Collaging the River Pool

by Emma Jackson and Louise Rondel

25 July 2023

︎ by Emma Jackson

K is telling me about ‘her kingfisher’ at a collaging workshop that we are running at the opening of the new Bell Green pond, between Catford and Lower Sydenham on the River Pool Linear Park. We have been doing this recent wave of research on Lewisham’s rivers for only a couple of months but are getting accustomed to possessive pronouns when it comes to people’s accounts of the rivers of Lewisham. Through talking to – and in this case making collages with – those who spend time alongside and in them we are seeking to learn how Lewisham’s rivers are caught up in different registers of place-making.

While the Thames looms large in questions of the past, present and future of the city, a network of 25 smaller tributary rivers criss-cross London, shaping the landscape and impacting in dramatic (see the Lewisham floods of 1968) and mundane ways on people’s lives. 

Three rivers run through Lewisham configuring both the borough’s topography and social life in sometimes imperceptible – or perhaps unnoticed – ways: rising in Keston, the River Ravensbourne meets the River Pool between Bellingham and Catford. The Ravensbourne continues through Ladywell and Lewisham where it joins with the River Quaggy underneath the construction of the Lewisham Gateway Development in the newly-formed Confluence Park. The Quaggy itself has risen in Locksbottom and flowed through the boroughs of Bromley and Greenwich before crossing into Lewisham. Gently gathering these waters, the Ravensbourne continues through Deptford and passes into Deptford Creek where, if you time your arrival on a high tide, its small stream-like flow suddenly multiplies in width and intensity. Following the Creek northwards, it runs into the Thames. Here, from the bank, standing and looking across to the Isle of Dogs on a mizzly day in early February, there is a sense that the ocean is not so far away.  

Our new research project ‘Place-making and the Rivers of Lewisham’, that has recently been funded by the Goldsmiths Strategic Research Fund, combines the close-up exploration of two stretches of the river, through the use of creative qualitative methods, with a review of policy documents that are relevant to blue space in Lewisham. 

The two stretches of river we are following in the project take us through a fast-changing part of this borough. They thread together landscapes of newly privatised high-rise development where the rivers have only recently been opened up as part of the Lewisham Gateway regeneration, the well-established Waterlink Way Linear Park, and stretches dominated by transport infrastructure. Caring for Lewisham’s stretches of river are groups such as the Friends of the River Pool, Quaggy Waterways Action Group [QWAG], the Friends of Brookmill Park, Thames21, Healthy Rivers Project and Lewisham’s Nature’s Gym. These groups meet regularly to pull on their waders, don litter pickers and bin bags, and walk the river and its banks collecting litter, weeding out invasive plants, clearing debris which impedes the water’s flow, monitoring water quality, and carrying other such essential maintenance tasks; and, of course, sharing flasks of tea and donuts.
Our project is based around three questions: How are Lewisham’s rivers constructed, drawn upon, included or excluded in plans for regeneration and development in the borough? How are the rivers practised and imagined by those who live by them, care for them, and spend time alongside and in them? And what are the synergies, conflicts and potential opportunities that arise from these different kinds of place-making on the rivers? Examining these questions together allows us to think about how activities as disparate as teenagers splashing in the River Pool during a heatwave, a river group carefully removing Himalayan Balsam and rogue shopping trolleys, and the ways that the rivers are used (or not) in the marketing of new developments, play a role in the spatial and social life of Lewisham.

Lewisham’s three rivers may not garner the spectacular attention often given to the Thames, the Docklands and other such waterfront developments, but they are deeply implicated in shaping the landscape of south-east London – and, at times, are themselves shaped by their surroundings. They are embedded in making community, belonging, life and a sense of place.   

Dr Louise Rondel is a Researcher at the Centre for Urban and Community Research and a Research Fellow at Brunel University. Working across urban sociology and critical beauty studies, her research interests include beauty work, urban spaces, materials, infrastructures, bodies, water, air, geographies of toxicity, and questions of social and environmental justice. Louise also co-curates Infrastructural Explorations, a series of ‘walkshops’ which invite participants to critically engage with the impacts of infrastructure on the urban landscape.
︎ @LouiseRondel

Dr Emma Jackson is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths, University of London.

︎ Background image River Ravensbourne, Lewisham, licensed under CC 3.0