River Brent — from Brentford to Perivale
In a way, my exploration of the River Brent is inseparable from the creation of this website. After my Wandle Trail adventures, I posted to reddit's /r/london, a thoroughly half-hearted "day out idea" sort of write-up with a link thrown in to my flickr set.
It occured to me that I could do better than this. I work in web development, but had no website of my own anymore. I could build one. I could put a bit more effort into narrating my Wandle Trail pics and put it on there. And then I could do... other things. Like, other... Thames tributaries? Yeah! Like... erm... the Brent! That's quite close. I'll do the Brent. And... stuff. And have a website. Yeah!
So, here I find myself, near the mouth of the Brent.
The housing development seen on the right here forbids me to walk on the riverbank, inspiring communist mutterings that developers shouldn't be able to able to privatise our ancient riverbank / towpath rights-of-way, etc, but I reluctantly comply.
Still, an early reminder that while the Wandle Trail may have been occasionally indirect and ill-signposted, the Brent Trail doesn't exist at all. It was fingers crossed as far as a consistent riverside walk was concerned, and south of Brentford Lock I fared rather badly on this score.
The warehouse seen on the left is nice, in a picturesquely dilapidated kind of way. It's the sort of place you look at and can't help thinking, if, in 10 or 20 years time Brentford was the new trendy creative hotspot of London (if you're laughing now, remember someone would have laughed at Dalston, Shoreditch, Camden or Soho, once) -- holy shit, imagine doing that place up. It would be such a prize as a residential, or perhaps artistic, "space". Or maybe that's just me.
A little up the river at Brentford Lock we see what "regeneration" has actually done... and it's not nearly as nice as my sympathetic creative-industrial, victorian-meets-C21st fantasies. It's all a bit Tesco.
And I'm not just saying that because of the blue and white stripes apparent in the roof areas.
If you wonder if you should read a sneer into that comment, the sneer of a fearsomely snobby aristocrat who'd never dream of rubbing shoulders with the common folk buying the common groceries of Tesco - yup.
And if you think you should read a perjorative #occupy / anti-capitalist sort of overtone into the reference, in the sense of "Tesco plopping generic aircraft-hangar superstores full of cheap, chinese-made electronics, farmers-shafted-by-buying-power groceries and the like, driving good individualist / varied / local shops out of business, grrr" - yup, that too.
Architecturally speaking, that is about my reaction to these flats. They're so typical of recent London, and UK, builds. In a bad way; in a Tesco way.
Of course, I know there's a flipside. Both in my analogy, and in reality. In reality, I'm neither too posh nor sufficiently anti-capitalist to prevent me from shopping at Tesco. They're not especially evil (hate the game, etc), you can eat well on their groceries, and if their stores keep spreading it's probably because people keep shopping there! Likewise, these flats are -- I can only presume -- warm and comfortable and energy-efficient places to live, and the developers paid X amount of section 106 to build a school, and they are therefore a net positive to the urban realm, blah blah blah. If designs like this keep being built, it's because people keep buying them.
So yes, my Tesco sneering is trite. Yes, it's an uneducated gut reaction to their visual appearance from the perspective of a casual passer-by, not an intelligent critique of their value in urban development terms from the perspective of a site user. That's all fair and true to note.
I still don't like them though: Bland. Squat. Mediocre. Basildon business park blargh. I don't like to be all Prince Charles about architecture, but really, how do these pastel turds remotely compare to "old school" multi-storey London housing or waterfront wharves, which manage to be somehow more imposing but less bulky or threatening, and more richly detailed whilst less cluttered or fussy?
Still, if I wanted to be all "authentic" and cool with my run-down warehouses and shit, I didn't have far to go. At the far end of the lock basin, I found an old warehouse thing extending half way over the river.
The interplay of light and shadow within and without the half-framed structure would have been a true playground for a talented photographer.
Alas, I am not a talented photographer and it was with the aid of considerable computer "cheating" that I present this one shot that totally doesn't pretend to, like, capture the, you know, magic, but is, hopefully, not a complete embarrassment.
Given the above rant about the new flats in Brentford, you may expect me to back to Prince Charles mode, railing against the ghastly intrusion of modern architecture into the charming canal boat scene pictured here.
Actually, I quite like the contrast.
As far as shiny glassy corporate HQ type boxes go, GlaxoSmithKline's isn't too bad at all in my view. Maybe it was flattered by having such a nice sky to relfect, this day.
And while my earlier inner communist should be riled by their presence right on the riverbank... look, a little waterfall! They've landscaped it rather nicely. I bet even Trotsky liked little waterfalls.
Boston Manor Park
But even if you hate the GSK building, or any architecture since the seventeenth century, then good news -- at this point we reach the corner of this charming meadow, our entry to Boston Manor Park.
And surely there could be no contemporary intrusion on the park and gardens of a stately home...
Under the M4
Well. A short way further, I found the M4 looming overhead; as the river cuts through Boston Manor Park, the motorway crosses both on a procession of concrete stilts.
Personally, though, this was far from a blight - in fact, it was one of the highlights of my Brent exploration.
The river divides in two, so the motorway - and path beneat it - actually marches out on an island. With trees rising either side, this creates a huge space which feels secluded, enclosed, but not quite indoors - a wonderful accidental cathedral, part park, part extremely urban. The play of light created by this infrastructural architecture was alone a delight, and the space was further enlived to my eyes by graffiti on the pillars.
But for the sake of keeping this article focused on the river, I've created a separate article for all that.
And for the sake of this article, we shall return to our escapist rural fantasies.
At the end of the path shown above there lies a weir, and above the weir there sits a heron.
The Manor house itself is reputedly one of West London’s lesser-known gems, a fine Jacobean manor house built in 1623, but I didn't go in so I can't tell you any more about it.
It has a lake though.
I like lakes.
Back on the Brent
But we're not here to do lakes. We're here to do the river.
And back on the Brent, it's another entry for the "picturesquely dilapidated" file.
By the way, my earlier fears about the existence of a continuous footpath along the riverbank turned out to be groundless. North of Brentford Lock I had no problems. There may be no such thing as a Brent Trail, but there is such thing as a Capital Ring -- and whaddya know, this 78-mile flagship trail runs along the Brent between Boston Manor Park and South Greenford.
The Piccadilly line passes overhead.
Bet you never stopped to wonder how the tube got across one of London's major non-Thames rivers on your way to Heathrow, did you?
This bridge, of course, is nothing special in itself. Not particularly photogenic nor much of a great engineering challenge, even at the time it was built. But it does amaze when I stop and think just how many of these bridges (and cuttings, and embankments) the tube needs, in addition to its obvious tube, to provide that seamlessly grade-separated voyage across and through London.
I was surprised at how quiet this stretch of riverbank was. I only saw a handful of other people, and you don't expect to find a pleasant riverside stroll in London so sparsely populated on an August weekend.
More graffiti under the M4
At this point the M4 swings overhead and across the river one more time, and with it, another dose of graffiti.
As linked above, this is covered in full over here.
River or canal?
If you were paying sharp attention earlier, you'd have caught sight or mention of Brentford Lock, and already realised the implication that the River Brent, at this point of its course, may as well be called the Brent Canal.
Not far upstream from here the Grand Union Canal branches west, all the way to Birmingham, and from this junction to the Thames the Brent was, and remains, straightened, canalised and navigable.
But it's only here that this canal character became dominant, as I passed a lock, weir and more locks in quick succession.
There were the boats to match. Some moored up, beside monuments to the waterway's busier past, lulling you into viewing them as historical furniture:
Until one comes motoring round the bend, very much in the present tense.
Of course, this bike-and-flowerpot-laden craft is a historical deception of a different kind. The canals and canal boats were created for industry, not leisure, and rounding the next bend, passing under a rusting metal bridge to an industrial estate fronting the river, provides a reminder of this.
A flight of locks
Moving on, I found myself at another lock.
Then almost immediately, another one.
And another one.
And on, an apparently endless staircase of locks! What the hell? I knew the Brent was canalised but this was ridiculous?
I GPS'd my location and realised the ridiculous thing was my inability to manage the fairly idiotproof task of following a river.
I'd missed the Brent branching off and mistakenly followed the Grand Union Canal as it curved up the staircase of Hanwell Locks, rising 53ft (16m) in about half a mile (1km).
Built in 1794, they've been restored, declared a scheduled monument by English Heritage, and they looked absolutely lovely.
Despite being a "wrong" turn, I was glad I'd come up here. The locks had provided another definite highlight / standout moment - I was even rather tempted to abandon my plan and continue along the Grand Union Canal.
But no; I retraced my steps, found the footpath fork following the Brent, and snuck under Uxbridge Road (where this Olympic banner will forever easily date this trip to the summer of 2012)...
...emerging in the corner of Brent Meadow, where another one of this walk's historical highlights marched grandly across my view.
(Unfortunately, that day a more honest adjective would be "drably", as you can see in the first pic -- but grandly sounds better.)
The Wharncliffe viaduct was build in 1836-7 to carry the Great Western Railway over the Brent Valley. The GWR had formed three years earlier, in 1933, and to construct their new railway to Bristol, the South West and ultimately Wales, they appointed an engineer by the name of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
This was his first major structural design, and the first major construction of the new railway. To complete the line, he proceeded to build the likes of Maidenhead Railway Bridge, with the widest and flattest arches in the world at the time of construction, and the Box Tunnel, the longest railway tunnel in the world at the time.
His 886-foot-long (270 m), 65-foot-high (20m) brick viaduct was widened in 1877, enlarging the series of already large spaces under each arch, which betrayed the signs of social colonisation unchanged since anthropological times: campfire remnants and evidence of intoxicant use (beer cans and cigarette ends, in this case). I conclude the arches were used for a ceremonial purpose, probably religious.
The hollow piers are also said to be home to bats. Protected bats, and lots of them - possibly the largest bat colony in London or even the south of England, although nobody even seems 100% sure which species. Not wishing to lurk til dusk, I didn't see any.
I lacked enthusiasm for hanging around as it was a very overcast day, which I felt did the viaduct, and certainly any photography of it, a disservice. So I made my way to nearby Hanwell station to head home for the day, and returned here on another, sunnier day, to continue the Brent walk from where I left off.
By complete coincidence, in between these two visits to the viaduct I had scheduled a weekend of camping in the Wye valley, which involved taking a train on the Great Western Mainline, as it is today, still travelling over Brunel's viaduct.
Queen Victoria was rumoured to order the royal train to stop so she could admire the view. I didn't bother trying this one on with First Great Western.
Brent Lodge Park
Immediately north of the viaduct is the rather lovely Brent Lodge Park.
On the Wandle Trail, I highlighted Morden Hall Park as a favourite spot. If asked to recommend a nice discovery from my journey for someone wanting a single "day out to a nice place" trip, rather than following the linear walk along the river, I'd say head to roughly the middle of my trek and check out that park.
This was something of an analogue for my Brent excursion.
Even if the aforementioned Brunel bonus carries no appeal for you, the park itself is really rather nice.
Forming the western boundary of this beautiful grassy space, the river - no longer a canal - snakes and winds with wooded banks, the trees' shadows creating amazing contrasts of light and dark on the water.
There's a small zoo or animal centre here, which I missed entirely. I would have liked to have explored this place more, but for now I had to add it to my "revisit one day" list and press one, because I had no trains 'til Perivale, and time wasn't on my side.
So I stuck to the river skirting the edge of the park, keeping walking, past others as they sunbathed, or played in the river.
I strode as rapidly as possible through Brent Valley Golf Course.
I'm not a fan of golf courses at the best of times. On a selfish level they occupy, and frequently privatise, large amounts of good walking land in nice scenic areas. They are also ecological horror shows. This one wasn't even photogenic, and it stank.
I could only blame these vent things, but for whatever reason, there was a nasty sewagey pong in the air, so although the river looked reasonably pretty, I hurried on without much photographic indulgence.
Stepping out of the Brent Valley golf course, you step into Bittern's Field, the next in the series of parks and green spaces making up Brent River Park.
It's called a field rather than a Park or Garden for a reason. You could just about stretch to Meadow, but really Field is about on the money.
It's not glamorous, but things are apparently better than they were only a few years ago. This blog from 2007 recounts a black, dead looking river and a field "barely recovering from having been used for landfill". I hadn't read this before I visited, five years later, and so I wasn't looking out for it, but I saw nothing which hinted at this prior function.
What I saw was a field which, while lacking in landscaping sophistication for the human aesthete, in itself, was overlooked by a picturesque suburban church, and was very popular with our feathered friends.
Admittedly, I saw no eponymous bitterns, but there were plenty of crows, and various other common birds.
The Brent River Park is apparently managed for its wildlife interest, with various rare plants and birds calling it their home, but once again I did not have the luxury of time on my side. Trying to photograph even ten-a-penny wildlife takes a disproportionate investment of time compared to, say, buildings, because the blighters never bloody listen when you tell them to stand still. In fact, the louder and clearer you instruct them to pose, the less likely they'll even remain in the frame. Awkward little sods.
Under Ruislip road, the river hangs a 90 degree right turn, from a basically northern course to an easterly one.
(Well, I'm walking upstream, so I suppose technically, from the river's perspective, that sentence needs entirely inverting. But an idiom like "the river hangs a right turn" wasn't intended to suggest I am literally writing this piece from the perspective of the river. Be sensible.)
And a low point of the entire walk: look at all this crap.
England has a pretty bad litter problem in general, I think. For the most part, London's riverbanks and canalsides are not too bad for litter, but this place was a right tip. You can't see in the photo, but there were further big black bin bags of crap in the river. Shame on whoever dumped all this, and shame on the country in general for, presumably, "not having the money" for the council to sort it out, despite having plenty of money for..... ah, well, not to get too divisive on here, I suppose, so insert your own bete noire expenditure here.
Many people would of course file graffiti, like these weirside pieces a short distance upstream, in exactly the same category as the litter. As you'll have probably noticed by now, considering my admiration of the under-M4 work, I don't see them in the same bracket. But I also don't feel like entering that debate right now either...
Above the weir, yet another golf course.
At these one afforded half-decent photo opportunities.
Then something more inline with my tastes (although perhaps boring many of my (anyway nonexistent) readers by now): another railway viaduct.
This one is not carrying a vital artery of London's tube, nor does it host a national Great Anything Line - in fact, the Greenford Branch Line is one of the quieter backwaters of the London rail system.
It would have been convenient to use it to get to/from my Brentwalking, except for the fact there's no Sunday service at all.
And you can't see passenger numbers increasing when Crossrail opens -- Greenford trains will terminate at West Ealing instead of Paddington to free up extra paths for Crossrail trains, so any passengers along this branch will need an extra change to get into central London.
By now the sun was low in the sky, the tube station was close and the easy path along the river had vanished.
It took a little off-piste undergrowth and bramble-fighting to seek out this scene, with the low sun played illuminating the tree trunk's texture so beautifully.
And that was my last hurrah as far the Brent was concerned.
The "park" behind me was, again, a humble field, but it mattered not as clouds and plane trails latticed a striking pattern in the sky, rapidly sinking through darker shades of blue as the sun approached the horizon.
Now it was just a straight mission back to the tube.
This cycle and pedestrian bridge over the A40 looked elegant from below, and when using it, and also provided an elevated, west-looking vantage point for the sunset.
Of course, it's a vantage point over eight lanes of traffic, which isn't most people's idea of picture postcard.
As a non-driver, I'm not a big fan of roads and traffic. In this instance I had a nice footbridge, but most of the time (big) roads like this are rotten crevasses in the life of a city's pedestrians. And as a vaguely environmentally conscious individual you can't be too pleased with this vista either.
But as a photographer and (urban) stroller, you will perhaps have already realised I can find a type of beauty in this sort of scene: in large scale infrastructure, engineering, construction or architecture, however functional, brutalist, destructive, sprawling, out-of-scale, concrete, or whatever other euphemism or supplement for "ugly" you might care to use.
After all, if you completely despise views like this on every level, why live in London? Why would I travel an hour or so by several tubes or trains in order to walk for several hours under a motorway, past an industrial estate and unofficial landfill site, in order to force myself through a bramble thicket, just to find one frame of pretty mock-"countryside"? If that was my sole focus, I should just live in the country; pretty frames like that would be five minutes from my front door.
No, I like both sides, and I particularly like the rapid contrasts you can uncover on these sort of linear walks.
And the rapid contrasts continue, for barely a hundred yards past this arterial mega-road, it's straight back to rural-England-village-postcard-land, with this sunset game of cricket.
Then we're at Perivale tube, and that's another thing I like: after all this adventuring, an underground station to speed me home.
It's a throwaway line with a nursery rhyme simplicity from an alcoholic rant, but I've always felt this couplet from Underworld summarises the joy of London with a succinct elegance to match Johnson's famous epithet: so many things to see and do / and the tube home too.... Although now I come to Google it, the internet seems to think it's "in the tube hole true". I prefer my version.
I can't blame the failing light, as flickr shows it looking nice by night, so I'll have to admit to failing energy, and eagerness to get home. My Brent explorations were, for the time being at least, concluded.