The Lost River Of London You've Never Heard Of: The Heathwall

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The Lost River Of London You've Never Heard Of: The Heathwall

Ever heard of the River Heathwall? A new book rescues Battersea's lost watercourse from almost total obscurity.

A modern map by David Western showing the Battersea area in 1840. The Heathwall can be seen to the bottom and right of the map.

Walk along Wandsworth Road and you are following the curve of a lost river. You can guess as much by looking at the land. Towards the junction with Queenstown Road, the side streets to the north dip sharply. They plunge into the valley of the Heathwall, an ancient river lost to the sewer system more than 150 years ago.

The river has also been lost to folk memory. While countless books, videos and major exhibitions have charted the course of other buried rivers like the Fleet, Effra and Tyburn, the poor old Heathwall has been studiously ignored. Paddle forward Jon Newman, whose short book and walking guide, The Heathwall: Battersea's Buried River, literally puts it back on the map.

Where does the Heathwall flow?

It's easy enough to visualise the route of the Heathwall. Follow the curve of Wansdsworth Road down from Vauxhall, then imagine it continuing on to hit the Thames again just north-east of Wandsworth Bridge. Newman puts it more poetically, with a description heading back the other way:

"From the dampest and most flood-prone parts of Battersea, through the railway company euphemism that is Clapham Junction, past the down-slope of Lavender Hill, the shabby northern abutments of Clapham and along the sad side of Wandsworth Road, it has seeped on through ravaged Nine Elms to empty into the Thames above Vauxhall Bridge."

Why is the Heathwall forgotten?

In his introduction, Newman points out that none of the major works on London's lost rivers, from the classic Nicholas Barton book of 1962, to more recent overviews by Tom Bolton, Paul Talling and David Fathers, tackle the Heathwall.

It's certainly not a trivial waterway. The modern boundary between the boroughs of Wandsworth and Lambeth still follows part of its course. The very name of Battersea indirectly references the Heathwall. Its Anglo-Saxon form of Badrices īeg means 'the island of Badric' — an island sandwiched between the Thames and the Heathwall.

The answer may lie in the Heathwall's history. Though once a natural feature, it gradually evolved into a drainage channel for agriculture, industry and human waste. Its noisome waters commingled with other channels and ditches, made still less coherent by flood waters and marshy ground. This was not an easy river to love. Neglected in previous centuries, it is all but forgotten now.

A river rediscovered

Newman's book begins with an overview of the history of this long-lost river, drawing on well-referenced sources from the medieval period up to our own. Most of the book takes the form of a walking route along the course of the Heathwall. You'll learn much about the history of Battersea, and discover the telltale signs of the river that formed its southern boundary.

The book is handsomely illustrated with historical images and illustrations by David Western. The artist has also created two exceptional maps showing the Island of Battersea in 1840 (reproduced with permission above), and the modern view.

If you're a Battersea local, you'll mop up the details of the street-by-street guide. If you don't know the area but have 'a bit of a thing' for buried rivers, then this book adds unexpected new material to an already waterlogged publishing landscape.  

The Heathwall: Battersea's Buried River is out now from Backwater Books. Buy online, from south London book shops, or by contacting the publisher on info@backwaterbooks.co.uk

Last Updated 25 November 2019