Monday, May 31, 2010

Hackney Brook

All of the other lost rivers I'm writing about in this series flow into the Thames. This one's different - it flows into the Lea. Also atypically, it flows eastwards. Utterly typically, it's completely vanished. OK, so there are a couple of telltale fluvial remnants along the way, but not many, and very few that'd make you go "oh blimey, there really did used to be a river here". Things were very different back when Queen Victoria came to the throne, with a considerable stream wending its way round Stoke Newington and through the centre of rural Hackney. But pressure to build housing saw the river rapidly buried, some of it diverted into Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer, and within a generation all brookside vistas had vanished.

An acknowledged expert on the Hackney Brook is Iain Sinclair, London's very own semi-impenetrable narrator. Should you own a copy of his Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire you'll know that the penultimate chapter is devoted to the borough's lost river. The text meanders rather, as is Sinclair's way, generating atmosphere rather than revealing anything of substance. But look more carefully at the map on the book's cover and you'll spot a pale blue line threading down from top left to bottom right. That's the Hackney Brook, that is - apart the bottom right section which heads in completely the wrong direction. It definitely flowed via Hackney Wick, not Well Street Common, for which geographical inaccuracy I blame the good man's illustrator.

Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (Penguin) (Amazon)
The book's cover as a poster (but not in quite good-enough resolution)

Water - a Sony Award-winning Hackney Podcast featuring Iain following the route of the Hackney Brook (oh this is good)
Iain's talk - The Hackney Brook and Other North West Passages (listen, or read the transcript)
Podcast from Resonance FM - includes Iain tracing the Brook's route with a dowser

That's the problem with Lost Rivers - you can't even trust what you read about them in books, because so much remains hearsay and supposition. But I'm going to give it a try here. From Holloway to Hackney, via two football stadia, several parks, a cemetery and a Tesco car park. Some of the river's route remains admittedly woolly, particularly in the upper reaches on the slopes of north Islington and through the shifting marshland of Hackney Wick. But its path through most the London borough of Hackney is rather better documented, and the dips across Stoke Newington High Street and Mare Street are pretty obvious once you think to look. Plus there is one spot where you can still say "oh blimey, there really did used to be a river here". A Brook in Hackney. Who'd have thought?

An approximate map of the Hackney Brook's course (my best Google map attempt)

The Hackney Brook on Wikipedia (it's not much, but it'll have to do)
Map of the Hackney Brook (and the Lea Valley) (from 1611)
Cary's London map of 1837 (Hackney) (Hackney Wick)
Sketch Plan of the Hackney Brook, Compiled by E. Bolus (a zoomable art-print)
North London drainage basins (the Hackney Brook's is in blue) (pdf map)

Hackney Brook
1) Holloway/Highbury

Did I ever mention how hard it is to track down a river that isn't there? Take the headwaters of the Hackney Brook as a case in point. They're not in Hackney, they're in Islington, but precisely where is a bit of mystery. I Googled for maps, and visited the local library, and scrawled a line on an A-Z which I thought best fitted the information I'd found. Then I headed up to Holloway to wander the modern landscape with my camera, and confirmed that the contours below Mercers Road sloped in an appropriate direction. But since then I've Googled again and found a map which suggests the top of the river was to the west of Finsbury Park station, somewhere around Tollington Place. Might be, might not, but no amount of field trips to the area will ever confirm one way or the other. So all I can say is that there used to be a tiny stream parallel to the Holloway and Hornsey Roads, on one side or the other, probably, near enough. And there most definitely isn't any more. [photo]

The river's path becomes a little clearer somewhere rather famous, around Arsenal's Highbury stadia. If you've ever streamed out of the front of the Emirates and seen a railway bridge off to your left, know that the Hackney Brook used to flow on the other side of that. Then to the north of the stadium proper [photo], approximately underneath the northern tip of the Ashburton Triangle flats [photo]. More railways to cross [photo], and then round the back of Arsenal tube station [photo] through the nature reserve at Gillespie Park. This is a delightful green backwater, lorded over by an ecology centre, created on the site of former railway sidings. The larger pond is artificial, not brook-filled, and a very peaceful place to sit and watch the reed-loving wildlife. [photo]

Go back a few centuries and the land to the south of the stream was pasture known as Long Mead. Today it's better known as the site of Highbury Stadium. Arsenal's North Stand was the closest to the old riverbanks, although that's now been replaced by characterless newbuild flats (and the only local water feature is a series of bubble tanks on the shared lawn where the pitch used to be). The rest of Long Mead disappeared under Victorian housing, with the Hackney Brook culverted and Gillespie Road laid in its place. The stream crossed the Blackstock Road at the dogleg where the Arsenal Tavern stands [photo] - a location still obviously at the foot of a valley slope. And then along Mountgrove Road (home to all your Sylvanian Family needs), where the Hackney Brook finally passed from Islington into the borough after which it was named.

Hackney Brook
2) Stoke Newington

The only visible surviving remnant of the Hackney Brook is to be found in Clissold Park. Not the curved stream segment in the southern half of the park because that's part of the New River (an artificial channel which used to bring drinking water from Hertford to Finsbury). Instead head to the northern half where you'll find two eye-shaped ornamental lakes inhabited by pondweed and waterfowl [photo] [photo]. These pools have names - the larger one's Becksmere and the smaller Runtzmere, in honour of the two civic dignitaries who presided over the park's opening in 1889. Both are currently fenced off for major drainage works and are less than scenic, but they remain the only water features any pre-19th century Londoner might recognise as part of the stream's original course.

East of Runtzmere comes Grazebrook Road - a well-named echo of the past - and on to the delights of Abney Park Cemetery. This is one of London's 'magnificent seven' garden cemeteries, with a towering chapel at its centre and countless memorials scattered between the trees all around [photo]. It's very easy to get very lost inside, although tracing the route of the Hackney Brook is rather simpler. This flowed along the northern perimeter of the cemetery, just beyond the ivybrick walls, and can be seen marked on Stanford's 1862 map as "former course of Hackney Brook - now obliterated". It emerged by the cemetery gates at the foot of Stamford Hill (another London placename explained by a lost river) [photo], crossing beneath the main road to flow through the grounds of a cluster of almshouses. Those no longer exist, nor the Weavers Arms Inn alongside, but you can always buy some white goods from Sellfridges, N16's legendary deliberately-misspelt appliance outlet. [photo]

Stoke Newington's triangular common was originally known as Cockhanger Green, for some apocryphal reason which might have involved a local brothel. The Hackney Brook flowed along the northern edge of the triangle, which later became Northwold Road, before turning south close to the ordinary suburban terrace where Marc Bolan spent his childhood years [photo]. There are plenty of ordinary suburban terraces on the slopes of Shacklewell below, with rather less famous residents, although it's quite a desirable patch all the same. The ex-river won't be heading anywhere quite so classy down its lower course.

Hackney Brook
3) Hackney

The Hackney Brook ran along the western edge of Hackney Downs - a grassy recreational plateau ideal for jogging, kickabouts and general horizontal laziness. That western edge was swallowed up by the Stoke Newington Railway in the 1870s, leaving the river well-buried beneath a leafy embankment [photo]. The river/railway continued southward through an area of market gardens, where now stands Mossbourne Academy - a striking flagship academy designed by Richard Rogers. And then across Dalston Lane, where a peaceful countryside bend has evolved into a busy road junction. Two adjacent roads were formerly waterways. The lower half of Amhurst Road follows the meandering Hackney Brook, while Graham Road was originally its tributary - the Pigwell Brook. This trickled down from Kingsland Green in Dalston and passed roundabout Fassett Square - the inspiration for BBC1's EastEnders [photo]. Let's hope there's a similar lost river under Albert Square, and that someday it carries a few of the most annoying characters away.

Even the hurly burly of central Hackney was once a bucolic riverside scene (1820s map). Mare Street was then Church Street, a wigglier affair named after 13th century St Augustine's. The old tower survives*, but the scenic footbridge over the stream has been swept away by railways, progress and shopping [photo]. The river's passing indentation remains evident alongside Hackney Central station, with a definite dip in the road between Iceland and the pawnbrokers opposite [photo]. See Tesco's car park? [photo] That used to be a watercress bed - and quite frankly it'd be lovelier if it still was. The Hackney Brook then flowed north of Morning Lane (formerly Water Lane), roughly along the route of the North London Line. An army of dubious greasemonkeys populate the arches under the viaduct, while to the north lies a curious mix of council blocks, Victorian terraces and Tudor homestead [photo]. It's the council blocks that proliferate, alas, as the valley rolls on.

* St Augustine's Tower is open (for free) on the last Sunday of the month, courtesy of the Hackney Historic Buildings Trust. So that's where I went yesterday afternoon, and climbed the diddy spiral staircase to the top. There are three rooms on the way up - one to hold the pendulum, one supporting the clock mechanism and the third with the bell. But it's the view from the roof that's the most impressive. A 360° panorama around Hackney and beyond, plus the opportunity to peer down into Mare Street below and watch the little ants doing their shopping. Highly recommended. [photo] [photo] [photo] [photo]

Hackney Brook
4) Hackney Wick

Wick Road, which lies on the path of the former Hackney Brook, isn't a lovely street. Its one-way racetrack is bounded by a variety of apartment blocks - some tall, others merely squat - with only the occasional glimpse of anything vaguely pre-war lurking in the near distance. Partway down are several traditional pubs (plus a bookmakers) to cater for local residents' most urgent needs, although if they fancy Pukka Pies or Mighty Chicken they have to walk a little further. At the fiveway junction by the Tiger pub there used to be a brook-fed silk mill employing more then 600 local women [photo]. Brookfield Road rises here, its name and gradient the only reminders that this is a former river valley. Meanwhile Wick Road continues gently downhill, past the entrance to Victoria Park, to a mammoth flyover on the A12 [photo] [photo]. This should have been the point where a motorway from Camden joined the melee, but public protest prevented an entire swathe of residential north London from vanishing beneath concrete.

Hackney Wick village, as this once was, marks the edge of the floodplain of the River Lea [photo]. The Hackney Brook used to meander on through marshland, taking the long route down to the major river, until more direct drainage channels were dug to keep the Lea's waters under greater control (1820s map) (1830s map). The original route's hard to trace, long since obliterated by modern housing development to the north, and light industry to the south. But, as far as I can tell, the Brook first flowed northeast (through an area of pleasant council bungalows) before turning south (around Gainsborough Primary School) parallel to the Lea (past the factory on Wallis Road where the world's first plastic was manufactured). White Post Lane is the only surviving road from two centuries ago [photo], formerly crossed by a ford close to the Lord Napier pub outside Hackney Wick station [photo]. After the Hertford Canal was dug, the Brook's drainage channels passed no further south. But back in the day they'd have continued across what is now Fish Island to enter the Lea at the basin between Old Ford Lock and The Ironworks [photo]. On the opposite bank, a mere javelin's throw away, the Olympic Stadium now looms down on this once pastoral scene. From the Emirates to 2012, that's the Hackney Brook for you.

www.flickr.com: my Hackney Brook gallery (30 photos altogether)

An approximate map of the Hackney Brook's course

» Previous rivers in this series: Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger

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