One of the simple pleasures that’s still open to most of us – including in the lighter stages of lockdown – is outdoor exercise. And what better way to do this than to explore the area we live in in a bit more detail? We’ve reviewed two walking guides in the Battersea / Clapham Junction area.
The first is Discovering Battersea’s Open Spaces by Clare Graham (sold out at the time of writing at Waterstones, but available direct from the Battersea Society). In a compact format (24 pages) this nicely presented guide ties together most of our green spaces in six mapped and annotated walking routes, stretching from Vauxhall to the edges of Wandsworth and down to Wandsworth Common. It includes all of our most famous and historic open spaces, but also works in several that are only really known to locals like Fred Wells Gardens, Banana Park and Montefiore Gardens, as well as recent developments like the promontory garden – with some of the best river views around – in Battersea Park. And some that are so new they’re still being developed – among the big new developments of Nine Elms.
One thing that will strike readers is that despite being a very densely populated area, there’s still an impressive amount of green space in Battersea! We were pleased to see that even the recently upgraded and lavishly planted tiny little park whose development we’ve previously written about between Asda and Dorothy Road (pictured below) makes it in to one of the walks.
The walks are also a way to experience the huge variety of buildings in the area – whether leafy Victorian streets, brand new luxury developments of riverside flats, heroic estate redevelopments of the 1960s and 1970s. The routes include lots of little insights about the history of the areas the walks pass through – for example the long-lost St John’s Hospital, which used to be a major site just off St John’s Hill (and whose name lives on in the St John’s clinic on a small part of its old site). And the walks also make sure to find a decent en-route cafe!
Battersea’s a very walkable area and there’s always a bit more to discover when you stray away from the usual places, and this guide should be a good companion to some local excursions as the days lengthen and the lockdown eases. Anyone with an interest in exploring Battersea, or just looking for some new places to go on a quiet wander with a canine companion, should find something of interest here.
The second local walking guide is The Heathwall – Battersea’s Buried River, by Jon Newman. On the face of it, this is less of a walking guide than a history of one of London’s least well known lost rivers – and there’s a lot of content and detail here – but it also includes a walking route that runs the entire length of the Heathwall. The Heathwall was once a real river, of sorts – and it used to run from close to Clapham Junction, all the way to Vauxhall – and it was a major part of draining the marshy riverside area that became Battersea.
Unlike some of London’s more famous lost rivers like the Fleet and even the Falconbrook, no-one’s really heard of the Heathwall, but when you look at the way the land lies in Battersea you can see why it used to exist walk north from Lavender Hill and you run down a steep hill – before things flatten out. But keep going and the land definitely creeps up as you approach the river, as anyone who’s cycled along Queenstown Road can confirm.
The raised embankments at the side of the Thames are what allowed Battersea to move from being a low-lying swamp, to being a rich agricultural area famed for exotic crops such as melon and asparagus, and then to go on to be swept up in the urbanisation of London. But the land was below the level of the river at high tide, and the water that ended up in Battersea still had to go somewhere! The Heathwall was the river that drained all this low-lying land, and where it met the Thames, a sluice gate was opened at low tide so it could empty to the Thames, and then closed as the Thames rose above the level of the land. As Jon Newman explains, there were disastrous situations when these sluice gates weren’t closed in time! Jon’s map below shows the Heathwall running from Falcon Road, roughly parallel to Lavender Hill and Wandsworth Road all the way to Vauxhall.
And from the first page, it quickly becomes clear that we’re not really talking about some lost riverine paradise – but more of a headache and problem for those around it! The Heathwall was ‘over looked and under loved’, ‘inexpressibly dismal’, and as more and more houses connected to water supply and fitted toilets, and as all manner of heavy industries poured toxic waste in to it, it became a sludgy, stinky mess. As houses began to be built all around it, the whole river was gradually covered over to make the areas around it more pleasant to live in – and gradually its existence was forgotten.
But that’s not to say it’s not an interesting history. And Jon Newman has dug deep here and packed a lot in to 56 pages – the book’s full of interesting bits of history. We learn that Bazalgette’s famous Thames sewers were rather awkwardly built at a higher level than many of Battersea’s basements, which caused severe flooding in the Heathwall and led to a ban on sewer connections in Battersea’s deeper basements. And about an area of housing north of Wandsworth Road that was so heavily damaged in the war that it was evacuated and became a ‘designated area for street fighting’ used for military training.
We also hear about how cholera – which was generally associated with the poor and bad living conditions – mysteriously led to the unexplained death of nineteen people in a row of ‘commodious and comfortable’ smart houses along Wandsworth Road, who didn’t really fit the established view of what caused the illness. The inspector brought in to investigate the deaths actually commented that these specific houses shared a pump for their water supply that drew from next to the Heathwall, which was “positively fetid [and] utterly unfit for use”. But despite being tantalisingly close to spotting the cause of the illness, they blamed it on bad smells and missed the connection between cholera and the water supply, which was only made five years later at the now-famous Broad Street pump in Soho. The landlord renamed the houses, and deaths from cholera continued with 64 the following month along Lambeth’s riverside.
The enormous amount of development that has happened since the Heathwall was covered over means that the walk Jon sets out doesn’t precisely follow the river, but it makes a decent effort at it – and there are a few places where the waters can still be seen. The best examples are on Robertson Street, where a whole series of unusually large drains reveal long ladders going down in to the darkness, and – once your eyes get used to peering in to the darkness – swift flowing water (our pictures below). The Heathwall’s maybe forgotten, but it’s definitely not gone away!
One of the few visible remains of the now very hidden river is hiding in plain sight among the glamorous new flats on Nine Elms Lane: the Heathwall Pumping Station, which has replaced the sluice gates and now lifts water from the Heathwall up to the level of the Thames sewer.
All in all – a fascinating read. Ideal for those who know the area well and have an eye for detail, or an interest in what flows beneath us – but the walk is also an exercise in contrasts, running through a wide cross section of Battersea, from its leafiest residential streets to the high rise new districts, via its still busy industrial districts.
Discovering Battersea’s Open Spaces by Clare Graham – easiest to order direct from the Battersea Society or at local independent bookstore Clapham Books (whose store on The Pavement, Clapham is still open for click & collect) / on sale at Waterstones (albeit currently closed for lockdown) / and listed on Amazon.