In March 2021, Climate Museum UK ran two Acts of River Kindness workshops online for Lewisham residents, as part of a programme funded by Lewisham Local. The sessions were co-run by James Aldridge, Beckie Leach and myself Lucy Carruthers, each introducing our creative practice relating to rivers. James demonstrated how to make a concertina sketchbook while we all discussed our watery connections. To help us imagine our local waterways, Beckie led a quick visualisation about water and rivers. In the week between the workshops we each took walks along our rivers with our sketchbooks to see what we noticed and then shared what we had experienced. It was inspiring to see and hear what people had created, the scenes described, images created and poetic capturing of the transformative power of water.
Before the workshops began, I visited my closest river in Denmark Hill, the Earl’s Sluice, its source a pond in Ruskin Park. The route swiftly moves underground flowing by Kings College Hospital to the sounds of air ambulances. Drain covers in the grass mark where it passes under Burgess Park and it emerges again in Rotherhithe straight into the Thames. Thinking of lost or hidden waterways, I followed the route of the Surrey Canal, now filled in with concrete but once a thriving tributary carrying timber from Whitten Timber in Peckham. Both now gone, with a legacy of bridges running overhead including the ‘Bridge to Nowhere‘ sitting isolated in the park. All of the flow now static with an absence of water.
I have always felt connected to rivers, with some of my most visceral memories relating to my experiences with water. Jumping across stones in Northumberland or “saving” my dad in a river in Cornwall, a leaky boat in Oxford or learning to Kayak on Shadwell Basin. For many years, I have been exploring London flooding, considering a breach of the Thames Barrier as the big future risk but I also need to understand London’s other networks of water.
Trip 1 – Friday 5th March
To connect to a visible river I cycled to Lewisham as part of my daily exercise. At Broadway Fields, I first saw the Ravensbourne River contained in a concrete channel adjacent to a bridge with the red DLR train passing overhead. Following the cycle route past the Blueprint for All centre and spotting the blossom trees in Brookmill Park. Steps invited me to get closer, as the river’s concrete backdrop was brought to life by illustrations. Cycling around the lake that contains water from the river, a heron sat aligned next to an information sign depicting it, so I moved closer to sketch it. Back at the river, I noticed a barrier of twigs and debris over the river, imagining it as a beaver dam, and I spotted the familiar form of a fox. As I sketched a section of the river, I saw a glimpse of a kingfisher. A child captured a clearer image by magnifying the bird, aligning binoculars with his camera. Other children were down by the water’s edge and thought I will come back and go there too.
Trip 2 – Friday 12th March
I wanted to see where the river went after leaving Lewisham. Starting at the Thames, I worked my way back along Deptford Creek. Sometimes it was harder to feel the connection due to the distance from the water, with buildings or yards preventing access and not a clear route to follow. Then came the moment, crossing a footbridge, the water below me and an array of orange lifebuoys marking the site of Creekside Discovery Centre. I went along the quiet route of Creekside before crossing the A2 traffic and returning to the Ravensbourne. A moment of calm again, birds singing and making time to venture down those steps to do some sketching. Instead I enjoyed the muddy challenge of helping to look for a child’s rocket, projected into the riverside bushes. Followed by a chance encounter with an old friend and their new baby.
That weekend I drew a picture of the Creek and River whilst in the bath, an abstracted memory and fictionalised landscape.
Trip 3 – Monday 15th March
I started earlier with the aim of making it to Ladywell and find out what happened after Elverson Road. Following Sustrans route 21, the Waterlink way past a strange sequence of tyres suspended across the river. I later read this was an art installation intended for birds to nest in the disused rings of rubber and was going to be taken down on an ecological basis. The cycle path led me through a tunnel and I was amazed to see a group of artists painting it. The Lewisham School of Muralism allowed me to contribute a small patch of blue, as they transformed the tunnel into a view from the bed of the Ravensbourne river. This was an unexpected but exciting pause which involved making connections with part of Lewisham’s creative community. Crossing into central Lewisham, there were glimpses of the river at Cornmill Gardens before it became inaccessible on the route to Ladywell. Finally rejoining the river at Ladywell Fields, I found an opening in the trees, and veered onto a muddy route off the path to get into the water. At last I was actually in the Ravensbourne, it felt so refreshing, and I discovered my wellies also had a leak. I later documented these journeys with a map and some drawings.
Trip 4 – Thursday 18th March
I wanted to see how the mural was developing so cycled to the painted version of the river with its large Kingfisher and canopy of colour. It was very impressive and satisfying to know I had left a small positive mark in the landscape.
Cycling back to Elverson Road, I parked my bike and went straight down to the river bank, eager to get in. A gentleman passing on the steps warned me the rivers height at the centre would overflow my boots. Standing tentatively at the edge, I felt curious to how far would the mud sink below me and reawakening the urge to get waders.
Along the bank I took rubbings in my sketchbook, wondering how you can identify different trees from their bark and collected up small pieces of red plastic I found. The same gentleman was looking for birds, and we spotted a Little Egret and he recommended contacting Thames 21, who are all about getting people involved in acts of river kindness.
Other park users were walking at the upper level looking curious, whilst I crawled under branches through the muddy bank to the steps. Then spotting the steel cut out sign for the river, the perfect object to create a rubbing in my handmade sketchbook.
On my walk back to my bike, I spoke to an author who had created the little Green Book of Poetry, which I subsequently ordered. In describing my experience to the group that evening, it emerged that my Brookmill Park encounters were with friends of the park already. Inspired by one of the participants walking directly along the river, I would like to get some waders to explore more of the Ravensbourne catchment, the Quaggy, the River Pool and then get to the source.
I have begun to research flooding in Lewisham and the consequences of an increased water level. How could this risk be mitigated and how could we adapt and also protect other species that inhabit these spaces. What emotions do rivers create and how can we care about them and the biodiversity within these ecosystems? What creative ways would encourage people to develop a relationship with their local river and find out more about how they can take part in making rivers healthy again.
Named by Romans
Source for soldiers
Tyres for birds
Blocked by furniture
Confer with water