A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Brighton Cross

Kip Fenn
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16 - The archaeological and ornithological pleasures of Beddington Sewage Farm

The entrance to Beddington Sewage Works stands opposite Bath House Road. The Works are well fenced off (with grey metal railings and red notices warning: 'Danger. Deep water and moving machinery'), and the gates are closed. Inside, I can see two-storey office blocks, roads, machinery, lots more fencing, and a dozen or more parked cars. Clearly, though, I can't go in and wander round.

The site of a Roman villa was discovered here, in the 1870s, during the construction of the sewage farm (it's not known what happened to the Carew deer). It was further excavated in the 1980s. Erected in about 180 AD, archaeologists decided, the villa had a separate bath house and a large aisled barn. Another outbuilding contained ceiling plaster decorated with a red and yellow geometric design (a design which has been recreated in a room at the Honeywood Heritage Centre by Carshalton Ponds). The villa was abandoned around 400 AD at the end of the Roman period. Archaeologists have, however, also found evidence on the site of human settlement stretching back as far as 800 BC.

Surprisingly, Beddington Sewage Farm is important for nature conservation, largely because it's one of a limited number of large open areas of land within metropolitan London. It was specifically named in the Mayor's State of the Environment Report for London in 2003, along side around 40 other places (minimum area 100 hectares) such as Hyde Park, Hampstead Heath, Mitcham Common and Farthing Down, as a site of 'Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation'. It is of particular interest to birdwatchers (dubbed 'the accidental bird reserve'), as a refuge for both breeding and migratory birds. Unlike most areas of significance for wildlife, the value of Beddington for birds is a direct consequence of man's activities, namely the drying of processed sludge which attracts insects, and the formation of several ponds (some from gravel diggings and one as a flood relief for the Wandle).

Among the bird species observed on the site by Johnny Allan (and recorded on his web pages) in January 2004 were: bearded tit, little egret, goldeneye, pintail, peregrine, water pipit, goosander, caspian gull, water rail, winter med gull, jack snipe, kittiwake, shelduck, redhead smew. Also, he reported seeing a gannet, which visited the site for just 15 minutes, on New Year's Eve. Over 240 different bird species have been recorded at the site. Mr Allan will not have seen any sand martins in January, though, because they don't start arriving here to breed until mid-March at the earliest. In September they go south to winter in sub-Saharan Africa. However, the RSPB recently formed an action plan for the species, which included the setting up of a sand martin barrel on the sewage works land. The aim of the plan is 'to protect and enhance sand martin populations in London, in semi-natural and non-traditional habitats'; 'to increase our knowledge of sand martins and their habitat requirements in London'; and 'to raise public awareness of sand martins and involve Londoners in their conservation'.

And then there's tree sparrows. Beddington Sewage Farm is said to hold the second largest colony in the country, even though it's a bird that is generally associated with farmland. Smaller than a house sparrow and more active, it has a chestnut brown head and nape (rather than grey), white cheeks and collar with a contrasting black cheek-spot, and a permanently cocked tail.

North of the entrance to the sewage farm, Beddington Lane bends away westward from the 300 easting. High tension electricity lines cross the road at this point, resting on pylons embedded in the land around the sewage beds. There are pylons to the east too, but the eye pays more attention to the two 300ft tall power station chimneys, each one ringed with bands of yellow and blue - the colours of the IKEA organisation - near their tops. These are all that remain of the Croydon Power Station which operated from the 1950s (although construction work had begun before the war) until it closed down in the mid-1980s. The last of the plant's cooling towers was demolished in 1985. The land was bought by a group that had planned a retail and entertainment complex called The Power House, but, when the idea failed to materialise, it was bought by Ikea. In the same way that roads built on the Croydon Airport were named after aviation names, so roads constructed on the power station land were named after scientists connected with electricity, such as Ampère Way, Faraday Way, Kelvin Gardens, Volta Way, and Wimshurst Place.

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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