24 Secret Wild River Restoration Spots

Did you know that there are nearly 400 miles of waterways in the capital – the same distance between Brighton and Edinburgh? Many of us have heard about London’s secret rivers, buried beneath the ground long ago when the waste that had been thrown into them turned them into open sewers. But how many of us have heard about the many London rivers which are being rewilded?

Kirsten Downer, communications and campaigns officer for waterways charityThames21 gives us the low-down on 24 river nature sanctuaries across the capital

Across London, more than 27km (nearly 17miles) of river has already been liberated from concrete channels, allowed to meander across flood plains and in some stretches, daylighted – brought back across ground so their waters can see light again, like the Wandle in south London – not long ago an open sewer, but now a place to see brown trout and fish for chub and dace.

This process is known as river restoration or rewilding – nothing to do with bringing back top predators but a term to describe restoring rivers back to as natural a state as possible given the specific urban environment they find themselves in. Even in areas where river concrete can’t be removed, floating reedbeds or green walls are being used to replicate a river’s natural conditions. For instance, 870 square metres of reedbed have  been installed along the Lower Lea,  supplementing existing reedbeds which formed naturally. A green corridor now stretches from where the river meets the Thames all the way to the Olympic Park meaning the river is more vegetated than it has been in decades, if not centuries.

Not only does rewilding benefit biodiversity, it also reduces flood risk and provides high quality green space to us nature-deprived Londoners. On one rewilded site at Lewisham’s Ladywell Fields, usage of the park has doubled since the river Ravensbourne reappeared, and many wildlife species, especially fishing birds, have increased by nearly 100 per cent.

Both rivers and people in London need protection from climate change impacts which are increasing the severity and frequency of drought periods and intense rainfall. When drought is followed by a downpour,  pollution (oils and metals) which has built up on roads pours into rivers already depleted of water, and fish die. This happened last summer. And intense downpours combined with concrete straight channels make rivers more prone to flooding. Flood risk is increasing in London. River restoration tackles both problems. A natural river with a floodplain, vegetation and water meadows can cope with a sudden increase in water better than a concrete channel. Wetland areas soak up the excess water, and pollutants, like a sponge, slowing the flow and releasing the water gradually back to the river to flow downstream.

27km of rewilded river exists for Londoners to explore – the equivalent distance of 66 Shards laid end-to-end. To make this easy, the London Rivers Restoration Group, the team behind London Rivers Week – have compiled a list of the top 24 Sanctuary River sites in London for you to visit.

Herons, kingfishers, and red deer are just some of the species you might see when visiting these sites. Otters, trout, bats, kingfishers and eels all use London rivers – but they need your help to survive and thrive, in the face of plastic pollution, sewage from misconnected plumbing and the impacts of climate change. We can all help protect rivers by binning, not flushing, observing the three Ps, reducing our plastic and water usage and checking our plumbing for misconnections.

Secret Wild Spaces map: our top river restoration sites


Explore this map here and read about each location below.

Connect to nature at these newly restored river sites. There’s plenty of inspiration: from new cycle routes and cool spaces for a family day out to quiet spots to watch wildlife on your lunch-break!

1. Beam Parklands

A huge new nature oasis in East London full of precious habitats including grassland, fenland and woodland.  Explore the River Beam and Wantz Stream, and roam its 13 hectares with 8km of new foot and cycle paths!

2. Beverley Brook, Richmond Park

A stretch of this river is now rewilded – released from its man-made straight channel to flow naturally through Richmond Park. Its gravel bed has been cleaned of silt, and attracts a variety of mini-beasts and fish.

3. Bury Lodge, Salmons Brook Catchment, Enfield

This wetland site has reconnected the Salmon’s Brook to its  floodplain and when the new vegetation has grown it will be full of sedges, reeds and water-mint. A new cycle path beside the path is due to open late 2016.

4. Deptford Creek, Greenwich & Lewisham

You’ll often find sandmartins nesting and raising their young on a new sandbank at this historic spot is where the Ravensbourne finally meets the Thames.

5. Firs Farm Wetlands, Pymmes Brook Catchment, Winchmore Hill

This huge new wetland  area of more than 700 acres within Greater London has brought a lost river, the Moore Brook, back to the surface.  Admire the 100 extra trees and a new wildflower meadow from the new footpath and cycle path.

6. Glenbrook Wetlands, Salmons Brook Catchment, Enfield

Six new linked wetland basins have helped clean up the Glenbrook; a tributary of the Salmons Brook, which runs into the Lea.  Not only have the wetlands massively cut pollutants, they are beautiful in their own right and are well-visited by dragonflies.

7. Grovelands Park Wetlands, Salmons Brook Catchment

Enjoy watching a once buried stream meander its way through woodland; this stretch of the Salmons Brook has been ‘daylighted’ so it can attract wildlife and delight visitors in Grovelands Park. A reedbed has also been created in one end of the lake, and new wetlands created.

8. Lordship Recreation Ground, Tottenham

Visit this magical new landscape created by bringing the lost River Moselle above ground; 400m of meandering river, backwaters and a patchwork of floodplain habitats. Not to mention the new community eco-building, café, theatre space and off-road bike track.

9. Mayes Brook, Mayes Brook Park, Barking & Dagenham

Visit the UK’s first Climate Change Park and rejoice in the rewilded Mayes Brook which winds its way through the heart of the park – where once it was hidden behind metal fencing. Look for fish resting in its backwaters and lose yourself  in the hectare of additional native woodland.

10. Project Reedbed, Lee Navigation

Birdwatchers and nature lovers will find this an interesting place as this network of reedbeds along the Lee Navigation, in a highly urbanised area, not only enhances the wildlife habitat but is bringing greenery to the waterway.

11. River Crane, Causeway Open Space

In spring the gravel beds of this new River Crane backwater are black with spawning minnows. The backwater is helping the River Crane reconnect with its floodplain, as well as providing a great pit stop for fish, and a place for Londoners to take a breath.

12. River Effra, The Lost River Effra Project, Lambeth

The ‘lost’ River Effra catchment has a history of flooding, something the London Wildlife Trust is changing by working closely with local people to create gardens that are both practical and beautiful. They soak up rainwater, make the area more resilient to flooding and improve neighbourhoods for wildlife.

13. River Hogsmill Connectivity Project

Fish need to commute, just like humans do; in London, they need to swim from the Thames and up the tributaries. But weirs, bridge footings and other barriers in their way. This project has removed 11 of 16 of them on the Hogsmill, making it much more fish-friendly – and by the end of the project fish will be able to commute from Kingston to Ewell without interruption.

14. River Hogsmill Open Spaces

A 500m stretch of river in the Hogsmill Local Nature Reserve has been turned into a haven for fish. Few places in the Hogsmill had been available to fish to live, because the area has been heavily developed in the past 50 years. Volunteers have played a huge part in making changes.

15. River Pool, Linear Park, Lewisham

Once upon a time this river looked like a pond – it had been so straightened and widened. Nowadays it flows like a real river, and new plants are colonising its edges. Sunlight bounces off its clearer, flowing water and provides great new views for Linear Park.

16. River Ravensbourne, Ladywell Fields, Lewisham

Go paddling in a sun-dappled river, meandering through meadows and visited by kingfishers – all within Zone 3!

17. River Thames, Greenwich Peninsula

City estuaries have lost most of their natural habitats. But here in Greenwich, reeds, sea aster and other saltmarsh plants have returned to the estuary shoreline once more, delighting visitors, attracting wildlife and boosting flood defences.

18. River Wandle, Carshalton, Butter Hill

Watch brown trout swimming in a clear chalk stream – within London!  The work carried out on this stretch of the Wandle won it the 2016 UK River Prize and it’s acknowledged to be the healthiest stretch of water in London.

19. River Wandle, Wandle Park, Croydon

Lie down on the river valley slopes and enjoy the bubbling sounds of a clear chalk stream as it meanders across the beautiful Wandle Park in Croydon.

20. River Wandle, Wandsworth Riverside Quarter

Where two rivers meet: for the first time in many years, you can get close to the spot where the River Wandle meets the Thames. This old industrial site has been rewilded, and its hard edges softened, as part of a new development.

21. River Wandle, volunteer-led restoration

Volunteers were involved from the start of a project to the finish on a stretch of the River Wandle, designing their own project and applying for permits. They learned about river restoration techniques, unstraightening a channel, and created new habitats for fish and other wildlife.

22. Stanmore Marsh Wetlands, Harrow

This lost, historical but under-used space has been transformed by creating new wetland habitats, rehabilitating a seasonal pond and restoring a section of the Edgware Brook. It is now an attractive space used for schools education and is becoming a haven for wildlife.

23. Yeading Brook, Yeading Meadows, Hillingdon

The Yeading Brook is now a bubbling, happy stream once more, bathed in sunlight when the sun comes out. Watch its recovery continue, as aquatic plants spread, making the most of the increased light levels and look out for birds and other wildlife.

24. Woodberry Wetlands, Hackney

After being closed to the public for almost 200 years, an operational reservoir that supplies drinking water to millions of Londoners has been transformed into a place of huge biodiversity interest and community enjoyment.

Removing barriers and concrete channels, and creating beautiful new wetland areas brings rivers back into the heart of communities; makes them more biodiverse and improves the wellbeing levels of people who visit them. Those living near the river restoration projects across London report a better community spirit as the amount of shared space, and opportunities for volunteering and community action, have increased. We hope our map and top Sanctuary river Sites list will encourage Londoners to go and visit these incredible rewilded sites across London!

 [photo: Marathon / The River Moselle in Lordship Recreation Ground looking towards Broadwater Farm estate / CC BY-SA 2.0]

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