Thursday, September 30, 2010

Stamford Brook

Only one of London's lost rivers has a tube station named after it. The Fleet nearly managed an entire line, but the Queen's Silver Jubilee saw to that. Stamford Brook station is named after a waterway which used to flow nearby (but, to the best of my knowledge, not directly through). It's a peculiar waterway, Stamford Brook, in that it had three very distinct and separate sources. Two of those headed defiantly towards the Thames only to stop suddenly, turn east and join up with the third. All three flowed through that broad geographical entity we know today as "Acton". And some were alternatively known by different, and somewhat amusing, names. The western tributary, that's the Bollo Brook, and the middle one is the Warple. Honest.

Please be patient with me - this isn't a part of London I know well. It's also been especially difficult to determine where precisely each branch ran, or indeed if they even linked up like this at all. We're quite a way west of the West End here, well outside the scope of most historical maps of London, so there's not a lot of cartographical evidence to pinpoint the Stamford Brook's original course. But this was the very last of London's lost rivers to go underground, open in its upper reaches until the early 20th century, so some maps do exist. Meanwhile all of the rivers further to the west have survived on the surface - the Brent, the Crane and the Colne still flow.

One thing I've been surprised to discover while researching London's lost rivers this year is how incredibly important they are in defining boundaries. This is especially true in West London, where the existence of two long thin boroughs is entirely due to rivers that no longer exist. The boundary between Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea... a chunk of that follows the Westbourne. The boundary between Kensington and Chelsea and Hammersmith and Fulham... is almost precisely defined by Counter's Creek. The western boundary of Hammersmith and Fulham... follows very closely the line of Stamford Brook (bar a few modern tweaks to match administrative areas to reality). And as for the northeastern boundary of Hounslow, where the borough rubs up against Ealing... step forward the Bollo Brook. If you live out this way, then the public body to whom you pay your council tax is most likely determined by on which bank of an ancient unseen river you live. Lost these rivers may be, but their influence remains current.

» An approximate map of the Stamford Brook's course (my best Google map attempt)
» 20 photos altogether in my Stamford Brook gallery

Stamford Brook
tributary 1
- Bollo Brook

Yes, there's a lost river in London called the Bollo Brook. If that comes as a surprise, you clearly don't live or work in South Acton, because the name's everywhere. There are roads named after the Bollo, and workplaces, and a gastropub, even a youth centre. It's one of those words that works well as a geographical brand name, because how would you ever mistake it for something else.

The Bollo Brook is the westernmost of Stamford Brook's three headwaters. It kicked off roughly where Birch Grove meets the Uxbridge Road, a few doors down from Carpet Right and suspiciously close to the "Brookford" launderette. The nearest station is Ealing Common, which is highly relevant because this old river hugs the railway for almost the entirety of its length. Or rather the other way round. The District line from Ealing Common round to Turnham Green, laid in the late 1870s, followed fairly closely the line of the old Bollo Brook. I can't locate any evidence to suggest the railway precisely replaced the river, but presumably its undeveloped 'valley' provided the line of least resistance.

So there's a distinctly Underground flavour to the now-underground river. The Bollo Brook once ran across what's now Ealing Common Depot. It ran beside, or maybe through, the London Transport Museum Depot at Acton (next open in two weeks time) [photo]. It passed Acton Town station [photo], more precisely through the very obvious dip where the Acton Town Hotel now sits. And then it followed Bollo Lane for about half a mile - lost rivers don't get much more blatant than this. There's even a Bollo Bridge Road stretching off into Acton Proper, although no sign of any bridge beneath the apartment blocks. Across the railway is Bollo House, from which the western end of the Piccadilly line is managed. Then at Bollo Lane Junction a pair of level crossings - a rare sight in central London - but only one of which is still in regular (Overground) use [photo]. And finally the gastropub - The Bollo - which for some reason is represented on its sign by a pineapple. A complete load of Bollos, the lot of them.

At Chiswick Park (the tube station, not the park), the river's supposed to have swung east [photo]. It divided Acton Green Common from Chiswick Common, just as the railway does now, before edging away from the District/Piccadilly at Turnham Green. We'll rejoin the river here later...

Stamford Brook
Chiswick House

It's a recently reopened jewel in West London. It's a classical villa built in grand style lying just off the A4. It's surrounded by a garden that's both ground-breaking and gorgeous. And in that garden's there's a landscaped canal which might or might not be the remnant of a lost river. Could be.

Chiswick House was built in the 1720s by Lord Burlington, a bright young thing who'd been inspired by the Palladian villas of northern Italy. He wanted a house to show off, but not to live in, and so commissioned a building the like of which London had never seen before. Porticos and Venetian windows, symmetrical steps and Roman pillars, all topped off with an octagonal dome [photo]. At Chiswick he would entertain the nobility, usually as part of his unofficial role as chief patron to the Arts, and they would be duly inspired by the dazzling walls and ceilings within. You, on the other hand, can get inside for a fiver (open Sunday to Wednesday until the end of October). An audio guide helps explain the historical nuances of what you're seeing, from the more ordinary spaces on the ground floor to the "wow look at that" rooms upstairs. There's a Green Velvet Room, a Blue Velvet Room and a Red Velvet Room (you'll know which is which), plus a central chamber lined by giant portraits beneath a coffered skylight. It's easy to see how 18th century visitors would have been awestruck.

The gardens are almost as impressive. Chiswick House boasts the earliest example of an 'English Landscape Garden' - bravely informal in its time, and littered with classically inspired features [photo]. Avenues lead off into manicured undergrowth, terminating at some chunk of stonework or lofty obelisk. Paths wind through woodland to reach a hidden cricket pitch or sprawling glass conservatory. There's even an Ionic Temple at the garden's heart, although it was swathed in scaffolding when I visited so I can't tell you how impressive it looks.

And then there's the river. It's almost straight, but tweaked so it isn't quite. It dips beneath an unexpectedly humpy bridge [photo]. It's fed by a grotto-like cascade of rippling water. It has ducks, and waterfowl that aren't ducks. It borders a semi-formal lawn where local Chiswick-ites like to picnic (when the weather's better) [photo]. And it runs on an alignment that almost perfectly matches the direction the Bollo Brook would have flowed if only it hadn't turned unexpectedly east halfway down. Some say the brook did indeed once pass this way, and now runs in a pipe along the bottom of the channel. If that's the case then the waters must once have flowed straight on, across Duke's Meadows to the Thames, although there's no sign there today [photo]. Hell, who cares? The possibility of a lost river brought me to Chiswick House, but the certainty of beauty should be enough to tempt you instead.

Stamford Brook
tributary 2
- The Warple

If the Bollo Brook was obscure, then the Warple is surely more so. It's the local name for the middle one of the Stamford Brook's three main tributaries, and it used to drain much of Acton. Most surprisingly, a tiny stretch of the Warple apparently still exists. The local Ordnance Survey map shows approximately 100m of streamlet running through the back gardens of houses on Rosemont Road, which must make for a nice water feature, although nothing's visible from the street nor indeed from above. This is one of the Warple's sources, and there's another in nearby Springfield Gardens. Spring, field... all the clues are there! Council-erected signs spell out the park's rivery backstory as confirmation for those who care to read it.

There are some fairly steep slopes round and about, including Acton Hill. This was once home to the very first branch of Waitrose, but now leads down towards a rather less aspirational Morrisons in the High Street [photo]. The Warple flowed in the dip between these two retail outlets, crossing what's now a major traffic junction before continuing down through the redbrick end of the South Acton Estate. There are nicer places to go tracking lost rivers than traipsing round the back of garages beneath slabby tower blocks, it has to be said. The contours flatten out a little towards Acton Lane, where the only watery landmark today is the Victorian glass-roofed Acton Swimming Baths. [photo]

Next up it's the Southfields Recreation Ground, through which the river ran when this was Acton's South Field. And then, beyond the Scout hut, a peculiar curved lane fenced off at both ends. This is the location of the Acton Storm Tanks - a 1905 pumping station built for the important purpose of preventing the local area from flooding now that the river had been removed. The Warple is still sorely missed. Thames Water are currently consulting on plans to build a 21st century sewer - the multi-million pound Acton Storm Relief - to connect to their Tideway Tunnel running beneath the Thames. Locals fear several years of lorries disrupting life down Warple Way (there had to be one, didn't there?).

It's not far to the area where tributaries 1 and 2 joined. The Bollo Brook came in from the west, the Warple from the north, and the resulting conglomeration was the Stamford Brook. The stream's gone now, but it's not been forgotten. There's a Stamford Brook Road, which leads to the Brook gastropub (a chicken kiev and tempura prawn kind of place). There's a triangle of grass, called Stamford Brook Common, ideal for exercising less energetic dogs. The river once ran along the southern side, I believe. And of course there's Stamford Brook tube station, the most widely-known reminder of all. This was the very first station on the underground network to have automatic ticket barriers, way back in 1964. The staff have had less to do ever since, which must be why the bloke on the gate took more than a passing interest in the fact I was taking photographs of the exterior of his station [photo]. "Those for a magazine?" he asked, as I Oystered through. "Yeah, like any magazine would be interested in shots of Stamford Brook station, you suspicious jobsworth," I wanted to reply, but thought better of it. I wonder how many dyslexic Chelsea fans he has to deal with on Saturday afternoons.

Stamford Brook
tributary 3
- The Stamford Brook

The easternmost branch of the Stamford Brook was the straightest, and the longest. It rose on Old Oak Common, which might sound quaint and rural but these days is anything but. The source now lies within an industrial estate to the south of Willesden Junction station, whose sole redeeming feature is the Grand Union Canal snaking by. Just don't look beyond the shrubbery, not unless you like ash-scattered clearings full of abandoned supermarket trolleys and rotting mattresses. And rail depots. The depot at Old Oak Common is an absolute whopper, with sheds and sidings everywhere, and weedy plants growing up between the tracks and sleepers. It must have been unutterably lovelier when a stream trickled through.

You'd imagine Wormwood Scrubs to be even uglier, but that's not the case. It remains a broad expanse of open heathland, ideal for rambling or brambling, and you'll never even notice the prison existed if you hang around the western end [photo]. My OS map told me there was a boundary stone part way along the rail embankment, which undoubtedly would have marked the passage of the Stamford Brook as well as the dividing line between London and Middlesex, but I couldn't find it. Nor the boundary stone beside the canal, for that matter. But the borough/ex-river is extremely obvious for the next mile because it precisely follows the route of Old Oak Common Lane, then Old Oak Road, through East Acton. The East Acton Estate is certainly more characterful than its South Acton counterpart, filled with brick cottagey terraces of a very distinct interwar municipal style.

Any hint of peace is shattered by the not-yet-elevated Westway, which sweeps across the former riverbed with four-lane disdain. Alongside is Claydon Gardens, a miserable patch of greenspace decked out with cider-swilling benches, followed by a series of 1970s council blocks that only a talentless architect could love [photo]. Don't worry, that's the lowpoint. It's swiftly back to sturdy family piles and faux-timbered semis on the journey down to Acton Vale. And look, there on the corner with the Uxbridge Road it's the holy grail of lost-river-searchers - the stinkpipe. A rusty green tube rises up from the pavement to release sewer-vent whiff well above top floor window level [photo]. Somewhere below ground the waters of the Stamford Brook continue to flow, although it's probably best not to imagine quite how.

Next up, Askew Road (which is indeed a skew road, suggesting a sinuous rivery past). There's a proper parade-of-shops feel here, all laundrettes and bistrocaffs, plus a Victorian tavern which has yet to realise that Setanta Sports have gone bust. Watch out if you own a cat round here, I've never seen quite so many Lost Pet notices attached to lampposts. And I'm embarrassed to say that this part of London has a name I'd never ever heard of before - Starch Green. It must be true, it says so on the maps in the bus shelters. Used to be a small open space on the Goldhawk Road, apparently, and was originally called Gaggle Goose Green courtesy of a former pond, now long filled-in. But one water feature has survived close by, in the park where the Stamford Brook's three tributaries finally come together. Half a mile to go.

Stamford Brook
lower course: Ravenscourt Park → Hammersmith Creek

At the northern end of Ravenscourt Park there's a pond. It's a rather attractive asymmetrical pond with a central island, and a stone footbridge up one end beneath which the watery channel disappears. It's a waterfowl magnet, and the parkkeepers have kindly provided an identification board in case you can't tell your moorhens from your mallards. What most visitors don't realise is that in a previous incarnation it used to be part of a moat fed by the Stamford Brook. The moat surrounded Paddenswick House - a mansion of great standing dating back to the 12th century, and once owned by Edward III's mistress. Paddenswick House was upgraded several times over the years, and the gardens were duly landscaped (hence the park), but incendiary bombing in 1941 left the structure in need of total demolition so there's no trace now. Apart from the moat, that is. [photo]

Within the grounds of Ravenscourt Park the Stamford Brook's trio of headwaters finally merged, then headed south. We know that their combined flow was still visible 100 years ago in a culvert running beneath 180 King Street (now an estate agents) [photo]. From King Street onwards the river was once wide enough to be navigable, and the wharf-lined inlet so formed was known as Hammersmith Creek. It's anything but picturesque today. Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall has been erected either on top of or right beside the old waterway, and you won't be seeing this building appearing on local postcards. Having said that, one bunch of architects have ambitious plans to restore the Stamford Brook to the surface here, including a potentially very expensive crossing of the A4 at aqueduct or surface level. The full scheme will never happen, not in this financial climate, but something more symbolically fluvial could easily reappear beside the town hall as part of a smaller scale redevelopment.

And finally, Furnival Gardens. This Thames-side park lies on the northern rim of the Hammersmith meander, and was created for the Festival of Britain out of an area of bombed wasteground. It's a very pleasant spot, with manicured flowerbeds and a small walled garden. Pleasant enough to be the location of choice for toddling families, keen joggers and Woodpecker-swilling inebriates. A semi-private pier juts out into the Thames, from which it's possible to look back towards the riverbank. If the tide's low enough, revealed before you is the outlet of the sewer which replaced Hammersmith Creek [photo]. One flap, which raises if it rains too much [photo], and a grey sludgy channel guiding whatever emerges into London's largest river [photo]. It's no wonder that Thames Water are keen to construct a mega-expensive replacement, starting very nearby indeed and heading down to Beckton. Those who live nearby will raise a cheer that former plans to sink the new tunnel from Furnival Gardens have been withdrawn. And come 2020 even the old Stamford Brook dribble-pipe will have been realigned, redirected and reborn.

» An approximate map of the Stamford Brook's course (my best Google map attempt)
» 20 photos altogether in my Stamford Brook gallery (of varying degrees of thrillingness)

» Previous rivers in this series: Fleet, Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger, Hackney Brook, Effra, Walbrook

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