A Walk by a Secret Brook and a Hidden Pond

It was a surprise to get the previous article - Mayes Brook and Parsloes Park - offered for publication on the Group’s website – especially under these somewhat locked-down circumstances. At least, still, somewhat. It was the first since the walk in the Felstead area, way back on 7th March. The website has been looking a bit stagnant, and maybe some of the group members are feeling a bit stagnant, but at least we know that members have got together at last, and got outdoors. There may have been other meetings – maybe a cycle ride or two – and we have at least had updates on some goings on (goings on!?) via emails, and maybe via Facebook, although I would not have seen the latter.

Some of those who went on last Sunday’s walk, led by Ann, also came on a walk led by myself on 15th July. The furthest I have been in the last few months is Wanstead or Plaistow, on foot because I haven’t used public transport during that time, and don’t have a car. But one easy place for me to go is the City of London Cemetery, and I do know it quite well. In fact, having a car wouldn’t be a bad idea in there, perhaps, as there is said to be over 7 miles of road.

So I invited just two people along, Ann and Cathy – as I wanted to ensure social distancing on the one hand and keeping an EFOG group together on the other – and was asked if Richard might come too. So that made four.

col birches pond 200629 40194efogThe secret pond in the BirchesMy planned route – and I did have one, in my head – was essentially to show part of the course of one of the least known streams or rivers in the whole of Greater London. Even Ann’s Mayes Brook and the River Effra are more well known, and do feature in guide books, and of course the bountifully endowed Beverley Brook is featured in novels. My brook is just about unknown even to the residents of the nice Edwardian housing estate which takes it name from the watercourse. The watercourse is the Alders Brook, and the housing estate is the Aldersbrook. It is almost certainly unknown to the majority of the residents of the cemetery, although it is possible that a few did know it in their past.

So the four of us met in the car park of the cemetery, outside its impressive main gates. This cemetery really should be cemetery eight of London’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ (Cemeteries, that is). However, they – apparently – are private cemeteries, and this one is owned by the Corporation of the City of London. The City's churchyards were somewhat overflowing with passed (past) residents in the mid 1800’s, so they bought up a farm estate (Aldersbrook Manor and Farm, no less), built a wonderful cemetery – dubbed as ‘The Cemetery in a Garden’ – and hence not only stopped the overflow, but had room to re-bury some of the City churches’ dead. Also, because of this land ownership, the City Corporation was able to add an extremely powerful voice in the campaign to ‘Save Epping Forest’, but that is – as is said – another story.

There aren’t many famous people buried in there – unlike, for example Highgate – and I suspect that one of the most visited graves (or at least memorials) is that of Bobby Moore. Other favourites are a couple of Jack the Ripper victims, whose resting places are marked by plaques on the ground. But it is the ‘garden’ aspect that I like – very different from nearby Wanstead Flats or Wanstead Park – maybe closer to the formality of Valentines Park, which is not really all that far away, but on the east side of the River Roding.

On its eastern edge the cemetery does slope down to the valley of the Roding, here being a wide flood plain on which Ilford Golf Course is built. So we – eventually – made our way to the top of this slope from which – if it weren’t for the willows in between – we could have seen as far as Ilford. On the outer edge of the railings of the cemetery there is a footpath which runs parallel to the fence, inexplicably known to the few remaining indigenous people hereabouts as ‘The Bridle Path’, which it isn’t. I suppose it may have been the Bridal Path, but can’t really see why it should be that, either. Beyond the path, and also coursing more or less parallel for some way, is the stream called the Alders Brook, which is a tributary of the Roding, meeting it just north of Ilford High Road bridge, near the A406 flyover, which indeed the river flows under.

However, our vantage point wasn’t really a vantage point, because of those trees and other sundry vegetation and allotments, so the others just had to trust me. We made our way into a dense cover of trees, mainly Grey Poplar and Yew, but with some Oaks and other things. This unused area of the cemetery is cleverly known and sign-posted as ‘The Birches’, but most of these are dead, and ‘The Poplars’ might be a better nomenclature. The Birches is the cemetery’s nature reserve, opened to the public in 2006 and on which day I led the first walk around. It’s likely that hardly anyone has gone in there since, but… The reason that The Birches is there at all is that all these trees and other vegetation are around a valley, and a damp one at that. Not really suitable for burials, and thus probably had been lying virtually untouched since the time of the Aldersbrook Estate (the original one – not the present Edwardian one), until the nature reserve path was constructed.

col amos 20200710 efogAmos' graveWell, not quite untouched, because I led our little group downhill through the wilderness and indeed beyond the official ‘public’ access to the reserve, to show them a hidden pond. This had been deliberately constructed under the auspices of a founding member of the Wren Conservation Group sometime in the 70’s, I think, as a wildlife habitat. For much of the year the pond remains almost un-see-able, unless one knows where to look, but we looked, and I explained that this was the first visible aspect of the Alders Brook. On the east side there is a conduit which allows the brook to flow under the cemetery fence and the Bridle Path, to emerge just marginally more visibly before flowing around the back of the Aldersbrook Allotments, passing some Alder trees (there might be a clue there), and hence to the Roding. At the west end of the pond is a concrete conduit from which the stream flows as from some concrete goddess' womb, which I intended to explain later.

Exiting from The Birches, perhaps to the relief of some because of its density and mosquitoes, we scaled the really high ground of the cemetery. This area was once used as a tip for unwanted materials generated in such a place – like flower wrappers and broken plant pots and vegetative material. Within the last few years the tip has been both filled in and raised up, to create more burial space. In the middle of this large, more or less grass-covered,mound is the access to a manhole which gives access to the Alders Brook, some 6 metres or so below, I believe. The water runs underground now, to emerge at the conduit in The Birches, but originating at a mysterious source still somewhere roughly to the west.

So we made our way off the mound, roughly to the west. I deviated slightly, because I wanted to show the others what I consider to be one of the finest and oddest memorials in the cemetery – a kerbed grave with a huge upright headstone and carvings of a 'long dog' (a greyhound or lurcher), a hare, a cockerel and a jaunting car. The only inscription on the whole thing is one word: ‘Amos’. (apart from the maker’s inscription, of course). On the reverse of the upright, though, are three poems, which tend to relate to illegal hunting practices and the mystery of the hare.

col cats 180924 efogThe Catacombes, looking towards the BirchesNearby is the viewing terrace above the catacombs and columbarium. The catacombs obviously are feline in nature and the columbarium pigeon. The terrace looks out over a wide valley towards the more modern of the cemetery's two crematoria, and the catacombs form an arc-shaped end to the valley. This is where once a large pond had been formed by damming the brook, as a feature to Aldersbrook Manor. You can still see a row of manhole covers which could give access to the brook, which of course now flows underneath all of this.

Passing the North and South Chapels of the crematoria, we followed a by-now very shallow and slightly uphill valley, now used as a road, to the back gates of the Cemetery Superintendent’s house, near the main entrance. The course of the brook is by now almost indistinguishable, as the source is nearby.

At the gates, having had a fairly long walk around, and all feeling tired not just because of that, perhaps, but also because it was unusual for some of us to meet people these days. Also, I had done a lot of talking and the others had been doing a lot of enforced listening, so we said our goodbyes.

It was only after Ann had got into her car that I remembered that I hadn’t pointed out the all-important point of the whole expedition: the actual source of the brook. At least Cathy and Richard got to see it - it is the overflow from Alexandra Lake, on Wanstead Flats, by Aldersbrook Road. At one time, I assume, that would have been a boggy area from which the stream flowed naturally down the aforementioned shallow natural valley. The lake was dug and constructed in about 1906 as a job-creation scheme for unemployed men, to alleviate the flooding problem on Aldersbrook Road. It would have been convenient to route the water underground at that time, but that may well have been done earlier, during the construction of the cemetery in the 1850's. Once underground - like many of London's 'lost' rivers - it is soon forgotten, and unless one is a sewage worker or naiad or something, all that might remain is a clue. Like Fleet Street, or Aldersbrook.

Paul Ferris, 28th July 2020