River Cray and the Lake
Image credit: Harry Jenkins
The River Cray runs through the centre of Foots Cray Meadows and is a nine-mile long chalk stream arising from underground in Priory Gardens at Orpington, within the London Borough of Bromley.
The water, permeating through the chalk bedrock of the North Downs, flows northwards to join the River Darent at Crayford Creek in Crayford with the Darent then joinin the River Thames.
Some 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams are located in southern England, with their crystal-clear waters flowing over gravelly beds, passing through lowland landscapes.
Credit: Friends of Foots Cray Meadows
The River Cray, which took its name from either Saxon or Celtic origins, is reputed to be one of the cleanest in London, supporting an array of bankside vegetation.
It is stated in the Domesday Book records of 1086 that there were some 11 mills along what it termed River “Craie” with these buildings producing the likes of flour, paper and textiles.
The stream arrives at the southern end of the meadows and continues on for just over a quarter of a mile before it widens into a lake, which is 40 metres wide by 280 metres long.
Alterations to the river are first noted on surveyor’s drawing in 1799. The river to produce the lake is held back by a weir, 25 metres across, which lies under the Five Arch Bridge. This crossing was built as part of work undertaken by renowned landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown around 1780 to 1781, when he redesigned the gardens of North Cray Place to the east of the river.
The islands in the middle of the existing lake, which have sunk heavily over the past few years, were heavily pruned at the beginning of 2019. They are situated in relatively shallow water and need regular maintenance work to stop the plants and trees getting damaged by high winds.
These islands provide a relatively safe nesting area for the likes of mute swans, mallards plus other wild fowl. In winter, look for the elusive water rail and also the diminutive little grebe.
Inhabitants of the area have been seen carrying goslings in a box to escort them and their parents back to the lake. The resident Egyptian geese do not roost on the lake but in holes in trees in nearby The Grove and The Spinney.
Downstream of the Five Arch Bridge, 18th century drawings reveal a lower lake 150 metres long reducing from 25 metres wide to five metres wide, the narrowing controlled by a sluice. Remains of the brickwork of this sluice survive in part close to the west bank.
Within this lower lake, two islands – or “eyotts” in 19th century parlance – appear on a 1799 drawing.
Credit: Willie Robertson
Maps from between 1893 and 1897 show that the lower lake has been narrowed and one island removed. Between 1905 and 1910, the land had encroached from the west to incorporate the second island – so that today the lower lake has been swallowed up into part of the woodland.
Northwards beyond the former sluice, the river meanders for a further 700 metres to the boundary of the Meadows, weaving its way through the area known as Riverside Woodland.
Watercress was at one time grown in the River Cray and was transported to be sold at London’s Covent Garden market. The shallow ford-like area between the Five Arch Bridge and Iron Bridge is reputed to be used as a carriage wash.