River Ravensbourne parks in SE London probably has you scratching your head! I hope you enjoyed your previous visits with me in South East London, to the Downham Estate and Deptford. So do join me again to walk along the River Ravensbourne in Lewisham. The history of the river is interesting and its parks are a joy, especially in times when we are so restricted. Let’s set off and explore the first three miles of the eleven mile river.
The River Ravensbourne
The River Ravensbourne and its tributaries in Lewisham have shaped the physical landscape over thousands of years, carving out a river valley which has sheltered its people and animals, supported farming, and powered industry. There were eleven mills on the river in 1086, according to the Domesday Book, and the last working mill, the Robinson’s Flour Mill at Deptford Bridge, was only demolished in the 1970s.
Controlling rivers in heavily urbanised settings is tricky. The Ravensbourne and its tributaries, the Rivers Quaggy and Pool, can flood and cause a lot of damage. Traditional wisdom said we should encase the river in concrete and direct its flow as quickly as possible to a major outlet, in this case the River Thames. Today we believe the opposite to be true and are returning the river, where possible, to a less confined and more natural state for two reasons. If the river is allowed to follow its natural course, with provision for flooding in water meadows (even if modest) it slows the flow of the water. When the water flow is regularly slowed along the course of the river it prevents major inundations from a buildup downstream. And secondly, natural flora and fauna return to the river and flourish, allowing people to enjoy and learn about nature.
Broadway Fields lie alongside the Ravensbourne, close to Deptford Bridge DLR station. On Stanford’s map of 1862 the area is covered in Market Gardens; in 1932 the site opened as Deptford Municipal Playing Fields. It changed again during the development of the DLR in 1999. New sports facilities were built, the layout was changed, and new trees planted, although here the river remains in a controlled concrete channel. The history of the site is retained in name only: the ‘broadway’ is the broad open space in the centre of Deptford ‘Upper Town’, and the flats on the left are built on Seager Place, once the site of various breweries and distilleries.
From this park a path leads along the river, past the Stephen Lawrence Centre, to Brookmill Park. On the John Roque map of 1746 a water mill stood on the site of the Centre. It is proposed this was the mill which John Evelyn bought. By the 1850s the mill was subsumed into the water extraction company.
Brookmill Park (including Broadway Fields) occupies five acres along the riverside between Deptford Bridge and Elverson Road DLR stations. In 1999 the DLR was built, connecting Lewisham to Bank in the City and the river was moved to the west (in both parks) to accommodate the railway. The concrete channel was mainly removes to open up the river and create water meadows, and new formal gardens and a children’s play area created.
This stretch of the River Ravensbourne serviced the mill mentioned above, and the Armoury Mills which changed purpose several times before the site finally closed in c.1960. The river also provided water for domestic consumption until it became too polluted. The Ravensbourne Water Company was founded in 1701, and underwent several changes of ownership. Today the only evidence of waterworks is the James Engine House1, on the opposite side of the river, and the small pond in the park, the remains of the pumping station reservoir.
Cornmill Park & River Gardens
These are two new, small parks in the centre of Lewisham. Cornmill Park is on the site of Lewisham Bridge Mill, a corn mill on the river which was also a glass cutting mill for a while. And close by is Riverdale Gardens, the site of Riverdale Mill, with Mill House, a mill wheel, and the remains of a mill pond.
The River Ravensbourne can next be enjoyed in Ladywell Fields, Mediaeval Water Meadows behind St Mary’s Church in Lewisham. The London County Council and the Lewisham Board of Works bought land in the late 19C to create the Ladywell Recreation Ground for the expanding urban community. Today the park still offers good sports and playground facilities, but it is also a beautiful and varied open space for walking, with several ‘rooms’. The River Ravensbourne has been opened up, a little water meadow and backwaters have been created, and there are many impressive old trees.
The trees in the mile-long Ladywell Fields are glorious. Like many of the parks I have visited Ladywell Fields has an active and knowledgeable Friends Group, and here they have produced a guide to the trees in the park. Trees to spot include a Monterey Pine, birch, black poplars, mimosa, cherry trees, acres, willows (of course), Caucasian wing nut, ash trees, and a community orchard.
I hope you have enjoyed your walk along the first three miles of the River Ravensbourne Parks in SE London. I am sure there are similar walks and parks in the other areas of London – do share your thoughts!
All the photographs and text by Candy Blackham, and further information about Lewisham Green Spaces is at www.enthusiasticgardener.com
- 1.Historical photographs, showing gardens around the Pumping House: London Metropolitan Archives
- Friends of Ladywell Fields: http://ladywellfields.blogspot.com
- Friends of Brookmill Park: https://brookmillpark.deptfordcreek.net
- The Great Trees of London: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Trees_of_London
- The Domesday Book: https://opendomesday.org/place/TQ3875/lewisham/