High Street, low expectation (22nd March 2006)

High Street, low expectation (22nd March 2006)

The prospects for the first stretch of the Quaggy encased in concrete 150 years ago are still grim.

Joyce Snipp was born in Lewisham and grew up in Mercia Grove, off Lewis Grove.

She well remembers the River Quaggy near St Stephen’s church way back in the 1930’s. In those days, on the High Street side of the river, there was a green taxi rank office cum refreshment bar, supported to the rear by stilts, where cabbies would await their fares. In the summer, Joyce and her friends would climb over the wall and down the bank to the river in its concrete straitjacket. Water levels were low and they could skip from side to side as they made their way downstream. You couldn’t go upstream, she recalls, as there was a metal grid that collected debris.

The uninviting entrance to the tunnel under Lewisham Road

The uninviting entrance to the tunnel under Lewisham Road. The Quaggy emerges behind the shops to the left of Pitcher’s Sports Bar

The big adventure was entering the tunnel where the river passed under Lewisham Road and on to where the Quaggy joined the River Ravensbourne. Then it was a scramble up the embankment to the footpath beside the Plough pub. This Victorian building (today’s Pitcher’s Sports Bar) and its large riverside garden are scheduled for demolition as part of the Urban Renaissance in Lewisham (URL) plan. Joyce’s footpath by the railway still exists but is blocked off at both ends; no longer a short cut for busy commuters or a convenient way home for adventurous children.

The taxi rank office Joyce remembers was almost certainly the same building shown in this photo taken some 40 years earlier (below), with horse-drawn cabs lining up for fares. The stilts she recalls can be seen supporting the structure above the bank.

Even then, over a century ago, the river bed is concreted. Is this the location Henry Williamson was referring to in his autobiographical novel, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight? Born and bred in Lewisham, he wrote this book long after his most famous work, Tarka the Otter. In Donkey Boy (the 2nd of the 15 volume series) Miss Thoroughgood, an elderly spinster nicknamed ‘Old Loos’am’, runs a Domestic Servants Agency in the High Street and is portrayed reminiscing. The year is 1897.

You know the Quaggy Brook? No, then you will never have known Loos’am as it was and ought to be. Let me tell you that I myself have often picked flowers upon its banks, but where are those banks now? They are making an artificial canal bed of concrete, and taking our brook under something they call an Arcade – what could be farther from Arcadia, indeed?

An 1890’s view of Lewisham High Street looking south (upstream) from Lewisham Road

An 1890’s view of Lewisham High Street looking south (upstream) from Lewisham Road

High Pavement in 1887 (Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee).  Over the years more of the river immediately downstream has been paved over, the last stretch as late as 1930.

High Pavement in 1887 (Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee). Over the years more of the river immediately downstream has been paved over, the last stretch as late as 1930.

If this is indeed Williamson’s ‘artificial canal bed’ the ‘Arcade’ is almost certainly shown here. These 1850’s shops, with their frontages built over the Quaggy, were the most fashionable in Lewisham. Built as Granville Terrace, the parade soon became known as High Pavement. Over time the shops were taken over and merged into Chiesman’s Department Store.

To the left children watch the Quaggy emerging from its tunnel The concrete channel they would see immediately downstream probably dates from the 1850’s too. Other photos show it was certainly in place by 1874. Yet Williamson dates the development to the late 1890’s. What’s going on? Surely he’s used artistic licence, bringing forward the episode by 40 years, so the loss of the river is far more dramatically presented.

Miss Thoroughgood, clearly a natural QWAG supporter, would doubtless heartily approve of our efforts to break out the river from its concrete. This has been successfully achieved recently in Chinbrook Meadows and Sutcliffe Park. And with the URL led redevelopment of Lewisham town centre about to get underway new opportunities beckon.

For over a decade QWAG has been campaigning for the rivers to be naturalised in this high profile location. Thanks to our efforts there is some good news. Where the Quaggy and the Ravensbourne meet, the scene of Joyce’s escapades 70 years ago, the restored rivers will become the main feature of a new ‘Confluence Park’.

The Quaggy will remain squeezed into its current channel alongside the High Street, inaccessible and isolated from the surrounding landscape.

The Quaggy will remain squeezed into its current channel alongside the High Street, inaccessible and isolated from the surrounding landscape

The future of the Quaggy where it flows alongside the High Street is far less encouraging. QWAG has long envisaged the creation of a path beside a restored river, offering pedestrians a ‘green’ alternative route from the travel interchange as far as the new police station. A section of naturalised river, with wildlife and riverside plants would bring a welcome contrast to the surrounding heavily built-up environment.

But the developers prefer to channel pedestrians along their chosen route – a new ‘Arcade’ lined with retail outlets. To accomodate this plan Quaggy Gardens must disappear, and the narrow strip of land needed for the restoration of the river apparently cannot be spared. So the Quaggy has to remain in concrete where it’s languished for 150 years.

Public consultation exercises over the URL development have conclusively shown that the most important priorities for local people are the restoration of the rivers and the provision of more open, green space. Yet under the proposed plans the rivers suffer mixed fortunes and there is an overall loss of such space. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that these exercises have simply been seen as hoops to be jumped through, boxes to be ticked, and that any awkward results have been quietly filed and forgotten.

Quaggy Gardens is one of the open spaces that will be lost

Quaggy Gardens is one of the open spaces that will be lost

For the new ‘Arcade’, as for the old, it seems the Quaggy must be sacrificed. Miss Thoroughgood, Old Loos’am herself, would be furious.

See Urban Renaissance Update (7th November 2005) for a detailed review of the latest Urban Renaisance in Lewisham proposals.

Historical photos courtesy of Lewisham Local Studies Centre.

Skills

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23rd March 2015

Make a splash without getting wet!