Patrick Barkham appreciates the genius of Captain Colhurst's bright idea
The only sign of water where the New River begins is a fountain, broadcasting sun-kissed droplets into the air like tiny seeds.
The luxury flats off Rosebery Avenue mark the terminus of the genius of Captain Edmund Colthurst, who in 1603 recognised that London’s burgeoning population urgently required clean water from the fresh springs of Hertfordshire.
Eventually backed by London goldsmith Sir Hugh Myddelton and, crucially, King James I, a narrow canal was dug for 28 miles, superbly graded to descend by five inches every mile, bringing fresh water to an enlarged duck pond just below the summit of Islington Hill.
This walk is water-divining for beginners, a riverside stroll along a waterway that for much of these first miles no longer exists. I duck behind Sadler’s Wells, past the Harlequin, a tiny, tiled theatre pub which any tourist would coo over. The first clue to the enigmatic presence of the New River lies in the linear shape of Duncan Terrace Gardens, just across the City Road.
The high point of these gardens is a tree of heaven, on which are fixed 300 wooden bird boxes and bug hotels in the sky. This public art, inspired by the surrounding Georgian terraces, is part of Islington Council’s Greening the Grey Programme to encourage wildlife and tackle climate change. (Every arts bureaucrat is now busy tackling climate change, which is a relief for the rest of us. When the seas rise up, I want to be nested in Duncan Terrace, where its ‘friends’ are also ‘redeveloping’ its lovely green borders to make them more ‘ecologically resilient’.)
There’s no sign of water yet, but there is a row of large willows along Colebrooke Row. After the thrum of Essex Road and enduring mystery of Get Stuffed, the permanently closed taxidermist’s shop, I duck into Astey’s Row rock garden, where the big willows and ornamental rocks continue to mark the invisible river.
Across Canonbury Road and suddenly I’m plunged into a different world. Squeezed behind Georgian terraces are Amazonian trees piling over dark, dank waters. The trees are mostly species I don’t recognise and, like Londoners, hail from around the world. Tall, dark and generous, they swallow the city’s sounds.
The city stops in this somnolence. A student feeds a moorhen and its tiny chick. And two burly men pause while one relieves himself in the shrubbery.
This miraculous miniature park twists and turns with the water. Beyond Canonbury station, the water disappears again but the river’s path is traced by a grassy strip down the centre of Petherton Road. The terraces are Victorian now, the city opening out, becoming younger and more sprightly.
The missing New River magically brings to life the dinky allotments along Aden Terrace, filled with cornets of runner beans. Then it continues across Clissold Park in various enigmatic forms. I find the New River again by the Malaysian skyline of the new Woodberry Downs. I hated these sleek, empty flats when they first arrived, but the developers have been good to the New River by subsidising it. One of the reservoirs here has been rewilded into a reed-filled paradise, and the river has a fine green border – fewer blackberry tangles but still a bountiful place to sit and watch the water.
Northwards of here, the New River recovers its purpose. Four hundred years on, Captain Colthurst’s bright idea is still bringing water to Londoners. (They’ll need it with climate change and thirsty arts bureaucrats.) I love this funny fake river, and the way it weaves through the city, bringing tranquillity, and a constant supply of moorhens, to Green Lanes, Chase Green and all the rest of it.
The walk’s start, Rosebery Avenue, is five minutes’ walk from Angel tube station. I finished at Manor House tube – but why not try the full 28 miles? Just steel yourself for the five-inches-every-mile gradient.