Cornmill Gardens is an apt name for Lewisham’s newest open space.
The Domesday Book (1086) lists 11 corn mills powered by the River Ravensbourne, one situated just upstream of Lewisham Bridge, where the road from London (the A20) crossed the river.
It is believed the mill was used to grind corn throughout its existence, except for a relatively short period in the mid-eighteenth century when owned by a manufacturer of luxury glassware. It was rebuilt many times – the last occasion in the 1870s as a substantial edifice of four stories and five bays.
By the time it closed in 1920 the mill had been converted to steam, then electric operation. The building served as a warehouse before being demolished in 1934, although the site could still be identified by the channels and weirs in the river. A few of the 1850s cottages and the Maid of the Mill beer house along Mill Road also survived into the 1960s.
By the end of the 1960s all remaining traces of the mill had been swept away with the channelisation of the river and the development of the Sundermead Estate along its realigned west bank. The only clue to the past history of the site was the name Cornmill Lane, given to the short row of houses closest to the location of the mill building.
The formal gardens on the east bank have been generously providied with benches and offer a sheltered location for relaxation. The house (middle-right) is the last of the row in Cornmill Lane.
Sundermead Estate was to last barely forty years. Its redevelopment – which is almost complete – includes a new town centre open space. The design for this space, with input from QWAG, was agreed in 2005. As part of the plan, a stretch of the Ravensbourne has been broken out of its concrete channel and made accessible to the public.
The stretch of the Ravensbourne through Cornmill Gardens has been broken out of its concrete channel and is now accessible to the public. The inset shows the same scene one year earlier.
By the time work began last September, the appropriate name of Cornmill Gardens had been adopted for the space. The work, forecast to be completed in May, has suffered delays, and although it has been possible to walk along the main path for some months it was only recently that the fences barring access to the rest of the gardens were removed.
On the west bank walkers can remain on the main path or detour down to the river and observation platforms. To the left of the path a lower level grassed area for general use has been created which will flood very occasionally.
The development of Cornmill Gardens is one part of the QUERCUS (Quality Urban Environments for River Corridor Users and Stakeholders) project, which is financed through EU LIFE, the European Commission’s environmental fund. The breaking out of the Ravensbourne into Ladywell Fields, now in progress and due for completion in the autumn, is another.
A general view of Cornmill Gardens looking upstream, showing the new Sundermead Estate in the background. The banks of the Ravensbourne beyond the footbridge, where it flows through the estate, have also been naturalised.
The restoration of the Ravensbourne in Cornmill Gardens magnificently demonstrates the attractions of natural rivers, particular in densely populated urban environments.
The Lewisham Gateway developers are obviously impressed. Why else would they imply on their website that this project is part of their scheme? For, opposite text that boasts of their plans for “A landscaped park focused on the River Ravensbourne”, is a ‘verified view montage’ of the Gateway development with Cornmill Gardens in the foreground, labeled simply “View from park”.
There is no ‘verified view montage’ of Confluence Place, the small, overshadowed and windswept strip of land that will be the only green space in the entire Gateway site – both Charlottenburg Gardens and Quaggy Gardens face obliteration. Perhaps it’s because, unlike the farcical artist’s impression released a couple of years ago, it’s far harder to convince people if you have to be in any way realistic!