An exploration of parts of a large, and once important, tributary of London's River Thames.
When I was a child living in the Hampstead Garden Suburb, my friends and I used to play beside a rather odd-smelling little stream that flowed near to the Market Place on Falloden Way. In those days, I had no idea that the water in this rivulet, Mutton Brook, eventually flowed into the Thames. This essay describes two parts of one of London’s longer tributaries of the River Thames, the River Brent. The first part deals with Mutton Brook, one of the sources of the Brent. The second explores Brentford, where the River Brent merges with the Thames. I wrote this following a recent visit to Brentford, where my wife was representing clients at the local County Court. While she was in front of the judge, I explored the estuary of the River Brent and its historic surroundings. The following day, I revisited Mutton Brook.
The River Brent begins where the waters of Dollis Brook and Mutton Brook merge near Golders Green. Dollis Brook has its sources near Arkley and Mill Hill in the London Borough of Barnet (see: https://www.ldwa.org.uk/ldp/members/show_path.php?path_name=Dollis+Valley+Greenwalk), about nine miles before it converges with Mutton Brook (the name being associated with sheep washing in the past).
The Brook rises from Cherry Tree Wood (formerly ‘Dirthouse Wood’, a remnant of the historic mediaeval ‘Finchley wood’ that was once well-known for its highwaymen). It is not far from East Finchley Station, which is where my ‘exploration’ begins.
East Finchley Underground station is above ground. Art-deco in design (architects: Charles Holden and LH Bucknell), this was built in the latter half of the 1930s. A ten-foot-tall sculpture of a kneeling archer, sculpted by Eric Aumonier (1899–1974) overlooks both the platforms and the station’s forecourt. It recalls that East Finchley used to be at the edge of the ancient Royal Forest of Enfield where both royalty and commoners once hunted.
The Old White Lion pub on The Great North Road (A1000) next to the station has some interesting eye-shaped features in its roof tiling. These resemble the similarly shaped slits that appear in roofs of old buildings all over central Europe. This pub (in an earlier building) was in existence at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when it was known as the ‘White Lion’. Until 1900, there was a toll-gate on the Great North Road next to the pub.
The western part of Bishops Avenue, home to many wealthy people, leads to the A1 where it is called ‘Aylmer Road’. Belvedere Court on Aylmer Road is an unmissable brick and stone building with an un-British appearance. This block of flats, built 1937-38, was designed by the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s youngest son, the architect Ernst Ludwig Freud (1892-1970). Trained by the architect Adolf Loos (1870-1933), a pioneer of modern architecture, Ernst came to the UK with his father in 1934. At first, the flats in this building were rented mainly to Jewish immigrants fleeing from Nazi-occupied Europe. During his childhood, the TV personality Jerry Springer lived in Belvedere Court.
Norrice Lea leads south from Aylmer Road, and is home to the Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, which has an Orthodox Jewish congregation. The synagogue was designed by Maurice de Metz and completed in 1935 (see: http://www.hgstrust.org/documents/area-13-holne-chase-norrice-lea.pdf). With its elegant main portico, it was consecrated in 1934, and then enlarged far less elegantly in the 1960s (see: http://www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/London/hampsteadgs/index.htm).
A narrow pathway leads from Norrice Lea between private gardens into Lyttelton Playing Fields. There is an excellent view across this grassy expanse of the upper parts of Hampstead Garden Suburb with its churches designed by the architect of government buildings in New Delhi, Edwin Lutyens (St Judes with its spire and The Free Church with its dome).
Next to a small café, which forms part of a Jewish kindergarten, a short path leads a few feet northwards to a small bridge. It is from this brick-walled bridge that we first catch sight of Mutton Brook. Confined between banks maintained with wooden planking and lined with bushes on both banks, it is no more than about two feet wide at this point.
By the time that the Brook reaches the brick and stone bridge which carries Kingsley Way over it, its width has almost doubled. A gauge next to the bridge projects vertically from the water. Its presence is suggestive of the possibility of the brook becoming much deeper during times of heavy rainfall. Near the bridge, there are a few houses with art-deco features, notably their upper storey windows. The water flows under the bridge after passing over a small waterfall (the first of many), and then leaves the bridge via two more step-like waterfalls.
The Brook flows towards Northway in a stone-lined channel that curves gently through a strip of cultivated parkland. When I was a child, there was a small putting-green in this park, but that has gone. The single-arched bridge carrying Northway over the stream has iron railings.
The water flows next through Northway Gardens between almost vertical banks like a groove cut into the lawns. It passes some tennis courts on its left bank, and flows over another low waterfall. The Gardens, which vary in width, are flanked to the north by the back gardens of houses on Falloden Way, the westerly continuation of Aylmer Road. To the south, they are flanked by the gardens of the houses on Oakwood Road.
Mutton Brook curves northwards and then disappears under Falloden Way beneath a bridge with brick walls topped with white stone slabs. It emerges from under the main road in two channels that merge into one. Brooklands Drive crosses the Brook over a bridge made from wood and bricks.
The part of Hampstead Garden Suburb north of Falloden Way, which includes Brooklands Drive, is sometimes called ‘Across the Jordan’ because of its large Jewish population. The stream then flows over another waterfall before before entering a concrete-lined conduit that carries it back under Falloden Way.
Between its emergence from under Falloden Way to where Finchley Road crosses it, Mutton Brook winds its way between steeply sloping meadows on its right bank and wooded land on its left bank. Walking beside it, one could imagine that one is in the middle of the countryside if it were not for the sight and muted sounds of traffic flowing along the Falloden Way.
At Finchley Road, the Brook flows unceremoniously beneath the roadway near to what used to be known in my childhood as ‘Henlys Corner’. This important junction of Finchley Road and the North Circular Road was so named because between 1935 and 1989 there used to be a branch of the Henlys Motors group of garages on its south-western corner. This has been demolished, and where it stood there is a widened roadway and grass. The junction is sandwiched between the merging of Falloden Way with the North Circular on its eastern side, and between the latter and the Great North Way (A1) on its western side.
Finchley Road continues across the North Circular Road and becomes ‘Regents Park Road’. A spectacular sculpture depicting a naked lady holding a sword aloft stands on a traffic island immediately north of the Henlys Corner junction. This is the ‘La Délivrance’ statue (aka ‘The Naked Lady’), sculpted by the French artist Emile Guillaume (1867-1942), a pacifist. It is a cast made from the original that was exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1920, where it was seen by the proprietor of the Daily Mail newspaper (and an advocate of appeasement with the Nazis) Viscount Rothermere (1868-1940). Rothermere commissioned the lady who stands looking north with her backside facing the North Circular Road. The statue was unveiled in 1927 by a former prime minister, David Lloyd-George (1863-1945).
Close to the Naked Lady stands the ‘Kinloss Schul’ also known as ‘Finchley United Synagogue’. It is a striking building with its multiple external vertical reinforced concrete elements. Home to one of Europe’s largest Jewish congregations, capable of accommodating two thousand people, this edifice was completed in 1967 by the architects Dowton and Hurst.
Mutton Brook continues west of Finchley Road almost parallel to the North Circular Road. It flows through pleasantly rustic parkland, lawns and woods, until it reaches a point where the North Circular Road has begun curving in a south-westerly direction.
After passing a fading sign that declares “Polluted Water Keep Out”, both the footpath and the brook pass under the main road in a large diameter concrete-lined tunnel, circular in cross-section. This is surveyed by a cobwebbed CCTV camera. The footpath follows the Brook for about one third of a mile from the tunnel before reaching the last bridge that crosses Mutton Brook. This footbridge with wrought-iron railings crosses the stream a few feet from the point where it joins Dollis Brook at right angles.
This almost insignificant meeting of two streams is where the River Brent is deemed officially to begin its passage towards the Thames at Brentford.
A few yards away from its commencement, the River Brent flows under a road bridge with white stone balustrades. This bridge marks the southern end of Bridge Lane, which begins in Temple Fortune, and Bell Lane, which leads towards central Hendon. At this point, the River Brent is many times wider than Mutton Brook was at Lyttelton Playing Fields several miles upstream. After crossing Bridge Lane, another footpath enters Brent Park, which is, like all the green areas that have been described already, maintained by the London Borough of Barnet. The River Brent flows along the northern edge of this strip of parkland, which runs parallel to the North Circular Road until it meets the A40. A more picturesque name for this busy road might be ‘The Brent Valley Highway’.
Brent Park, which was opened to the public in 1934, contains a piece of water of historic interest, the Decoy Pond. Decoy ponds were used to capture waterfowl for food. When the birds entered such a pond, the hunters lured them with food to narrow inlets where they were easily trapped in tapering nets. The age of the pond is uncertain, but by 1754 there was a house ‘Decoy House’, named after the pond, in existence (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp5-11). The pond is now a good place to spot a variety of waterfowl including ducks, moorhens and herons. It is surrounded by decorative iron benches in various states of disrepair. Each of them bears the coat of arms of the Borough of Barnet. While the waters of the pond are placid, and covered in many places with a good growth of green weeds, the Brent that flow past its northern edge is quite a torrent in comparison.
At one point, the river drops about five feet over a spectacular waterfall. Meanwhile, on the south side of the pond, but high above it, traffic rushes along the North Circular. Oddly, this hardly disturbs the peace of the lovely park.
Brent Street crosses the Brent over a brick bridge with wrought-iron railings. Beyond this, the river flows south-westwards between the back gardens of buildings on both sides of it, and there is no footpath to follow.
On the eastern side of the bridge, and only just visible through the dense vegetation, it may be seen that the river flows through a narrow artificial weir built between two ruined circular towers covered with graffiti. Each of these has a conical roof with several tiles missing. They appear to have been designed as viewing points or gazebos. These stand in what used to be the grounds of Brent Bridge House, which was an 18th century stuccoed building, once the seat of the Whishaws (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol5/pp5-11). Charles Whishaw had converted it from a farm house into a ‘gentleman’s residence’ by 1828. A John Wishaw, who was a son of the lawyer Richard Wishaw (1707-1787) also lived there (see: http://www.turtlebunbury.com/history/history_family/hist_family_whishaw.html#pope). Later, parts of this building were incorporated into the now long-since demolished Brent Bridge Hotel (opened just before 1914). In 1963, eleven years before it was demolished, my parents spent a few nights in the hotel whilst our damp house in Hampstead Garden Suburb was being dried out. It had been left unheated during the three winter months that we had spent in the USA.
Having explored something of the source of the Brent, we now shift several miles downstream, south-westwards to its ‘estuary’, where it flows into the River Thames at Brentford. The name ‘Brentford’, which appears in an early 8th century (AD) record, might either refer to a ford over the River Brent or the River Thames, which was in earlier times quite shallow where the Brent enters it. In any case, during the 1st century, there was a settlement there on a Roman Road from London to the west country. Archaeological evidence has been discovered (see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol7/pp113-120), which suggests that there was a Neolithic settlement in what is now Brentford.
I began my exploration of Brentford outside its simple but elegant County Court, which was designed by CG Pinfold, and opened in 1963. Despite its age, it looks almost contemporary.
Next door to it, is Alexandra House, an asymmetric brick building with some circular windows and flat roofs at different levels. It was built as a health centre in 1938. It was designed by LA Cooper and KP Goble (see: http://www.brentfordhistory.com/category/places/page/11/) in a ‘cubist’ design that looks bit like a three-dimensional version of a Piet Mondrian painting.
Both of these buildings are on the High Street, as is the Old Fire Station, which is east of them. The gables of this lovely red brick building are decorated with terracotta tiles bearing floral designs. Designed by Nowell Parr (1864-1933), it was opened in 1898. The fire station was closed in 1965, and then used as an ambulance station until 1980 (see: http://laytoncollection.org/index.php/thomas-layton-brentford/the-layton-trail/). Since 1990, it has been used to house a restaurant.
Ferry Lane leads from the High Street to Soaphouse Lane, passing the Watermans Arms pub, which was first established in 1770, but the present establishment occupies a much more recent building.
Facing a small dock at the end of the eastern ‘arm’ of Ferry Lane, where canal longboats serving as houseboats are moored, stands the 18th century Peerless Pump Building. This was built in about 1720 (although it bears a sign with the date ‘1704’). It was home to the Rowe family, who were proprietors of the former ‘Thames Soap Works’, which flourished during the 18th and 19th centuries. By the end of the 19th century, the soap works occupied almost all the area between the High Street and the two branches of Ferry Lane. The small dock, an inlet from the Thames near the mouth of the Brent used to be called ‘Soaphouse Creek’ (see: http://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/local-history/industries-and-crafts/the-thames-soap-works-messrs-t-b-rowe-of-ferry-lane-brentford/).
The company prospered until the early 20th century, when it began to go into decline. Between 1916 and 1933, Lever Brothers tried to keep it going, but eventually closed it down. In 1952, some of the premises were used by Varley Pumps, and then later by Peerless Pumps (until 1989). In the 1990s, Rowe’s 18th century house was restored to its former glory, and retains the name ‘Peerless Pump Building’.
A cobbled lane with inset steel rails, along which a travelling crane once used to move, runs along the eastern edge of Soaphouse Creek towards the Thames. At the end of the tracks, there stands a large beautiful curved, curtain-like, steel sculpture, whose silvery surface is covered with delicate patterns. This is called ‘Liquidity’, and was created by Simon Packard in 2002.
After it was completed, some locals objected to it, and wanted it pulled down (see: https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2003/dec/01/arts.artsnews), but it has survived … so far. It stands close to where for many centuries a ferry used to cross the Thames to Kew. This ferry was free to locals until 1536, when John Halle was appointed its keeper and charged one quarter of a penny to pedestrians and twice that to horsemen. The ferry continued to operate from this spot close to the former soap works until 1939.
From the sculpture, it is easy to view the mouth of the River Brent. The wedge of land formed between the two rivers is now covered with housing that surrounds Brentford Marina. This piece of land, reached by driving along Dock Road, was formerly dockland: ‘Brentford Docks’. In addition to the docks, there was a vast, now demolished, railway marshalling yard reached by a side-line that branched off the main Great Western Railway (‘GWR’) at Southall. Opened by the GWR in 1859, it continued working until 1964. A few years later the former dockland was re-developed for other purposes.
Between Brentford and southern Hanwell, the River Brent shares its waters with a branch of the Grand Union Canal. Until 1794, when the lower stretch of the Brent was engineered to become part of the canal system, the river could only be navigated by small craft (see: http://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/publications/the-journal/journal-6-1997/the-history-of-brentford-bridge/).
A few yards from the Brent’s estuary, there is the ‘Thames Lock’, which is overlooked by the bridge carrying Dock Road. This lock was built to bypass the last waterfall over which the Brent flows before entering the Thames. At the lock, the river bifurcates, some water going via the lock, and the rest via the falls. A small island covered with boat-repair yards exists between this fork in the river and where the two branches re-join downstream.
The small Johnsons Island is immediately upstream from the lock and the waterfall. It was named after Dr Wallace Johnson (1730-1813), who lived in The Butts (see below). A map dated 1900 marks it as the home of ‘Staffordshire Wharf’.
Since the 1990s, the island has been used as an artists’ colony (see: http://www.johnsonsislandartists.com/). Further upstream, Augustus Close crosses the Brent obliquely over a bridge, which is in the same spot as that which used to carry the railway to Brentford Docks. This bridge incorporates parts of the original rail bridge built as part of Isambard Brunel’s (1806-1859) last great engineering project.
The Brent curves northwards and passes under Brentford High Street which is carried across Brentford Bridge. This stone bridge, which is largely hidden by ugly metal cladding and parapets, was built in 1818. It is the latest ‘reincarnation’ of the first bridge, which was built in 1284.
The Six Bells pub is close to the bridge. Already licensed by 1722, the present building has existed from 1904. The ‘six bells’ refer to six bells that used to be rung in the nearby St Lawrence Church on special occasions.
A short distance upstream from the bridge, the Brent widens where the Brentford Gauging Lock with its two lock basins stands. This was once one of the busiest places on the Grand Union Canal. Its name refers to the fact that it was there that the toll-keeper assessed how much cargo was being carried by each barge (see: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/places-to-visit-pdf/Brentford_Gauging_Lock.pdf).
The present toll-keeper’s office was built in 1911. It contains a small exhibition. A mile-post next to the western lock basin informs that the lock is 93 miles from Braunston (in Northamptonshire), a central location on the canal system of the Midlands.
The Brent divides above the lock. One branch serves as the canal, and the other, which curves around an island covered with new housing blocks, falls picturesquely over a waterfall. The Brent then continues towards the A4 road, and the view along it is dominated by the recently built GlaxoSmithCline skyscraper. After viewing the lock, I left the Brent and entered the town of Brentford.
The Weir Bar, clad with green tiling around its ground floor, is a short distance from the waterfall mentioned above. Before 2004, it was called ‘The White Horse’. The pub has been in existence since the beginning of the 17th century, or earlier. The building that now houses it once belonged to the butcher William Marshal. His nephew, the greatest (in my opinion) British painter William Turner (1775-1851), lived here with his uncle between 1785 and 1787. It is said that Turner painted some of his first watercolours while living in this building.
A small road next to The Weir leads into The Butts, so-named from 1596. A ‘butt’ is an archery or shooting target or range (and, also, it can be a piece of raised ground, a word derived from the French ‘butte’). Whatever its meaning, the Butts is an open space surrounded by beautiful houses built mainly in the 18th century. Some of them are even older, dating from the late 17th century. Being so close to what is quite a mundane High Street, this historical ensemble comes as a delightful surprise, and it alone makes a visit to Brentford worthwhile. With their lovely architecture, well-tended gardens, attractive doorways, these buildings are worthy of close examination.
One building on the Butts is newer. Bearing the date 1904, this is the Boatmens Institute. Designed in the Arts and Crafts style by Noel Parr (1864-1933), who built many pubs for the west London Fullers Brewery, this was built on the site of an old mill (close to the waterfall mentioned above) for the London City Mission. Its original purpose was to educate the children of boatmen and to provide medical assistance for the boatmen’s wives (see: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1380286 & http://brentfordandchiswicklhs.org.uk/publications/the-journal/journal-13-2004/the-brentford-boatmens-institute/). The ‘boatpeople’, who, like the Roma and Travellers, lived a life in constant motion, lived apart from the rest of the population, and were barely catered for. Therefore, the Institute, which cared for them, was much appreciated by them. It is one of only five or six examples of such an establishment to have ever been set-up in the UK.
Near to the Butts, there is another charitable institution, the St Mary’s Convent, also known as ‘St Raphael’s Convent’. The oldest part of the convent, which is almost opposite Beaufort House, was built in about 1792, and was originally the home of a Dr Cooper. It was bought in 1880 by Mother Mary Magdalen, a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism who had nursed in the Crimean War in the 1850s. The convent was gradually enlarged (with an unattractive brick building) in the early twentieth century. It houses, and caters for, women with learning difficulties and other problems.
The Butts was an extension of the Market Place. Its most interesting structure is now occupied by The Verdict, a beautiful café housed in the ground floor of what was once the Court House. This stands on the site of a market building for almost 300 years until it was demolished in about 1850. The present building, built as a town hall in 1852, was never used as a town hall. Instead, it became used as a courthouse. In 2012, the court was closed, and the building converted into flats above, and the restaurant below (see: http://www.brentfordhistory.com/2013/11/11/magistrates-court-2/#more-1243).
Returning along the High Street towards the present County Court, we reach the Brentford Monument. When I visited it recently, it was enclosed in a wooden casing as it is about to be restored. However, I have seen this tall cylindrical stone monument on a previous visit. Originally, this granite pillar stood at one end of Brentford Bridge (see above). According to a historian of Middlesex Sir Montagu Sharpe (1857-1942), it was at Brentford that Julius Caesar crossed the Thames in 54 BC during his exploration of Britain (see: http://www.brentfordtw8.com/default.asp?section=info&page=localhistory042.htm). The monument records that a confederation of British tribes led by Cassivellaunus “bravely opposed” Caesar’s advance towards Verulamium (near the modern St Albans). The monument also commemorated both Edmund Ironside defeating the Danes (led by King Canute) in 1016, and the Civil War Battle of Brentford (1642), a Royalist victory over the Parliamentarians.
This concludes my exploration of a source and the mouth of the River Brent, a once important tributary of the River Thames because of its inclusion in the Grand Union Canal network. At Brentford, we encounter sites that figure early in the history of London, and at Mutton Brook we travel through a part of London that was open countryside until the beginning of the twentieth century. In the future, I hope to explore the rest of the Brent, much of which flows, like Mutton Brook, through park land.