattresses’. This gives some idea of the kinds of things that find their way into the river. I’m working on “Eels and Emulsion Paint’ at the moment. A few weeks before the mystery coots I helped out my Thames21 colleagues in a morning’s clean up of the foreshore at Purfleet, which is a short hop over the sea wall from Rainham Marshes RSPB bird reserve.

Plastic bottle counting at Purfleet (Daily Mail)

We were highlighting the abundance of plastic that is thrown away and now litters the entire Thames foreshore, this is a campaign that Thames21 is now driving with the support of the Mayor’s Office and the EA, whose chairman Emma Howard Boyd joined us in this rubbish clearance. As a measure of just how much plastic was along this 100m stretch we set out a 30m square quadrat and counted over 160 plastic bottles: single-use still and carbonated water, fruit juice and milk cartons. If we had tried to pick up all the tiny pieces of plastic we would have been there all week, as there are now 5 trillion pieces of plastic in the world’s oceans, or 46,000 per square kilometer of sea. We had a good deal of help on the day from the RSPB and the whole thing was covered in the Daily Mail.
I suppose I am becoming fixated by what gets thrown in the river, whether it be the Thames or the Ravensbourne in South East London, where I work, because most of my job is to remove it. All along the Ravensbourne, and its tributaries the Pool and the Quaggy, there is a growing band of community activists, park users, individuals and the generally concerned, that help me remove skip-loads of waste every year. We are a team, we are a club and the only requirement needed to join is a passion for cleaner rivers. Some are painters and some are musicians, no doubt with some other tune going through their head, and some are candlestick makers but together we are the river cleaners and we like nothing more than getting filthy, and tea and biscuits. So, nothing died at Glassmill and today I have just the intro to a piece of music, not the whole thing, by Wishbone Ash. Now I know where this comes from and it is my schooldays so I always try and quickly replace it with something that really should be there, like Marquee Moon or anything from Hatful of Hollow. If you fancy a bit of volunteering along the river then follow the above link to Thames21 or help us out during the 3 Rivers Clean Up this summer between June 3rd to the 24th and follow us all @thames21 @QWAG and @3RCU – Lawrence

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Nature under Capital as an empty gesture

Perceptions of urban nature in the 21st Century can generally be placed in a dichotomy of ‘Them’ and ‘Us’. Us, we, think that nature is being allowed to go to pot, being polluted and marginalised while the Them, them, use nature as a construct under which capital can thrive, to sell houses or ideas and policies and in doing so they highlight the good and ignore the bad. This is reflected in some of the constant themes that cut across different approaches and analytical frameworks for nature-theory; for example the idea that nature is being polluted, degraded, endangered and lost is widespread, paradoxically, society’s interaction with nature is usually characterised in terms of respect, with a desire to both control and protect nature (Soper 1999). While there may be an accusation that attempts (by Them) to integrate natural themes into development are mere window-dressing or empty gestures (Smith 2008, 21) that conform to the paradigm shift in environmental attitudes during the 20th century, there is a widespread belief also that the impact of nature on development and the community creates a genuine concern for nature’s well-being. The impact on society of uneven development and degradation of landscapes has led to a  debate about stewardship and a general desire to ‘draw the line’ on future destruction of nature. However, the nature that we see and the ideals we envisage for nature’s future are mediated through capital and the production of river regeneration is undertaken within the conditions of development.
Neil Smith
Theoretical explorations of the many ‘natures’ under capital prompted Neil Smith (2008) to suggest that there may be different and contradictory definitions of nature at work simultaneously: there is the idea of an external nature: where nature is separate and outside of humans (nature is defined as that which is not social), but there is also the idea of universal nature where nature is defined as every material thing (including humans and their works): then there is human nature, which contains aspects of deontology and emphasises the unchanging biological character of human behaviour, and internal nature: which captures a sense of our personal feelings, a yearning for or fear of nature. Castree suggests that changing attitudes to society-nature relations, particularly those associated with conservation, rely heavily on ideas of external nature because of their abhorrence of the destructiveness of society, which in turn suggests that a more sympathetic valuation of nature occurs whereby its ‘essential quality’ (2001, P6) is recognised.
These ideas can be usefully explored using the concepts of first and second nature (Fig 11). Society’s internal yearnings for an abundant and unspoilt external nature are captured in the conception of “first nature” (Smith 1984, 2008), that is a pristine, primary nature that is untouched by human activity, the ambiguity here is that while it may appear that this nature is lost to capital there are perceptions that natural processes demonstrate elements of first nature, or wilderness leanings. In contrast, second nature includes all forms of nature that have been transformed by human activity  – agricultural and urban landscapes, a commodified nature where the stuff of the environment is transformed into trade goods and economic resources. Concepts of first, second and even third nature, are not new. Neil Smith’s discussion on first and second nature is based on Karl Marx’s work on nature under capital in the mid 1800s (Pepper 1993). Marx said that first nature gave birth to humankind, which saw the creation of second nature; a nature ‘as part of the natural evolution of society’ (Bookchin 1987). However, Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43BC) mentioned first nature (wilderness), second nature (sowing corn etc) and third nature or terza natura (the landscaping of gardens). The artistry of landscaping, it was believed, was capable of demonstrating all three aspects of nature (Dixon Hunt 2000).
Such forms of nature are located within society, whether they’re a resource utilised by industry or a landscape viewed from the top of a mountain. Such is the extent of human activity, Smith suggests, that it is now meaningless to try and actually find first nature – even those landscapes such as the poles, the ocean floor or unexplored rainforests have been transformed into potential commodities valued for the resources they might hold and claimed by capitalist states seeking to assert their ownership of resources that might be discovered in the future. As such, if it is agreed therefore that all nature is now socially mediated it places first nature in the realm of a utopian ideal that is unobtainable. According to Pepper (1993, 117), everything is a commodity, even amenity and aesthetic enjoyment, to such an extent that all of first nature has become second nature. But was there ever a time or place when this was not true? Schmidt (1971) argues that in its pre-bourgeois state, nature exhibited first nature tendencies. With regard to ancient indigenous civilisations, nature was not seen as a commodity but as a co-evolutionary partner. Cronon (1996), however, disagrees with this position, stating that consistently through time natural resources, including rivers, have been utilised and valued and this placing of value on an object is commodification whether or not it falls into a capitalist framework. In other words there is nothing distinctly capitalist about the process of transforming first into second nature.
If it is understood that there is no first nature as all nature is socially mediated, then creations of natural space, such as national parks, or in this context river regeneration projects, are appropriations and approximations of perceived first nature. By definition humans can’t create first nature, because first nature is that which is not human. Yet the essence of these projects is that there is a persistent idea that these landscapes refer to first nature. Such an idea, some critics suggest, must therefore be something of a delusion. Smith (2008, p77) states: ‘With the production of nature at a world-scale, nature is progressively produced from within and as part of a so-called second nature. The first nature is deprived of its originality’. Indeed, what is deemed as natural is in fact a social product that is tailored to current human needs and perceptions. As Kate Soper (1999, p56) observes: ‘Much of which ecologists loosely refer to as ‘natural’ is indeed a product of culture, both in the physical sense and in the sense that perceptions of its beauties and value are culturally shaped’. As urban cultures diversify so do perceptions of what nature really is. In the case of urban nature this could be a kingfisher sitting on a shopping trolley in the river (Tomos Brangwyn).
In addition: In ‘Japanese Images of Nature’ 1997 (Thanks Muneezay) Kalland and Asquith state that there is an internal and an external nature and a place in between. A small human dwelling in a forest is ‘in-between’ the outside of nature (urban life) and inside (concepts of wilderness). The spirit world is ‘inside’ and any appropriation of resources by humans from this place must be offset with an offering to their spirits. LBC 2015

Bookchin M 1987: Social ecology versus ‘deep ecology’ a challenge for the ecology movement. The Raven 1(3) 219-50
Castree N 2001: Social Nature: Theory, practice and politics – Introduction. Blackwell. Oxford
Cronon W 1996: Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the human place in nature. Norton. New York.
Pepper D. 1993: Eco-Socialism: From deep ecology to social justice. Routledge. London
Schmidt, Alfred 1971: The concept of nature in Marx. New Left Review Editions. London. Section 106 explained at: – accessed 2/8/2010
Smith N. 2008: Uneven Development. Nature capital and the production of space. Third Edition. University of Geogia Press. Athens, Georgia p 21
Soper, K. 1999 The Politics of Nature; Reflections on Hedonism, Progress and Ecology. Capitalism Nature Socialism, 10/2, pp. 47 – 70

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3 Rivers Clean Up embraces citizen science in 2015

The 3 Rivers Clean Up is a three-week long intensive annual volunteer campaign to remove rubbish and invasive plant species along the rivers Ravensbourne, Pool and Quaggy in South East London. This year, the seventh of the 3RCU, organisers Thames21will also be testing the quality of the water all over the river catchment from Eltham to Croydon and from Keston to Deptford. Under the guidance of the Environment Agency, and part of the Rivers and Wetlands Community Days Project, participants will be able to test water quality during our events and learn what exactly is in our river water.

The main event is rubbish clearance and invasive plant removal of course, and for that we definitely need lots of help. Bring your family, your friends or just yourself on an urban wilderness adventure this summer and discover the rivers and the nature they support.  Join others so as to improve the habitats for both flowers and animals. Learn about nature, about the quality of water and why it’s important and also join in with other associated events such as wildlife habitat management, pond dipping and nature walks, most of which will be suitable for all ages. All events are FREE.

Eva, Chris & Yvona in Ladywell Fields – May 2015

The first events are on Saturday 20th June at Sutcliffe Park 11am to 1pm and Chinbrook Meadows on Sunday 21st of June 11am to 1pm, both along the Quaggy river. We will be conducting a breeding bird survey before all events this year to ensure that we don’t disrupt the little ones! Use the contact details at the bottom of the page if you have any questions about any of the activities and please join in, it’s great fun and FULL of nature.

Find an event that suits you!
The 3 Rivers Clean Up partnership program has been highly successful in removing and preventing the spread of Himalayan Balsam within the Ravensbourne River catchment. Last year 24 events were delivered by all partners over the three weeks with 300 volunteers tackling litter and invasive species, this amounted to 1250 hours of good effort and enthusiasm. The Ravensbourne has become one of the cleanest river catchments in London with a wide range of plants and animals.

In 2015 why not become part of this amazing show of community strength? Thames21 and the event partners will lead a series of volunteer events from June 20 to July 11 in collaboration with the London Borough of Lewisham, Quaggy Waterways Action Group, Environment Agency, TCV Croydon & Surrey, London Invasive Species Initiative and the Wild Trout Trust.

Contact Lawrence (Thames21) on 07584 172 209 or Jess (LB of Lewisham) on 0208 314 2119
Follow @3RCU and FB ‘3 Rivers Clean Up 2015

You can also train with Thames21 to Lead a Waterway Clean Up here

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