After a gruelling few hours clearing Himalayan Balsam, a non-indigenous invasive species, out of the river banks on the Ravensbourne at the Meadows Estate in June 2010, a small group of us sat on the grass verge by Bromley Road to take off our waders and casually debrief. During this post-3-Rivers Clean-Up discussion a proposal was put forward for a walk upstream along the channel of the river from the Thames confluence to as far as we could get within about four to five hours. It was decided that where we were sitting was a good destination and achievable end target but that the likely starting point would have to be Brookmill Gardens, as a large barrier just upstream at Deptford Creek made a Thames-side start impractical. A few emails later and a date was set for June 30th with a 10am start, ‘meet at the ranger’s office in Brookmill – bring lunch’.
A quick briefing wader and walking-pole selection and head-torch check and we were off, entering the river just downstream from the Elverson Road DLR station. Immediately we got into conversation with a man sitting on his jacket on the shingle beach, he said he had seen foxes, badgers, kingfishers and plenty of herons over the last week, the kingfishers, he added, only appear at daybreak and dusk. Out of Brookmill and into the concrete culvert leading up to Lewisham centre, outflow pipes and bags of rubbish slung over the railings all creating meanders along the wide flat concrete substrate with banks of weeds slowing progress.Passing the Tesco site, where my family once ran the Broadway Press, and up to the Ravensbourne/Quaggy confluence, the conversation turned to Lewisham council’s plans for the river. It was agreed that the Confluence Gardens plan, while highly contested, was a vast improvement on the current high-sided and oppressive banking, a JG Ballard-esque highway of concrete and brick that laid testament to mid 20th century mindsets of over-zealous flood control through hard engineering. Taking the right fork, we entered the first of many tunnels under roads, the river flattened, slow and featureless, there was little talking here as we felt the oppressive weight of urbanisation, our waders glided through the marbled blackness as shafts of light streamed through ahead, a beacon of life in this dead world. Between tunnels we saw bus-queuers leaning over the balustrade above us as we soldiered on in single file and out the other side toward Cornmill Gardens and our second mid-stream view of river regeneration.
Shoals of dace and chub shot upstream in front of us and ducklings scattered as we edged forward, attempting to minimise the disturbance to this apparently abundant landscape. Nick stopped to dig out a giant hogweed, another species on the invasive hit-list, as Chris (McGaw) noted coltsfoot, burdock, speedwell and the ubiquitous buddleia (another non-native species) amongst the flora. Trevor became engaged in conversation with a group of pensioners above as we entered the tunnelled culvert to the south end, their laughter echoing behind as some deep water focussed our concentration to the top of our waders and the first of many footballs drifted by. The culvert extended for 200m, on the way some stopped to pick cherries from a large tree leaning into our path, there was also a mature fig tree to admire, well out of our reach yet abundant in unripe and promising fruit. At Wearside depot we came across some nesting islands placed in the culvert by staff, chained platforms that rise in high water, these were populated by moorhens and we duly took the opposite bank with the message going down the line to keep silent. And so under the bridge by the adhesives factory (now demolished) and into Ladywell Fields. The Ravensbourne proper runs to the east past Lewisham Hospital while a new meandering channel has been cut into the park, we stepped up into the open and made our way to the café for lunch. A round-table discussion talked of the beauty of Brookmill and Cornmill and the task that lay ahead in naturalising some of the more shrouded and challenging sections. The feeling was that while many stretches were ugly, to break out of this concrete would be difficult as buildings and other developments had driven right up to form the culvert banks. As we edged back into the stream after lunch a dead chub floated by, this prompted talk of a minor pollution incident the month before that had been reported by a member of the public, however very little was known of its extent and whereabouts but it did rather complement the dead rat found earlier in the wade. To the south of Ladywell Fields the river, while a straightened channel, reaches the most naturalised of all the sections on our route with banking and woodland or fields on either side. There was abundant flora and fauna, the deep turquoise of the damselflies catching the eye while far in the distance wagtails darted from bank to bank.
Again there was almost silence among the group but this time induced by the sense of privilege almost as if we had been granted an audience with nature, and a feeling of relief that there was a counterpoint to the concrete culverting. Beyond the banks are three fields that lie between Catford Bridge and Catford stations and Ladywell. This ‘natural’ stretch of the river was cleared and straightened by railway engineers in 1892 and toe-boarded in sections through flood prevention work in the 1960s.
Sweeping east under the high bridge structure the river meandered through a series of high culverts before entering into the first of the two long tunnels we would encounter. Inside the tunnel the channel split into two, as a flood-prevention measure this enables one channel to be kept clear if there is a blockage. We take the left and walk to the distant aperture of light, there is vegetation and debris here which we are careful to step over. We progress further to the Ravensbourne/Pool confluence, while the Pool, to the right, looks inviting we take the left fork and enter a long, straight and dilapidated culvert section that forms the boundary for the trading estate to the east and a small industrial complex to the west. Flow pipes seep an oozing orange liquid into the stream while builders rubbish and supermarket bags litter the channel, there is little wildlife here except for our sentinel, the yellow wagtail.
Two police-vehicle engineers peer over the fence telling us we are mad and that we would very likely ‘catch something’ from the river, at this point, given the amount of rubbish strewn everywhere, we would not entirely disagree. The positive correlation between sections of concrete culverting and the amount of rubbish thrown into the river seems obvious, there is a sense that if you demonstrate that the river is uncared for then the lead will be followed. This unloved section of the Ravensbourne gave way to the tunnel at Southend, just before the agreed end of the walk at the Meadows Estate. The river enters a small tunnel, possibly 1.5m high and 2m across. As we approach, two of the group decline this last challenge and opt to take the pavement. This tunnel is approximately 150m in length and travels under the Homebase DIY store and the Peter Pan Pool, it is littered with tree trunks and general flotsam. There is no distant light to aim for as clouds of midges stream into our head torches as we gingerly pick our way through. Trevor recounts a report of EA inspectors entering the tunnel last year with full breathing apparatus, we laugh as we spit out flies and head for the now visible distant light. Four and a quarter hours after we left Brookmill we are sitting back on the bank where the plan was hatched, exhausted but grateful for a chance to see both the wonders and terrors of the Ravensbourne. Enthusiastically, we agree to set up another summer walk from the source in Keston to where we were, discussing what other hurdles could possibly be encountered.