Close to the summit of Red Post Hill, on the borders of Chislehurst and Mottingham, is some old woodland – old Ordnance Survey maps refer to it as Hangingspring Woods. It is dense and footpaths are unclear, but there is a pronounced dip going through it, falling away towards the North East. This is the highest ‘sighting’ of one of the Quaggy’s bigger tributary streams, the imaginatively named the Little Quaggy.
The source though isn’t possible to reach on foot, it is in closely guarded woodland – a high metal fence blocks the way from the Green Chain Walk path adjacent to Walden Road recreation ground. Not that any water would have likely to have been found – the stream bed is just damp by the time it reaches Hangingspring Woods. There is though a small pond marked on OS maps, which is likely to be the source.
The ‘hanging’ is likely to have its derivation in the old English word ‘hangra’, steep wood slope, rather than any more grisly meaning – the Chislehurst gallows were some distance away. The woods would have been part of Coldharbour Farm – probably from the French col d’arbre (wooded hill/pass).
Coldharbour Farm was a largely dairy farm -the farm buildings were located at what is now the junction of William Barefoot Drive and Mottingham Lane. The farm was developed for housing by the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich from 1947 to help ease the housing problems in the northern part of the Borough; William Barefoot was a local councillor and mayor of Woolwich.
Behind the fencing used to be the grounds of Ravensbourne College. The College moved to the Greenwich Peninsula in 2010 after 34 years on the site – the likes of fashion designer Stella McCartney and film producer Gareth Unwin were alumni, although some of the more famous students, including David Bowie and Bruce Oldfield, passed through its doors when it was actually in the Ravensbourne catchment in Bromley.
Onwards and downwards… My run takes me parallel to the remnants of the Wood dropping down Oakdene Avenue then Walden Avenue, where the side roads rise quite steeply away from the stream. There is no sign of water, no sound of rushing water beneath the ferrous manhole covers in the road.
There is a small notch in the Wayside Green that the Little Quaggy crosses, still unseen to all but the geographical eye. Ravensworth Road follows its course, and, for a while, an obvious valley appears. The main Mottingham Road, the invisible boundary between Bromley and Greenwich, is reached and the south westerly side of the road would have been followed by the Little Quaggy for around 100 metres before crossing it at Lavidge Bridge – close to where Chapel Farm Road now is.
When the stream flowed above ground, it would have been overlooked here by the Geffrye Almshouses which were replacements for what is now the Geffrye Museum and were built in 1912 before the area was developed. They housed “ladies of restricted means”, often retired governesses. The remaining ‘ladies’ were moved out to the more rural surroundings of Hook in Hampshire in 1972, and, since then, ownership has gone from the Greater London Council, to Bromley Council and then on to Broomleigh Housing Association in 1992. From the plethora of estate agents’ boards outside, it would appear that many are now privately owned. At the time of ‘passing’ the almshouses were not at their best – covered with scaffolding.
From Lavidge Bridge, the stream used to meander northwards through another farm, Chapel Farm, where it fed the farm pond. Chapel Farm buildings were roughly where the Coldharbour Lesiure Centre is now. Oddly for a farm, it had a cricket pitch and was the home to Eltham Cricket Club. The club’s most famous player was W.G Grace and the ground was the location for his last ever appearance on a cricket field on 8 August 1914 – more on this later in the year.
The conversion of the Little Quaggy to a subterranean stream here happened during the development of the Coldharbour estate, around 1949. The culverting though is barely below the surface and there are a series of raised red brick manholes joined together by a line of brown, almost deceased, grass edging a lush green playing field – it is parched from a lack of moisture due to the thin soils. A few centimetres below though, the encased stream audibly gushes through its concrete pipe.
The original course of the Little Quaggy is bisected by the four lanes of the Sidcup by-pass. It then skirts the western edge of Fairy Hill Park (Fairy Hill was a former name for what is now Eltham College –more on that in a week or two when another Mottingham stream, Fairy Hall Flow, is followed). The Little Quaggy had a concrete straightjacket imposed upon it when the park was created in 1938.It is then under the railway towards the Tarn.
The Tarn is an ornamental lake which is in an eponymous park which was originally part of Eltham Lodge (now Royal Blackheath Golf Club) and was acquired by the Metropolitan Borough of Woolwich in 1935. The small lake was the most depressing site on the run down the course of the stream. The park itself is a pleasant oasis, it is always a joy to run around its banks and has been improved over the years by its Friends. The lake oozed neglect though – almost entirely covered with duckweed – a handful of wildfowl were attempting to make the best of it though, and a coot was even nesting on the still, pea-green water. The Friends are fundraising to remove the duckweed.
The Little Quaggy enters through a grim looking concrete channel on its course under the railway from Fairy Hill Park, it is joined in theory at least by another small tributary emerging from the golf course – but its flow did nothing to disturb the dull green surface of the Tarn. The outflow, and continuation of the stream, is through a grille and remains enclosed again as Mottingham station and the railway line steal its natural course.
There was once another stream joining the Little Quaggy from land close to Eltham Palace – there is a distinct dip in Middle Park Avenue behind the station, with give-away upward pointing contour lines on the OS map, but the high hedges and horse riding make any further investigation difficult.
The Little Quaggy emerges into the open for the first time back across the Sidcup Bypass. Just before its appearance, it is joined by the already mentioned Fairy Hall Flow. Its final four hundred metres are close to how the stream would probably have looked like prior to suburbanisation– a pasture covered with buttercups. It is not some semi-rural idyll though, just a narrow strip of green used by a riding school, with heavy goods vehicles from the Channel Ports thundering past, 20 metres away, towards inner London and the Blackwall Tunnel – very close by there are high average nitrogen dioxide pollution and occasional high levels of particulates – it is not a place to linger.