The River Quaggy
The River Quaggy is an urban river flowing though parks and playing fields, behind buildings and under roads. In some places it is nothing more than an open drain, whilst in others it is full of life and a source of pleasure for all. This section of the website displays pictures that demonstrate the varing characters of the River Quaggy – its problems and its potential.
Top Quaggy Facts
- The River Quaggy and its tributaries, with the River Pool, form the three river Ravensbourne catchment.
- It’s one of the most UK’s heavily engineered rivers with much of it in unnatural concrete channels and culverts.
- It rises in Locksbottom, Bromley, close to where the Ravensbourne rises at Keston.
- Winding 17 km through Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham, the Quaggy meets the Ravensbourne in central Lewisham before flowing into Deptford Creek and the Thames.
- The overall ecological quality of the Quaggy is rated as ‘poor’ because of pollution, litter, lack of natural river banks and other development pressures and mistreatment.
- QWAG’s work has been praised as ‘heroic’ by the London Evening Standard and ‘A great example of environmental action’ by the Government.
- QWAG’s work is cited in the AS-Level Geography textbook of the AQA Exam Board.
SE London often hits the headlines for the wrong reasons. But it’s a showcase of how to restore urban rivers for people, for wildlife and all round quality of life and is regularly visited by experts and communities wanting to follow our example.
The death of a river
Channelising” rivers means putting them into straight artificial channels. It usually results in the death of the river and the creation of an ugly, dangerous drain. All the attractive features of the river, which so often caused people to settle in the area in the first place are lost. And once a river has had its natural beauty taken away, interest in the river is lost too.
Why were rivers channelised?
The Quaggy, in common with urban rivers around the world, was progressively channelised as the urban environment encroached upon it. Rivers were channelised to prevent them from flooding. The idea was to build an artificial, straight channel that was much larger than the normal flow of the river. The channel was extra large to allow it to take the biggest flows that would occur during very severe rainfalls. The channel was made as straight as possible so that the water could move away from the area as fast as possible.
Channelising can make flooding worse!
Unfortunately, it was found that moving more water faster only made the flooding far worse downstream. This often resulted in ever bigger channels having to be built, at ever increasing costs. (Look at the size of the channels in Lewisham’s town centre.)
Ironically, channelising is now often blamed for some of the worst flooding caused by rivers.
Alternatives to channelising
Natural rivers that can spread out when it rains
Today, engineers try to re-create flood plains where water can sit during big storms. Often these areas will be enhanced to make up for the places where flood plains cannot be restored because they have been built on. The water is stored in the flood plain, rather than rushing downstream and flooding property. When the storm is over, the stored water gradually returns to the river.
Slow down the rainwater!
Architects can design storm water storage and drains into new developments. These feed rain water more slowly into the river system, reducing the chance of flooding. Water butts also help – they store up water during a rain storm and you can then release it during dry periods when you water your garden.
The other advantage
These methods don’t just decrease the frequency of flooding – they also give us back an attractive river that can support life.
Reversing the channelisation of the River Quaggy
Although the Quaggy is an urban river, a very large proportion of it flows through green space. (See the map of the Quaggy catchment.) This means there is a lot of potential to remove concrete channels and recreate flood plains. As well as reducing flooding, this would create some natural beauty in our urban landscape.
The channelised Quaggy:
John Roan School playing fields, Greenwich
Downstream end of a concrete channel. The Quaggy in this form presents only a liability to the school. After the 2003/4 restoration, the Quaggy should become a valuable outdoor classroom for Nature Studies, Art, Geography, Science and Biology.
Leathersellers sports ground, Colfe’s School, Sidcup Road
Fenced-off concrete channel flowing through a more natural, green strip of land. The channel is clearly oversized for normal flows. These oversized, flat bottomed, vertical sided concrete channels can no longer function as rivers and as such are dead.
View from Manor Road, Lewisham, looking downstream
New channelising – this repair and flood alleviation work was completed in 1991 by the National Rivers Authority (NRA), predecessor to the Environment Agency. No alternatives were offered to residents. It was in response to the NRA’s proposal to continue this channelising work along the Quaggy’s remaining natural sections that “Friends of the Quaggy” formed, later to become QWAG. QWAG has been successful in saving the Quaggy from future channelising, and is now looking at restoring it from past channelising. Note also the drain outlet.
Chinbrook Meadows before restoration
In parks it is easier to reverse channelising and restore a natural river, because there is usually plenty of space to work in. Parks, because they are open to the public, are also the places where the maximum number of people will benefit from recreating a river.
This area has now been restored as a result of QWAG’s efforts in conjunction with the London Borough of Lewisham, the Environment Agency and local residents. Work was completed in 2002.
River Quaggy near Sidcup Road
With no sticklebacks to hunt for, the only kind of entertainment that children can get from a channelised river is to throw things into it and watch them splash. This kind of channel is much more likely to attract littering and dumping than a natural channel.
Quaggy alongside Grove Park Hospital site
Dangerous, therefore fenced-off. When this site was redeveloped in 1995, the river could have been improved and “naturalised”, but this did not happen because the local planning department wanted to preserve these trees. QWAG views this as one of many lost opportunities on the Quaggy.
Natural and naturalised
Fortunately, not all parts of the Quaggy have been channelised. Channelising schemes are extremely expensive, and in the past, some sections of the Quaggy avoided being channelised when money ran out during a large flood alleviation scheme in the 1960s.
These unspoilt stretches of the Quaggy provide us with an insight into how this river could look in other places – some are remarkably close to Lewisham’s shopping centre. They are also very important because they have preserved some life in this river – flag iris, water parsnip, mayflies, sticklebacks, minnows and kingfishers.
The Quaggy as nature intended:
Willow Country Club, Weigall Road – private sports club
The Quaggy untouched by channelisation. A vision of how the Quaggy could look in other places – this picture was taken only 1800 metres (one mile) from Lewisham’s Clock Tower.
The river, allowed to function naturally, has created a meandering low-flow channel with alternating riffles and pools. Many sticklebacks can be seen here, and the Environment Agency reported minnows in this section in June 1996. QWAG has located kingfisher nests in this area.
Willow Country Club, Weigall Road – downstream section
In 1995 a survey carried out by QWAG found mayfly nymphs in this section of the Quaggy – an indication that the water is very clean. Nowadays, with less heavy industry in urban areas and stricter controls on the processing of sewage, the water in urban rivers is often very clean. Clean water and a natural habitat mean the Quaggy can begin to come to life in this short section.
Some of the trees have been cut back here to create light and thus encourage riverside plants such as the yellow flag iris.
Mottingham Farm, Mottingham Lane
Very beautiful short stretch of the Quaggy. This part of the river is in open rough ground accessible to the public. Children use this section of the river to play – building bridges across the river and catching sticklebacks. Here the river is more open with fewer trees, allowing marginal plants to get established. A clump of flag iris can be seen growing on the right-hand bank of the river.
Nature Reserve in the grounds of Hadlow College, Mottingham Lane
This site on the Quaggy was once a fly tip but was reclaimed and restored by a previous occupant – the MacIntyre charity. The picture is of a pond connected to the Quaggy. As well as being attractive this pond acts as a refuge or reserve for fish and plants that might be flushed out of the Quaggy in a very severe storm. This site is on private land and there is no public access.
Private garden, Lewisham
Some residents whose properties back on to the Quaggy have created a feature of the river and made it a part of their gardens. Here hard materials have been removed and the river bank has been re-graded to be less steep. Some native marginals, such as the flag iris seen here, have been planted; others have arrived naturally. The result is an attractive river bank which provides a habitat for mayflies and other insects.
Private gardens and sports grounds can provide an important hideaway for the river’s shyer residents, such as the kingfisher.
Restored section of the Quaggy in Chinbrook Meadows
In 2002 a straight concrete channel was bulldozed away and the river was released to meander naturally across Chinbrook Meadows. This picture was taken on 14 September 2003, one year and nine months after the bulldozers moved in. The area shown was not seeded or planted. Instead, plants were allowed to colonise naturally. The indication so far is that this approach works much better for wildlife and has resulted in a greater diversity of species. Note that the river has already created beaches, vertical banks, pools and riffles. It is these different habitats that enable a river to support a great diversity of life.
One of London’s greatest assets is its parks and green spaces. One of the saddest, and perhaps most surprising, things about the rivers in those parks is the way that so many of them have been lost to the public – channelised, culverted or fenced off.
QWAG think that channelised rivers in parks are ugly, dead and dangerous. Furthermore, by rushing water downstream they often contribute to flooding in built-up areas. Vertical sides and a concrete bottom make it easier for children to fall in and hurt themselves, and the vertical sides can then make a quick rescue more difficult. Because of these dangers, concrete channels are often fenced off in public parks. Space is lost from the park, and additional costs are incurred maintaining the fences.
QWAG believes that rivers in public spaces should be attractive assets that everyone can enjoy, and we are campaigning for the restoration of the River Quaggy in all the public parks it flows through, so that it becomes an attractive, natural living feature and an educational resource.
The Quaggy in parks:
Chinbrook Meadows (north), before 2002
Looking south, before river restoration in 2002. The Green Chain Walk runs along the left side of the left-hand hedge!
The oversized straight concrete channel is dangerous and therefore fenced off. It is ugly and therefore covered with a hedge which costs money to maintain. The result is lost space, lost amenity and loss in maintenance costs.
Chinbrook Meadows (north), June 2003
The same view looking south, after river restoration in 2002!
The river is now a part of the park and has become a new reason for both children and adults to visit Chinbrook Meadows. This restoration was the first of QWAG’s “Operation Kingfisher” projects to restore the Quaggy back to life.
Here the river is open, and free to meander naturally across the park. It has been integrated into the park as an attractive feature which people of all ages can enjoy. It has added immeasurably to the value of the park. An outdoor classroom with boardwalk over the river has made it into an educational resource. Benches and riverside paths have made the river and its wildlife something that adults of all ages can enjoy. And open, safe access has made the Quaggy a place of excitement, adventure and play for children.
The railings follow the line of the river. The Quaggy is not visible because it has been fenced off from the public. This can be more dangerous because children who do get to the river cannot be seen. Manor Park is a very small park, of which one third is “lost” behind these railings. It is likely to be closed to the public in 2005 while contractors working on the flood alleviation scheme store material here. QWAG has campaigned for and is hopeful that the river will be restored and integrated into the park, as part of that scheme.
Sutcliffe Park before 2004
One solution to the dangers, lost space and maintenance cost of a channelised river is to bury it completely! Now no-one need know it is there. QWAG has persuaded the National Rivers Authority (now the Environment Agency) to restore the Quaggy in this park as part of their flood alleviation scheme. A survey of local people found 78% supported QWAG’s ideas for restoring the river and creating nature study and wetland features in this park.
Sutcliffe Park in 2004
This park has recently (2003/4) been transformed by the Environment Agency, in line with suggestions originally put forward by QWAG. The transformation was part of a flood alleviation scheme for the area. The river, released from an underground concrete culvert, now winds its way across the park; at the same time, the level of the ground has been lowered for storing water at times of heavy rain. Flooding should be a rare event. At all other times the park will function as an attractive, interesting and varied recreational amenity with walkways, play and picnic areas and a range of wildlife habitats.
Manor House Gardens
The Quaggy in Manor House Gardens is more natural than it is in many of the parks it flows through, but it is still not integrated into the park. (Ironically a large artificial pond is maintained at some cost to give people access to a water feature.) A dense line of trees reduces the amount of light that can get to the river which is fenced off and inaccessible. QWAG hopes to work with the Park User Group to find a way to make the river a part of the park – removing some of the trees to give more light for maginal plants and regrading some of the banks to make the river more accessible.
Lewisham town centre
The end of the Quaggy
The River Quaggy comes to its end in the centre of Lewisham. Here it joins the River Ravensbourne. And here it gives up its battle to live.
How did the Quaggy die?
When Lewisham was first settled, its rivers were things of beauty which attracted people here. But living in a river valley brings with it the risk of being flooded, and the rivers of Lewisham were placed in their concrete coffins in an attempt to reduce that risk of flooding.
Resurrecting the River Quaggy
QWAG believes that – with modern methods of flood control, some imagination and the will to change – we can make major improvements to the Quaggy, restoring it to a thing of natural beauty which once again attracts people living, working and shopping in the area.
The greatest battle is not with the Quaggy but with the minds and hearts of planners and politicians. Before QWAG came into existence, opportunities to improve the river were missed. When concrete sections were replaced and refurbished near Lewisham station, they could have had a low-flow meandering channel and planting pockets designed into them. And “Quaggy Gardens” could have included a pond connected to the river and planted with marginal plants. As a member of the Urban Renaissance in Lewisham board, QWAG is currently fighting to ensure that a new opportunity is not lost – the opportunity to create a beautiful, natural looking section of river where people can relax, right in the centre of Lewisham.
Making the most of Lewisham’s rivers:
The key to improving the centre of Lewisham
QWAG believes that the key to improving the centre of Lewisham lies in its natural resources – the rivers Ravensbourne and Quaggy.
QWAG is proposing that the confluence of the two rivers (in front of Lewisham railway and Docklands Light Railway stations) is restored and the area around it re-landscaped.
Creating a new landscape at the confluence of these rivers will improve the journey for pedestrians going from Lewisham station to the shopping centre. But QWAG wants to go further. We propose that the River Quaggy is restored as far as possible from the confluence to the front of the new police headquarters, creating an attractive riverside walk from Lewisham station nearly all the way into the town centre. No one would forget their first visit to Lewisham and everyone would want to return!
One of the exciting things about these projects is that they are proposed for the most visible and high-profile sites in Lewisham. By having a location that is visited by large numbers of people every day, we hope to maximise the human benefit of this environmental project and at the same time destroy the notion that urban rivers have to lie dead at the bottom of a concrete drain.
QWAG’s proposals for Lewisham town centre:
The confluence of the rivers Ravensbourne and Quaggy as it is now
The Quaggy enters the Ravensbourne from the left. Both channels have been heavily engineered and are much bigger than they need to be. As such they are exceedingly dangerous. In December 1995 a man was rushed to hospital after falling four metres into the Ravensbourne’s concrete channel. The oversized flat bottom means that the water moves slowly and is too shallow for most fish. There is no place where marginal or aquatic plants can get established. This part of the Quaggy is of very little ecological value and is visually boring as well as exceedingly dangerous. The chance to change all this was missed in 1992. The reworking of both channels in 1992 lacked imagination and continued to treat the river as an open drain rather than something that could integrate the excitement and beauty of a natural feature into the man-made landscape of Lewisham’s centre.
The confluence of the rivers Ravensbourne and Quaggy as it might be
This picture gives an indication of what could be done with the area in front of Lewisham station and the area currently used to park buses. The Quaggy cannot be seen here but enters from the right.
The vertical wall on the left has been replaced with a terraced wall of loose blockstone providing gaps for marginal plants to colonise. The right-hand wall has been removed altogether and the pub garden landscaped down to the river. Decking allows people to get as close as possible to the water, and a protected area has been created where reeds can grow. The sterile, flat concrete bottom has been replaced with a gravel bed, and the river has cut its own low-flow deeper channel down the centre. Better for wildlife and much better for civilised life!
Clarendon Rise Bridge, Central Lewisham
An eyesore! An unattractive river is an uncared-for river.
Because the Quaggy is constrained between buildings here, it must remain in an artificial channel. Even so, its appearance and ecological value could be improved by creating a meandering low-flow channel within the main channel and introducing graded gravels into the river bed. It may even be possible to establish some marginal plants along the edges of the channel by creating protected, slow-flow areas using carefully positioned blocks of stone.
Looking upstream through “Quaggy Gardens”
The river here is really rather boring with slow-moving water spread over a flat concrete bottom. There is much scope for improvement. A radical reworking of the artificial bed and banks could create an attractive, meandering low-flow channel with water moving more quickly through pools and riffles. In such a low-flow channel, gravel beaches and margins would be deposited, enabling marginal plants to become established. The river itself would be more interesting and of much greater wildlife value. Combined with the establishment of river plants along its banks, the Quaggy would become a very beautiful, attractive and memorable feature for everyone walking between shops and transport.
Private garden only 300 metres from Lewisham Clock Tower
The very last natural section of the Quaggy before it enters concrete for the final part of its journey through the centre of Lewisham. This picture indicates that the Quaggy could be more interesting in the centre of Lewisham. The river here has a gravel bed and a natural river bank on the right-hand side. Flag iris can be seen emerging from the river on the left side. This part of the river supports a healthy population of sticklebacks, and kingfishers are seen fishing here every year.