Village Archive

24th Sep 2014 Last updated at 13:37

Chipstead`s Lost River

by Rupert Courtenay-Evans

"When Croydone Bourn doth upwards ryse, disaster dyre before us lyse"

So runs the warning from Camden`s Britannia of 1586. After the floods of winter 2013/14, will 2014 be recognised as the year when disasters struck?

As the map below shows, the Croydon bourne is formed in the south by three main tributaries, the Caterham bourne, the Hooley bourne and the Chipstead Valley bourne. These all flow north in valleys, joining at Purley and entering the River Wandle at Waddon, and then on to the Thames.

Above: Severe flooding from the Caterham bourne  in February 2014 at Woldingham Road by the railway viaduct near Caterham

 What Are Bournes?

Bournes are intermittently flowing rivers, which arise in many parts of our southern chalklands. Some run  on the surface but others like our local streams run a subterranean course, only coming to the surface during periods of very heavy rainfall. After the last ice age c12,000 years ago, bournes were much bigger and ran on the surface, but gradually they have gone underground as the water table dropped due to climate change and water extraction. However, locally they have left a tell-tale layer of gravel under the surface of their residual valleys, and last ran on the surface in mediaeval times.

Bourne Map

Map showing the three tributaries of the Croydon bourne finally coming together at Purley Cross and continuing north to the Wandle river at Waddon Pond. The map also shows the origins of the three bournes and their height above sea level (asl).

Nowadays these underground rivers are sourced by springs and aquifers from the foot of the North Downs, but when the springs higher up the valleys erupt after periods of exceptionally heavy rain, such as we had in the winter of 2013/14, then flooding and surface streams arise. This is due to the water table rising in the chalk, which takes a considerable time to happen and to subside. In the winter of 2013/14 we saw in Chipstead flooding of the Chipstead valley at Hogden Bottom by the Well House Inn, at Pigeonhouse Farm in Mugswell, and also briefly in Outwood Lane by Station Parade.

Bourne Hogden Bottom

Hogden Bottom near the Well House Inn at Mugswell. In times of heavy rainfall, the ChipsteadValley bourne flows along the ditch to the right of the road towards the Long Plantation.

Bourne St. Marg Well

 The Well House Inn has only been a pub since 1950, but St Margaret`s well in the rear garden dates back to Saxon times or earlier, when Mugswell was an old settlement. Depth measurements down the well are still used as a guide to water table levels in the wider area by the Sutton & East Surrey Water company, and in 2014 they were the highest they have ever recorded.

In the Hooley valley the usually dry ditch by Coulsdon South station was flowing strongly for weeks after the rains stopped, but during the storms it had overflowed and flooded some of the gardens in  Reddown Road. Nearby Merstham and the Godstone road all the way to Purley were both flooded, the latter by the Caterham and Woldingham valley bourne, which reached its highest level ever.

Bourne Coulsdon South 2014

The normally dry ditch running between Coulsdon South station and Reddown Road, which carried a considerable volume of water from the Hooley bourne in the winter of 2014.

Bourne Reddown Road

Flooding from the Hooley bourne in one of the rear gardens in Reddown Road adjacent to Coulsdon South station

The Hooley (Coulsdon and Merstham) Bourne

Before the London to Brighton Railway tunnel was built at Hooley in 1837, the Hooley- Coulsdon bourne ran from springs near the Iron Railway Vineyard on the northern incline of the Hooley watershed. A similar stream ran southwards to join a stream from the springs on Marlin Glen above Gatton Bottom to form a permanent tributary of the River Mole called the Merstham brook, which used to turn the local water mill,   situated near where Merstham railway station now stands. However the quarrying excavations of the Jolliffe Limestone works at the turn of the 18th century had diverted all the spring waters and subsequently closed the mill, long before the steam trains came. Nevertheless, winter 2014 saw serious flooding in Merstham.

The northward flowing Hooley bourne now originates from caverns adjacent to the railway tracks in the Merstham tunnel. When the water table there rises during heavy rain, it runs in culverts under the tracks to Coulsdon South station, where it diverts to a ditch.

Bourne Hooley Cutting 2012

The railway cutting at Hooley on the line to Brighton, built in 1837. To prevent flooding of the tracks, the railway company diverted the Hooley bourne into culverts running under the tracks.

About half way down the valley, the stream originally passed Millstock fields to its west (now owned by Croydon Council, but tenanted by Steve Churchill of Starrock Farm.) This was once thought to be the site of  the Chipstead Mill mentioned in the Doomsday Book (1086), an idea now dismissed for two reasons: Firstly, the word was originally "Mullestock" Saxon for a marker post there, which defined the south western corner of Coulsdon Manor (the Croydon/Surrey boundary post is still there). The other reason is that the area was used as a deep clay pit in the 1930s and no evidence of a water mill was found.

Moving further down the valley, it is fascinating to note that during the excavations for the Quarry Line in 1897 (now the fast Gatwick Line), near to where this line by-passes the station in a cutting though the eastern edge of  the Cane Hill site, mammalian fossils were dug up with the gravel of the old bourne. These were identified as mammoth`s teeth and a rhinoceros skeleton, and were thought to have been washed down from the hills as the ice melted after the last ice age circa 12,000 BC.

Until the 1930s there was a large pond in Coulsdon, just south of the now demolished Red Lion inn, where the Hooley and Chipstead Valley bournes met. During rainy periods, flooding of Marlpit Lane under the railway bridge would occur before the water reached this pond. In 1936 a pumping station was built there which not only cleared up the flooding in Coulsdon but also sourced water much deeper down. However, this has now gone and the site accommodates the public library and the Janes building. The bourne waters now flow in a culvert northwards to meet the Caterham stream in Purley, which this winter saw considerable flooding.

Bourne Coulsdon 1914

The former pond at Coulsdon where the Hooley and Chipstead Valley bournes meet during the bourne rising of 1913/14. The shops in the background lie along the Brighton Road towards Purley on the right. The pond is now filled in and accommodates the Coulsdon library and offices of the Janes company.

Bourne Marlpit Lane c1900The

Severe flooding from the Hooley bourne near the railway bridge at the bottom of Marlpit Lane, in the winter of 1928. The Hooley bourne now runs in culvert through Coulsdon which is now free of flooding, but Purley is still affected further north.

Chipstead Valley Bourne.

This arises from the Merepond in picturesque Walton-on-the-Hill, a spring fed village pond from the nearby Pebblecombe plateau. It seems that early Saxon villagers dammed the gentle valley here to create a pond thus providing the local water supply. However, during heavy rains, the pond overflows into this valley and sinks into the chalk, where it forms springs which erupt lower down and flow over Banstead Heath to Hogden Bottom, the lowest part of the A217 road, and where there is a turning into Chipstead Lane.

Bourne Merepond

The picturesque Merepond at Walton on the Hill, source of the ChipsteadValley bourne

From here the flow continues straight along Hogden Bottom, down past the Well House Inn and Pigeonhouse Farm to a low point at the turning of the road up White Hill to Chipstead, at the edge of the Long Plantation. There the bourne turns north down the Shabden Valley to Chipstead Bottom by the railway viaduct where it meets a tributary from Kingswood and then follows the line of Outward lane to Coulsdon and there meets the Hooley Bourne. En route it used to flow under the old Stagbury House in Outwood Lane, family seat of the Walpole family for centuries. Here it is said there was a trapdoor in the cellar where the bourne could be seen when it ran. Sadly, this house was pulled down in 1968 and town houses with the same name were built. The bourne continues past the Woodmansterne water treatment works by Rectory Lane, though the wells there are not directly related. It used to flood the cellars of the shops at the bottom of Rickman Hill, and in Station Parade but additional culverts have dealt with this problem.

Bourne Chipstead Bottom

Chipstead Bottom near the railway viaduct on Outwood Lane. When in flood, the Chipstead Valley bourne flows towards the camera along the low point to the right of the trees.

The Caterham (Woldingham) Bourne

The Caterham/Woldingham bourne arises in the Halliloo valley in Woldingham  near the railway viaduct. It then flows down parallel to the Godstone Road towards Purley in the lowest part of the valley. It is normally contained in ditches or culverts but in January 2014 it overflowed from the Whyteleafe Tavern all the way down to Purley Cross and flooded the road. It also flooded Tesco`s underpass which became unusable for weeks.

Bourne Godstone Road Closure

Closure of the A22 Godstone Road from Whyteleafe to Purley in February 2014

The Godstone Road was closed until the 17th of March 2014, in spite of attempts at limiting the flow in Woldingham with a temporary dam. It was the worst bourne rising ever recorded and caused 80 residents to be temporarily evacuated. Also this year waters flooded the  railway tunnel to Oxted  causing closure of the line and some flooding in Oxted village.

 Bourne Whyteleafe Feb 2014

Flooding from the Caterham bourne right across the Godstone Road at Whyteleafe in February 2014.

The Croydon Bourne North of Purley.

The combined valley streams continue in a culvert down to Croydon, where after contributions from other streams it reaches Waddon Pond in Mill Lane, off the Purley Way, just north of the Five Ways cross roads. This is the source of the River Wandle, which winds its way north to reach the Thames at Wandsworth, previously turning the wheels of 68 water mills, although now only one heritage mill survives in Merton Abbey.

Bourne Waddon Pond

Waddon Pond near Croydon where the Croydon bourne joins the Wandle river on route to the Thames.

In Wandsworth, the bourne passes through the old Young`s brewery site, where the clear alkaline water was originally used for the beer, being particularly good for its Makesons stout. It is claimed that this site, where The Ram pub and brewery has been since 1576, has the oldest continuous brewing record in the country, and now beer is still brewed there in a micro brewery by John Hatch of Chipstead, a former brewer at Youngs.

"Bourne risings foretell disaster"-Truth or Myth?

It has long been noted that disasters of one kind or another may occur in the years of such risings. This was first documented by John Warkworth, Master of Peterhouse, Cambridge`s oldest college, who wrote in 1473 that:

"the Woe-Waters ran hugely and the War of the Roses continued with battles, famine and pestilence" and he went on to say "if the Bourn waters of Croydone in Suthsex were clear it betokeneth famine or pestilence, but if the waters were foul and troubled, it betokeneth batyle".

A century later, Camden’s Britannia takes a more sceptical view:

"For the torrent, that the vulgar affirm to rise here sometimes, and to presage dearth and pestilence; it seems hardly worth so much as the mentioning, though perhaps it may have some truth in it" and then goes on to quote a local lyric of the time  "When Croydon Bourne doth upward ryse, disaster dyre before us lyse"

It now seems likely that the waters of the bournes pouring into Croydon`s then untreated water supply may well have been contaminated by animal excrement and have caused epidemics, but these risings are well recorded now and seem to occur very irregularly, possibly ten to fifteen times in a century.

Certainly in some of these years of bourne flooding disasters major events have happened:

  • the Great Plague in 1665
  • the  Glorious Revolution in 1688 when William of Orange ousted James the 2nd, and Catholic Monarchs have been banned ever since.
  • in 1837 when Queen Victoria came to the throne
  • in 1914, the start of the First World War,
  • in 1926 during the General Strike

Of course in many risings nothing of any real significance occurs, like the last one in 2000. However, 2014 did look ominous with all the problems in the Middle East and Ukraine, not to forget the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Acknowledgements:  The Bourne Society publications and photos.