The Alders Brook

This look at the Alders Brook investigates its location, its source, its present state and its potential. The Ordnance Survey Map appears to show the Alders Brook as nothing more than a channel of the Roding, but it is not that at all; it is a tributary of the Roding and a stream in its own right which should be a treasure of Newham and Redbridge.The stream is little known; it is probable that even residents of nearby Aldersbrook - named of course after the stream - are unaware of its presence! For information about the Aldersbrook estate, click here.

For a map showing the location of the Alders Brook - click here.

For a list of the plant species - click here.

For a historic map (1816) showing the brook - click here

The Alders Brook is a tributary of the River Roding, with its source appearing to be within the City of London Cemetery. Presumably the stream's origin is run-off water from the slightly higher ground to the south-west - that is, Wanstead Flats. The Cemetery's Conservation Management Plan states "There is an outcrop of London Clay running west along an old stream bed, from the pond almost opposite the main gate of the Cemetery through the Catacomb Valley to Alders Brook". It can  be seen that from just west of the main gate of the City of London Cemetery, near to the cemetery Superintendent's house, there is a shallow valley - the "Catacomb Valley". This runs generally towards the east, with the crematorium buildings built within it, and culminates apparently at the catacombs and columbarium. The area in in front of the catacombs was, in the time of the Aldersbrook Manor, an ornamental lake known as the Great Pond.

culvert_wf_alex_120301_0234artThe overflow from Alexandra Lake; the ultimate source of the Alders Brook?One can conjecture that overflow water from Alexandra Lake may well find its way through underground drains down this valley. No sign of this can now be seen, although an overflow drain exists at the north edge of Alexandra Lake almost directly opposite the Superintendent's house in Aldersbrook Road. There is also an ornamental pond near the new crematorium which may have some bearing on the present source of water. Beyond the catacombs was another ornamental lake known as the Great Canal, which now lies within an area of woodland. At the east end of this woodland a pond has been created as part of a wildlife refuge called the Birches. The source of the pond's water is a concrete culvert which contains a stream that - prior to culverting - could be seen to flow from the direction of the catacombs. 

This constantly flowing stream, together with the pond, now constitutes the visible source of the Alders Brook. The outflow from the pond passes via a culvert beneath the cemetery railings and under the Bridle Path which follows the cemetery boundary fence; this can now be seen as the stream that is called the Alders Brook. Its course takes it just a few metres eastward to a point where it divides north and south. The north branch, however, is stagnant water which in a hundred or so metres encounters the flood bank of the River Roding. It is interesting that on all maps including present day ones, the brook appears to join the Roding at this point. It would seem that before the present flood bank was built the Roding split into two channels, and the present Alders Brook is the remains of the western of those. The name derives from ealdan hile, (ealden = old, so possibly the "old" river, but the name of the alder tree also has elements of the same word association) which formed part of the bounds of Hamme in A.D. 958 (1), and in about 1570 was called the Old River (2). In 1815-16 it was called the Aldersbrook. (3). I surmise that the culverted runoff water from Wanstead Flats and what is now the cemetery was itself just a small tributary of the western branch of the Roding, and with the embanking of the Roding to form just one channel (plus the flood-plain which is now Ilford Golf Course), what was an arm of the main river is now the continuation of that small tributary.

col birches pond 060121 7814artThe Birches Pond in January 2006Adjacent to this northern arm of the brook, between it and the cemetery fence, is an area of land which - although incorporating an electricity pylon - is a pleasant enough spot, far enough away from the noise of roads to have a sense of peacefulness about it. It is an area of scrubby vegetation for the most part, with plenty of the ubiquitous bramble, but with some nice pedunculate oak trees Quercus robur near to the bridle path, some now-dying silver birch Betula pendula and - apparently taking their place - both holm oak Quercus ilex and Turkey oak Quercus cerris. A single yew Taxus baccata was noted here in 2008; it will be no surprise to see more of these over the forthcoming years. Where the arm of the brook ends at the Roding embankment, the River itself comes into view, accompanied by a bank-top track which affords some long views across the golf course to Ilford, ahead to the high trees of Wanstead Park, and some nice river meanders. Although the bridle path continues northwards towards the Park, the open land here eventually meets the old gates and fence of what was the Redbridge Southern Sewage Treatment Works and what are now called The Exchange Lands, and are part of Epping Forest.

Alders by the BrookAlder trees by the brook in August 2008

The southwards flow of the brook proper, however, follows a course to the east of the London Borough of Newham's Bridle Path Allotment site; on the east bank is Ilford Golf Course. Between the allotments and golf course the brook is not accessible to pedestrians. South of the allotments, between the cemetery railings and the brook, there is some open land known locally by some as "The Butts". This possibly refers to the area at one time being used as a practice ground for archery; the 1816 map shows the area as "Brick Clamps" but just across the stream is "Gun Mead"; is there a historic connection? It is at this point - the southern end of the allotments - that the stream actually flows between a group of alders. On the east side of the Alders Brook here is Ilford Golf Course, beyond which is the A406 North Circular Road.

Access to the Butts and hence to the Alders Brook may be made via a foot-tunnel under the railway line from Romford Road at Little Ilford or via the footpath which follows the perimeter of the cemetery either from Rabbits Road or from Empress Avenue. There is also access from the north via the Aldersbrook Exchange Land - the old Sewage Works site - in Epping Forest.

The area had an incredibly rural feel for part of Newham - something of a wildflower meadow together with a gentle stream. Although no plants of great rarity were found the overall effect was pleasant; species included red clover Trifolium pratense, white clover Trifolium repens, goat's rue Galega officinalis, tufted vetch Vicia cracca, meadow vetchling Lathyrus pratensis with some blackthorn Prunus spinosa and wild cherry Prunus avium forming something of a hedge between the meadow and the bridle path.

alders brook 130900artThe Alders Brook in September 2000However in 2007 this effect was considerably spoilt by the laying of a 2 metre wide track, part of the Roding Valley Way, a combined footpath and cycleway through the London Boroughs of Redbridge, Barking & Dagenham and Newham. Instead of using the existing bridle path along the edge of the cemetery, the new route was insensitively laid across what was the meadow! For some years local conservation groups did attempt to enhance the meadow-aspect of the area, but now this would not really be a viable option. There is a considerable ground-cover of dewberry Rubus caesius, particularly near the allotments, and it is likely that this will invade much of what remains of the meadow. During 2015 and 2016, evidence of occupation in the form of "camps" could be found, reference perhaps to the numbers of refugees now present hereabouts?

North of the allotments, the new path also led to the severe trimming of some of the small but nice oaks and other trees and potentially may lead to stress on the root system of these. However, it has considerably improved access to the area by pedestrians as well as cyclists, and is a much easier walk in many parts which were almost invariably muddy and overgrown. However, the surfaced route veers away from the existing route to pass through the old gates of the Exchange Land site of Epping Forest (the Old Sewage Works Site). This means that this land, with its wealth of flora and fauna, now suffers a disturbance which it had not previously endured, and - for pedestrian visitors - a change in the ambience of the place. It is a shame that some lovely and unique wildlife areas have suffered - and all unnecessarily for the route of the existing path was perfectly adequate and - particularly at its northern end - could have benefited from surfacing.

alders brook 081022 80169artThe very overgrown Alders Brook, viewed from Lugg Approach in October 2008It is interesting to note that the L. B. Newham Adopted UDP 2001 ( Unitary Development Plan ) includes the following statement : "Sites of nature conservation importance will be protected and enhanced". The encouragement of cyclists and provision of a hard-surface track cannot, I suggest - be protecting and enhancing the site. The boundary between Newham and Redbridge is quite complex here, and it may be that provisions and the routing of the track was made under L.B. Redbridge's jurisdiction, however, the Exchange Lands are now part of Epping Forest, so the continuation of the hard-surface route through the old sewage works must have been allowed by the City of London Corporation.

By and in the brook, plants found include water fern Azolla filiculoides, purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria, amphibious bistort Persicaria amphibia, water pepper Persicaria hydropiper and water mint Mentha aquatica. For a full list of the plants of this area, click here.

At the southern end of the Butts, the brook encounters a concrete barrage, where the water is controlled as it passes under the main Liverpool Street railway lines. Adjacent to this is a foot-tunnel below the railway lines which allows foot and cycle traffic access to the Romford Road in Little Ilford. The brook of course continues beyond the barrage, but once again is inaccessible to pedestrians. It can be viewed from Lugg Approach - a short road off the Romford Road that leads to what was Aldersbrook Sidings - and it can be seen that the stream itself is full of vegetation (and rubbish) and that the banks are very overgrown, particularly with the invasive Japanese knotweed Fallopia japonica. During 2015 much - if not all - of the Alders Brook south of the railway lines had fences with notices warning of control areas regarding the knotweed.

alders brook roding 081022 80166artViewed from the bridge into Ilford, the Alders Brook is in the centre of the pictureIt would not, it seems, be impossible to clear the stream-bank and tidy up the general environment so that a walking-route be established as an alternative to the present one between Romford Road and the Aldersbrook Bridle Path. This is Aldersbrook Lane - the remnant stretch of an old route that was the approach to Aldersbrook Manor, but which now passes through a housing estate. Considering the effort that has been put into the creation of the cycle route, perhaps this should have been considered. Lugg Approach and the old sidings site that was mentioned earlier is to be used in the work involved in the construction of a new railway station for Ilford. In the Crossrail Environmental Statement plans for this it is stated: "The site is, however, largely derelict. Overall this is a townscape of low quality and low sensitivity to change"(10.7.25). Perhaps at relatively small cost compared to all the other work being undertaken hereabouts there is an opportunity to give pedestrian and perhaps cycle access to the banks of the Alders Brook here and improve on the dereliction and low quality? This would also enable more direct and pleasant access to and from Ilford town centre from Wanstead Flats and to the Roding Valley Way route for Wanstead Park and beyond - a benefit to Redbridge as well as Newham residents.

Eventually the brook emerges from its over-vegetated cutting to join with the River Roding at Ilford Bridge, from where it can just about be viewed. Near to this point there is a considerable amount of traveller's joy Clematis vitalba, which is otherwise scarce in our study area.



For a list of the plants which have been found in the Alders Brook area - click here

For a map showing the brook - click here

For a historic map (1816) showing the brook - click here

A walking route via Aldersbrook Bridle Path which incorporates the Alders Brook is available here


(1) Cart. Sax. ed. Birch, no. 1037; cf. P. N. Essex, ii. 94.

(2) E.R.O., D/DQs 17.

(3) E.R.O., Map of manors of Wanstead, Aldersbrook &c., 1815–16

Conservation Management Plan Corporation of London, 2004

L. B. Newham Adopted UDP 2001 ( Unitary Development Plan )

Crossrail Environmental Statement - Chapter 10.