He lost his head but left a river

A GROUP OF AGITATED SWANS were on a stream beneath an iron bridge. A wire mesh stretched from one bank of the waterway to the other was the cause of their frustration because some of the birds were on one side of the barrier and the rest on the other, and they had not yet discovered a way to pass the obstruction. It was distressing to watch a swan on one side pecking at the mesh trying to reach the beak of another doing the same thing on its side. The purpose of the mesh was not clear to me.

The water beneath this bridge at the northwest corner of the Waterhouse Plantation in London’s Bushy Park is flowing along the man-made Longford River. It runs from the River Colne at Longford, which is on the western edge of Heathrow Airport, to the River Thames. After being diverted into several separate channels, its waters flow into the Thames at three points near Hampton Court and Bushy Park.  On reaching the northern edge of Bushy Park it flows under the bridge where I saw the frustrated swans and then through woodland until it reaches a large triangular pool, the Waterhouse Pond. From there, its waters flow through outlets controlled by sluices into a maze of streams, which water the grounds of parts of Bushy Park. The river and the Waterhouse Pond are elevated several feet above the surrounding terrain. This allows water to escape from the river via small channels and from the pond through the sluices, which have mechanical devices with taps to control the flow. Near the Waterhouse Pond there is a tall wooden totem pole, which was designed by Norman Tait and constructed in 1992. The pole was:

“Installed to mark the connection between Canada and Bushy Park, which housed a large Canadian camp during World War l.” (www.royalparks.org.uk/media-centre/factsheets-on-the-royal-parks/monuments/monuments-in-bushy-park)

The Waterhouse Pond was a noisy place when we visited it early one morning recently. Most of the noise was being made by pairs of Canada Geese, which was rather appropriate given that they were in sight of the totem pole. The geese were craning their long necks forward and cackling loudly, their reddish tongues very visible. Nearby, occasional Egyptian Geese with their characteristic ‘eye make-up’ colouring, were furiously proclaiming something that seemed most important to them. Elsewhere in the vicinity, there was a veritable symphony of bird calls including plenty produced by green parakeets which were perched on camellia bushes, some of them pecking away at the flowers, dislodging petals one by one as they searched for something tasty. It was pleasant to be in a place that humans were completely outnumbered by birds … and squirrels.

The Longford River that supplies the water lovely features in Bushy Park did not exist prior to 1638. In that year, in accordance with the wishes of the ill-fated King Charles I, the river (really, a canal) was constructed to bring water to Hampton Court and its neighbour Bushy Park. Twelve miles in length, it took only nine months to complete. Before the twentieth century, when it acquired its present name, the waterway was known variously as: the ‘New River’, the ‘King’s River’, the ‘Queen’s River’, the ‘Cardinal’s River’, the ‘Hampton Court Cut’, and the ‘Hampton Court Canal’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Longford_River). There is another New River in Greater London, which, like the Longford, is man-made. The other New River, which retains its original name, was built in 1613   to carry drinking water from the River Lea at Ware in Hertfordshire to reservoirs in Islington.

The part of the Longford River, which I have been describing, runs through and irrigates the Waterhouse Plantation. This and its neighbour, another plantation, the Woodland Garden, where swamp cypresses with their curious aerial outcrops may be seen, were originally planted in the early 19th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000281). Both areas are surrounded by fences to prevent the ingress of deer that reside in Bushy Park. They were redeveloped extensively between 1948 and 1949, and now look well-established.

After having been introduced to it by friends, who live not far away from it in Richmond, we have visited Bushy Park several times and enjoyed its variety and wildlife every time. If you are planning a visit – something I recommend highly – try to reach it early, prefer well before 10am so that you will have no difficulty parking and because at that early hour the park is reasonably empty of other visitors, many of them are dogs, which are excluded from the plantations, with their owners; joggers in expensive gear; and ‘yummy mummies’ with infants in tow or in and out of upmarket push chairs.

It was unfortunate that Charles the First lost his head, but fortunate for us that he created a waterway that makes Bushy Park so delightful today.

Gushing from beneath the ground

AT SCHOOL, MY CHOSEN SPORT was cross-country running. Twice a week I spent an hour or so doing this in the grounds of Kenwood and the part of Hampstead Heath near to Highgate in North London. I have written about this before (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2020/06/14/my-sporting-life/), but there is one aspect of it that I did not cover. Once a year, those who did cross-country running were accompanied by a teacher, Mr Bowles, who believed that getting covered in mud was an essential part of this form of exercise. I did not share his odd belief. There was one place on the Heath where filthy red coloured mud was guaranteed. This was at a point 410 yards south east of the centre of the grand south facing façade of Kenwood House and a few yards northwest of The Stock Pond, one of the series of Highgate Ponds.

The reason that this spot, favoured by Mr Bowles, was and still is, always sodden is that it surrounds a natural spring, which issues from a cylindrical stone well-head covered with stone carvings. These include depictions of a squirrel, a fish, and the head of a man with a luxuriant moustache. The water issues from a pipe emerging from the man’s mouth and then drops into a carving of a scallop shell before some of it falls into a drainage grid and the rest all over the place.  

This well head is called Goddisons Fountain. It was constructed in 1929 (https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/04/19/the-healing-springs-of-hampstead/) and named in honour of Henry Goddison, who campaigned vigorously for saving Kenwood and Hampstead Heath from being built on and for preserving it for the use of the public. It is not known whether there was a spring on this spot prior to 1929, but it is not unlikely that there was.

Goddisons Fountain is the last surviving spring issuing chalybeate (iron rich) water in the Hampstead/Highgate area. Prized for its supposed curative properties, especially during the 18th century, there were several springs issuing this kind of mineral water in Hampstead. A fine example of a now disused spring well-head can be seen at the eastern end of Well Walk in Hampstead. It was for public use and located across the road from the Hampstead spa that thrived during the 18th century (https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/01/15/a-house-a-spa-and-grays-anatomy/).

If, unlike many who stroll on the Heath, you do not wish to try the chalybeate water issuing copiously from Goddisons fountain, the next nearest source of this once highly prized water is about 47 miles south east in The Pantiles at Royal Tunbridge Wells in Kent.

The water flowing from Goddisons Fountain is one of many sources of the water in the Highgate Ponds, which include (descending the slope from Kenwood) the Wood Pond; the Thousand Pound Pond with the trompe l’oeil bridge designed by Robert Adam; the Stock Pond which is directly below Goddisons Fountain; the Ladies’ Bathing Pond; the Bird Sanctuary Pond, where I spotted a heron; the Model Boating Pond, where I saw no boats; the Men’s Bathing Pond; and Highgate Number 1 Pond. The water from the topmost pond flows through the lower ones sequentially. Most of these ponds were dug before the 18th century as reservoirs for London’s water. They were kept full by damming the Hampstead Brook, a tributary of the now hidden River Fleet, in 1777. In addition, numerous streams in the grounds of Kenwood and on Hampstead Heath were diverted to keep them topped up. Now, the ponds form a valuable publicly accessible leisure amenity. Hardy souls gain great enjoyment in swimming in the gender segregated open-air ponds, whose waters are not subjected to any purification or disinfection procedures. During the present covid19 ‘lockdown’, it is only wildfowl that can enjoy their water.

As we looked at Goddisons Fountain today in late January 2021, I recalled my muddy encounters with it in the company of Mr Bowles and realised that I had not seen it since early 1970, that is just over half a century ago. And it was not until I wrote this that I learned that the fountain is the last surviving chalybeate spring in the part of the world, where I was brought up.

Pond life

WE MADE THE MOST of the shortest day of the year, 21st December 2020, by leaving our house before sunrise, which was supposed to happen at 8.05 am but did not do so visibly because of the grey skies and incessant rain. We drove to South End Green (Hampstead) and parked just above the largest of the Hampstead Ponds (Pond number 1).

Despite the sheets of rain and the sombre sky, the houses across the pond were reflected in the water  where swans and other waterfowl were taking a swim. We splashed along a waterlogged path to the next pond, Pond number 2, which is also overlooked by a few houses, whose inhabitants have an enviable view over the water and the slopes of Hampstead Heath beyond. We stood on a wooden viewing platform and heard a ‘splosh’ near us. It was a cormorant taking a dive. It emerged a few moments later further out in the pond. Several other cormorants could just about be seen through the rain, resting on a tiny island in the pond.

The Hampstead Ponds, three in number, are fed by streams that rise near the Vale of Health, which is about 440 yards northwest of the uppermost pond (number 3), which flows into the second pond and then into the first. These streams, along with those that flow into the Highgate Ponds, are sources of the water that flows in the now subterranean River Fleet, which empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.  

The idea of damming the streams to make the ponds might have been conceived as early as 1589 (https://guildhallhistoricalassociation.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/the-history-of-the-hampstead-heath-ponds/) but it was only in 1692 that the  Hampstead Water Company  leased the springs that now feed the ponds. The latter, which were used as freshwater reservoirs, were created by damming the streams in the early 18th century. The pond at the Vale of Health was created later, in 1777. Water from these ponds/reservoirs was supplied to users in north London via wooden pipes created by boring holes in elm tree trunks. The Highgate Ponds, which also supply water to the Fleet, were also created by the Hampstead Water Company.

In 1856, the New River Company acquired Hampstead Pond number 1 and the Vale of Health pond, which were by that time becoming less savoury as far as water quality was concerned. Four years later, the Hampstead Junction Railway Company opened what is now Hampstead Heath Overground Station. This was just south of a fourth pond, which was filled in in 1892. In addition, there was another pond in South End Green where a disused 19th century drinking fountain now stands. The pond was filled in in 1835.

Enough of the distant past. Let me tell you how South End Green fits in with my life so far. My mother’s brother, Felix, lived at number 130 Fleet Road. He bought it at an extremely reasonable price because it had a ‘sitting tenant’. Eventually, after the tenant died, my uncle lived on one of the building’s three floors and rented the other two to a couple of Nigerians, who became his close friends. He regarded them as if they were his sons and they looked after Felix as if he was their beloved father.  For a long time, Felix occupied the top flat. He used to visit our flat for dinner regularly and we used to drive him home at the end of the evening. On one occasion, we arrived at his house, and after fumbling in his pockets, he announced that he had left his house keys locked in his home. We asked him what he was going to do. He answered in his South African accent:

“Ag, I do this often. All I need to do is ring my neighbour’s doorbell and they will let me onto their roof. Then, I cross over on to my roof. I keep a stick there so that I can break open my window and climb into my house. So, you don’t need to worry.”

Felix was always creative and inventive. When he grew older and infirm, he moved into the ground floor flat. He began using a stick when out walking. Once, when I was visiting him in a ward in the Royal Free Hospital, which is across the road from his former home, I was present when a physiotherapist visited him. She asked him whether he had a walking stick. He said:

“It’s lying beneath my bed.”

The physiotherapist looked at the stick, and said:

“Well, I have never seen one quite like this before.”

“Ag,” said Felix, “I took a bleddy broomstick and glued an umbrella handle on to it.”

Felix died a few months ago. We miss him greatly.

Sadly, South End Green was  associated with other personal losses. Both my mother, and then many years later, her sister, ended their lives in the Royal Free Hospital.

The rear of Felix’s home once overlooked the LCC Tramway Depot. This was surrounded by the terraced houses on Fleet, Constantine, Agincourt, and Cressy Roads. The entrance to the depot was from the latter. This depot opened for horse-drawn trams in about 1887 and then the system was electrified in 1909. In 1938, trolley buses replaced trams travelling to South End Green and these were replaced by motor buses in about 1960 (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp3-8). Currently the route 24 bus terminates at South End Green, a route which I used when I was younger.

I used the 24, which passed near University College London where I studied between 1970 and 1982, for two main reasons. One was to visit my uncle Felix and the other to visit some friends, who lived in Constantine Road and others who lived in South Hill Park, part of which was built over the pond that was covered over in 1892.

Today, my wife and I enjoyed our visit to South End Green despite the relentless rain. After buying vegetables at a lovely open-air stall close to the station, we paid a visit to the Matchbox Café next to the cobbled area where the route 24 buses rest before setting off. As we waited for the barrista to prepare our hot drinks, we chatted with him through the hatch through which he serves the take-away drinks and snacks. Mirko was delighted to discover that we had visited his hometown Ptuj in Slovenia, which was once a part of the former Yugoslavia. He told us many things about his native place including that a castle north of the town, Borl (Ankenstein in German), was associated with Parsifal, one of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table (more information: https://blogs.bl.uk/european/2018/01/an-arthurian-castle-in-slovenia.html). Incidentally, Mirko prepares good quality coffee and richly flavoured hot chocolate. His café is one of many reasons for visiting South End Green, even on a rainy December day.