|View from One Tree Hill|
It was Easter Monday, ages ago now. We'd been promising ourselves for ages that we would walk the River Wandle one day, but you really need to get up and away more quickly than we are used to on cold Bank Holidays. So we checked London's Lost Rivers, and settled on the River Peck. Five and a half miles it said, easy for us to reach on the Overground, manageable on a cold day when sunshine was promised later. We thought it would be a breeze to follow the river from the Thames to the source, the opposite way to the instructions in the book. We might even get to the Hornimaan for a cup of tea before it closed. Little did we know...
|It wouldn't be a proper walk without lichen and barbed wire|
There is something very familiar about the old Surrey Docks - it's a sort of non-identical twin to Wapping and Limehouse on the north side of the river where we come from. Only sort of, and I've been trying to understand why. It is something to do with "home", the way we look differently at the places we know well, even when they have changed and continue to change almost immeasurably, that familiarity with long-inhabited space. Somehow your own litter and urban chaos is more acceptable. Even before we reached the sluice where the Peck and its cousin the Earl's Sluice meet the Thames, with the north easterly cutting across our noses, he was halfway into old monologues: the fiasco of the unimaginative architecture built around the old dock, the ridiculousness of planters filled with dying plants on houseboats, the irritating tinkling from boats in the marina, and, oops, the treachery of badly-laid paving stones. I know his indignation is justified but I just laugh out loud because I've heard it all before.
|Tide Gauge House|
Around half an hour after leaving the station and inspecting the remnants of the docks, little buildings scattered here and there and fabulous bits of engineering, we actually began to follow the back to front route: down back streets and past the Earl Pumping Station, along past the magnificent railway arches to the road that cuts through...except it's blocked off and we didn't have a map, just the plan in the book - so we had to retrace our steps and take a long cut that takes us up an ugly road that goes on forever swimming against the tide of Millwall fans on their way to the Den. Reader, I confess I nearly caught a stray bus. Some time later - minutes, hours, weeks, who knows - we reached the main road, bought some chocolate in case we never found our way home, passed some lovely villas, a green, Asylum Road. We turned the book this way and that as we tried to reverse the instructions in our head and finally found our way out of the labrynth and back on the path to the Rye, Peckham Rye where William Blake saw those angels. The nearest we had come to any sign of a river was the pumping station. Not even a manhole cover in the road encouraged us with the promise of a hidden river.
Then it all changed. The west end of Peckham Rye becomes a flat iron of green which widens out into the park. The sun came out, and there in the distance, an oasis, a cafe. Never has coffee and carrot cake tasted so good. We'd been walking for hours in an enchanted back-to-front maze and we knew we were soon going to find our stream, our river, not far away. And there it was, just inside the gates of the park, a bit slack at first, then as we moved along, a tiny gurgling splashy stream. You'd have thought we'd found the source of the Nile. No wonder Blake saw angels.
We followed the
stream river through the park until it disappeared again, then started to climb uphill, at first gently, past the waterworks, a neat little estate of brick cottages, then, yes, another litter strewn manhole, across the road and into the woody nature reserve. The path became steeper and steeper as we walked up through the woods and finally came out on top of One Tree Hill with its view across south London towards the Thames. And of course we got out our binoculars and scanned the horizon for familiar landmarks: Tower Bridge became our surrogate for home.
Six hours. Half an hour later we were back in Mile End. Honest to goodness, there are times when you might envy a crow.