First (and last) descent of the River Brent

 

This is not a guide to packrafting the River Brent. It’s fast, dangerous and dirty and I’d discourage anyone from following my route.

And yet despite this, I still wanted to write about my experience, as the section I paddled was fascinating in its own way, a damning indictment on how we treat our urban rivers and amongst the obstacles and pollution there was the slightest glimmer of potential for the future.

 

London has long abandoned and neglected the tributaries of the Thames. Over the years successive engineers have been commissioned to straighten and speed water through tunnels and concrete culverts with the aim of minimising impact on those that live in the overhanging suburban streets.

A handful of rivers, such as the Wandle, have been rescued by volunteers but the Brent is not one of these (yet). It spills out of the Welsh Harp Reservoir into a small isolated valley hidden behind urban back gardens. Here amidst the spray, an almost tropical micro-climate has formed, feeding huge plants that grow 20 foot high and wouldn’t look out of place in the Royal Botanical Gardens.

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The reservoir was constructed in 1835 with the purpose of supplying a consistent feed of water to the Grand Union and Regents Canal. I launched my packraft from a sun dappled bend in the river below the dam and was rapidly swept away in the stream.

Unfortunately this was the best part of the trip. From here on down, I came across multiple strainers such as large fallen trees draped with rubbish. The river also flowed into pitch black tunnels with little opportunity to climb out as you approach. I’d done my research beforehand, walked the more dangerous sections, identified exit points and formulated a plan, but despite this it was still a challenging paddle.

One of the less serious blockages across the river.

One of the less serious blockages across the river.

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This entrance to two  adjacent tunnels  could be particularly dangerous.

This entrance to two adjacent tunnels could be particularly dangerous.

The tunnel on the right was partially dry so I opted to walk it rather than getting swept through the black hole to the left. This meant carrying my packraft as I waded through mud and discarded rubbish for approximately 300m into the black stinking darkness.

The tunnel on the right was partially dry so I opted to walk it rather than getting swept through the black hole to the left. This meant carrying my packraft as I waded through mud and discarded rubbish for approximately 300m into the black stinking darkness.

This is one of the reasons the river is in such a mess. Heavy rain over previous days had swept all the detritus and oil from the roads, through outfalls and into the river.

This is one of the reasons the river is in such a mess. Heavy rain over previous days had swept all the detritus and oil from the roads, through outfalls and into the river.

A small  weir . In 2003 Tokyngton Park was renamed Brent River Park and the council invested some money in rewilding the river in this section. Apparently concrete channels were removed and meanders built into the river. Unfortunately this was barely noticeable when I passed through.

A small weir. In 2003 Tokyngton Park was renamed Brent River Park and the council invested some money in rewilding the river in this section. Apparently concrete channels were removed and meanders built into the river. Unfortunately this was barely noticeable when I passed through.

Monks Park Labyrinth Screen  near Stonebridge Park is a designed to catch debris and act as a weir when the river is in flood. As you can imagine it could be extremely dangerous to paddlers in flood conditions.

Monks Park Labyrinth Screen near Stonebridge Park is a designed to catch debris and act as a weir when the river is in flood. As you can imagine it could be extremely dangerous to paddlers in flood conditions.

Monk Park Slipway  is positioned just upstream of the Monks Park Labyrinth Screen and allowed me an opportunity to escape and continue on foot.

Monk Park Slipway is positioned just upstream of the Monks Park Labyrinth Screen and allowed me an opportunity to escape and continue on foot.

I chose to hike on along the river until it passed under the Grand Union Canal aqueduct. I jumped back into the packraft and paddled east along the canal which was broad, safe and slow but also filled with rubbish. A few kilometers later I gave up and headed for home. Unfortunately I have no intention of returning to this section of the Brent (or the Grand Union Canal) and would strongly advise anyone else against it paddling it.

But despite all this the Brent holds potential. If it were regenerated and rewilded like the River Wandle it could be a fantastic venue for water users and wildlife. The unique semi-tropical environment beneath the dam holds particular potential and with some hard work and vision it could become a gem hidden amongst the suburban streets.

Notes:

  • If you did want to walk this route or visit the spillway below the dam it can be found by hiking up a small and pretty footpath hidden behind Harp Island Close.

  • The Brent (Welsh Harp) Reservoir can only be paddled by members of the Phoenix Canoe Club.

Tim Clark