The River Roding rises from the Essex flatlands, just east of Stansted Airport, then flows south towards the Thames. As the river nears Greater London, it’s floodplain plays host to the M11 and then the North Circular, the quiet water contrasting with the background roar of traffic.
Our walk picks up the river at Redbridge, a suburban station on the Central line. The station abuts the Redbridge Roundabout, where the North Circular arches over a humming vortex of circling vehicles. A pedestrian subway leads under the A12 and then into the calm centre of the roundabout, then out to Royston Parade.
Heading south, a cycleway leads away from Royston Gardens to follow the North Circular. The path traces the edge of the disused and overgrown Kearley and Tonge sports fields (marked on Google Maps as Royston Gardens). A large gap in the fence provides easy access, and well-worn paths edge the unused football pitches.
Disused goal posts rise from the wild meadow, their white paint flaking into a sea of erupting grassland. It’s reminiscent of the wonderful, but threatened, Warren Farm in Ealing.
The Roding’s hidden valley
Heading away from the North Circular, the path passes a series of abandoned hard courts. A single basketball stand remains, tipped and tangled against a torn, chain-link fence. Beyond these courts, and the fencing, the Roding flows in a surprisingly deep valley, lost and inaccessible in a jungle of springtime growth.
Walking on, the path rejoins the cycleway, tracking the bank of the river. The Roding flows shallow and clear, small fish shoaling and darting below its glittering surface. Across the river, Wanstead Park also gives access to this stretch.
Approaching Ilford Golf Club, the path bridges the river. An obvious gap in the fence leads to a well-worn, woodland path along the Roding, edged with cow parsley. It may not look it, but this is roughly the extent of the highest tides, the incoming tide pushing against the river’s natural flow. I’ve kayaked here on several occasions, hitching a tidal lift from the River Thames.
The Alders Brook
Returning to the main path, we lose the river for a while, and trace the edge of the City of London Cemetery, protected by tall, iron railings. On the other side of the path, the Alders Brook, largely unseen, is an offshoot of the Roding. This small stream rejoins the Roding at Ilford, effectively islanding part of the golf club.
A ramshackle collections of huts and allotments can be glimpsed where the Alders Brook flows away from the path, providing space for an off-grid community of sorts.
Passing below railway viaducts, the path loses the brook, and follows graffitied walls to the main Romford Road. Crossing the dual-carriageway, and beneath the North Circular at Ilford, we again pick up the Roding. There’s no official path here, but the Friends of the River Roding have tramped and cleared a route to Barking. A well-trodden route is visible between the river and an elevated slip road, leading up to the North Circular.
The hidden Roding path at Ilford
Jumping the barrier, we follow the path, narrow and heavily littered. When kayaking the river, I’ve frequently seen tents here, shelter for the homeless, but on this occasion, we only saw evidence of previous camps. There’s scattered drug paraphernalia, needles and twists of foil amid the plastic bottles. It’s not a path that all will enjoy.
The path briefly opens up beside the slip road, then plunges back into the undergrowth. The way ahead was often hidden amid a riot of spring growth. The route sticks to the top of the river valley, close to a wooden fence and the ever-present hum of traffic on the other side.
The path is lined with young trees, including cherry. Below, the river is largely hidden in its valley, but the view occasionally opens up to reveal reedbeds and swathes of yellow flag iris.
At one stage, the path detours briefly under the North Circular, following broken chain-link fencing. The shadows of old fires dot the concrete, and there is more evidence of homeless lives.
Rejoining the undergrowth, the path follows what seems to be an old embankment, but it was so overgrown we could hardly tell. Cow parsley and nettles stood chest-high, overlooked by the soaring North Circular. Across the river, the foundations of apartment blocks are rooted into landfill, on the site of an old chemical works.
Rail lines over the Roding
The path finally opens out when it reaches the railway lines into Barking. Trains pass low overhead, on buttresses of concrete and steel. In the shade of the bridges, we met and chatted with a friendly volunteer from Thames 21, leading a group taking part in a river survey for London Rivers Week.
River Roding Moorings
A good path leads on towards riverside Barking. In the distance, tower blocks sprout from Abbey Quay. Along the way, we pass the River Roding Moorings, where a small group of barge dwellers live. They play an important and active part in caring for the tidal stretches of the river. Similar communities can be found all across London, hidden away on the capital’s waterways.
At the entrance to the River Roding Moorings, two spike-like tips of huge timber beams seem to be wearing rusting, ancient helmets. These wooden piles would once have been driven deep into the river bed, supporting and protecting the river wall.
Nearby, the path curves around a stretch of salt marsh, a small vestige of the tidal reedbeds which once lined the Thames and her many tributaries.
Mill Pond and the Short Blue Fleet
The route crosses London Road and follows the river, now firmly embanked and channelled in its course. At Mill Pond we get a glimpse of old Barking’s harbour. Once busy with ships and trade but now mostly silent, the water is broken only by a sleek racing kayak from the nearby Barking and Dagenham Canoe Club.
It may not look it, but this was once home to the largest fishing fleet in the world. In the 19th century, hundreds of fishing smacks were based at Barking, as part of the Short Blue Fleet. Fishing was replaced by chemical works and breweries, and now they too are being replaced by residential development.
We had to detour inland here; the way ahead temporarily fenced off to make way for more residential blocks. Signage wasn’t clear, but we regained the river at the Barking Barrage, where a lock and tidal weir hold the river back. The barrage was built in the late ‘90s, to revitalise a largely derelict industrial riverfront. At high tide you won’t even notice the weir, but at low levels the river tumbles down a series of steps to the tidal section below. The lock gate allows boats to navigate beyond the weir, but only at high water.
Hand Trough Creek and the A13
The path detours around Hand Trough Creek, the remnants of Back River. This former stream once branched off the Roding, just south of the railway bridges, before rejoining the river here. Another footpath tracks the lost Back River’s path back towards Barking.
A small, old wharf provides a good view back towards the creek and the barrage. At low tide, across the river, the remains of a wooden slipway still slides into the river, perhaps a remnant of late 19th century shipbuilding.
The path follows the river under the A13, the residential blocks on the other bank giving way to warehousing. Passing the Showcase Cinema, now silent and awaiting commercial redevelopment, the path becomes tighter and more overgrown. This is a quiet back route towards Beckton Nature Reserve.
Nature and Beckton Sewage Treatment Works
The reserve sits between the mighty Beckton Sewage Treatment Works and the Roding and offers a more attractive route than the main path. There are one or two dead-end tracks, which are worth exploring as they don’t go far. The nature reserve path rejoins the main path by the treatment works.
The sewage treatment works is the largest in Europe, managing the waste water of much of north London. Treated water flows alongside the main path in a fenced, concrete channel. The flow is dark and fast, flecked with white bubbles. The aroma is one of washing powder and laundry detergent – a perfume that even the most aggressive treatment seems unable to shift.
The outfall and the Princess Alice
This flow was once channelled, completely untreated, into the River Thames. The outflow was timed to coincide with the ebb tide, taking the effluent downriver and away from London. The sewage came right back with the next incoming tide, but it was diluted, and safely downstream of the capital.
This practice continued until the Princess Alice disaster in 1878, Britain’s worst inshore shipping tragedy. The Princess Alice, a crowded passenger ship, was heading back to London from Sheerness when it collided with a collier, sinking rapidly just upstream of the works. More than 600 died in such heavily polluted water that the authorities were compelled to act, ensuring that sewage was treated before being released into the Thames.
The Barking Creek Barrier
As the path winds towards the Roding, the stunning, guillotine-like structure of the Barking Creek Barrier rises high above the river. On the far bank, Cory’s waste management site now adds its own, distinct aroma to the landscape, the whiff of household rubbish and bin lorries.
Beckton Desalination Plant
Before reaching the Barrier, and the Thames, we pass a large lagoon, sheathed in concrete walls. This is part of the Beckton Desalination Plant, also known as the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works.
Water is pumped from the Thames as the river ebbs, stored, desalinated and purified, then pumped to north-east London. Opened in 2010 and costing £250m, there are some questions about the plant’s effectiveness. It wasn’t used during the very dry conditions of summer 2022, despite water shortages.
The path finally meets the Thames, just beyond a massive pylon. The Barking Creek Barrier and outflow are a little downriver, and at low tide the beach below is one of rubble and mud. The river and mudflats can be good for birdlife, especially during winter, the birds drawn in by the nutrient-rich outflow.
Thames Mud Butter
Back when the sewage work’s flow was untreated, the fat in the noxious discharge rose up and floated on the surface of the river. This grim waste was reportedly skimmed off, collected and sold as Thames Mud Butter – thankfully repurposed as an industrial lubricant rather than an edible spread. Sewage fat can still be an issue, with massive fatbergs occasionally turning up under London.
Looking across the Thames, the old landfill sites at Thamesmead have rewilded into a green, tree-lined landscape, stretching along the river. Massive redevelopment is planned, transforming this ‘undeveloped and underpopulated’ land into a huge residential district called Thamesmead Waterfront. The riverside path on the southern bank is well worth exploring before the development kicks in; it’s a good path which feels almost rural in character.
The final stretch
Before heading back, if you still have energy in your legs, there’s a little more path to explore. Heading upriver, the path traces the treatment works, towards what was once Beckton Gas Works. Few walk here, as it is currently a dead end, although graffiti artists have repurposed the seawall and concrete silos into colourful canvases. The path ends at a high chain link fence. There’s a gate, but it’s locked, and the path beyond is completely overgrown. It’s time to head home.
Thank you to Kirsten S for joining me on this walk, in late May 2023. The distance is roughly 12km, and we then had to retrace our steps and get to Barking railway station, perhaps another 5km. Give yourself plenty of time if you want to walk this, especially in summer, when the unofficial path between Ilford and Barking can be heavily overgrown.
Check out The River Roding Trust: preserving, protecting and restoring the River Roding