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Walking the River Westbourne, London

With two friends, Michael and Nigel, we set out to discover a lost river of London. There is a lot of information around the Web, greatly helping. We completed our discovery in two legs on fine cold winter days in 2009. The walk started from the mouth at Chelsea. We headed north, trying to follow the course of the river as best we could.

Map of southern section
Walk 1 - The Thames at Chelsea to Paddington
Map of northern section
Walk 2 - Paddington to Hampstead Heath

The river is now effectively a sewer. Nevertheless we followed it in the vain of a real river, imaging what the original landscape might have looked like.

Walk 1 - From the mouth at Chelsea to Paddington

Starting from the Thames near to Battersea Bridge, we were unable to find any evidence of the Westbourne outflow due to high tide. Just along Chelsea Embankment on the south side was an ornate pipe. This could only be a Victorian vent for the sewer.

The land around Ranelagh Gardens is very flat. It is easy to imagine this area as marshy where the river entered the Thames. On the right hand side of Chelsea Bridge Road is the former sight of Chelsea Barracks, alas now demolished to make way for luxury flats.

The route meanders along the Chelsea-Westminster boundary through side streets. These streets are fascinating for there relatively calm and quaint nature. Bourne Street is a clear indication of the nearby existence of the river. Sloane Square station is one of the more dramatic and visual aspects of the Westbourne. From a point on Skinner Place the piped river can be clearly seen running across the station.

The buildings become grander and it is well to spend a little time exploring a few of the mewses and alleys. Not only does it give you a feeling of following the river, but provides a glimpse into the grandeur of the area. In a mews off West Eaton Place we found a stone reading HHSC. What did it mean? Surprisingly we found the same initials later.

As the walk approaches Knightsbridge, a sign welcomes the visitor to the area at Pont Street. Was Pont Street the site of a bridge, or is it just a clever made-up name? This area is close to Belgrave Square and is home to many foreign embassies. We got a little distracted by trying to identify and compare all the different embassies. The diversion and back tracking was well worth it. There are many interesting buildings in the area and it is worth taking in the variety of architecture.

At a junction on Lowndes Street there was another vent. This uninteresting green pipe was good evidence of the river turned into sewer below.

Knightsbridge is itself a busy area and thoroughfare. It was easy to imagine this area being historically important as a major crossing point of the Westbourne. The fact that is still forms the main western road corridor of the A4 suggests the importance.

The first sight of water is just before the Serpentine in Hyde Park. Despite the waterfall, the feature is undoubtedly ornamental. Nevertheless, it was good to imagine it being the real thing. At this point it is worth looking out for those little pieces of historical evidence. A small monument attested to how the waters of the Westbourne were diverted at this point to supply Westminster.

Hyde Park itself is a good place to relax. We took the north bank of the Serpentine, crossed the Serpentine Bridge and then doubled back to the cafe for a welcome break. Whilst enjoying your break, take some time to read about the Serpentine swimming club.

Refreshed we carried along the south bank to Long Water. At the head of Long Water are a set of fountains and a pumping house. He we found another plaque with HHSC on it. Behind the pump house was a path which looked suspiciously like it could have once been part of a bridge. It is at this point where the river formed a boundary between Westminster and the parish of Paddington.

The area from Lancaster Gate to Paddington has many tantalising names, such as Smallbrook Mews and Conduit Mews. We followed the aptly named Brook Mews North, Upbrook Mews and Gloucester Mews West which appeared to be a more reliable route. We took a quick diversion to Westbourne Terrace. This thoroughfare could well have once been a terrace of the Westbourne, because it is clear the land slopes down at right angles.

We found ourselves at Hallfield Estate. We speculated why this estate suddenly appeared on the route in land lower than the surrounding. Could it have been a gravel pit for the building of the Georgian housing estate? Some later investigation claims it is a former World War II bomb site. Not such a glamorous image.

We were now at the end of the first leg of the walk. We continued to follow Bishop's Bridge Road westward and onto Westbourne Grove. Even though the lay of land and the street names were compelling for this to be the Westbourne, in fact it was the course of the Tyburn Brook. It is likely however that the Bishop's Bridge might have been a real crossing point. It was possible to imagine this whole area to be flat and marshy where the two rivers joined.

Walk 2 - Paddington to Hampstead Heath

This was always going to be a difficult route to follow. The southern section is well documented and the northern section was only clear up to Kilburn.

We started from Paddington Station and wove around the streets in order to ensure we were picking up the right route. We were forced to walk along Westbourne Bridge to cross the railway lines. It is possible to imagine the river running slightly to the west underneath.

It was tempting to see Westbourne Green at Bourne Terrace as a former meadow. The most likely story is just a co-incidence in the building of the estate. The route crosses the Grand Union canal and takes a sharp left turn onto Shirland Road. The buildings and architecture are very mixed in this area. The library and old dairy were the most interesting.

We took a short break at the Chippenham on the corner of Shirland Road and Kilburn Park Road. This fascinating pub was once a venue for Michael's band when he was younger. It is fascinating how the different strands of our lives come together in unexpected ways. Although Michael had grown up around this area, he was now seeing it from a different perspective.

At the northern end of Kilburn Park Road, we noted the number of religious establishments all close to one another. A large Anglican church and school, a synagogue and a mosque. The mosque on Maida Vale was clearly a former picture palace.

From this point it was going to hard to follow the route. Other documented routes would take us towards Swiss Cottage. We were determined to follow the lay of the land to guide our route. However, before we undertook this venture, we diverted off to Kilburn High Road to find a place to have a cup of tea and a break.

Even though not part of the intended route, we came across an interesting plaque on the pavement. Surely this must have been the site of a bridge across the Westbourne. We endeavoured to start where we left off and so headed down Springfield Lane (once again a suspicious name) and headed along Kilburn Priory. At Belsize Road it was not exactly clear which way to go. We turned left.

The low ground appeared to be along Kilburn Place. Here there was a small chapel with an interesting plague. Then through the housing estate, right onto West End Lane and left into Mutrix Road. Crossing Quex Road we headed up Mazendo Avenue stopping off briefly to have a look at the Roman Catholic church. We should have probably kept heading down the hill and right into Kingsgate Road. Kingsgate felt right and was probably the natural extension from Kilburn Bridge. We must have jumped tributaries.

At the junction of Netherwood Street, Sheriff Road and Lowfield Road the route clearly carried straight ahead towards the railway. With three railway lines in the way of our intended route we made a decision to turn right, cross the lines at West Hampstead and then try to pick up the route again.

Walking along Sumatra Road we found good evidence of the stream near the junction of Pandora Road. There was a definite low point in the road. The stream appeared to run between Sumatra Road and Solent Road. At Mill Lane we turned right. It was not exactly clear the best way to go and right seemed less up hill than left. In retrospect, I suspect the stream headed north towards Fortune Green and we had just jumped tributaries again.

We crossed West End Green and picked up our route along Canon Hill. I now believe we had crossed to another tributary. In order to clear up the confusion of tributaries, we will have to revisit the area again. We assumed the following three tributaries existed:

  1. to the west across Kilburn Bridge, up Kingsgate road and on towards Fortune Green
  2. to the east towards Swiss Cottage that has been documented
  3. in the centre from Kilburn Priory along Priory Road and Honeybourne Road.
We were once again on the central branch.

Crossing the busy Finchley Road we headed along Heath Drive and into Reddington Gardens with confidence we were back on track. At the end of Reddington Gardens there was a drain in which running water could be clearly heard. Surely this must be the Westbourne.

Being hilly this area took lots of exploring. There were probably multiple streams feeding the main Westbourne channel. At the end of Reddington Gardens there is useful footpath that leads onto Heysham Lane. After circling around back through Oak Hill Park, the bourne must have flowed in a deep valley between Oak Hill Way and Spedan Close.

The natural route took us into Lower Terrace. Not being familiar with this part of Hampstead, I was suddenly aware we were at the covered reservoir. We ended the walk at Whitestone Pond on the top of Hampstead Heath. In all the years that we have passed this way did we ever think this was a source of the Westbourne.


Here is a collection of some useful reference sites:

Last updated: 9th March 2009