WALK/TRESPASS THE NEW RIVER PATH
North London’s New River was built between 1609 and 1613, in an attempt to alleviate, but also to cash in on, the shortage of water in the City of London. This trespassing walk down the New River follows on from this short history of the building of the River and the profit motives and moral/immoral economies that the River subverted and helped to create. Ideally, this walk should be done with this history in mind.
The New River path runs most of the way along the old New River course… though much of the actual bank is shut off to you and me. Some of this exclusion has no reason at all – one stretch is open and then the next is not. The path is NOT a right of way – it clearly states on every notice that we are allowed to walk there, by kind permission of the landowner, Thames Water. By kind permission means they can withdraw it.
But we think water should be free, like all necessities… and also think that pathways ands open spaces should be free. All titles to land derive originally from someone seizing it by force, way back when, and saying it’s theirs. We aren’t even saying we just want old rights of way or commons opened, we want it all opened up; based not on some ancient rights, but on a program of a world shared, for all, for free, not for profit.
These days, the River and its banks are ‘owned’ by Thames Water. They often lease sections to the relevant local authority.
Much of the New River path is now open, thanks largely to the campaigning done in the 1980s and ’90s by the New River Action Group. For some reason, though, large stretches are locked off to you and me still; as to why, it’s not clear. I don’t think they suspect us of being mad catholic saboteurs from the seventeenth century (see the earlier post on the New River) – sometimes they shut off bits for maintenance, but mainly they lock gates because they can. The river path is not a ‘right of way’. Interestingly, many struggles around access to walking land outside cities over the last few decades have involved trying to force water companies – some of the largest landowners in the country – to open up paths for people to wander. So maybe we should be pushing for the remaining stretches of the New River to be “freed like conduit water…”
Otherwise, if you actually want to follow the New River as it really flows, you may have to do a little trespassing… Obviously this is up to the reader, and we are not, of course, advising you to jump over fences or gates. All the following descriptions are merely for informational purposes.
Any prospective trespasser on the New River would be breaking civil law, it’s Thames Water’s land, and for quite a lot of its length they have locked the gates to prevent access. So you would have to do some climbing and jumping, though nothing higher than eight feet, and usually there are footholds. Any prospective explorer would probably be best advised to wait until no-one is passing by, so they can’t see you jumping in, but bear in mind people in neighbouring houses, cars etc may spot you. Some would suggest going dressed like a workman, hi-visibility jacket, boots, a hard hat, tools or a clipboard even so it looks like you’re doing some work or surveying. You wouldn’t need to do any criminal damage to get to any of the River, which of course would be highly illegal anyway.
A trespasser spotted by a civilian could bullshit that they’re working and move off casually – something like “forgot the key” etc might work, if you’re actually caught halfway over a fence. Common sense might help too – some times of day are better than others, some days are better, as there’s less people around; though on the flipside some stretches are busier in the week, and others are busier at the weekend.
If you’re caught by Thames Water workers, it’s probably best to ‘fess up and plead nerdy interest in the River, and try to get them to let you go. Same with the police really, though workers might be more lenient than cops. Bear in mind that like most workers, many Thames Water employees have low regard for their employers, so some genial chat about how you can’t understand why the gates are locked, you’re not doing any harm, maybe try to bond with them against the ‘system’. Can’t hurt to try.
Trespass is generally a civil offence, unless you commit some criminal damage getting in or while you’re in; or someone thinks you have other motives like vandalism, slipping LSD into the water, breaking and entering etc. But the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 provides that anyone trespassing on land in order to intimidate someone engaged in a lawful activity or to disrupt a lawful activity on land is committing the offence of ‘aggravated trespass’. It is also an offence to ignore the directions of a uniformed police officer to leave the land, when the officer believes that the person is committing or is about to commit aggravated trespass.
If the cops come and you are arrested, you are entitled to a phone call, get someone to call you a decent solicitor, and don’t let the cops interview you without them present. A good solicitor should advise you to say nothing in any interview. If you are planning to trespass it might be worth letting a reliable friend know in advance and both of you have a good local solicitor’s number.
Some gates may be locked some of the time, not at others; so some of the information that follows may be redundant if you can just walk in.
We have started at where the River enters greater London… This is admittedly arbitrary, and we’ll get round to the earlier section between Amwell and Enfield another time…
We are interested in the history and geography of the spaces we inhabit, the past present and future of our city. We have included here many digressions to sites that are interesting to us, usually because they are areas of contention, between money and power on one side, and people trying to survive, improve their lives, or create alternative ways of living on the other. We hope that readers are interested in these diversions, but make no apology if they’re not – a walk isn’t just a walk, the New River isn’t just a waterway, it flows through this society, with all its divisions base on class, sex, race, power, wealth, work, bigotry… and through history, a process of struggle between the powerful and the dispossessed… We haven’t covered anything like the full history of the areas that bank on the River, how could we? – though the more, the better, really…
For this walk, you can start at Enfield Chase Station, or at Enfield Town Station, both national rail stations…
If you start at Enfield Town:
Come out of the station onto Southbury Road, turn left and walk along to the junction of Silver Street, cross the road here;
If you arrive via Enfield Chase:
Turn right and walk east down Windmill hill, Church Street, and the Town, to the corner of Silver Street.
If you then walk north up the west side of Silver Street, up to the entrance to Portcullis Lodge Road, you hit the New River, or at least the ‘old course’ – the loop that runs on the surface around Enfield town.
Walk down this section along side the road that leads to the car park at the end.
Here is where you face your first diversionary dilemma. The river now cuts north then west through the playgrounds of the Enfield grammar School. If you’re not up for trespassing through their land, you have to retrace your steps to Silver Street, turn left up Baker Street, and next right down Parsonage Lane. You can get back onto the River path on this road, opposite Monastery Gardens. It’s then a fairly straightforward walk around the Enfield loop of the River.
However, if you feel like a fleeting glimpse of the school’s grounds, there are two ways in from the Portcullis Lodge Road car park. There’s a black gate at the northwest corner, which you can swing around over the river, although it wasn’t even locked when I went by (on a weekday). You can then follow the River around, but have a look to see if there are people using the fields, and then decide – the pupils use the various fields at different times. If you don’t want to be spotted, a weekend might be better.
You can climb out either at the locked gate where Parsonage Gardens, the River and Pennyfather Lane meet, or at the other end of Pennyfather Lane over a gate.
From here, follow the River path around the side of the Crown & Horseshoes pub, and onto River View, with its private bridge over the River to a lovely little cottage here. The River runs down to Church Street through some attractive green space, sports grounds, Chase Green, a remainder of the old large open common land that was once Enfield Chase.
An old map of Enfield Chase
Enfield Chase was an ancient royal hunting ground. Its many acres comprised arable and grazing land as well as a deer park and over the years legal agreements with tenants of the royal estate had granted rights of common such as grazing and wood collecting, which were of great importance to the local economy in an area with a very high rate of poverty, not that such rights benefited the very poor, who were unlikely to be commoners paying rents and taxes. The Chase was surrounded by villages and hamlets; Edmonton and Tottenham were close by and the largest was Enfield. There were also estates, manors and farms as well as large mansions and lodges. Small rural communities existed at South Mimms, Hadley, Potters Bar and along the road from Southgate to Cockfosters. Barnet provided the nearest significant town although London was only a day away.
Like most open spaces, Enfield Chase was the theatre for struggles between rich and poor, landowner and landless.
There were constant battles over enclosure, access to resources like wood and grazing rights, and poaching here for centuries. Enclosure quarrels in Enfield provoked a petition in 1575 and riots in 1549, 1589, 1603, 1649 and 1659.
In 1649, there were riots on the Chase, against landlord’s enclosing woods here, which were vital to survival by the local poor. Enclosures gradually fenced off open land and forest from most people, which destroyed the subsistence economy many relied on; a vital part of capitalism’s rise in Britain.
Around 1650 groups appeared in both Barnet and Enfield, who sympathised with the Diggers or True Levellers, communists who were occupying open land in Surrey and working it in common in defiance of landowners. Small groups began digging up common land for squatter communes. Such communities, although very small, were were made up from the very poor and thus represented a threat to social order and local tradition. Many Diggers were apparently from squatting families who had come to the Chase during the English Civil War and just after. They may even have had had a blind eye turned to them by Parliament, hoping to disrupt traditionalist opponents of the new regime. Either way, rioting certainly occurred during the Digger occupancy although we do not know if Diggers were involved with the disturbances. It is quite likely they were as local patience ran out. Accused of killing deer and of assault, fifteen men, including a furrier, cordwainer, weaver, butcher and group of labourers, were indicted for the disturbances. These men were almost certainly recently discharged soldiers as all had access to firearms; they also represented the poorest of the area.
In 1659, there were more anti enclosure riots. Commoners levelled barns, burned fences on land sold to speculators, and led cattle into corn. This led to a pitched battle with militia.
In 1666, there were rumours of an alleged Fifth monarchist conspiracy here and in Epping Forest. The Fifth Monarchists were defeated Civil War millenarians, big in the 1650s, sort of part old testament, part anarchist, who had been driven underground, and plotted revolt and restoration of a republic into the 1670s.
Fifth monarchists rebel
Writing to his friend Francis Manley, in 1666, Henry Eyton mentions his fears regarding the Fifth monarchists, the “… restless enemy amongst us … I mean the whole fanatic party, the head of which serpent lies in and near London especially upon the confines of Essex and Hertfordshire … taking either side of the Ware river from Edmonton down to Ware and particularly those retired places of Epping Forest and Enfield Chase … About the road near Theobalds there is a crew of them lie concealed … that should there be the least commotion in London we should find to our cost that they would be too ready to second it.”
Whether there was much truth to this fear, it’s worth noting forests has long given shelter to outlaws and political dissidents.
About a hundred squatter cottages grew up on the Chase between 1670 and 1700, regarded by the authorities as inhabited by ‘loose, idle and disorderly persons’. Ie people driven to the margins by enclosure, poverty, with nowhere else to go.
In the 1720s, General Pepper, who had leased the Chase, was shot at during his ongoing struggle with poachers.
In 1777 Enfield Chase was finally enclosed.
Digression 2: Enfield Town
Locals didn’t stop causing trouble when the Chase was shut off to them though:
In Enfield in 1911, school kids struck in local schools, part of a London-wide school strike wave. Later, during the 1926 General Strike, (when two million workers walked out to support miners locked out by the mine-owners) open-air meetings of the Enfield Trades Council and the Labour Party were held at the Fountain, Enfield Town. After the TUC called off the Strike, local tram drivers and conductors here refused to accept that the strike was over; a tram manned by volunteers ran in Enfield. Independent buses ran on the Green Lanes route.
More here on local activity in London during the General Strike:
The Ford/Visteon factory in Morson Road, Enfield, was occupied by its workers in 2009 to try to prevent its closure…
And during the riots of 2011, local youth inspired by the Tottenham riot the day before following Mark Duggan’s shooting, kicked off in Enfield, during several nights of uprisings across England.
When you reach Church Street, cross over, and follow the open path on either bank of the River, (unusually here you can walk freely on both sides). The river opens out into a large and lovely pond, a small lake really, with a long meandering islet in it.
South of this lake, the New River path runs on the east side for a while, as the River curves round a raised embankment overlooking the Town Park.
In 1931, when the Piccadilly underground line was being extended to Cockfosters, some large bore pipes used in its construction were floated down the New River to a point near here then hauled the rest of the way by road. Apart from this the New River was a water supply, not really a transport artery. However, for much of the River between here and Bowes Park, one way of traveling it in style would be to launch a small boat or dinghy, a canoe or raft even. Watch out for low bridges and occasional dredging machines though!
Interestingly, when you come to the south-eastern corner of the park, there are a few memorial trees planted to remember some dead folk; but the nearest one to the river is dedicated to Enfield Peace Campaign, and seems to have been planted in 1980. We liked that (having also been peace campaigners in our youth).
Check out Pat Mattingly, who was involved in the Enfield Peace Campaign
But the path on the east bank veers away from the River shortly after. You have to re-trace your steps to the bridge at the south end of the pond, and cross over, turn left, and follow the path up the hill. You are now at your second possible trespass point.
For none-trespassers, the path through the Golf Course runs up the hill, then turns right, its actually a nice walk, quiet apart from the pointless thwacking of little white balls if the golfers are at play.
Golf of course is the ultimate game of social aspirations, if not always of the rich, the powerful, always of those who want to be… the game of the businessman. The Golf Course is where deals are made, where the upward-looking working class man attempts to slide up the social scale. Joining the Golf Club is the mark of acceptance into the elite. It takes up huge areas of land that would be better left wild, and in many countries, consumes huge water supplies at the expense of local communities. It is the pits. It really is time to get rid of it.
Some inspiring struggles against golf include:
- the anti-enclosure battle at One Tree Hill in South London, in 1897, when thousands rioted and tore down fences of a golf course built on open land used by locals for centuries. They won, in the end, it’s still a brilliant place…
- the armed resistance of Mohawk native Canadians in 1990 against attempts to evict them from their tribal lands for the building of a golf course. Barricades across roads, guns, the lot. Ending in some heavy jail sentences.
- The Movement Against Golf Courses, active in eleven countries in South East Asia. Golf, even more of a rich man’s game in Asia, often involves the clearing of virgin forest, the forced destruction of villages and eviction of their people, the diversion of vital water supplies… thousands rioted in the late 1980s/early ’90s and destroyed golf courses. As radical newspaper Contraflow asked: “How long till we carry this struggle to the Home Counties?”
- Transvestite Golf War: A mysterious group who carried out attacks on golf courses in the 1990s. Are they still around? Their country needs them.
If you want to follow the River here, you have to go onto the Golf Course at the first gate to the right off the path (Hole 11, actually!); if the Golf Course is open it might be open, the gate could be ajar; if not it’s a relatively easy jump over it. Trouble is, if the Course is open, it’s likely to be full of golfers. Now the land is private; but of you look like a golfer other golfers may well ignore you. So someone dressing like your nerdy uncle in a cardigan and slacks, having obtained an old golf bag and some old clubs (charity shops may well score here), and just acting like they’ve every right to be there, could pass by easily.
The River runs for a while through the course, then disappears, after that you can cut up to any of the other entrances off the path.
The path eventually brings you out at the entrance to the Golf Course, off Bush Hill. If you come out here, turn left down the road.
The River is completely invisible from here for some distance underground; immediately south of Bush Hill it flows under some large posh private houses. Best off not trying to clamber over their fences, there may be alarms, gun collections and unhappy dogs.
Digression 4: Dead Legs
This whole Enfield Loop is of course part of the New River. Or is it? In fact it’s a dead leg, the old course of the River until about 1890, when large pipes were dug from Southbury Road to Bush Hill (running roughly all down London Road). So you can cut out all this wandering, if you want to be absolutist and go with the real modern flow. But walking the loop is a much more pleasant diversion.
In 1940 bomb damage took these pipes out of action, so the old loop was again revived as the real course of the River for a while until the London Road pipes were repaired after World War Two.
The redundant stretch of the River around Enfield was saved from being filled in by a public campaign to preserve it for its ornamental value; it is essentially now a linear lake. Since 1988 the New River Loop Restoration Project has restored the historic watercourse, listed bridges and railings, reinstated the timber banks of the New River and provided new seating and a new fountain in Chase Green Gardens.
Walk north to the junction with London Road and Park Avenue, and follow Park Ave to where Faversham Avenue hits it. Walk down Faversham Ave to Bentley Mews, at the top end of which there’s a locked black iron gate you can jump over, into a green lane behind the houses; you then have to clamber over the hedge (there’s a handy tree there), to get onto the river path again.
You have to climb out at the other end though, where the River hits Bush Hill Road.
If you’re not trespassing, you can in fact cut this short: when you exit the golf course path, turn right instead down Bush Hill, and it’ll bring you out at to the end of Bush Hill Road, just northwest of the open gate here.
Cross over the road here, and the legit path runs south through a lovely stretch, behind people’s gardens. You’re back on the ‘real’ river here, after the Loop ends, so the River flows faster, there’s much less pondweed than in the lazy dead loop, which barely moves at all.
Just south though the way is blocked again, a bit randomly, by a large green fence, the colour and design you’ll come to know well as you wander the New River southward.
If you are keen to follow the river whatever, you have to swing out around it over the water. Walking along to the Ridge Avenue end, you can climb out over the gate, or over the fence in Bush Hill to the west side (which is a bit quieter of people).
Digression 5: the Salmons Brook
Salmons Brook, where the New River flows over it
However, before you do this, you should follow the New River path down the steps to your right, cross the road, and down more steps, to the point where Salmon’s Brook runs under the New River’s raised embankment. A lead lined wooden aqueduct originally carried the New River over Salmon’s Brook; this was replaced by a brick arch in 1682, then replaced by the current embankment.
This is one of our favourite spots on the New River; two waterways, criss-crossing each other, like the streets that run over other streets on bridges in old Edinburgh. It inspires in us a visions of a whole city built like that, waterways interlocking and weaving, walkways running beside them and over, nooks and crannies and hidden buildings… The whole of London could be rebuilt like that. Who needs all those roads?
The Salmons Brook rises on Enfield Chase and merges with the Pymmes Brook (which also flows under the New River, later on) and eventually flows into the River Lea.
Here’s a lovely web entry on this stream
So, you can go back up to the bank and swing the fence, or if you’re not up for that you can walk along Bush Hill to Ridge Avenue. Cross Ridge Avenue and there’s an open gate to the next stretch, another lovely bit, a grassy path and overhanging trees… When you get to Firs Avenue, cross it and you can keep going; this bit’s also stunning. A hundred yards along or so there’s a bend to the west, under lovely trees, where I have dabbled my feet in the River, though there’s a sluice here which can gather debris and flotsam.
You then walk through lovely woodland on the east bank, with contrasting new-ish red blocks of flats on the west, for a short way. On your left the woods on the other side of the fence are part of the Paulin Ground, where local sports clubs are based.
When you come to the bridge just before Ford’s Grove, you can jump over onto the west bank and trespass back along, if you fancy it.
The next section is shut off, but it’s so short, only an obsessive would bother to climb the fences on either bank to walk it. Otherwise, turn right down Ford’s Grove, then sharp left down Farm Road, and there’s the path, through an open gate on the west bank. A dedicated trespasser could also climb over the small wooden gate on the east bank. They would be very visible though to observers. (There’s a fairly easy climb back over railings at the Highfield end).
South of here is another quiet-ish stretch, especially if there are no kids in the school sports ground on the east side; a grassy path, overhanging trees whose branches dip down into the drifting water… ace.
Cross Highfield Road, and the next open stretch runs on the west bank; you shortly come to the old Highfield pumping station that hastened the flagging New River waters along a bit. It seems derelict, but this is one of the points where the New River is allowed to drain into the chalk, from which it can be reclaimed if needed. (This was known as the Artificial Recharge Scheme.)
A daring soul could scale the bridge over the river that leads to it, or over the gates on Carpenter Gardens. We didn’t observe any cameras.
Crossing over Carpenter Gardens, the open path continues on the west bank to Barrowell Green, though right next to the noisy main road. You could without hardship trespass on the east path, just a small gate at the Carpenter Gardens end, with a more challenging climb out over a 6-foot fence at Barrowell Green.
At Barrowell Green, gates being locked, you could trespass on either side, though the east looks easier. There’s a handy tree, and a low gate at the hedge lane end to exit over.
The legitimate alternative to this is to walk down Green Lanes for a minute, turn left into River Avenue, left again when you reach Hedge Lane, and you come back to the River, with an open path on the west bank. You could also trespass the east bank, as there’s an easy low wooden gate here, but you’d have to scale an 8-foot iron railings at the other end.
The open path now crosses the path to the neighbouring park and carries on, along the west bank. On the east you could again leap the railings if you were nimble.
This entire stretch from hedge lane to Hazelwood Lane, is quite attractive again, behind houses, or verging on parkland…
When you get to Hazelwood Lane, the path is again locked off, the gate on the east bank would be easiest to climb – at the other end you can exit over a concrete fence, to the path from Hamilton Way over the river – though a theoretical wanderer might want to cross over here and jump the wooden gate on the west bank, to avoid a large blocking off fence on the east bank ahead, that would be harder to swing around.
If you sensibly have no stomach for all this climbing, follow Chimes Avenue (first right off Hazelwood Lane on the east bank), to where the path runs off to the right when the avenue veers left. This path brings you back up to the open west bank riverside path.
The River now runs in a wide raised embankment, with playing fields fifteen or so feet below you on the east; if you had trespassed from the last bridge you would be walking down behind suburban gardens, and, if you came in early May-June, could gather elderflower, or in August/September, elderberries, from a fine elder tree here. Some lovely homemade trespassing wine, would be a fine vintage… though you can also make elderflower cordial, jelly or juice… There’s a fairly easy exit on the west bank at the next bridge over low railings.
Cross Oakthorpe Road, from here the legit path follows the west bank, but there’s an easy climb over onto the east side (the grassy path is a little narrow though).
The main road, Green Lanes again, is just a short walk, here you come out, and cross to the old Southgate Town Hall
Here you could easily climb onto either bank, but on the west, there’s a nasty high spiky fence a few yards down, so the east might be better. On the east, there’s also a bit of a hairy exit: over a spiky fence, then you still have to exit the yard around the dredger.
Digression: Fighting the fascists 1977
From here you could have a short diversion, up to Broomfield Lane to Broomfield Park, site of an anti-fascist battle in 1977.
After the orrible rightwing National Front held a march through Wood Green, on 23 April 1977, (see later on for the beginning of this story) there were running fights between them and anti-fascists here. A sizeable number of anti-fascists did make it to nearby Arnos School (now Broomfield School) in Wilmer Way where the NF held their rally. By this stage it was late afternoon.
Several hundred fascists were able to re-group after being ambushed by anti-fascists in Turnpike Lane. It appears that the march continued on past the Cock at the North Circular Rd to Palmers Green triangle. Here Enfield Trades Council and some local Communist Party activists rallied in opposition to the fascists. The NF then continued down Powys Lane into Wilmer Way from the north, skirting the edge of Broomfield Park. Fighting between fascists and anti-fascists continued in the park itself.
An account of the day
Another digression: to Palmers Green Unemployment Benefit Office, which stood on the corner of the North Circular (on the north west side below Elmdale rd). It was destroyed by an arson attack on 4th April 1987. And was never rebuilt. That’s one response to the misery of life on the dole.
At this time there were a spate of arson attacks on police stations, Tory clubs, crown courts and other agencies of the state and ruling classes in North London. Far be it from us to suggest that kind of activity should be revived, in these turbulent times.
If you’re not trespassing, you need to walk up to the traffic lights, turn left west) down Broomfield Lane, then almost immediately down the ramp leading to the back of the library. There’s an open gate to the west bank path here just off the car park.
This brings you onto another quiet stretch, the raised embankment falls to gardens on the east, with a patch of wilderness on the west, populated by some very weird looking weeds (which put me in mind of 50s sci-fi horror schlock “alien plants invade” type films I used to love as a teenager). When we were there, there was also a pile of felled young trees that an enterprising boat-person could probably knock up into a nifty raft and go sailing off to Bounds Green…
Just down here also is another of the enchanting points, where the River bridges over Pymmes Brook. Jumping down and wading the Brook would be a fine trespass for another day…
At the end of this stretch is one of the New River’s wondrous dredging machines, that rakes out the weeds, algae etc, and hoists it out automatically ever so often. It’s worth waiting around to see this in action.
You then come out onto the North Circular Road, a sharp contrast with the calm of the River, with heavy traffic roaring past. (Or at a standstill, at peak times!)
The North Circular, west of here, is named Bowes Road. On May 10th 1926, during General Strike, ‘at 5pm outside the council offices Mr S.H. Brown leaned over the fence and tore down a government notice. He was arrested by a Special Constable, but escaped. Brown fled but was caught down Bowes Road, then just a main road, with the help of another Special.’ He was fined forty shillings, or 28 days in prison. Here’s more on the General Strike, and some brief accounts of activity around London during this dispute.
Through Palmers Green and Bounds Green, numerous houses compulsory purchased for a proposed widening of the North Circular, and then left empty for years, were gradually squatted. Through the 1980s and ’90s. Some were still there until relatively recently, but the widening happened, finally, over the last couple of years. Now the Road is much wider, hurray. And rammed with traffic again. More and bigger roads mean more traffic.
Anyway, if you don’t fancy it legging it over the North Circular dodging juggernauts, turn right and there’s a pelican crossing fifty yards up, cross there and back to the bridge, where there’s a ramp up to Russell Road. The open path resumes here on the east bank, though an easy hop over the church railings and then over again gets you onto the west bank. This narrow path though does run very close to people’s back gardens here, you might freak people out unless you look official and unburglarly. And there’s a high green steel fence at the Whittington Road exit.
At Whittington Road, the open path crosses to the west bank, to wander the east bank, you’d have to climb the green steel gate here. The section you reach now is another high point of the New River for me. The wide banks slope down to the water on either side, there are a lot of blackberries here in August/September, and room for picnics… on some sunny days there are a fair number of people here hanging out.
The River enters a tunnel here which carries it all the way through to the back of Wood Green. Even a dinghy probably wouldn’t get you through here.
The west bank exits onto Myddleton Road, on the east you can come out, into one of the loveliest spaces on the River bank: the Bowes Park outdoor gym. Created by Bowes Park Community Association, this place has some open-air exercise machines, a ping-pong table, and a great outdoor exhibition on the local history of the New River, the Bowes Park tunnel and more. A really brilliant community initiative. As is the Bowes Park Community Garden, just over the road, also partly run by volunteers from the Community Association.
Interestingly there’s a locked hatch here, which looks like it might descend to the River in its tunnel…
This tunnel and the raised channel to the north of the North Circular replaced two old loops, where the River ran through Edmonton and Arnos Park. This shortened the River’s length by nearly a mile or so.
The tunnel used to be inspected regularly by hard hatted folk aboard a flat bottomed boat, but since health and safety concerns vetoed access on the water, it was decided to drain the tunnel in September 2012, and give it a proper clean out for the first time since it was finished in 1858.
Out of the tunnel they brought: 1,740 tons of silt, every ounce and pound shifted by hand. Plus 154 years of flotsam and debris: “two guns and two rounds of ‘live’ ammo’, lots of knives, five or six safes, lots of handbags and credit cards, two motor-bikes, three bicycles, a skateboard, lots of kids trikes and scooters, some imitation Swedish medallions(!) a 17th century pipe, two small Buddhas, lots of plastic dolls, one antique white ceramic doll’s head, a boat, a big oak barrel and the old metal bridge handrail which must have fallen off many years ago. The largest non-silt collection was bottles of various ages.”
There’s more info and some great pictures of the tunnel clearance at this site
As the River flows underground here, we have to trace it on the surface via the New River path. There’s no real prospect of dragging yourself through the hedge from the Gardens here, and over into people’s back gardens etc… So you walk west to Palmerston Road, turn right, down to Truro Road and through Finsbury Gardens, another small green space partly run by locals (the Friends of Finsbury Gardens), which runs into the northern section of Nightingale Gardens. The Friends group has named this stretch the ‘Hidden River path’.
When you get to Bounds Green Road, cross at the lights, and on through the next part of Nightingale Gardens, a wide alley of green between the interesting Baptist church and houses.
Before you cross Bounds Green Road, you could take a wander to the memorial and drinking fountain, just to the south, which remembers one Catherine Smithies, who lived in the big house at Woodside Park in Wood Green, and a pillar of Christian charity and Temperance. In one way it’s somewhat appropriate to our walk that the biblical quotes on the monument refer to water (what the poor should be drinking, instead of the devil’s own alcohol), however the memorial also stands lonely in front of the Prince Albert pub. Not a temperance pub either!
But maybe check out the Find a Fountain campaign, which fights for more drinking fountains and free water sources.
But Catherine Smithies was also the founder of the ‘Band of Mercy Movement’, which encouraged children to look after and not abuse animals… it later merged in to the RSPCA.
Walking several feet above the New River in its pipe, like disreputable dowsers, you continue through the trees of Avenue Gardens, down the hill, to the crossing over Park Road, to where the River emerges blinking into the light again.
Off the path to your right, just before you descend to Park Road, there’s a little marker planted in the grass labelled ‘Pipe NRC’ – New River Company – presumably above the actual buried pipe…
You can jump over either side to nose about here, a very short stretch.
Crossing over Station Road, the River runs under the rail bridge. Even a hardened trespasser might not bother jumping here, there’s no path, and if you climb up you only end up in the Heartlands School grounds. Or on the railway line.
Digression: Alexandra Palace
If you haven’t been there, and you have time, it would be worth you while to wander up from here to Alexandra Palace, set on a hill in a lovely park. It has a great history, including being used as the broadcast station for early BBC radio and TV channels…
The Park nearly didn’t survive as open space: in the 1880s, the company that owned the Palace planned to sell it for development. The plans were shelved after local protests.
Later, during World War One, the park was used as an internment camp for Germans and other suspect foreigners, especially radicals and lefties, from 1915. Leading East End anarchist Rudolf Rocker (not exactly a sympathiser with the Kaiser, but definitely a danger to the state) was one internee.
On 29 March 1967, the 14 Hour Technicolour Dream event was held here…
This was a seismic event in the development of the 1960s/70s counter-culture, a benefit for top underground paper international times, it featured bands including Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, the Move, Arthur Brown, Alex Harvey; and conceptual art, and light shows, 10,000 or so attended. Late in the day it was attacked by mods…
There’s some film here
On 5th November 1990 the fireworks display at Alexandra Palace saw Poll Tax demands and an effigy of Thatcher burnt.
In 1997, then Conservative rising star Michael Portillo’s 10 year anniversary party as MP for Enfield Southgate was disrupted by hundreds of locals and friends, who harassed Tory partygoers with flour, paint and fists, and did some kwikfitting on their cars. A sideline to this story: The author was one of a small group that attended this event… We thought that anyone trying to get there through the main gate would get blocked off by the police. So we decided to sneak in through the park, under a bridge and up through the trees, to beat any roadblocks. We SASed it up the hill in the dark, getting to the top just time to see… loads of our mates arrive on the W3 bus that runs past the Palace. Who’d had no trouble getting in. D’oh!
Another fun digression from here is to trace the line of the old Palace gates to Seven Sisters railways line, closed in 1963 under the Beeching rail cuts. Although it’s totally removed, you can trace much of where the line ran, as where bridges still cross the depression in the land… Some of it has been converted to allotments and other uses. More on this old line here
It is a bit of a diversion, but you can get to the New River, or at least the north bank of the reservoir, from the woods below Ali Pali. If you walk back up from Station Road, via Buckingham Road, cross the railway, turn left into Bedford Road, then left into the track to the Network Rail depot there. There’s a path through the park to your right, a short way down, just before the tiny wooden bridge, a little path runs through the trees, skirting the fence to the railway works… it’s a bit of a scramble through nettles and weeds, especially when wet, but where the railways land comes to a triangular end, you can struggle through to a fence, which if you find the tree we did, you can see over to the River. Not sure if even a hardy explorer would bother to jump over though, you could only follow the river by scaling a large pipe that crosses over it.
The official New River path therefore runs down the alley by the playground to Western Road, and right down Western Road.
Digression: Wood Green
If you wander left up Mayes Road, then right down Station Road, you come to Wood Green High Road, (the local disguise for the same old Green Lanes that the New River skirts further north).
Much disorder, demonstration and riotry has passed down here..
As mentioned above when we passed by Broomfield Park, on 23 April 1977, a twelve hundred-strong National Front march through Wood Green was opposed by some 3,000 anti-racists. A contingent of radical elements broke away from a peaceful (and largely useless) rally on Duckett’s Common; as soon as the Front march set off, counter-demonstrators attacked and the march was split, with some NF supporters scattering. As the NF moved into Wood Green High Road they were bombarded with flour, eggs, tomatoes, smoke bombs, and the shoes from racks outside the front of a shop on the High Road. Eighty-one people were arrested, including seventy-four anti-fascists.
During the riots of July 1981, sparked by repressive policing, poverty and boredom, rioters in the Wood Green High Road wound up opposing police by playing radio reports of other riots at them…
On the corner of Wood Green by the tube, was the oldest public building in Haringey, a big dancehall; having been closed down, this was squatted in 1986/7, for gigs and other events – it’s since been knocked down.
If you carry on up the hill, you come to the Haringey Civic Centre, the Borough Town Hall. This HQ of the local authorities has been the target of rebellious locals. It was occupied 8/5/1987 by 120 claimants/Tottenham Claimants Union, during civil servants strike 5-8 May, when dole offices were shut and doleys received no giros. Council leader, Bernie Grant, called the police, who evicted the claimants, but 80 of them then occupied the finance dept, only to be evicted again. They then marched down the high road. 30 later occupied Social Security office.
The Civic Centre was especially popular during the anti-poll tax movement, when Haringey set the highest poll tax in Britain, but the local anti-poll tax movement was huge, and very well organised. There were several massive rallies here though 1989-1991… On February 5 1990, hundreds protested the Council fining 7,000 people for non-registration for the tax. 5 March that year, Haringey Council met to set the Poll Tax. 1,000 demonstrated – the Council Chamber was invaded, and the road outside blocked. Eleven people arrested. Meeting was adjourned. 4 March 1991: Protest at Council Poll Tax setting meeting – bills burned outside the Civic Centre. 24 May 1991: During a strike by Haringey council workers against cuts imposed by Poll Tax budget, there was another big demo outside Council meeting and burning of Poll Tax bills.
In 2011, a local demo against the cuts in council services occupied the Town Hall; two people were nicked as they were kicked out by police.
To return to Western Road, walking down, on the right hand corner of the little park you pass the pretentiously named Decorium. Once a public swimming pool, opened in 1911, then closed in the 1980s; it’s now a totally over the top venue for weddings and corporate gross-fests. Maybe we could secretly flood it, turn it into a free public pool again (running a small pipe for the purpose from the New River perhaps?)
Follow Western Road to the large short uphill tunnel that heads off right under the railway. Opposite the large industrial estate, mostly now given over to evangelical churches exploiting migrants, Africans usually. While exploring this area, hardly had I sat down in the end of the tunnel to rest and shelter from the rain, than I was accosted by a godbotherer. “Do you want something to read? Some Good News” he asked, ignoring my scowl and anti-religious t-shirt!
Turn right up through the tunnel, follow the River again at a distance, behind a large fence, where it runs by the Thames Water filtration plant. Although a hardy jumper could scale the fence, and walk down the east bank; you are exposed, but there’s not many people working there, at least at time of writing. Couldn’t see cameras but there may be some.
The brand new treatment machinery in the filtration plant, installed a few years back, (the old filtration beds now having been drained) was, when this was written in 2013, not running; Thames Water has enough capacity with its Coppermill Lane and Chingford South plants, and has this one held in reserve. Apparently the machinery here can be got up and running in a couple of days. Some small amount of New River water does, I’m told, still get used in this stretch for Londoners’ supply. Mind you I also learned from an engineer who I got chatting to, that Thames Water is continually cutting the numbers of maintenance workers allocated to keep these plants running, who are short-staffed in their own view, but “over-manned” in the eyes of their bosses. But Thames are obviously short of cash: Chief Executive, Martin Baggs, was awarded a bonus of only £274,000 in 2013, on top of a payrise of 5.9% taking his basic salary to just £450,000. In addition, “Money” Baggs will also pick up £366,000 in shares as part of a long term incentive plan. Stuart Siddall, Chief
Financial Officer, also made a fair packet… This after the top brass got £2 million in bonuses in 2011, and raised bills by 6.7 percent. In the previous financial year Thames Water had also paid no corporation tax, as the Internal Revenue paid them a £5 million rebate (though they made £550 million profits.) This was achieved using a fiddle channeling dividends to ‘bondholders’ through a Cayman Islands registered dummy corporation.
The legacy of the capitalism’s control over water, set by Myddleton and his Company four centuries ago, is alive and greedy.
Here’s a great account of the building of the waterworks at Hornsey
The non-trespassing explorer will now come to the bridge at the corner of the treatment works, where there’s an open path on the east bank. This brings you down, past some slightly suspicious Canada geese, to Hornsey High Street. Over the water is the large new estate, built just a few years ago…
The old New River Pumphouse here has now been converted into a restaurant and art gallery, with a Jehovah’s Witnesses kingdom hall behind. To worshippers of the old water gods/goddesses the former is just sad same old gentrifying shite, but letting the Witnesses in would be sacrilege. Maybe we should spend every Saturday knocking on their door and asking if they’d like to come and take part in a pagan ceremony down on the river bank. Or if they’d come donate some blood.
Digression: From here, you could wander up Tottenham Lane to the police station. I remember attending a mass picket of this police station here, a few days after Joy Gardner died in July 1993, killed by cops and immigration officials. She had come to visit her mother here, but had overstayed her visa. An immigration officer and police officers arrived, with no advance warning, to deport her, invaded her home and gagged and restrained Joy using a body belt and wrapped 13 ft of tape around her head – they later claimed she had ‘violently’ resisted arrest. Joy suffocated and subsequently fell into a coma, dying in the Whittington hospital, four days later.
The three police officers involved in killing her were found not guilty of manslaughter in 1995.
The New River at Hornsey, 1856
If you cross over Hornsey High Street, the River runs under the railway here. A lithe leap and you are over on the east bank, following the pathway under the tunnel, this brings you round a bend to the Hampden Road bridge, where you would have to climb out over a fence. Be warned it’s next to a mosque, so will be busy on Fridays.
Digression: a little walk down Turnpike Lane could be fun, you pass the West Indian Cultural centre, 9 Clarendon Road, (on corner of Turnpike Lane and Hornsey Park Road). Opened in 1984, since then it has been a venue for social, political educational and artistic events in the local afro-Caribbean community. It has been under threat of closure since all its council funding was cut in 2011…
And the Haringey Women’s Centre, which used to be at no 40 Turnpike Lane, in the 1980s. Haringey Anarcha-feminist group met here, around 1984.
You can continue to Ducketts Common: a traditional spot in area for demonstrations, rallies, speakers corner etc for leftists, rightists, religious nutters… Many Haringey Anti-Poll Tax marches left from here, including two involving burning of Poll Tax registration forms in June and July, 1989; and a march which started at Scotland Green, toured the main streets of Tottenham and Wood Green, ending at a rally on Ducketts Common. Hundreds of people who had been turned out of Wood Green Shopping City by a bomb scare cheered as the march passed.
On 31 Mar 1990, over 200 people rallied on Ducketts Common to go down to the national anti-Poll Tax demonstration in central London, which as we all know passed off quietly! On14 April 1990, the Easter Funday here included burning Poll Tax forms, as well as bouncy castle, bands, etc…
The New River at Hornsey, 1860
If you don’t fancy trespassing from Hornsey High St bridge, you can divert east down Turnpike Lane, left into Wightman Road, then right when you come to Hampden Road. The open path continues on the west bank here, another short and attractive stretch, though the railway depot on your right is a bit noisy occasionally. At the end, the River runs again into a short tunnel.
I met a bloke fishing for perch here, reckoned he caught fifty odd a year… Further down its carp you find.
From here you cross the River, up the steep path, and over Wightman Road. The River runs under gardens to Seymour Road, so it’s right down Wightman Rd, then left down Seymour.
Digression: You also wander down Seymour Road to Salisbury Corner, Green Lanes, an old socialist speakers corner in the late 19th/early 20th century. On August 5th, 1914 – the day after the declaration of World War 1 – the North London Herald League held its first anti-War meeting here. The speaker was Walter Ponder. This meeting initiated the NLHL’s campaign against the War. They also spoke regularly in Finsbury Park.
The League was a broad-based socialist group, that fought for a working class movement that it hoped would eventually topple capitalism and introduce a world socialist order. Unlike the Labour party, most of the socialist movement across Europe, and almost all trade unionists, the NLHL refused to fall in with the happy march off to war. They opposed it all the way through, many of the meetings were attacked by police and ‘patriotic mobs’ and many of its members were arrested, jailed, and beaten up.
Across a century, we salute the courage of these men and women, and the other groups that called World War 1 what it was – a slaughter forced by imperialist rivalries for profits and national supremacy; those who fought against the war, not just conscientious objectors and those shot for ‘cowardice’, but mutineers, deserters, feminists and socialists, anarchists and pacifists, strikers and shirkers, and many more; and to fight the myth of a ‘war for democracy’.
Now for the whole of the following section of the River, it flows on the surface, but in short jaunts between eight of the nineteen roads that make up the ‘Harringay ladder’; tightly packed parallel suburban streets. Each gate to the River is locked, we can not obviously see why. It’s a shame, as there are lots of willows, dark and enticing paths… All the gates can be jumped (though the one at Seymour Road has barbed wire, unusually; a small piece of carpet has been known to be useful in scaling this nasty legacy of world war 1), but the stretches are so short it would get a bit exhausting, and there’s lots of places you could be spotted getting over. Also note that the east bank between Pemberton and Mattison Roads runs along a school, so if you don’t want to be apprehended for spying on primary school kids, trespassing during school hours is probably a no-no.
To follow the River here without trespassing you can either walk down the Harringay Passage, from Hewitt or Seymour Roads, a long gennel or alley, quite an interesting short walk in itself, that runs parallel to the River; you could walk up to gaze at the confined water on each street. This brings you out at Endymion Road eventually, where you could easily climb out especially on the west bank (the east is very narrow here).
One fun way of navigating this run of the River would be in a small dinghy or even kayak, which you could do from Hornsey High Street to Umfreville Road… though you would have to duck your head somewhat at some of the low bridges!
At Mattison Road, the River runs alongside the church, which is currently under the control of the Catholic Workers, a kind of radical Catholic sect, very active in anti-war movements, and other social justice type campaigns.
From Umfreville Road, if you’re not trespassing, you have to nip round, up the road to Wightman Road, left round to Lothair Road South, at the end of which you can see the River through the gates, which would also be a way on or out if you’re up for clambering – a bit quieter than Endymion, which is busy.
NB: However, the North London railway Line between Harringay Green Lanes station and Crouch Hill station runs here, south of Umfreville Road, and you have to cross it to fully trespass this stretch. This might be worth avoiding… Trespassing on the railway is generally considered more serious than wandering over a gate into other spaces, so this might really only be for desperate completists. We advise against it, frankly, for the sake of a yard or two of extreme danger…
If you’re not trespassing, you need to go back out via Coningsby Road to Endymion Road, across here and in the gate into Finsbury Park.
Digression: If you’re walking in the daytime, it really is worth diverting down to the lovely Railway Fields Nature Reserve, at 381 Green Lanes under the railway (opposite Harringay Green Lanes Station). A fantastic tiny reclaimed wilderness (its quiet broken only by the roaring past of trains every ten minutes, but hey!), a former railway goods yard, it’s open Monday to Friday 9am – 5pm, and from 10am on the last Saturday of every month when the ‘Friends are working’.
The New River now cuts through through Finsbury Park, fenced off by low iron railings.
Finsbury Park was created in 1857, after a twenty-year local campaign for a public park.
The creation of Finsbury Park took 20 years of agitation by north Londoners before it became a reality, and although the reality was a poor shadow of the earlier proposals, it would never have been built without thousands of ordinary people meeting up and writing letters and signing memorandums.
The original plan for Finsbury Park
From 1800, land north of the city of London shot up in value and was rapidly built over, including traditional open spaces like Finsbury Fields. Everyone could see the need for new open spaces, particularly for health reasons. In 1833, a select committee reported to the House of Commons in favour of the establishment of parks for the eastern, southern and northern districts of the metropolis (The west of London already had Regents Park). Whilst Victoria Park in the east and Battersea Park in the south were created with Government funding, a park for the north of London came up against impossible hurdles, due mainly the ever rising cost of land for new buildings to accommodate the massive influx of people from all over.
In 1841 a petition for a north London park numerously signed by residents was sent to the Queen and various sites were suggested but they were built on before action could be taken. Agitation for a park continued and when the Metropolitan Board of Works was created in 1855, funded by local ratepayers, with a remit to oversee “improvement of the metropolis, a new group began agitating for a park for Finsbury and a plan was created in 1856 with an estimate of costs. It was opened in 1869.
In Summer 1912, mass open air suffragette meetings were held in the park, in the campaign for women to be given the vote.
During 1914-16, the North London Herald League held open-air meetings against the First World War, which were at times popular, though at other times (especially after January 1916 when conscription was brought in) were broken up by jingoist crowds. At a 1914 meeting, in response to official appeals to the upper class to release servants to the army, a speaker asked a crowd: “Have you got a sweating employer or a rack-renting landlord you can spare? Let him join up to fight for humanity, for civilisation, for democracy, for the women and children, for all those causes in which he has always been so enthusiastic.” John Arnall, of the British Socialist Party, was imprisoned for three months in for seditious’ statements made in French, uttered at a meeting in the park.
June 1936: A British Union of Fascists public meeting held here. Oswald Mosley’s homegrown fascists movement was on the up at this time, and garnered lots of support from the upper classes and sections of the press, police etc…
They rallied in military formation and in uniform in the park, protected by the police, while an anti-fascist rally in another part of the park, was told to turn its speakers off…
Finsbury Park became neglected and rundown in the 1990s… its buildings being burnt down by vandals, its lake killing the birds with botulism, its grass and trees trashed by commercial concerts… the Finsbury Park Action Group (FPAG), with support from many local people, fought for increased funding, they managed to get £27m funding for the area in 2001. The Friends of Finsbury Park focused the large number of complaints about the park… They also ran festivals, art and music events, Easter egg hunts, produced a history of the park, opened the community garden and ran a successful history project about the park with talks, exhibitions and signage about the park. About £6 million was spent on restoration of the park.
Nicked from a really good short account of Finsbury Park by the Friends of Finsbury Park.
Digression: Parkland Walk
Walkers not yet knackered by the New River walk could consider also picking up another walk that links up with Finsbury Park: Parkland Walk, along the old railway from here to Highgate, saved from proposed development in 1990 as a six-lane highway (including the demolition of 300 houses), by a mass campaign, including 1000-strong demos at Haringey Town Hall.
Where you come out of Finsbury Park into Green Lanes (yet again), there’s a crossing to the open path on the west bank. This is one of our favourite reaches of the River, as it curves around the hill, it runs higher than all of the valley to the east of it, so the view is slightly un-nerving over the rooftops and industrial estates; gives you a bit of a shiver.
A completist wishing to trespass on the other bank could leg it over the fence at Green Lanes, or in from Eade Road (off Hermitage Road).
Emerging from this lovely part, you come to another huge road, Seven Sisters Road. Down the hill is a crossing, walk back up after that to the open gate at the corner of Amhurst Park. This leads you to two short stretches, broken only by the bridge at New River Way; dark and gloomy in a lovely way. You quickly forget the mentalness of Seven Sisters Road, under drooping trees, as the River continues the long curve that takes it around the hill that peaks at Manor House. This whole curve is a brilliant short walk in itself, a long lazy question mark ending at the Stoke Newington Reservoirs.
Just before you enter the path around the East Reservoir, if you cross the bridge eastward at New River Way, on you left on the bank is the East Reservoir Community Garden, another tiny nook of wildlife brilliance runny volunteers.
From here you follow the open path as it skirts the East Reservoir. If you shut your right eye and gaze out across the water, it’s like you’re not in London again; however the lake borders to the northwest on the massive redevelopment that is totally altering the old Woodbury Down Estate.
Some great self-collected history produced by residents as Woodbury Down: the People’s Story
More on the history of the Woodbury Down Estate, and an article on regeneration/gentrification and the estate...
Where the lovely path round the lake hits Lordship Road, there’s another of the brilliant dredging machines for removing debris from the River.
The path now runs along the edge of the new blocks that have been built here over the last five years or so. The old Woodbury Down Estate is being gradually ‘regenerated’; on the west side this has meant the growth of large blocks of luxury flats. A whole new quarter, is what they call it… so new the old name had to go. I mean, ‘Woodbury Down’? Just the name sounds working class and depressing! So they are rebranding it ‘Woodbury Park’. Though they missed a trick, they should have called it Woodbury UP. Or Woodbury Rising, or something…?
On your left round the first reservoir is the new wetlands walk, opened in 2018, a lovely wander, with reeds and birds and lots of places to sit and ponder.
This edge of the lake designed for the new residents is a bit too landscaped, at least for the first quarter-mile in that way they stamp on everything now. The old path (which was lovely, all wildness and berries), was fenced off completely for a couple of years. Hey, at least we got it back?
Follow the curve around to the wooden bridge that cuts back over the River to the Castle. There’s a heron that hangs out here, and wild flowers.
When you cross the bridge, you can turn left, and if it’s opening hours, (9-5) visit the West Reservoir Centre, which has a café with a terrace on the lake. It’s ok, bit steep, and when I ordered chips, they only had balsamic vinegar, Seriously, I mean it IS Stoke Newington, but there’s a limit. The view over the lake is worth it though, even with Up Yours Woodbury rising over it like a yuppie dream park. They do have a nice view over the reservoir I guess, but so do the council tenants of the upper floors of the blocks on the Lordship Road Estate. And their rent is a lot cheaper, heh heh.
The East and West Reservoirs here were preserved from being flogged off and built over, by a long agitation by the Stoke Newington Reservoirs Campaign from 1986 to 1999.
The old reservoirs over the other side of Green Lanes were built over at this time.
Interestingly this is the real end of the New River as it flows today. Water flows no further from here, not for years. New River water is still piped from the East Reservoir to Coppermill Lane treatment works in Walthamstow, and we use it… Around eight percent of the city’s water supply comes through the River. Cool huh?
Trespassing on the strip between the reservoir and the River here is possible, but fiddly – there’s a lot of scrambling over fences and weeds involved. It’s possible to get in and out at the Lordship Road end (over a concrete fence), and at the café end, when its open from the car park, but obviously you might well be seen. Or you can force a path through the weeds to the side of the car park, down the east bank by the Café. But you’d still have a fence to climb.
Before you wend on the last (now non-flowing) section of the River, you have to visit the Castle, North London’s finest indoor climbing centre – but also so much more… a lovely wildlife garden, and more… The old water tower, transformed since 1995 (I do recall as a young squatter in 1989, seeing the empty tower and dreaming of squatting there!), also promotes all sorts of other brill community ventures, and has an ace Wicker Man style bonfire party in November… The cool Pirates’ Playhouse, a kids indoor adventure playground, in an adjacent building, has sadly closed down in the last couple of years; spent a lot of time here with our daughter when she was little…!
The New River in effect ends here. Any sections of water claiming to be part of the River from here to Clerkenwell are in fact ornamental ponds.
However, following the route, walk down Green Lanes. This is the same long road, encountered above, running from Newington Green to Enfield, a spine that the New River crosses time after time; the road though is an older human creation… Walk down to the junction with Brownswood Road and Lordship Park.
Digression; up Brownswood Road to the old Brownswood Library.
The old Library that used to stand here was closed in the 1990s. It was squatted in late 1995 (or early 1996), by Hackney Squatters Collective (“with our usual finesse – crowbar through the window”… “hiding quietly while cops shone their torches though the big glass doors just after we cracked it”) who had previously run great squat centres in Mildmay Park, 67a Stoke Newington Road, and the Arch refugee squat (directly opposite the latter), and went on to occupy (and save from demolition) London Fields Lido. One of the soundest bunches of people you’re ever likely to meet.
One of the old collective offered some recollections: “The library was made use of by various groups from the local Finsbury Park Action Group to Class War. Most significant for us was Reclaim The Streets (who at the time we thought were a bunch of crazy hippies), however we would go on to become irresistably entwined.
While we continued our open cafe and bar social nights, Zapatista benefit gigs etc, Peter Kenyon (local Labour scumbag), sent out letters to the neighbourhood declaring that as soon as the squatters had been evicted he would ‘return’ the place to the community. Being a politician, he lied.”
Another recalled “late nights, drinking too much, good friends, Victor’s Spanish punk band rehearsing, games nights, xmas and birthday parties, cold (until we turned the gas on), repairing the roof, getting pissed off with people who just treated the place as a late night drinking club and repopulating the library with books from Middlesex Poly… I remember planning the squatting of Archway Tower there (which basically consisted of Sam getting me and Ronnie drunk enough to do it).
There was also a ceilidh held jointly with a local community group who wanted to see the library put back into use, though possibly not quite in the way that we were doing it…”
The Library was a great centre, the local campaigners that had tried to save the library and wanted it re-opened were mostly supportive, there were weekly cafes, regular events, benefits, meetings. Always a friendly atmosphere, kids everywhere… Accessible to all. It lasted about three and a half years, and was evicted by the council. Who then left it empty again despite local campaigns for the library to reopen. Bleuugh.
In 2008-9 the place was squatted again for a while, but later that year work began to demolish it and build housing.
Carry on down Green lanes to the entrance to Clissold Park
The river originally used to run in a loop to the east, through Clissold Park, but since the 1860s, it ran straighter, in underground pipes. But the loop that now curves around through the park follows the old route, though it is not connected to the River any more. Kind of fake and shallow. Not like the middle class media tweedier ethos that now dominates Stoke Newington. Oh no.
Clissold Park was opened in 1886, after the land here was saved from development by local campaign.
The big house (now the café) was built for the Hoare banking family. Later occupants included Richard Crawshay, one of the Northumbrian branch of the ‘Iron Kings of Cyfarthfa’. The family owned iron mines, slate quarries and other industrial property on an immense scale and were reported to be the richest commoners in England. They were widely hated by the welsh working class; Crawshay’s grandson makes an appearance in a song by The Men they Couldn’t Hang, Ironmasters, about the Welsh ironworkers’ strikes of 1873-5.
Many of the public were allowed to use the park in the nineteenth century; however, when a later Crawshay sold the park in 1886, and plans were laid to divide it up and build on it, locals got up in arms. Stoke Newington had lost most of its open space in the preceding decades, and this park became the focus of a campaign, especially strong because the well-to-do people who lived in the houses on ‘Paradise Row’, Church Street by the bridge, who didn’t want their lovely view spoiled. They succeeded in preserving the park, and the London County Council eventually bought it.
It has hosted loads of great events; fairs, festivals, our favourites being the Hackney Homeless Festivals in the mid-1990s, organised by local squatters and troublemakers… Thousands came. A great alternative Lesbian & Gay Festival was put on here about the same time.
If you want to follow the old course, you walk down Green Lanes to the gate opposite the White House pub, in to the gate here (the tiny pump house café is an old River pump house. This section, as you can tell from the lie of the land, had to be pumped up hill.) You then arc around via the path, the ornamental dead legs of ‘River’, to the Church Street gate. On you way you pass the old house, which became a café many years ago. It was ok. However, as social change has gradually upped the class of the local population, so the park has started to change too. Hackney Council spent large sums on rebuilding the house, doing up the playground, building a new skate park amidst new landscaped hillocks, over the last couple of years, and on the whole it’s a good job. However, the regeneration of the café has turned a normal, park café into a very poncy place, you walk in and you’re in Kensington. Starched-uniformed workers scuttle. The new menu is clearly designed to exclude, they don’t such plebby items as serve chips, or ice cream. In a park. Shortly after a new kiosk opened behind the house which did serve ice cream. What this resulted in was a social apartheid; where everyone used to hang out on the slope at the front, now only young trendy things can be seen there, with people with kids, or those with less elevated taste, taking refuge at the back. (Where they are less of a blot on the landscape for proper patrons). So everything is proceeding as it should. Even many of the local middle class hippierati have been outraged at this development!
Digression: Stoke Newington
For many centuries an area populated by religious non-conformists (like Newington Green, see later on), due to its being outside City parishes and jurisdiction, Stokey developed a dissident ethos. The area was a hotbed of defeated republicans and rebels after the English Civil War; when the monarchy was restored they took to assassination plots and abortive uprisings.
Colonel Henry Danvers lived in Stokey; a parliamentary officer in the Civil War, by 1661, a fifth monarchist and republican, who plotted with Clement Ireton and other republicans in 1665, planning to kill the king, seize the Tower, establish a republic and redistribute property. Danvers had been captured April 1665, but rescued by a mob!
In 1685 Danvers led 5th monarchists, who planned to riot in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion. Had 500 men promised, but they failed to appear, Danvers fled abroad. Others fled to Monmouth, whose army contained many former Levellers, and other radicals; they were beaten at the battle of Sedgemoor.
The religious dissidence that characterised this are lasted into the nineteenth century. Hence the dominance of Abney park cemetery, where large numbers of non-Anglicans were buried; some of the most interesting being chartist socialist Bronterre O’Brien… On the other hand the repulsive William Booth and his family, founders of the supreme vultures on the vulnerable, the Salvation. For all their charitable work, these god-bothering music-manglers were widely hated by the homeless and poor for their pressing of the bible; in the 19th century there was even a ‘Skeleton Army’ founded to oppose them (although some mystorians have suggested this was a plot by the publicans to get back at the Starvation Army for their message of avoiding the demon drink.) The Booth graves are just by the entrance on Church Street, on a sunny Sunday it’s traditional to go and dance wildly on their graves, singing blasphemous songs, like the anti- Sally Army IWW song, ‘The Preacher and the Slave’, or ‘Banging in the Nails’ by the Tiger Lilies…
From the 1960s, Stoke Newington was home to a growing afro-Caribbean community, which like most black communities in the inner cities faced battles with racism, from organised rightwing groups and institutions, especially from the police. Stoke Newington police became notorious for racially motivated arrests, beatings, and killings, and later for fitting people up en masse for drug-dealing, either planting substances, or dealing themselves through protected sources. The local community resisted in many ways – there were riots here in 1981, numerous campaigns and protests, and organised resistance against racist murders, police harassment, most notably through the brilliant Hackney Community Defence Campaign. Some cops did get sacked in the end, but others were just moved elsewhere, and wholesale assault was tweaked around and made to look nicer.
In parallel with this, run-down houses and council near-collapse in housing, led to mass squatting in the area from the 70s onward. Thousands of houses were occupied to live in, and various larger buildings used as social centres, punk venues, art spaces, and much more. Squatting not only offered people cheap places to live when times were hard, but lots of the local culture, music, creation was built on squatting. Too many places to list; but in July and August 2013 two radical history walks explored some of this amazing recent past in the area; we are hoping to provoke the authors to set these walks out for some form of publication… keep in touch.
Local poverty, police attacks and resistance, hand in hand with an alternative and counter-cultural vibe, persisted into the 1990s, though a gradual gentrifying of the area since the 70s has infested the area with media types and green petty-bourgeois social workers with pinched, locally-sourced eating-disorder faces. And Church Street with artisan bakers, extortionate kids clothes boutiques and chain-store wholefood porn like ‘fresh and wild’. Which is neither fresh nor wild, but has fooled the muesli belt into imagining themselves radical alternative and right-on. Mind you, the rest of Hackney, which until recently had remained largely working class and poor, is now facing an invasion of the bistro snatchers; hipsters, artists and rising rents are spreading like piss in a pool, while older communities face gradual eviction and dispersal under new benefit rules.
And they get surprised when people riot.
Turn right, down Church Street. There used to be a Stoke Newington Festival held in Church Street, until 2007, but for some reason (possibly ‘cause partygoers took over the street that year!) it was moved into the Park in 2008; what worked in a long blocked-off road for twenty years was fenced off into an enclosure, with all sorts of police narkiness and harassment, trapping us in a tiny corner. That was the end of that. Let that be a lesson to anyone who thinks moving the Notting Hill carnival off the streets and into some park would reduce trouble – pen people up and they get grumpier.
Walk down, passing various ex-squats; nos 207-33 were squatted after dereliction, in the 1980s. Some are now in a housing co-op. Shelford Place saw several squats, including the factory, used for gigs, around Spring 1996.
The River used to run next to Church street, under ‘Paradise Bridge (which was opposite the modern Gayton House flats).
Walk to Clissold Crescent. Turn left, and them down Aden Terrace. The River ran on the surface all the way here, if you look you can see the course it followed, round in a gentle curve. Now when we talk about digging up the River, re-instating a water course in its entirety, we aren’t daft. The wondrous allotments down Aden Terrace, over where the River ran, you couldn’t ever lose them. We suggest routing it round onto Green Lanes instead, picking up the old course again at Petherton Road. Maybe a nice bridge.
Walking on down Aden Terrace, you come out once again on Green Lanes, cross to the corner of Petherton Road, and walk down the middle of the road on the lovely green walk, above the pipes that used to imprison the River water. This is a nice walk, but we feel that the River running openly down here would improve it. There is space too, even probably without eliminating one of the two sides of the road.
Petherton Road was also home to a number of squats in the 1970s, a North London Squatters group was based at 39a in 1973. A number of the squats later formed or joined shortlife housing co-ops to lease very run-down council houses cheaply. Most London councils did this, as they had no money to do the places up to a standard where they could be let to their tenants. These houses lasted in some cases decades, only for many to be snatched back in many cases by the council in a high-handed and vicious way (some people got rehoused after fighting very hard) around 2000-2005, and then flogged off at auction. Now those places fetch a packet; an old friend’s old co-op house was sold for 1 million spondulicks. Social housing lost.
A worthwhile diversion here is to Newington Green, via Ferntower Road.
Newington Green, like Stoke Newington, was a centre for dissenting protestant sects, post 1660. The Dissenters Academy opened here in 1667, to educate people denied a place at official schools because of not belonging to the state-backed Anglican Church. Many dissenters lived in the area. Some of these became political radicals, especially active in the movements for political reform in the late eighteenth century, and the circles that supported the French Revolution in 1789 and worked for similar social change here. Richard Price, leading dissenting preacher, was minister of the non-conformist Newington Green meeting-house; he was well-known as a supporter of the American and then French Revolutions, and was active in discussions and in political circles here that were influential in reform movements, and in developing groundbreaking ideas.
One person active in these circles was Mary Wollstoncraft, a radical, supporter of the French Revolution, and feminist pioneer, who in around 1784-86 or 88 ran a school for girls here. Although short-lived, it did express in practical terms the central theme of her classic book, ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’, which asserted that women had inalienable rights equal to men, and proposed that proper education for women was the basis of any possible radical change in their social position.
Although Mary W’s groundbreaking writings were sidelined, even by the women’s emancipation movement in nineteenth century Britain, she is accorded importance as a feminist pioneer these days. A statue in her memory now stands on Newington Green (though the design has caused some controversy…)
In the 1880s, at a time of political ferment, among the working classes, often organised through radical clubs and meeting places, a ‘Political Club’ existed here, later succeeded by the Mildmay Radical Club, now housed in a building on the corner of the a Green in Matthias Road. It was founded in 1888. The local Vicar of St Matthews Church attacked the Club as a subversive influence, for its “pernicious influence among the young…” Hurrah! In 1914, shop assistants working at the Home & Colonial Stores (250 shops in London then) met here to organise against draconian conditions, surveillance of workers, crap pay and fines etc, Their campaign spread nationwide & pressure won concessions without a strike. Mildmay Radical Club became non-political in the 1930s.
Interestingly, 35 Newington Green road was a radical hotspot. Henry Seymour’s The Anarchist was published from here in March 1885: the first English language anarchist paper. The Fellowship of New Life later had premises at no 35, and n 1891, anarchist newspaper Freedom moved in for a while. However, the Fellowship had to move out later that year, as their assets were seized by the landlord.
Next door, no 37, was connected with the socialist Brotherhood Church, and its offshoot, the Co-operative Brotherhood Trust, which operated several workshops and shops. The shop at 37 Newington Green Road seems to have lasted until after the 1914-1918 War.
Keep walking all the way down Petherton Road, then keep going down Wallace Road to St Paul’s Road. However, the original New River course here swang west, following the contour of the land, through the modern council estate and under the railway, then back down St. Paul’s Road a stretch, swinging south again to pick up where the path enters the green space next to Walney Walk. Eventually the river was re-routed into pipes, which cut this section out, thanks to pumping, running straight down Wallace Road.
Digression: While you’re here, you could nip down to Grosvenor Avenue, to 29 (& later 37a). Two large Squats here, operating as anarchist communes, were home at various times ( in the early 1970s – early 80s) of the infamous collective that ran Anarchy magazine (among other dodgy projects!) 29 Grosvenor Ave was raided twice in February and March 1971, during the various bombings attributed to the Angry Brigade. Women from here were involved in an anti-Miss World action.
In common with several other communes of the time, several kids born here to various people of various names were all given the surname ‘Wild’, regardless of the surnames of their parents. Some 50 Wild kids were thus names in London and other places. But the tradition isn’t dead in this area; another local ‘Wild’ child is growing up round the corner, born in 2008!
If you cross St Paul’s Road, there’s an open gate, which leads into the next section of the River, though here again the water is a surface detail, remember the real river stops at Stoke Newington. The sections on Petherton Road, through Canonbury and to Essex Road, were enclosed in pipes at various times through the late nineteenth century, then eventually cut off, in the twentieth. Many of the pipes were in fact removed in the 1950s.
You could digress from here, walking east for a few minutes to the corner of St Paul’s Road and Newington Green Road. The new-ish flats at no 2 St Pauls Road were previously home for many years for various useful groups; like Islington People’s Rights. Local leftie paper, the Islington Gutter Press, also used the building for a while. in the late 70s. The most famous tenant though, must have been the Advisory Service for Squatters, which helped maybe hundreds of thousands of squatters over the decades, giving advice, helping with court cases, fighting legislation… Their room there always bubbled over with legal jargon, phone calls from frantic unauthorised occupiers, the occasional irate landlord, and dopy journalists, people checking the ’empties’ board, and rambling tales from the old days; “well in the 70s, we squatted this mansion, right…” The council, which owned the building, decided to flog it off, and evicted all the worthy organisations in the early 2000s… It then remained EMPTY for a while, was itself squatted, evicted, then done up as flats. However, you do hope that the residents are endlessly plagued by people from Krakow and Ulan Bator turning up with rucksacks, or possession orders seeking legal advice…
There’s also a little known green space here, behind St Paul’s Road and Northampton Park, called the Shrubbery. There’s four entrances, but you’d almost never know it was there, it’s tiny, dark and hidden, with a small playground and a basketball court, and lovely trees and grass. Worth a look. The legendary Eric Mattocks from Advisory Service for Squatters helped create the Shrubbery…
Real River or not, the lovely walk here down through Canonbury is great, a really gorgeous short and narrow strip, admittedly quite landscaped… the rocks down here are limestone, shipped in “from up north somewhere” an Islington parkie told me. The local rumour that they’re not real rocks is apparently untrue. Seriously. We love it anyway, even if the River ain’t really flowing – we wander down here all the time. In fact, since April 2013, there are a few small pumps here pumping water into the river, creating a few fountains that erupt once a day. Which, if you catch it on the go, brings back a life to this stretch, which is normally sleepily luminous with its pondweed skin.
You can cross over and wander some of the weedy banks on the other side from the path, where they backs onto the unfeasibly large gardens of the mansions of Canonbury Park South and Alwyne Road.
The walk from here to Canonbury Road is mostly straightforward, you only have to come out by the west bank gate to cross over the Willow Bridge, and back in by the east bank gate.
The small hut on the stretch between the Willow Bridge and Canonbury Road was a watch hut, dating from the eighteenth century I think, for the New River Company linesman for this stretch of the River to base himself, on his patrols to stop skinny-dippers, fishermen, and other dodgy elements threatening the purity of the water and the local morals.
When you get to Canonbury Road, the landscaped river vanishes, but the path continues, over the road past a playground. (But you’re close to no 40 Canonbury Road, home of the hysterically right-wing Peter Lilley, Tory Social Security minister in the early 1990s, which was picketed by dole campaigners, and graffitied by fighters against the Child Support Act (in January 1994).
Cross the road, and walk down the fenced off path here, on your left though is the back of the old bingo hall. Once a cinema, the Bingo hall has been bought by “Resurrection Manifestations”, a dubious “church and charity”. They want to turn it into a church, to which they say they’ll add a new cinema, business training and education, and want to add 44 private flats at the back. The building was squatted a few years back; people were living there, and planning some events. Members of the church broke in, beat them up with hammers and broken glass…
The church say it’s a resource for the community: but there are many communities round here, not just psycho god-botherers! We don’t need more religion messing with our heads, we don’t want THEIR kind of education and don’t need more business training, And what kind of crap christian films will they show anyway?
What we need is more free social space not controlled by churches, business, the Council and other wasters… With all the cuts going on we could turn this magical building into something useful for all, run by us and for us.
Continue down via more weeping willows down Astey’s Row, to the entrance that comes out onto Essex Road, via some steps.
Turn right, and immediately on your right is Essex Road Library…
which, interestingly, was used as a meeting point by the local unemployed group, 1920, after they barricaded themselves in (the library was closed at then). In December 1920 E. H. King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, called on the police to eject the unemployed from the Library, after previously granting them use of it. Council cut off light and water but no avail, food and candles and water were brought in. The library was held by force for a few weeks, then stormed by a few cops early one morning and evicted. King followed this up with a violent attack on the unemployed – the majority of whom were ex-WW1 servicemen – describing them as ‘unemployables’ and accusing the men’s organisation of financial dishonesty.’ The local unemployed tried to storm Islington Town Hall to use that as a community space instead…
The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced ill September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to rescind an increase in outdoor relief to which they had earlier agreed.
The Islington unemployed group the following year was one of those that federated to form the National Unemployed Workers Movement, which campaigned around the dole for the next two decades.
Local gay couple Joe Orton & Ken Halliwell used to Nick books from this library (and other Islington library branches) and add their own risqué collages to the covers, then replace them on the shelves… this ended when they were nicked and jailed in 1962.
This section of the old River course was hidden in a tunnel for centuries, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t all be brought back to the surface: how about a large ornate bridge carrying Essex Road over a revived River here. Of course, we don’t mean a lovely useless adjunct to the house prices of the Islington bourgeoisie, or to bring more customers to the snotty antique dealers who sneer at you when they can smell your lack of enough cash for their £900 lamps. The re-running of the River would only work in parallel with re abolition of house prices. And money.
Walk up Essex Road, crossing over Cross Street, and up the strange four-tiered pavement (past Polish Pottery, the previously empty shop and building above was squatted for an alternative art exhibtion a few years back – squattery becomes pottery), cross over opposite the Queens Head pub, and turn right again, until you reach the end of Colebrooke Row.
Digression: You could divert up to Islington Green, though, with its statue of Hugh Myddleton (how about a statue remembering the navvies who dug the River – the nameless, always forgotten…).In June 1780, during the Gordon Riots, the house of Magistrate Hyde here was attacked by an angry mob. Hyde had read the Riot Act on the 6th, allowing soldiers to legally fire on the rioting and protesting crowds in the City and Westminster.
Islington had a long and rebellious history, it was a stronghold of the National Union of the Working Classes. Meetings were held here in the run up to the battle of Coldbath Fields in 1833 (where a riot broke out when police kettled a demo calling for political reform). The huge national demonstration demanding the pardoning of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, six labourers transported to Australia for forming a union, was held in the fields below Barnsbury, on Copenhagen Fields. Later Chartism, radicalism, communism were strong here, and in the 1970s and 80s there were large numbers of squats, and other alternative projects here.
Much of this can only be imagined in these days, when Angel and Upper Street are a capitalist paradise. But this was a working class area only thirty years ago, and the borough still has large pockets of poverty and hardship, behind the glitzy main drags.
Turn left down here, then first right and walk down Colebrooke Row. Again you can see the curve that marks the old River course; and the ever-present weeping willows which have long outlasted the wandering waters channeled by man…
On the left near the start you pass no 54, sometime HQ of the Social Democratic Federation. From the 1880s-1916, the SDF (under various names) was Britain’s first Marxist organisation, a socialist group that had a large influence on left politics through that time. Involved in widespread propaganda for a socialist society, many struggles, including strikes, free speech battles and more… though the SDF was long cursed by its schizo leader, HM Hyndman, who combined Marxism with upper class eccentricities and patriotic jingoism.
By the time it moved here in 1926, it had split, as one faction supported the War effort in WW1, though the majority opposed it, and later formed the nucleus of the British Communist Party. Hyndman and his supporters, the pro-slaughter rump, operated from here, but sank into decline and eventual collapse in 1937.
As you walk down here, a Victorian scandal crunches beneath your feet. A farm owned by mad Portuguese baron d’Aguilar in 18th century, on the New River Bank near the end of the ‘Lower Road Tunnel” (possibly a mews next to no 64), was known as ‘Starvation Farm’. The Baron had a penchant for maintaining several farms around London, not doing any farming, leaving them in charge of ‘starving caretakers’. On top of this he mistreated several wives and kids (one wife was said to have been locked in a barn), and also lured homeless orphans and women into house on pretext of charity, then maintained them and their subsequent offspring in a harem. “A scene of the most abandoned depravity” apparently. Nice chap.
Follow Colebrooke Row all the way down, past the smart townhouses on both sides, that housed the nineteenth century bourgeoisie who made Islington so fashionable. How times come round again, via the twentieth century when they mostly buggered off, leaving it to the working class, then came back knocking and shooed out the squatters, totters and nutters, to turn the area trendy again. The gardens here are fairly funky, mainly sheltering office workers and students who come here to eat their sandwiches.
Here you walk past (on the south-east side) Noel Road, where wicked 1960s playwight, Joe Orton lived at no 25, breaking taboos and brilliantly satirising English society, and then died, violently in 1967, killed by his jealous and frustrated lover Kenneth Halliwell; then, on the north-west side, the old Clerkenwell County Court.
You then come to the bridge over the Regent’s Canal. Another of those shivery arcs of urban geography, where one waterway undercuts the ghost of a second… We have walked and cycled the whole of the canal network in London and beyond, seen it alter too over 25 years. One day we will write about that too.
A quick digression: up to the corner of the Angel.
Although it’s lost under modern developments here, the ancient Angel Inn, stood here just north of the big road junction. A coaching inn, where travelers would stop the night, it’s most famous long-term guest may have been radical Tom Paine, who probably wrote part 1 of his book, The Rights of Man in the inn in 1791.
The impact of The Rights of Man at the time cannot be underestimated. 200,000 copies circulated among middle and working class radicals, at a time when the ruling elites rightly feared a rising climate of opposition to both the traditional hierarchies and class relations & the growing capitalist ethos that would replace them… “Paine’s aim was to bring hereditary monarchy, the peerage and indeed the whole constitution into contempt…he was calling the dispossessed to action.” (Christopher Hill) In the early 1790s fear of revolution in Britain led to ‘Church and King’ mobs, officially-inspired patriotic riots against radicals & reformers; at this point Thomas Paine became the person burned in effigy more than anyone else in history, probably apart from Mr Fawkes..
Weirdly, the huge cathedral of Angel Square, which eclipses this corner, contains not only a monument remembering Tom Paine, but no 2 Angel Square is called Thomas Paine House.
Two hundred and four years after our Tom’s book, Reclaim the Streets occupied the road at Angel for a great street party, with sounds systems, 1000s of dancers, and much more… we was there!
Reclaim the Streets, Angel, 1995
When you reach City Road, cross over at the lights (bearing in mind that there’s a cycle-path here, pay attention as its cyclists’ right of way, and many unobservant folk cross in front of them without looking).
On 15 October 1940, some 150 people sheltering in the basement of Dame Alice Owen’s School on Goswell Road, were killed here, when a bomb hit the building directly, causing the structure to collapse and blocking access to the basement. The blast wave from the bomb fractured the pipeline carrying the New River, flooding the shelter and killing most of the shelterers. A memorial to the victims of the bombing stands in Owen’s Fields at the northern end of Goswell Road.
Walk down Owen Street, to St John Street.
Digression: St John Street. The road from Islington to the City via Smithfield and St Paul’s’, was open country till the 1780s, and considered very dangerous till the 1820s; especially at night. It was a haunt of thieves who would rob well-to-do travellers going to City. People would often stay at Angel to avoid going down it by night, or wait for others to travel as a group.
This whole hill, once called ‘Islington Hill’, the hill rising from Farringdon Road, City Road, to Angel, around Sadlers Wells, Amwell Street, has a disorderly history though.
Islington Hill, 18th century
It was long a resort for Londoners wanting an escape from the City, to stroll, play games, and have sex… the arrival of the New River here changed nothing; in fact houses of refreshment sprang up, like Pencer’s breakfasting hut on the new river bank, and the ‘farthing pye house’… also a bear-pit, cockfighting rings; prize fights staged between women, and a bowling green. The nearby resorts of Sadlers Wells, London Spa, New Tunbridge Wells flourished. Tea gardens were laid out; but by 1744 they were less than respectable. In May 1744, Sadlers Wells and the New Wells near the London Spa were included by the Middlesex grand jury on a list of six places which “inviting and seducing not only the inhabitants, but all other persons, to several places kept apart for the encouragement of luxury, extravagance, idleness and other wicked illegal purposes, which by such means, go on with impunity, to the destruction of many families, to the great dishonour of the kingdom in general, and this county in particular.”
In 1786, a writer lambasted Spa Fields, the Bagnigge Wells, White Conduit House and Sadlers Wells: “The tendency of these cheap enticing places of pleasure just at the the skirts of this vast town is too obvious to need further explanation… They swarm with loose women, and with boys whose morals are thus depraved and their constitution ruined, before they arrive at manhood: indeed the licentious resort to the tea drinking gardens was carried to such excess every night, that the magistrates lately thought proper to suppress the organs in their public rooms.”
A field at the top of the hill near the bowling green was known as ‘Whores’ Field’: and a verse called ‘A Walk to Islington’ from 1699, describes the writer taking up with a ‘lady of pleasure’ and sauntering about with her near the New River Head.
The New River reservoir at Myddelton Square, Pentonville Road – a cathedral of water
The New River Company, always a massive property company as well as a water supplier (a dynamic inherited by Thames Water), had issues here keeping control of their lands. In the early 19th century there were disputes here over use of footpaths across the ‘Hanging Fields’, between where Kings Cross Road, Pentonville Road, Great Percy Street and Amwell Street now stand. The Company, which owned the land, tried to prevent the use of footpaths, and the establishing of rights of way, as they had plans to develop the land for profitable new streets and housing. In 1781 a row of houses was built along the north edge of the fields. The residents made back entrances to gain access to the field; the Company ordered them to block them up or they would cut off their water supply. By 1815 there were several paths: the Company’s Clerk wrote to the Fields’ tenant farmer Mr Laycock, that he must mend fences at his own expense ‘to prevent the numerous footpaths’. This led to public protest from locals including the Reverend Baker and his wife. As a result the Company agreed to reopen a path from Sadler’s Wells to the Upper Pond (the reservoir in modern Claremont Square), though on a new track to conform to the plans for new streets they had in mind; a few months later Rev Baker also persuaded them to open a path from Sadler’s Wells to the Merlin’s Cave pub (to the west of New River head), in use since the early 18th century.
The Gate, formerly squatted by Reclaim the Streets in 1997
A short walk down St John Street, on the east side, and stopping outside The Gate restaurant. In 1997, this was an empty pub, which was squatted for a few months by the London core of Reclaim the Streets (RTS), and others. It was used for communal meals, meetings, discussions, music and much more. Although some older activists from different scenes had already been getting involved in RTS for a while, it would be true to day that many others gravitated to the group around this time, and the squat here was important in the subsequent development of RTS, and the anti-roads scene generally, merging with older anarchists and others, and moving towards the anti-capitalist movements in the UK, the June 18th 1999 City demo/riot, Mayday actions for several years after… A crucial nexus.
Walk over St John Street, and down Chadwell Street, to Myddleton Street, then left, down Myddleton Passage; at the end of which is the New River Head. If you enter the right hand of the two black gates, there’s a display on the history and layout of the reservoirs, and you can look out over the Nautilus Gardens, which you can also get into in the day time, 8.00 – 4.00, 0r 8.00 – 7.00 in the summer…they’re worth a wander too, you can skirt the back of the old Metropolitan Water Board offices, a massive grandiose self-congratulatory affair, when built in 1919 – it encloses an original room moved here from the old New River Company HQ… But the whole edifice seems to have been converted to posh flats now.
The New River where it flowed past Sadlers Wells
Here the old River ended, and the reservoirs from where the wooden pipes used to dispense the precious water across London. Although the several reservoirs which once occupied the hill are built on now, the New River Head site is still one of Thames Water’s twelve pumping stations, where water from the new Thames Ring main is dispersed to us mortals.
From here you can digress into the old neighbourhood of Clerkenwell, one of the old City’s first suburbs outside its walls… for more on the turbulent and rebellious history of this area, see Reds On the Green, which derives from a walk we’ve walked several times around this area.
Another past tense walk that intersects here is a wander up the Fleet River, lost beneath the streets, more so than the New River, covering lots of the dig story of the slums, prisons and workshops that crowded the Fleet’s banks…
The filter beds at New River Head, 1910.
This text is not complete, in any realistic way; everything we do is a work in progress. There’s so much more we could have put in, and so much more we want to know, and write about, for instance about the lives of the navvies who dug the New River.
But sometimes you have to just publish and move on.
Omasius Gorgut, past tense, 2022
New River Appendix 1
Old lost loops
The original New River, built before pumping, had to follow a long, meandering course to be able to flow downhill all the way from Hertfordshire to Clerkenwell. 38 miles or so, (in the course of which it fell only 18 inches….!) A spectacular achievement, for those that surveyed and built it alone.
As technical innovations and tunnelling skills developed, the New River Company were able to cut out some of the long loops around the contours of the land, digging tunnels that shortened the river’s length by some eleven miles. The two ‘frames’, at Bush Hill and Highbury, that carried the River in lead-lined aqueducts over dips in the land, proved expensive to maintain and very leaky, and were replaced by embankments.
The first redundant loop in the London stretch of the New River was the already described Enfield loop (see Bush Hill, above)
Another loop diverted west from Palmers Green, and through the Arnos Grove Estate, (evidence of the abandoned New River loop can be found within the trees in the north side of Arnos Park) with a further loop further south. It seems to have followed the course of Pymmes Brook for some of this meander.
A line of grass marks the apparent route of the lost New River loop in Arnos Park
There was a much longer Loop around Wood Green. This diverged from the modern River between the North Circular and Whittington Road, running along Whittington Road, right into Palmerston Road, then left into Lascotts Road. The River crossed Lascotts between Cheshire Rd and Parkhurst Road. From Lascotts Road, the River turned right into Parkhurst and crossed Middleton Road into Hampshire Road, then towards Green Lanes: “At this point the River crosses Green Lanes just short of the mushroom-shaped building at the corner of Woodside Park, and then runs back in the opposite direction towards the Cock Tavern on the North Circular… The Mushroom building on Woodside Park is a gatehouse, built in 1820 as part of the Woodside manor, which stood at the top of the hill (near the junction of Woodside Road and Wolves Lanes).”
(This was where Catherine Smithies lived, see Bounds Green Road, above)
“You can tell from the design of the gatehouse that it could have been very effective for riflemen defending the nobs of the manor from Luddites and other radical types of the day (this was the time of the Peterloo Massacre and the Cato Street Conspiracy)…”
From the Gatehouse, the River curved north again, back towards the modern North Circular, “pass by Lyndhurst Rd, Berkshire Gardens, Upsdell Avenue and Grenoble Gardens, you will notice a slight dip running across the bottoms of those roads, built in the 1930s. That’s the river bed.”
Just before the North Circular, the river turned east into modern Tottenhall Road and onto Tile Kiln Lane and as far as Great Cambridge Road. It then ran to the south of Pymme’s Brook and circled around the sports grounds between Pasteur Gardens and Devonshire Hill. Apparently a section of the New River still had water in it in the 1930s, on Devonshire Hill Lane, but was then used as landfill for the building of housing.
The river ran down near the Great Cambridge Road, and through the industrial area north of White Hart Lane. It then cut through the New River Sports centre just north of the stadium where the spirit of riot that mists over the River broke out again; in May 1976, when a mini-riot broke out here, after crowds of kids leaving North London inter-schools athletics finals got into a barney with police in Perth Road, leading to half an hour of fighting between cops and youth.
The River then crossed Wolves Lane, ran through the tennis courts, through the playing fields north of White Hart Lane near the school and crossed White Hart Lane, running somewhere near Winkfield Rd-Progress Walk-Pellatt Grove. It then flowed across Green Lanes again, just north of where the Wood Green tube station now lies, and along New River Park Road, just north of the council offices, and through the back gardens of Station Road.
“The Old River crosses Station Road just before where the NEW New River now stands and runs into Wood Green Park and then on towards the waterworks and the Haringey Ladder.”
(Thanks to David Black for info on this loop, the quotes are his)
But (as this picture shows) there was another loop to the west at Wood Green, flowing immediately west from the section just described, andlooping around to the west of Hornsey, maybe along the bottom of Alexandra Park, and cutting back to the modern route near the south end of the Haringey ladder.
The Arnos Grove and Tottenham loops were abandoned when the New River was straightened in 1859.
There was an original loop that ran from roughly where the Stoke Newington reservoirs are now, as far west as Holloway Road, then back east to CLissold Park. In the mid-17th century, the ‘Highbury frame’, or the ‘Boarded River’, was built to cut this loop out: another leadlined boarded aqueduct like the one over Salmons Brook. It was 178 yards long, but was leaky and problematic, and was replaced by pumped pipes down Green Lanes to Clissold Park and Petherton Road in 1778.
The Boarded River itself was the scene of a battle over rights of way. According to John Nelson (writing in 1829), a path running down the length of the New River, “from Highbury” towards Hornsey, somewhere off where Riversdale Road is now, passed under the Boarded River. ”This road appears to be an ancient public way, the right to which was 60 years ago opposed by James Colebrooke, Esq. when in possession of this manor, he having erected gates for the purpose of stopping the passage. This circumstance gave rise to a law-suit, upon the issue of which the privilege of the public to this road as a thoroughfare was lost.”
“The following are the circumstances which gave rise to this action:- There was one Jennings, a Quaker, originally by profession an ass-driver, afterwards became proprietor of some donkeys in fee simple, then a farmer at Crouch-end, and at length lessee of the manor of Brown’s Wood. This man became acquainted with Richard Holland, a leather-seller, in Newgate-street, who villa at Hornsey, and was at great pains to obtain the suppression of some tolls demanded in Smithfield Market. These two persons determined to oblige Mr.Colebrooke to open the road. Accordingly one day they sent several teams down the road. When they came to the Boarded River, not finding any body to open the gate, they without further ceremony cut it down, drove across the field to the next gate, and did the same there; thence passing by Cream Hall they came to Highbury Barn, where they found a third gate; whereupon they dispatched a messenger to Mr Wallbank requesting him to open the same, which he refusing to do, they pulled it up with their horses, and drove it in triumph down the road to Hopping-lane, and thence to Islington, where they proclaimed aloud, “that they had come along this old road, which was a thoroughfare” &c. Upon this, Wallbank commenced a suit, and in order effectually to stop the passage, by Mr Colebrooke’s desire, took off the crown of the arch at the Boarded River, and laid it open, railing the opening to prevent mischief. At length the suit was brought to an issue, and the plaintiff examined one Richard Glasscock, who had long dwelt at the Boarded River House as a servant to the [New River] Company, and swore that there has always been a bar there. The defendant did not appear, and the cause was determined in the plaintiff’s favour; in consequence of which this has ever since continued a closed way. Mr Colebrooke died before the trial came on.” (These events took place around 1784 or shortly before)