The River Colne: a local history walk

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The River Colne near Radlett Road Playing Fields, showing one of the many small streams which feed the river in this area. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

I’ve been spending a lot of time recently investigating the history of my local patch – namely Watford and Bushey in south-west Hertfordshire. I’ve been looking at lots of old photographs and maps of the area and I’ve become particularly fascinated by the old mill stream or ‘cut’ which took the water from the River Colne (which runs to the east of Watford) down to the breweries and the old corn mill in the lower High Street. I don’t know when it was first ‘built’ but the cut was a magnificent piece of engineering and although most of it has long since disappeared underneath the modern landscape of Tesco and Century Business Park, there are still a couple of stretches remaining so I went looking for them on Sunday morning.

The cut ran from Colne Bridge, where the embankment and the five massive arches carry the main Euston-to-Glasgow railway over the river and where, nowadays, the two carriageways of Stephenson Way take huge volumes of traffic in and out of Watford. Diverting from the original course of the river at that point, and running south west for a couple of hundred metres, the cut then bent to run almost directly due south and continued in that direction for almost exactly one kilometre.

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Ordnance Survey 25-inch map. Hertfordshire Sheet XLIV.2 1912 (detail). Showing the River Colne and the ‘cut’ running from Colne Bridge, southwards

After flowing through the site of Sedgwick’s/Benskin’s Brewery, it entered Watford Mill (through a seven-step sluice gate which controlled the water’s flow) and then under the High Street before emerging on the other side and eventually rejoining the Colne in what is now Oxhey Park.

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Ordnance Survey 25-inch map. Hertfordshire Sheet XLIV.6 1896 (detail). Showing the mill stream or cut running due south from Watford Brewery to Watford Mill, crossing underneath the High Street and continuing southwards until it rejoins the River Colne

The corn mill and the brewery took up much of the site now occupied by Tesco. The mill itself was situated roughly were the goods entrance to Tesco is now; it was destroyed by a fire in 1924 but not demolished until the late 1930s. In the photograph (below) the course of the cut can clearly be seen, running across the bottom of the picture, as can the light-coloured wall of the former corn mill and the sluice to its right.

1956 Lower High Street

Lower High Street, Watford Fields and Benskin’s. From: Watford Past; a pictorial history in colour, by J B Nunn

The northernmost section of the cut is still there today and now forms the main ‘body’ of the River Colne. It runs from the railway embankment to a point just south of Water Lane, near Tesco, where it was diverted in 1987 to rejoin the old course of the river. I must have walked along the path hundreds of times over the years but it never occurred to me to question why the ‘river’ is so straight here. Now I know…

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The cut viewed from Water Lane looking northwards, with Stephenson Way crossing over it. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

As you approach Tesco, the former path of the river is still very easy to see today; the path that runs at the back of the superstore down to the High Street, almost exactly follows the route of the old cut.

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The footpath at the back of Tesco follows the course of the cut. This view is looking northwards towards Water Lane, with Tesco on the right. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

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The cut flowing between the brewery buildings to the east of Watford High Street. This photo was taken from a similar point as the modern view above but facing the opposite direction. The buildings on the left are on the site now occupied by Tesco. From: Watford Past; a pictorial history in colour, by J B Nunn

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Lower High Street, Watford. From: Google maps, satellite view. Accessed, 15 April 2018.

And if you stand with your back to the path as it reaches the High Street, you’ll see Glyn Hopkin’s over to your left; the metal fence that forms the boundary at the rear of Glyn Hopkin’s site is the continuation of the course of the cut. This is actually best seen from the satellite view on Google maps, where the ‘scar’ of the cut can be seen quite clearly in the modern landscape.

 

 

Once it hits the one-way system at the far side of Glyn Hopkin’s, we lose all sight of the cut in the landscape, although it roughly follows the course of Dalton Way, through one of the archways and out the other side. At this point, right next to the new road junction with Tom Sawyer Way, we can once more see the cut itself. A small stump of this southern end of the mill stream (no more than 50 metres) has somehow survived and although it’s now no more than a stagnant pool, it’s nice to know that something’s still there.

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The northern end of the southern section of the cut, with Dalton Way behind it. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

The point at which the cut ‘flows’ into the River Colne in Oxhey Park is now so overgrown that it’s very easy to miss.

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The southern stump of the cut joins the River Colne in Oxhey Park but it’s easy to miss. Photograph © David Annal, 2018

Now I need to discover when the cut was ‘built’ and see if I can find out a bit more about the breweries and the mill.

David Annal, 15 April 2018

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