Dave Larkin reports on QWAG’s walk through Lewisham to discuss the new town centre proposals.

QWAG chose a less than scenic route for its contribution to Lewisham’s 2005 Walking Festival. Participants gathered in the forecourt of the railway station at the very heart of Urban Renaissance in Lewisham’s (URL) £250 million proposed redevelopment area. Matthew Blumler, founder and long serving chair of QWAG led the walk.

The Ravensbourne and Quaggy confluence
Walkers examine a QWAG signboard at the confluence Soon we were standing by the nearby confluence where Lewisham’s two rivers, the Ravensbourne and the Quaggy join together. Glumly, we look down at a pair of vertical sided brick and concrete channels with theirlayer of lifeless water 12 feet below. Then walkers read the message on one of QWAG’s celebrated signboards nearby – urban rivers don’t have to look like this. Matthew outlined the vision that had motivated QWAG for the last 15 years: “Rivers are beautiful, vitalising things that should enrich our lives. They should charm and educate us – and our kids. In urban settings they should be ‘green corridors’ for wildlife to flourish around us”. On cue, a grey wagtail flickered by. These birds have hung on through all the abuses of our rivers, as astonishingly have kingfishers which are sometimes spotted only a few yards from Lewisham’s clock tower. Matthew sits on the board of Urban Renaissance in Lewisham. His efforts have seen our rivers become increasingly important in the eyes of planners and developers. The general public has helped too. Matthew told us that in all the surveys, restored rivers and open green spaces are what local people mainly ask for. At the confluence today, both Lewisham’s rivers are fenced off. To be successful, the projected new ‘confluence park’ will need naturalised rivers re-integrated into the landscape so that people can approach and enjoy them.

Quaggy Gardens
On then to nearby Quaggy Gardens where the river is similarly straitjacketed. A second signboard here outlines another of QWAG’s long-cherished dreams – a ‘green’ riverside route for pedestrians from the station almost to the clock tower. Can this be achieved? A short stroll and we are outside Lewisham Police Station – the largest in the UK. The developer has partitioned this stretch of the Quaggy into a separate planning application (as the developer is not prepared to pay for it), but as Matthew explained, it makes no sense compartmentalising long term planning. The Quaggy flows under the broad pavement here. It could be released so that a restored river a few yards away in Quaggy Gardens could meander on southwards. A different pot of money would be needed. If necessary, QWAG with its charitable status would be willing to help with fund raising. The Metropolitan Police apparently are in favour of the scheme and would even contribute financially.

A quick detour upriver. But not far – only to inspect the river from the bridge in Clarendon Rise and hear about projected improvements under the auspices of the Environment Agency. Then back and across the High Street and into little Rennell Street – insignificant now but scheduled under the new development to become a main thoroughfare for vehicles in and out of Lewisham.

The Ravensbourne
We are heading for Lewisham’s other river, the Ravensbourne, mentioned in Domesday Book (1087) as home to eleven water mills. There it is but oh dear, it’s hardly a river at all; it’s now contained in a massive concrete trough. One or two of us could actually remember the concreting in the early 1970s. Following the disastrous 1968 Lewisham flood, something had to be seen to be done. Concrete channels were built as straight as possible to get excess water out of the area fast. Despite the expense, the system never fully worked and parts of Lewisham still flooded. What a pity nobody in those days considered the other option – capturing and storing floodwater in safe places before it created havoc. That’s what happening today and instead of concrete canals we can have restored, living rivers with banks and edges covered with flowering riverside plants. Matthew invited people to visit Chinbrook Meadows near Grove Park and Sutcliffe Park along the Eltham Road to see for themselves.

Now some more good news. We learn this stretch of river is due for restoration. What about southwards to Ladywell and beyond – a restored river with a riverside walk all the way? Our collective imagination soars – with the community’s will and working with nature, what cannot be achieved? Matthew pointed out that a river, however damaged, constantly tries to mend itself. Where the flow slows, gravel and sand collect on the bottom, hiding the concrete and making potential homes for a variety of aquatic creatures. The slightest meander and sediment drops on the slower moving outer reach drops instantly to be colonised by enterprising plants.

The future
Now we are almost back in the centre again and another recent planning disaster – the huge roundabout and chaotic urban sprawl just where visitors gather first impressions of Lewisham. Will planners and developers get it right this time? Certainly, what is decided in the next few months will massively affect those who live here, now and in the generations to come.

Not many towns have two rivers meeting. QWAG believes that celebrating them and at the same time creating muchneeded ‘quality’ green space is key to success in the new project. To this end, using long established relations with engineers and designers of the Environment Agency, QWAG at this very moment is urgently attempting to have their unrivalled experience injected into plans for future Lewisham.

Make a splash without getting wet!