Walking round London pt3: Finsbury Park to Clissold Park
Engineering, evangelism and extravagant Victorian utilities
The Capital Ring’s north-easterly bearing across Finsbury Park might seem odd or even perturbing for those committed to going quite a way south-east before nightfall, but as usual there’s a good reason. Popping out of the park across Green Lanes — plural because the modern road links several former inter-village drovers’ trails — it’s heading for the path which follows the New River.
Now, the New River is no longer new and was never a river. Opened in 1613, it’s an artificial waterway, but it’s not a canal because it slopes downhill by three or four inches per mile, creating a constant supply of water under the power of nothing but gravity. (This might seem quaintly old-fashioned, but much of Britain’s modern drinking water network follows the same principle: it saves a lot of pumping cost.)
Back then there wasn’t much fresh water for the ever-growing capital, and entrepreneurial goldsmith Sir Hugh Myddelton had the so-crazy-it-might-just-work idea of diverting springs in Hertfordshire 40 miles south to London. Landowners hated it but Sir Hugh had a friend in King James, which helped considerably, and his creation still supplies some of London’s water needs. And you, dear reader, can amble along most of its length.
On this occasion, we follow it for two kilometres or so, winding past the local arts enclave of the New River Studios and the former factory whose chimney’s gnomic logo “OCC” turns out to be an advert for the Oriental Carpet Centre. Not being in possession of a magic carpet — which would be cheating anyway — we continue on foot alongside the burbling waterway, its pace closely matching ours, its gentle but insistent progress a fitting backdrop to a fascinating conversation about how automation could change the future of humanity. Funny what you fall to discussing with strangers when you’ve got time on your hands.
With the exception of a brief but unpleasant crossing of the Seven Sisters Road, it’s a peaceful way to pass half an hour. The ‘river’ bends to the right — or starboard, although you’d need a very shallow hull in what can sometimes be as little as three inches of water — and you’re presented with the twin pear-drops of the East and West Reservoirs, looking on the map like God’s dropped sleep-mask.
What the reservoirs lack in nominative panache they make up for in wildlife — grey heron, tufted duck, reed bunting, pochard, shoveler, gadwall and globe-tit, none of which I could identify and only the last of which I’ve made up — and human leisure activities. Scooting busily across, and upon occasion dramatically into, the West Reservoir are the kind of watersports fans you’d be happy to introduce to mother.
Filled by the New River and lined with bits of the old London Bridge, the Stoke Newington reservoirs are in the shadow of modish housing blocks. Dwarfing and part-replacing the 1948 social-housing estate of Woodberry Down, the towers of Woodberry Park contain apartments that go for seven-figure sums; no wonder Berkeley Homes were happy to fund the regeneration of the New River and the London Wildlife Fund’s considerate development of the eastern lake into the protected Woodberry Wetlands.
Whether or not you get along with what is commonly euphemised as regeneration — or gentrification, a term coined down the road in Islington by sociologist Ruth Glass — it’s not the worst construction that could have been foisted upon the area. Back in the mid-80s, with the water industry under pressure to cut losses and realise assets in the run-up to privatisation, Thames Water wanted to drain both the reservoirs and the New River, selling the land for private housing and a hypermarket with 400 car-parking spaces.
They got as far as starting to drain the West Reservoir, but a tight, hard-working local community objected, and within a decade had more or less won: although filter beds were sold off to benefit shareholders, the river and reservoirs were saved, protected and repurposed, one for wildlife and one for leisure.
The former filtration plant between the two reservoirs is now a grade-II listed cafe; going one better, at the south-western edge of the site, is the grade II*-listed magnificence of The Castle. Suddenly hoving into view as you cross a wooden bridge over the New River, the Castle is the kind of maniacally overdone utility building in which the Victorians excelled.
Built between 1852 and 1856 at a cost of £81,500 and designed to look like a medieval fortress, it’s just a pumping station — but why let mundanity of purpose restrict architectural vision and class of finish? Flamboyant towers thrust up to 150ft heavenwards above a heavily buttressed, castellated keep, but there’s brains behind the look.
It was built economically — that cost translates to around £8.3m today, hardly pocket change but not the fortune you might expect — of yellow stock brick with Portland cement dressing. The tallest tower is not a grace note but a disguised chimney shaft. The 120ft circular tower holds a high-level water tank, the better to utilise our friend gravity. The three stepped buttresses on the external elevation were internally hollow to accommodate part of the massive flywheels for the pumping engines.
Threatened with demolition in the 1980s, it was converted in the mid-90s to a climbing centre and is buzzing with activity as we pass it, heading a short way down Green Lanes to Clissold Park.
If things were just, Stoke Newington’s beloved park would be named not after Augustus Clissold. An Anglican deacon turned proselytiser for the Swedenborgians — a divine-inspiration bunch who have influenced a varied cast including William Blake, Carl Jung, Helen Keller, the inventor of Plasticine, Robert Frost, the inventor of shorthand, the father of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, and the wife of Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson — Clissold only came to own the park which bears his name because he married into land. Elizabeth Crawshay’s family, big in iron, had in turn inherited it from Jonathan Hoare, the true father of these pleasant acres, although it might not be wise to have called it Hoare Park.
A Quaker who overcame the childhood name-calling to become a merchant, anti-slavery campaigner and general philanthropist, Hoare designed the park surrounding the late 17th-century Paradise House to be, well, paradise. Clearly not a man overly encumbered by humility, Clissold renamed the house and park after himself. There is, however, a pleasing nomination afoot: Joseph Beck and John Runtz successfully campaigned for the Metropolitan Board of Works to buy the land for public leisure, and they are commemorated in the names of the two lakes — Beckmere and Runtzmere, one sounding more convincingly Norse than the other.
Grade II-listed, Hoare’s house has been Lottery-restored to gleaming period newness, even if his front room is now a busy café and the place could use clearer signage to the toilets — confused and crossed-legged, we’re forced to navigate by listening for the distant whirr of a hand-drier. But once refreshed we have an extra spring in our step, because at 18km Clissold Park is the official halfway mark of the day’s walk, marked by a checkpoint of cheering charity helpers. Soon we we will heading determinedly south — but not until after a brush with death…
Coming up next:The nonconformist’s memento mori
The Mencap Capital Challenge is a charity walk circling London in four quarters, each roughly 30km. You can donate or sponsor the writer at justgiving.com/garyparkinson1974. You can also join in: the East quarter (Royal Albert Docks to Crystal Palace) will take place on Sat 26 May, the South quarter (Crystal Palace to Richmond) on Sat 9 June, the West quarter (Richmond to Hendon) on Sat 7 July.