Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Counter's Creek
An overview

Counter's Creek, named after a medieval bridge over Kensington High Street, ran for four miles in an almost straight line from Kensal Green to the Thames at Chelsea. It may have been a relatively insignificant stream in its day, but its course has left a lasting legacy across West London.

View Counter's Creek on a Google map

The river's first transformation was from natural stream to artificial channel. In 1827 the speculative Kensington Canal was built along the alignment of Counter’s Creek between Kensington High Street and Battersea Reach. The canal rapidly proved highly unprofitable and so was sold off to a railway company, who built an equally unprofitable line up the valley to link Kensington Docks with Willesden.

More about...
The Kensington Canal (proper historical facts)
The Kensington Canal (modern description with photos)

The river's second transformation was from canal to railway. In 1863 the Kensington Canal was filled in with ballast and then tracks were laid on top, allowing the West London Railway to run connecting services between Willesden and Clapham. This line was a success, and lives on today as part of the London Overground network. Catch any train from Shepherd's Bush to Imperial Wharf and the modern journey mirrors the old river bed.

More about...
West London Railway (Wikipedia)
West London line (abandoned stations)
West London line history (at Subterranea Britannica)
London Overground maps (including Willesden Junction → Clapham Junction)

The original line of Counter's Creek still forms much of the boundary between the boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham to the west and Kensington and Chelsea to the east. Its waters may long have been diverted down an unseen sewer, but the creek's path can still be traced with relative ease.

More about...
Map showing border of Hammersmith and Fulham (river formed eastern boundary)
Thames Water plans for Counters Creek Sewer Flood relief
Flooding Alleviation plan (public presentation, with maps) (pdf)

Counters Creek
1) Kensal Green Cemetery

Counter’s Creek arose from springs beneath Kensal Green, on gentle slopes just to the south of the Harrow Road. Before the 19th century there was little here but farmland, then in 1801 the Paddington Arm of the Grand Junction Canal carved through from west to east, severing the headwaters of the fledgling brook. [photo]

It was on this unforgiving clay soil, sandwiched between the road and the canal, that London's first garden cemetery was established in the early 1830s. The General Cemetery of All Souls, Kensal Green was created as a peaceful final resting place for well-to-do Londoners, and was inspired by a visit to Père-Lachaise in Paris.

Over a quarter of a million Londoners have been buried here over the years [photo], and the grounds are littered with monuments, mausoleums and semi-toppled gravestones. Notable internees include engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles "Mr Computer" Babbage and the novelist Wilkie Collins.

Kensal Green is only the first of London's "Magnificent 7" Victorian cemeteries to lie along the former banks of Counter's Creek. But the ridges and valleys visible here today aren't river-worn, they’re nothing more than funereal landscaping. [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: If it wasn't for the canal, it would be really easy to follow the river's path south from the cemetery. The canal and the railway, that is. It's easy to follow on a map, you simply follow the borough boundary, but in real life the canal and the railway get in the way. Instead you have to hope that the gate out of the cemetery into Scrubs Lane is unlocked, then turn south through light industrial nothingness. A hop across Mitre Bridge, bypassing a railway maintenance depot, then duck back under the viaduct towards Little Wormwood Scrubs. All told it's a one mile detour. The river had it easy.

Counters Creek
2) Little Wormwood Scrubs

Wormwood Scrubs, for centuries a single expanse of unfertile upland, was divided into two unequal chunks by the coming of the railways. The larger western section gained notoriety through construction of a Victorian prison, while the severed eastern 10% became the lesser-known Little Wormwood Scrubs.

Counter's Creek once ran in a rivulet along the eastern perimeter of Little Wormwood Scrubs, with the line of the river marking the parish boundary between Kensington and Hammersmith. In the late 19th century several estates sprang up on the Kensington side, and residents soon came to rely on the Scrubs for their recreation.

In 1892 the Metropolitan Board of Works decided that a "portion of the brook on the eastern boundary should be widened and kept full by means of weirs and that a gravel walk should be formed alongside with a plantation for shade". The river became a purely ornamental feature, fenced off behind iron railings, for viewing only.

Persistent drainage issues arose, which led to the channel being concreted in 1924 and ultimately covered over. Little Wormwood Scrubs feels distinctly less ornamental today, and only a meander in the concrete footpath survives as a hint to its secret past. [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: From Little Wormwood Scrubs, unlikely as it sounds, head south towards the North Pole [photo]. That's a pub on the eponymous North Pole Road, where there used to be a station but now there isn't. Counter's Creek ran roughly parallel to Latimer Road, which used to be an important thoroughfare but no longer has the traffic to justify its width. Severed in its prime by a much larger road, it no longer reaches as far as the H&C tube station to which it gives its name.

Counters Creek
3) West Cross Route

Not content with burial beneath a canal and then a railway, almost the entire length of Counter's Creek might have disappeared beneath a motorway had post-war planners had their way.

The West Cross Route was to be one small part of a major orbital road system for London called Ringway 1. This western link would have joined Willesden Junction to the Chelsea Embankment via an eight lane motorway. Plans show the intended route hugging the existing West London railway, in places running directly above the tracks on a concrete viaduct.

Unfortunately for motorists, but fortunately for owners of the many properties that would otherwise have been demolished, only one short section of the West Cross Route was ever built. This was the M41 linking the White City and Holland Park roundabouts – much as Counter's Creek once did except more direct and rather faster.

Public outcry following construction of the neighbouring Westway led to the remainder of the Ringway plan being permanently shelved in 1973. Today only two stumpy concrete spurs off the White City roundabout, directly above the river's former course, survive as evidence of the former motorway's elevated northward threat. [photo] [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: The space under the Westway, where the river once ran, is now taken up by the Westway Sports Centre. A marvellous example of communal ingenuity, its sports hall, climbing wall and basketball courts are squeezed within and beneath the centre of a giant roundabout. There's even a 'fives' court, which feels terribly snooty for the children of a hapless housing estate, but has been provided by a long-standing charitable outreach project initiated by Harrow School. As for the Westway stables, who now run riding lessons beneath the A40 [photo], this is where Steptoe and Son used to be filmed. BBC Television Centre is but a brief clip-clop away.

Counters Creek
4) Holland Park

Holland Park could never have become one of London's most desirable neighbourhoods had Counter's Creek remained visible. Upper classes homeowners would never have tolerated a smelly rubbish-strewn stream as their main form of waste disposal, so the area's transformation from rural estate to residential development rested on the construction of an expensive sewer.

Landowner Lord Holland seized his chance when the West London Railway asked to lay tracks across the west of his estate, granting passage subject to the burial of Counter's Creek. A deal was struck in 1838, and one mile of river duly vanished. Two major housing developments sprang forth – the Norland and Holland Estates.

The new sewer followed St Ann's Road southwards, then carved through a gap in the splendid stuccoed arc of Royal Crescent [photo]. From here it continued downhill via Holland Villas Road – a street still hugely aspirational even by Holland Park standards.

The river may now flow out of sight, but basement inundation remains an ever-present risk. In the sodden summer of 2007, for example, particularly heavy rainfall caused Counter's Creek sewer to overflow and more than 450 local properties were flooded.

Following Counter's Creek: To trace the river south from the Westway, stick to the east side of the dual carriageway. Not the side where the mega Westfield shopping centre is [photo], but the opposite residential flank [photo]. Here highrise council estates cosy up against uber-affluent Notting Hill, with Counter's Creek forming the stark boundary between the two. Once past the Holland Park roundabout, your best bet for following the river's course is to hop on a train. [photo] [photo]

Counters Creek
5) Counter's Bridge

At the far end of Kensington High Street, on the main road to Hammersmith and all points west, is the location of the medieval bridge that gave Counter's Creek its name.

It's fortunate that the river wasn't named too early. During the 15th century this crossing was known successively as Contessesbregge, Contassebregge, Cuntassebregge and Countesbregge – at least one of which might have proved terminally embarrassing in later years. The noblewoman to whom the bridge refers is thought to be Matilda, Countess of Oxford, then in residence at Earl's Court.

The view north from the modern bridge is dominated by the iron and glass covered halls of the Olympia exhibition centre [photo]. The first and largest of these was erected in 1886 as the National Agricultural Hall, although the space within was soon taken over by less pastoral exploits such as the Motor Show and Ideal Home Show.

And that's no stream down there, that's the old West London Railway exploiting the creek's former course. The cutting may be considerably wider than the brook here ever was, but the entire line remains an under-served backwater, with sporadic services up and downriver to nowhere terribly exciting. [photo] [photo]

Counters Creek
6) Kensington Canal Lock

In the early 18th century, at the height of canal mania, it seemed like a good idea to transform the lower two miles of Counter's Creek into "a Canal for the Navigation of Boats, Barges and other Vessels." The perfect route, so shareholders hoped, for transferring cargo inland from the Thames. Thus was the Kensington Canal created, linking Chelsea to a new dock basin just south of Counter's Bridge.

The canal opened with a flourish in 1828, but it led nowhere useful and traffic soon proved 'very limited'. Eleven locks would have been needed to extend the navigation north to the Grand Junction Canal, but no further investment was forthcoming. It wasn't long before the entire canal was sold off to the West London Railway and most of the waterway disappeared beneath its tracks. Limited trade continued on a short stretch south of the King’s Road, delivering coal to the Imperial Gas Light and Coke Company, with the last barge running in 1967.

The dock basin disappeared beneath a Homebase store in the 1990s, leaving a boarded-up lock-keepers cottage as the last surviving remnant of the Kensington Canal. Alas the arrival of a Tesco hypermarket on the West Cromwell Road sealed its fate and, despite considerable local opposition, the cottage was demolished in 1998 to make way for a particularly unattractive multi-storey car park. [photo]

Counters Creek
7) Earl's Court

In the early 19th century the site of the future Earl's Court Exhibition Centre was an unremarkable patch of market gardens on the banks of Counter's Creek. A trio of railway lines sealed its fate. One was the West London Railway, built along the line of the river. The other two belonged to the Metropolitan and District Railways, which bifurcated to the west of Earl's Court station hemming in a triangle of unwanted wasteland.

The triangle's potential was recognised by showman John Robinson Whitley who hired the site in 1887 to host an American-themed exhibition. His star turn was the Buffalo Bill Roughriders and Redskin Show, a Wild West spectacle which drew large crowds including Queen Victoria and William Gladstone. Further exhibitions followed and an extended entertainment park was created, but interest slowly waned and all were shut down during WW1 to make way for a Belgian refugee camp.

The present triangular exhibition hall dates back to 1937 [photo] [photo]. It was one of the largest reinforced concrete structures of its day and conceals an Olympic-sized swimming pool at its heart. A second major hall, the barrel-roofed Earl's Court Two, was constructed alongside in 1991. It stands directly above West London Railway tracks and boasts Europe's largest unsupported roof span. [photo]

Counters Creek
8) Lillie Bridge

Bridges were plentiful in the lower reaches of Counter's Creek. Lillie Bridge was built to carry the Old Brompton Road across the stream [photo], and still gives its name to the railway depot west of Earl's Court station.

Peer over the edge of platform 4 at West Brompton station and you might still see what looks like Counter's Creek disappearing into a big pipe alongside the railway. It's not the genuine article alas, merely a water feature in a council-run wildlife garden, although it does serve as drainage almost precisely where the old river ran. [photo]

A few yards up the slope is the site of Lillie Bridge Athletic Ground whose sporting star shone briefly but brightly in the late 19th century. The arena's greatest claim to fame, long forgotten except by pub quiz afficionados, is that Lillie Bridge hosted the second ever FA Cup Final. Battersea-based Wanderers retained the trophy here in 1873 by defeating challengers Oxford University two-nil.

On the opposite side of the station, with the railway shielded behind a high brick wall, lie the formal avenues of Brompton Cemetery [photo]. This outstanding Victorian burial ground was laid out on water meadows in the 1830s, shortly after Kensal Green upstream, and is filled with characterful monuments surrounding a central colonnade. [photo] [photo]

Counters Creek
9) Stamford Bridge

Chelsea's top flight football ground derives its name from a bridge over one of London's lost rivers. [photo]

This lowly span, now barely noticeable as a mild hump in the Fulham Road over a railway line, has had many names over the years [photo]. In the 15th century it was Samfordesbrigge, meaning the bridge at the sandy ford. 18th century locals knew it briefly as Little Chelsea Bridge, while an 1827 map gives the name as Sandford's Bridge. Further evolution (maybe confusion with Stanley Bridge to the south) nudged Sandford to Stanford, after which there was only one slipped consonant to go.

By the time Chelsea Football Club was established on an adjacent athletics ground in 1905, the locality was most definitely Stamford Bridge. Early supporters cheered from the single East Stand [photo], or else perched themselves atop terraces constructed from earth excavated during construction of the Piccadilly line.

Numerous upgrades have boosted the ground's capacity since, but no amount of Russian roubles can shift the stadium into Chelsea proper. The borough boundary persists along the line of Counter's Creek, ironically leaving Chelsea F.C stranded a few yards into neighbouring Hammersmith and Fulham. [photo]

Counters Creek
10) Chelsea Creek

Counter's Creek used to flow south into the Thames at Battersea Reach, but construction of the Kensington Canal diverted its last few hundred yards eastward along an artificial tidal waterway known as Chelsea Creek. The water here was only deep enough to be navigable at high tide, and this impractical oversight is one of the main reasons why the canal failed to make any money.

As recently as the early 1990s it was still possible to trace the old canal back as far as the King's Road, but a council highways depot now covers this part of the filled-in channel. [photo]

The inland tip of Chelsea Creek now lies in a muddy tree-lined basin [photo], conveniently shielded out of sight from the luxury apartment complex at Chelsea Harbour. A steady stream of taxis crawls across the creek's only bridge, helping the isolated Thames-side residents to escape to somewhere more convenient.

The mouth of Chelsea Creek is best viewed from St Mary's Church on the Battersea shoreline, with the twin chimney stacks of the former Lots Road Power Station standing as an imposing backdrop. [photo] [photo]

Following Counter's Creek: The last few hundred yards of Chelsea Creek are accessible only by boat. Lots Road Power Station flanks one bank, currently with most of its roof off as the interior is rejigged for flats. On the opposite shore a former warehouse [before] has recently been reduced to a pile of rubble [after], opening up the view, and no doubt this site is destined for apartments too. The Chelsea Harbour development looks like it was attempting to be St Katherine's Dock but forgot to include a dash of character. The architecture's dated terribly in 20 years, and I can only assume the flats look somewhat more desirable on the inside. The site boasts a central marina where over-successful people moor their yachts [photo], and also a Design Centre which is the deadest shopping mall I've ever seen on a Saturday. Riverside living isn't all it's cut out to be.

www.flickr.com: my Counters Creek gallery
36 photos altogether

View Counter's Creek on a Google map

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