Sunday, January 31, 2010


The River Westbourne

Three of London's lost rivers, and arguably three of the most important, began their descent in Hampstead. They're the Westbourne, the Tyburn and the Fleet, and from here they each ran roughly southwards and roughly parallel down to the Thames. The Westbourne was the westernmost of this trio, the west stream, or "west bourne". Several streamlets joined forces on the upper slopes to form the river proper, joining together by Kilburn to form what was once a fairly substantial watery presence. Another major tributary fed in from Queen's Park, and then the main stream turned southeast through Maida Vale and Bayswater (only one of whose names is river-related). Next up is the largest remnant of any of London's lost rivers - the Serpentine in Hyde Park - here royally enlarged in the early 18th century to create an ornamental lake. And then south beneath Knightsbridge, on through Belgravia and out into the Thames in the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital. About six miles source to mouth, across some of the most expensive real estate in the capital.

It's housing that's responsible for most of the Westbourne's disappearance. Newly-built homes wouldn't sell if there was an open sewer running alongside, so developers footed the bill to culvert and cover the contaminated waterway. In the Westbourne's case this created the Ranelagh Sewer, implemented segmentally and not completely covered over until the 1850s. This subterranean Victorian infrastructure still survives and can be wandered down, so long as you're a Thames Water employee or an illegal adventurer with a penchant for muck-filled brick-lined tunnels.

In at least two places the former Westbourne still marks the western boundary of the London Borough of Westminster, most notably as it meanders otherwise-inexplicably through Belgravia. And yes, this is the lost river that supposedly flows through a tube across a tube station. But no, that's not Westbourne Park, which (for a reason) is more than half a mile away from anywhere the river once ran. There's so much to explain about the Westbourne, which I'm planning to do in twelve discrete chunks all the way down from Hampstead to Chelsea. Let's go with the flow.

Other names for the River Westbourne
Cye Bourne, Kelebourne, Kilburn
Bayswater, Bayswater River, Bayswater Rivulet
Serpentine River
The Bourne, Westburn Brook
the Ranelagh River, the Ranelagh Sewer

The River Westbourne
1) Branch Hill

The River Westbourne sprang from many sources, with the highest of these at the top of Hampstead Heath. Not quite the very top, where sits the Whitestone Pond traffic island, because that's merely a shallow dew pond. It's named after the white milestone marking the entrance to Hampstead proper, and its waters were once used to give military horses somewhere to drink. Come 2012 the Olympic cycling road race will be passing this way, so Camden Council plan to spruce up the road junction with Yorkstone paving and safety-conscious white granite. So long as it's still possible to skate here when the pond ices over, I doubt that local residents will complain too much. [photo] [photo]

Beyond a busy road junction, on the southwestern flank of the surrounding slopes, that's where the headwaters of the Westbourne still gather. An unwooded tongue of grassland cuts into the escarpment, inclining gently towards a single row of Victorian villas [photo]. Normally no surface water is evident, but after heavy rain the sandy soil can become waterlogged with squelchy puddles underfoot [photo]. It's the only sign that there was once a medium-sized pond here, adjacent to the road, at the start of an invisible river.

Branch Hill Pond disappeared at the end of the 19th century, but lives on in the paintings of local resident John Constable. He didn't just paint Suffolk haycarts, oh no, he also loved the sprawling skies and contoured landscape of his adopted London home. One of Constable's 1820s canvases shows Branch Hill Pond as a silver disc surrounded by excavated sandy upland. Another depicts the tiny figure of a red-jerkinned boy, perched on a sunlit ridge above the pond, gazing downstream towards the undeveloped fields of the Westbourne valley.

It's steeply downhill for the first few hundred yards, once open fields, now woodland-shrouded low-rise apartments. Built in the mid 1970s Spedan Close was then the most expensive council housing in the country, every property with its own individual roof garden [photo]. Further downslope the houses are more expensive still, though private, in the leafy avenues of upper West Hampstead [photo]. Where Westbourne tributaries once merged, today the only water features are tinkling fountains and bubbling fishponds.
Following the Westbourne: Branch Hill, Heysham Lane, Redington Gardens, Heath Drive.

The River Westbourne
2) West Hampstead

One of the easiest ways to spot a lost river is to look out for an unexpected dip in the road. In this case Finchley Road (the busy A41) at the junction with Heath Drive, where there's a gentle but undeniable down-and-up gradient [photo]. A shallow hollow that could only have been created by a small stream over thousands of years, carving an indentation into the slope across which this six-lane highway now passes. The traffic barely notices, but any passing geomorphologist will surely nod sagely and drive on.

Locals named this Cannon's Stream because it trickled down Cannon's Hill (which still exists, but only as a slightly posh street name). At the foot of the hill the brook flowed behind the Cock and Hoop tavern and fed a small pond on West End Green. Both pub and pond are long since gone, replaced by mansion-style flats and a grey granite drinking fountain, but the runty green survives (these days as a little more than a pigeon magnet). [photo]

This is Hampstead's West End, originally a small hamlet to the south of Child's Hill, far distant from its internationally renowned namesake. Rural isolation ended abruptly in the mid 19th century with the arrival of three parallel London-bound railway lines. Rail bosses couldn't sustain naming their station "West End" for fear of confusion, and so the area slowly metamorphosed into modern "West Hampstead" instead. The path of the main Westbourne rivulet crosses all three lines to the west of all three stations, buried forever beneath iron rails and suburban terraces. Two further tributaries ran further east, below the far end of West End Lane, springing forth around the site of the old Frognal estate. Not until reaching Kilburn, a mile downstream, do all three braids come together.
Following the Westbourne: Cannon Hill, West End Green, West Cotts, Pandora Road, Sumatra Road, Maygrove Road, Loveridge Road, Iverson Road.

The River Westbourne
3) Kilburn

Kilburn Grange Park is one of those anonymous inner London recreation grounds where you'd go to recreate, but never to enjoy the view. It's got a children's play area, three tarmac tennis courts and a basketball space, plus an oval paddling pool that won't be borderline foot-dippable until the spring. There used to be a rather lovelier stream, long before the Municipal Borough of Willesden came along, long before any of the neighbouring streets bordering the High Road [photo] were laid out.

The first known inhabitant of Kilburn was a pious 12th century hermit named Godwyn, who hid out in the woods close to the spot where Watling Street was crossed by the Westbourne. The stream here was known variously as the Cuneburna, or Keleburne, or Kilbourne – from which the area eventually took its name. Godwyn's hermitage soon evolved into a nunnery, home to three royal maids of honour, with ownership passing to the Abbot of Westminster. One side of the convent was moated by the passing brook, which also fed a series of fish ponds. All proceeded swimmingly until the Dissolution, when on Henry VIII's orders the community was levelled.

Kilburn's prime location on a major road ensured later growth, with the efficacious springs of "Kilburn Wells" drawing spa-going crowds to the riverside Bell Inn during the 18th century. Some of the Priory's foundations were uncovered in the 1850s when the railway east of Kilburn High Road was widened. Discoveries included a selection of tessellated tiles, some ancient keys and a few disinterred bones. Other than these remnants, Kilburn Priory lives on only in the names of various local streets (Priory Road, Hermit Place, etc) [photo] and the title of a pub on the Belsize Road. [photo]

River-tracing is a little easier. Follow the contoured dip behind the High Road, past The Bird in Hand boozer (now closed) and along the appropriately named Spring Lane. The Westbourne then ran between two places of entertainment, one the Kilburn Empire Theatre (now a pig-ugly Marriott), the other the Maida Vale Picture House (now The Islamic Centre of England). For 150 years a tollgate barred the High Road here, assisted by the stream as a natural barrier. A proper-old well behind Kilburn Park station, in the middle of an unlikely council estate, is one final hint of the abundant waters that once drew spa-goers here in their thousands. [photo]
Following the Westbourne: Kilburn Grange Park, Messina Avenue, Kingsgate Road, Quex Road, Mutrix Road, West End Lane, Belsize Road, Spring Lane, Kilburn Priory, Kilburn High Road.

The River Westbourne
4) Maida Vale

From Kilburn the Westbourne dog-legged south through open farmland. Two hundred years ago its meadowed banks were lined by cattle-filled fields, with Kilburn Bridge Farm and Parsonage Farm providing dairy-based sustenance for London's growing population a few miles downstream. Arcadia didn't last. In the late 1850s the Westbourne was piped underground to create the Ranelagh sewer, allowing a tide of upmarket housing to engulf the area. This new district was named Maida Vale after a local pub – “The Hero of Maida” – itself named after a famous 1806 victory over the French.

Two broad avenues were built to follow the stream's former course, forming the cornerstone of the new estate. One's now Kilburn Park Road, the other Shirland Road, and the right-angled corner where they join was once the entry point of a tributary flowing down from Queen's Park. Kilburn Park Road marks the boundary between the boroughs of Brent and Westminster - a divide that made more sense when this extra-wide avenue was a watery brook. Shirland Road [photo] is a little narrower, and a little more desirable, and further from the council blocks that dominate the top of the hill. At the junction with Elgin Avenue a pronounced dip betrays the Westbourne's former course, with the riverside Warwick Farm Dairy a late Victorian reminder of the Vale's rural past. [photo]

Step into Fourteen Acres Field today and you'll find the BBC's Maida Vale Studios, built inside the shell of an Edwardian “Roller Skating Palace” [photo]. Only the rink's ornate doorways survive, topped off by white faux-marble carvings, each with a classical face staring out above the central arch [photo]. The building's more functional than glamorous inside, and far larger than it first appears. Studio 1 is one of the UK's largest recording spaces, home to the BBC Symphony Orchestra, and there are three other slightly lesser studios strung out alongside. The Beatles have recorded here, and various soon-to-be famous bands for John Peel sessions, and even I laid down a tape once with my school choir. If your band has similar aspirations, better hurry along fast before property developers knock the place flat.
Following the Westbourne: Oxford Road, Rudolf Road, Kilburn Park Road, Shirland Road, Formosa Street.

The River Westbourne
5) Westbourne Green

Westbourne Grove and Westbourne Park, mainstays of the Notting Hill Carnival Zone, sound precisely like the sort of place where the Westbourne might have flowed. But no, they're much too far west, and they're not even directly named after the river. The central section of this now-lost stream was originally known as the Bayswater Rivulet, and it formed the dividing line between the Manor of Paddington to the east and the Manor of Westbourne on the opposite bank. West of the river, Weste-burn, simple as that. And then the river got named after the parish to its west, becoming the Westbourne. It's all so delightfully historically circuitous.

In medieval times there were tiny settlements at both Westbourne Green and Paddington Green. Both hamlets were linked through rolling meadows by the Harrow Road, which crossed the stream via a single-arched brick bridge. A more direct footpath, called Bishop's Walk, ran across fields to the south via a footbridge much loved by local anglers.

Westbourne Green's genteel charm survived unperturbed until the arrival of the Paddington branch of the Grand Junction Canal in 1801 [photo]. Canals and perpendicular rivers don't mix, so the Westbourne was forced underneath this new artificial waterway, approximately where the footbridge west of Little Venice crosses over today [photo] [photo below ground]. Far more drastic were the tracks carved through the area in the 1830s by the Great Western Railway Company. Their steaming chasm divided the neighbourhood, severing the old footpath close to the terminus at Paddington station. This required construction of a considerably heftier span [photo], and soon humble Bishop's Walk had become bustling Bishop's Bridge Road.

As for Westbourne Green today, any resemblance to a preserved patch of medieval turf is purely illusory [photo]. That undulating patch of grass beside the Harrow Road was, as recently as the 1970s, one of the major building sites for the adjacent A40 Westway [photo]. Re-landscaping may have restored some semblance of rural charm for surrounding residents to enjoy, but in truth poor old Westbournia has been comprehensively despoiled.
Following the Westbourne: Regent's Canal, Lords Hill Road, Bourne Terrace, Westway, Royal Oak station, Porchester Terrace, Gloucester Terrace, Bishop's Bridge Road.

The River Westbourne
6) Bayswater

It's possible to trace the River Westbourne's path through Bayswater by spotting where the less well-off people live. Just south of Bishop's Bridge Road stands the Hallfield Estate, designed by Russian-born architect Berthold Lubetkin and erected shortly after the Second World War. Its fifteen stark blocks are in sharp contrast to acres of elegant terraces all around, but as a Modernist icon it's the Hallfield which has attained Conservation Area status [photo]. Housing association tenants are justly proud of their sunken concrete oasis, although few probably realise that one of London's lost rivers once flowed through the site.

From here, after a wiggle across upmarket Cleveland Square, the Westbourne takes the backwater route. Peer down between Craven and Gloucester Terraces [photo] and there's a cobbled row of compact mews houses [photo], and then another [photo], each with an appropriately streamy name. First Upbrook Mews, then Brook Mews North, each accessed down a steep-ish slope beneath a narrow arch [photo]. These reclusive enclaves might well be delightful places to live, but they can't be as expensive as the surrounding “great aristocratic town” because there's a 19th century sewer running directly underneath [photo].

Around the foot of Craven Hill, close to where Lancaster Gate station stands today, several fine quality springs once bubbled forth. In the 14th century thirsty horses plying the Uxbridge Road would stop here for a drink, and the spot became known as Bayard's Watering Place. The name has been corrupted over the years, by the 18th century to the hamlet of Bayswatering, and today to the better known suburb of Bayswater. [lots of very-local history]

For several centuries Bayswater's springs provided drinking water for folk living a lot further east. From a tank inside a circular stone hut, leaden pipes conveyed water towards Bond Street and then on as far as Cheapside and Cornhill. This feeder system lives on in the names Spring Street and Conduit Mews (just south of Paddington station). Bayswatering also boasted two riverside inns on the old Uxbridge Road – one to the east called The Crown (now the Royal Lancaster Gate Hotel), the other to the west called the Saracen's Head (now The Swan). Stare carefully at the steps alongside Elms Mews and the old meandering riverbank can still be seen.
Following the Westbourne: Hallfield Estate, Cleveland Square, Upbrook Mews, Brook Mews North, Elms Mews, Bayswater Road.

The River Westbourne
7) The Serpentine

Of all London's lost rivers, one glorious stretch of the Westbourne must be the most well known. It's the Serpentine through Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, and Londoners have two royal figures to thank for its creation.

It was Henry VIII who first sealed off Hyde Park in 1536 to create a royal hunting ground. Formerly under the ownership of the monks of Westminster Abbey, a fence prevented stocks of deer, wild boars and bulls from escaping the royal enclosure. Henry also ordered that the trickling Westbourne be dammed in a dozen or so places to create small ponds where deer might be lured to drink. Elsewhere grandstands were erected so that he could entertain nobles and visiting dignitaries with a day of not-exactly-challenging hunting, rounded off by a slap-up banquet in a temporary marquee. This was sporting corporate hospitality on a grand royal scale, and continued throughout the Tudor years.

Queen Caroline, wife of George II, had far grander plans. Under her guidance the entire Westbourne through the park was dammed to create an ornamental lake. Its sharp central curve was thought radical in 1730, with precise classical rectangles de rigeur, but fashionable estate owners across the country soon followed Caroline's less formal trend. The north end of her lake, below the pumping station and four Italianate fountains [photo], became the Long Water [photo]. Only the eastern half, beyond John Rennie's five-arched road bridge, is officially the Serpentine [photo] [photo]

100 years later, with the creation of residential estates in Bayswater and beyond, the Westbourne's waters eventually became more sewage than sparkling. The upstream link was cut and the river's flow diverted down a parallel pipe along the lakeside. Today's Lido swimmers and pedalboat rowers are therefore likely to bump into nothing more unpleasant than an angry swan.
Following the Westbourne: Marlborough Gate, Italian gardens, Edward Jenner memorial, The Long Water, Peter Pan statue, West Carriage Drive bridge, the Serpentine, Diana Princess of Wales memorial fountain [photo, full] [photo, empty], Serpentine Lido, site of the Great Exhibition and Crystal Palace (1851).

The River Westbourne
8) Tyburn Brook

London used to have two Tyburn rivers. The main river ran from Hampstead to Westminster, and I'll be covering that in copious detail later in the year. And then there was the Tyburn Brook, a minor stream entirely unconnected to its namesake, and which trickled unassumingly through Hyde Park. Which makes it a tributary of the Westbourne, and that's why I'm following it here.

There used to be a village called Tyburn, recorded in the Domesday Book, set in fields around the junction of two Roman Roads - Edgware Road and Oxford Street. The village green was long used as a place of execution, and gained notoriety in 1571 when a three-legged mega-gallows was erected in the middle of the roadway. For two centuries vengeful Londoners flocked here to enjoy a good hanging, with unfortunate prisoners carted through the streets from Newgate Prison to satisfy the baying crowds. Civilisation's come a long way since. The road junction's still murderous, now part of the Marble Arch gyratory, and a plaque in the middle of a pedestrian traffic island now marks the spot where the Tyburn Tree bore blood-red fruit. [photo]

The Tyburn Brook rose nearby, close to Tony Blair's house in Connaught Square. I would have taken a photo of the ex-PM's gaff, except that both his front and back doors appear to host permanent police presences, and so attempting a snap seemed somewhat unwise. Neither was it possible to take photos of St George's Fields, an ultra-exclusive ziggurat-style housing development named after the public burial ground it replaced. But I did manage to capture a shot of the Tyburn Convent [photo], a unique reverential hideaway where 24 reclusive nuns still pray daily for the souls of those who lost their lives on the nearby gallows (especially Catholic 'martyrs'). There are far quieter spots in central London, but few more peaceful.

Across the road, in Hyde Park, a gentle dip in the grassy plain reveals the course of the Tyburn Brook [photo]. Somehow it's still there, obvious only if you're deliberately looking, and leading downslope into the trees where joggers jog and unleashed dogs play. A few more clues survive - an old iron water pump in the middle of nowhere [photo], and some damp patches in the grass even when it's not rained for a while. And then it's only a few hundred more yards (past the Old Police House and the Norwegian Memorial Stone) down to the Serpentine, where the Tyburn Brook emptied into the Serpentine. Who'd ever guess?
Following the Tyburn Brook: Connaught Square, St George's Fields, Tyburn Convent, Bayswater Road, North Carriage Drive, Upper Parkland, Lower Parkland, Serpentine Road.

The River Westbourne
9) Knightsbridge

In the undergrowth at the eastern end of the Serpentine, at the Knightsbridge end of Hyde Park, stands a lone stone urn on a plinth [photo]. It's a memorial to Queen Caroline, the Hanoverian lake-dammer, without whom Hyde Park would have been just another big royal park without a water feature. A second urn-on-a-plinth [photo], more visible but less ornate, reminds passers-by of the Westbourne's even longer legacy: "A supply of water by conduit from this spot was granted to the Abbey of Westminster with the Manor of Hyde by King Edward The Confessor." From bubbling spring to monk's goblet, these piped waters helped medieval London to grow and to thrive.

Here too is the closest the Westbourne comes to resembling a genuine river. Caroline's lake was designed with an eastern sluice gate [photo], through which the old river used to depart, and which still exists alongside the outside catering deck of The Serpentine Bar & Kitchen. But the waterfall beyond the sluice isn't original [photo], nor the sub-tropical Dell below, they're a rather more recent environmental project. And there's no escape. The Serpentine's outfall merely churns through these bowery water gardens for a few over-landscaped metres before being recycled back into the lake. [photo] [photo]

Previously the Westbourne used to flow beneath Rotten Row [photo], Hyde Park's arterial bridleway, before exiting the greenspace towards Knightsbridge. You may not previously have realised, but this most exclusive of London neighbourhoods owes its name to a crossing over the River Westbourne. There’s conflicting evidence as to whether the name started out as "Kyngesbrigg” or "Knightsbrigg" - the former because the bridge was once owned by Edward the Confessor, the latter because two medieval knights are said to have duelled to their deaths on a bridge above the stream.

The original stone bridge survived for many centuries conveying travellers on the main road between Westminster and Kensington. Sometimes the river was much harder to cross, as for example in 1809 when flooding was so widespread that “foot-passengers were for several days rowed from Chelsea by Thames boatmen." The old Knight's Bridge, two brookside taverns and the river itself were swallowed up in the 1840s during the construction of Albert Gate. These two classical Palazzo-style blocks, one on each former riverbank, are now the French and Kuwaiti embassies. More recent neighbouring developments are less architecturally sympathetic, as Knightsbridge flaunts its global wealth in high rise ugliness. [photo]
Following the Westbourne: The Serpentine, The Dell, Rotten Row, South Carriage Drive, Albert Gate, Knightsbridge, William Street.

The River Westbourne
10) Belgravia

London doesn't get much more exclusive than Belgravia. An enclave of luxury mansions and mews houses owned by the rich and internationally loaded. An embassy-packed precinct where the local corner shop is Harvey Nicks. Somewhere TfL don't bother routing buses because nobody would want to catch one. And yet 200 years ago this was a swampy wasteland known as the Five Fields, inhabited only by sheep, farmers and the occasional ne'er-do-well, on the banks of an unloved river.

Everything changed in the 1820s when landowner Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster, hired Thomas Cubitt to build an extensive aristocratic estate. The stinky Westbourne had to go, entombed in pipework as the Ranelagh Sewer, which immediately improved both above-ground ambience and property-sales potential. A fashionable suburb soon erupted, and Belgravia's never looked back.

Tracing the Westbourne's former path is incredibly easy here, so long as you have a map. Kensington and Westminster have long been officially divided by this ancient stream, and the border between the two London boroughs still follows almost exactly the same meandering path to this day. Along the edge of Lowndes Square (which in reality is a long thin oblongy non-square, and very posh). Fording across the gyratory flowerbed in Lowndes Street [photo] (a nucleus for uber-upmarket boutiques and eateries, plus possibly the most ostentatious Waitrose in the country). Along Chesham Place [photo] (past umpteen expensively-brief personalised numberplates). And round the corner into West Eaton Place (through a canyon of towering white stucco terraces) [photo]. Keep the Westminster street nameplates on your left, and the Kensington & Chelsea street nameplates on your right, and you'll not go far wrong.
Following the Westbourne: Lowndes Square, Lowndes Street, Chesham Place, Chesham Street, Cadogan Lane, West Eaton Place, Eaton Terrace.

The River Westbourne
11) Sloane Square

Hang on, we'll be at that tube station any minute. First we have to follow the Westbourne out of Belgravia and across Cliveden Place. This was part of the main road down to Chelsea, and the old river flowed beneath at a lonely span nicknamed Bloody Bridge. The name may come from an incident in 1748 when four upstanding gentlemen were attacked and robbed by two highwaymen in the immediate vicinity, or that may just be an old husband's tale. An alternative name for this 12-foot-wide crossing was Blandel Bridge, and the Victorian office block which now inhabits the site is known as Blandel Bridge House. [photo]

OK, here we are at last at Sloane Square tube station, a District line halt with a secret. Look up while standing on either platform, approximately at the foot of the stairs down from the ticket hall, and you'll see a thick black pipe passing overhead [photo]. Looks innocuous enough, but this nine-foot diameter tube is actually a Victorian sewer which carries what's left of the River Westbourne. [photo] [photo]

The stream's foul-smelling waters were finally confined to underground pipes - the Ranelagh sewer - in the mid 1850s. A decade later the District line was carved through Belgravia in cut and cover tunnel, only slightly deeper than the sewer, which lead to a spot of awkward engineering at Sloane Square. The original brickwork had to be replaced by a cast iron pipe, stretching seventy feet across the station chasm at an angle of 48°, and a complex series of trestles and girders ensured that West London's slurry continued to flow during construction. Not even a near direct hit by a German bomb in 1940 (destroying the ticket hall and killing 79 train passengers) caused any serious damage.

If you don't fancy forking out to pass through the ticket barriers, it's (just about) possible to view Sloane Square's legendary aqueduct from outside. Head round the back of the station into Bourne Street (named after you know what) and look for the gap in the terrace next to number 79. The view's not great because it's through two sets of railings, but the storm drain's metal weathershield can be readily discerned between the two platform canopies below [photo]. Alternatively head up the road to Skinner Place, a stumpy side alley which ends abruptly above the westbound tracks. You'll have to be tall to peer over the wall of the final front garden on the left, and take care not to arouse the suspicions of residents peering out of their windows, but that's most definitely the entombed Westbourne you can see down there piping across the tracks.
Following the Westbourne: Cliveden Place, Sloane Square, Bourne Street, Skinner Place.

The River Westbourne
12) Chelsea

Nearly there. From Sloane Square the Westbourne's lower course followed the approximate line of Holbein Place before crossing Grosvenor Row (now Pimlico Road) and continuing via a giant dog-leg down to the Thames. Once the boundary of London's premier Pleasure Gardens (of which more later), this dog-leg is now lost forever beneath the site of the old Chelsea Barracks. Once occupied by a few hundred soldiers, the Government's 2005 decision to release the land for housing unwittingly kickstarted a right royal planning battle. Too-modern plans to build a cluster of steel/glass towers were silently scuppered by Prince Charles, and so an obsequious masterplanning process is now underway to try to develop an acceptable replacement. Black-branded barriers shield the demolished site from view, but it's possible to peer in through the old security gate and catch sight of the Garrison Chapel (still standing, but threatened) and two extant tower blocks (ugly, empty, doomed). [photo]

Don't be distracted by the tidal inlet at Grosvenor Waterside, an ultra-modern development to the east of Chelsea Bridge [photo]. The central water feature is part of an artificial 19th century waterway, the Grosvenor Canal, and never part of any lost London river. Instead the Westbourne's final few hundred metres ran southwestwards, across what's now tree-lined Chelsea Bridge Road [photo], and into the grounds of the Ranelagh Gardens. For the second half of the 18th century this was the place for London's burgeoning high society to be entertained. Centrepiece of the ornamental gardens was the Rotunda - a rococo cylindrical concert hall to which audiences flocked and in which a prodigious young Mozart once played. But fashionable glory proved ultimately unsustainable, and in 1803 the Rotunda fell silent and the surrounding pleasure park closed down.

Ranelagh Gardens were ultimately remodelled, and exist today as part of the grounds of Chelsea's Royal Hospital [photo]. They may look fenced-off and private, but daily public access is generally permitted. Except during the annual Chelsea Flower Show, that is, when Britain's horticultural epicentre relocates here and echoes of the site's former glory days reverberate [photo]. The Westbourne flowed across the extreme southeastern corner of the present gardens, entering the Thames at a pleasingly oblique angle close to the Bull Ring Gate. That's just to the east of the coach-turning circle, if you're trying to locate it today, and several feet inland because the Chelsea Embankment hadn't been built in those days. But better to find ten spare minutes to trot across Chelsea Bridge to Battersea Park, from whose riverside terrace the Ranelagh Sewer outfall is clearly visible. A gloomy brick-arched portal, dribbling forth across exposed mudflats, marks the final splash of the Westbourne's seven-mile journey downstream from Hampstead. [photo] [photo]
Following the Westbourne: Holbein Place, Pimlico Road, Chelsea Barracks, Chelsea Bridge Road, Ranelagh Gardens, Royal Hospital Gardens, Chelsea Embankment.

www.flickr.com: my Westbourne gallery
60 photos altogether

An approximate map of the River Westbourne's course
My River Westbourne print-it-out pdf (woo, yay)

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greenwich meridian
tower hamlets history
the real albert square
docklands development

ten london transport links
future transport projects
clive's tube line guides
london underground
abandoned stations
various tube maps
london bus routes
london bus maps
disused stations
london walks