Tracking East London’s River Rom, from Romford to the Dagenham gates

by Ian Tokelove
The River Rom, below Romford

The River Rom is a semi-wild river flowing across East London. Sometimes free to meander, sometimes channelled and buried in recessed concrete, this is a small river of extreme contrasts.

The Rom rises as the Bourne Brook in Essex, just north of the M25. As it nears Romford it takes the name Rom, and in later stages it is known as the Beam River. The river reaches the Thames via a Dagenham no-go zone, its final flow hidden from public gaze amid industry and redevelopment.

We explored the river from Romford, dropping down to inspect the river via a backstreet footbridge. The River Rom emerges from a dark tunnel below the Romford rail lines, flowing into a graffitied concrete channel.

The River Rom emerges from a tunnel below Romford.
The River Rom emerges from a tunnel below Romford.
The River Rom below Romford. A shadow in the distance. Water flowing from side pipes. Traffic overhead.
The River Rom below Romford

In the early 20th century, a recreation ground and allotments bordered the riverbanks here, providing exercise and fresh food. Now the river has been buried and hidden, a forgotten place for those who need to escape. Needles dot the riverwall; we hauled ourselves from the channel with care.

Concrete has hidden the River Rom, but occasionally it escapes these artificial constraints, filling its allocated space and overflowing into Romford.

The River Rom in Grenfell Park
The River Rom in Grenfell Park

The release of the Rom

The river is released when it reaches Grenfell Park, still flowing straight, as if unaware it’s been let off the leash. Many of the Rom’s natural kinks and curves were ironed out in the 19th century, but it soon shakes these bonds off and begins to twist and curl, snaking onto The Chase as a natural river.

1805 map showing natural flow of River Rom. © Great Britain Historical GIS Project & University of Portsmouth
1805 map showing natural flow of River Rom. © Great Britain Historical GIS Project & University of Portsmouth

The River Rom becomes the Beam River

The river, now called the Beam, is a saviour of The Chase and surrounding lowlands, rendering them too damp and flood-prone for building on. Black poplar can be found growing along the riverside, gnarled and rare survivors of a once common tree. The district of Poplar in East London took its name from these willows, which once lined the Thames shoreline. Now, perhaps only 600 mature trees remain across the UK.

Black poplar, a rare survivor
Black poplar, a rare survivor

The Chase is a myriad tangle of paths, and when we visited, water. We got wet and we didn’t mind, it’s a beautiful location.

The Chase, wet and wild
The Chase, wet and wild
The Chase can get wet, very wet
The Chase can get wet, very wet

A railway footbridge leads to Beam Valley Country Park where the path continues, clearly marked. The going is easier here, passing over Rainham Road South and into Beam Parklands.

Railway footbridge between The Chase and Beam Valley Country Park
Railway footbridge between The Chase and Beam Valley Country Park
Early spring willows in Beam Parklands
Early spring willows in Beam Parklands

The Romford Canal

The river is shadowed by the remains of the overgrown Romford Canal, a curious, much delayed venture which only began construction in 1875, before failing two years later. The canal was first proposed in 1809, in order to move goods between Romford and the Thames. By the time construction got underway, Romford already had a railway station and goods yards, and had no need of slower, waterborne transport.

The Romford Canal briefly played its part in the defence of London during WWII, as a moated barrier to invading forces. The canal was defended by pillboxes, which can still be seen today.

Romford Canal pillbox
Romford Canal pillbox

At the end of the Parklands the river flows through a flood-prevention sluice, a guillotine ready to drop. If the Beam is seriously rain-swollen and likely to flood, the sluice gate slides down and dams the river. The trapped river backs up and floods the low-lying Beam Parklands, protecting the downstream industry and surrounding residential housing.

The Beam Parklands flood prevention sluice
The Beam Parklands flood prevention sluice

The river now passes under the A1306 and into the former Ford Dagenham works. Once this was marshland, now it’s a £1 billion regeneration zone. Plastic flowers and strips of AstroTurf promise new homes & green space.

Plastic flowers promise a beautifully planned new neighbourhood
Plastic flowers promise a beautifully planned new neighbourhood

No access

There is currently no public access from this point on. The river is channelled towards the Thames, 1.7km away, which it enters via a tidal sluice. Flap valves allow the Beam to safely discharge into the Thames, while preventing the Thames from flowing up the Beam during high tides and potentially causing flooding.

Unfortunately, such sluices also prevent fish, such as the critically endangered European eel, moving upstream as part of their natural lifecycle. The Environment Agency is working on ways to help fish move through sluices, without increasing flood risk.  

Ford Dagenham. No public access. Image © Kirsten Downer
Ford Dagenham. No public access. Image © Kirsten Downer

Unable to follow the river to its end, we walked the pavements to nearby Rainham. After crossing the railway, a well-marked path leads across the marshes, under the A13 and out to the Thames.

The ramp from Rainham to the marshes
The ramp from Rainham to the marshes
Sunset over the marshes
Sunset over the marshes
Under the A13
Under the A13, towards the Thames
Sunset over the marshes
The marshes at sunset

A sunken flotilla of bulky concrete barges lies abandoned on the estuary foreshore. Retrieved from the D-Day landings, this became their final resting place, marooned forever in Thames mud.

Skylarks sing high overhead here. Fragmented plastic mingles with the driftwood, but this is still a good place.

Concrete barges at Rainham
Concrete barges at Rainham

My thanks to Kirsten Downer for joining me on this walk. Exploration of urban rivers can be dangerous and is done at your own risk. For more on the lost Romford Canal see London Canals and London’s Lost Rivers.

The 1805 map is based on data provided through www.VisionofBritain.org.uk and uses historical material which is copyright of the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth”.

Walking back to Rainham from the Thames. Venus was bright in the sky, almost as bright as the Dagenham construction cranes and lights.
Walking back to Rainham from the Thames.

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