The Thames Valley

Between Coppetts Road and Colney Hatch Lane was a series of roads, Greenham Road. Wilton Road, Sutton Road, straight roads of semi-detached houses in red brick, with tiled roofs. The family travelled up and down these day after day to reach the shops. Down a gentle slope from Coppetts Road to a dip and then up more steeply to the shops in Colney Hatch Lane and, beyond that, the hill went up again. When I asked my mother about the shape - the same dip in all three roads - she said,

"They must have covered up the stream when they built these houses. You can't keep jumping over a river every time you go to the shops." To my surprise she took it as it matter of course that it was the valley of a stream.

Later I saw a picture of a culvert which had held the River Westbourne, rediscovered in West London. The picture showed a man standing upright in a brick tunnel, so this had been no mean stream. Perhaps one could walk underneath the road here, smuggle goods, get behind the enemy lines, and my mind wandered off.

When I was eleven, just before the scholarship examination which would take me to the grammar school, the same teacher who had explained about the ice ages and the terminal moraine, rode his hobby-horse again. For no apparent reason, sparked by a thought, or a chance remark, he began to describe the neighbourhood. How, when England was much hotter than it is today, with a vegetation like modern Malaysia, the London Basin had been under the sea. Great depths of fine silt had been laid down at the bottom of the sea to form London Clay and, millions of years later this had risen to form low, smooth hills.

A huge river system had formed at the level of the top of Muswell Hill. He asked us to imagine ourselves looking south from Muswell Hill to Blackheath and the Surrey Hills, and to think of it a large plain, flat as a prairie. You could walk level across an area which later would be cut out to become the valley of the River Thames. On vour way you could pat the cross at the top of St Paul 's Cathedral, standing up like a street monument, with the rest of St Paul 's, dome, church and graveyard, buried deep below the ground.

 

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