Northbrook mouth to source

Twas on the day of the autumn equinox that Diana and I decided to walk the Northbrook from mouth to source. Variously called the Mincinglake Stream, the Wynford and the Panny, it rises under the fort at Stoke Hill, flows under and through Mincinglake Valley Park, under roads and railways, beside Hamlin Playing Fields and Vaughan Road, under allotments and more roads, beside Wonford Playing Fields, through the Northbrook Golf Course, into the Millstream, and so into the Exe at Higher Wear.

Starting on the Golf Course, the first challenge was finding the mouth among all the Environment Agency floodworks. There are access roads and barriers, piles and pipes, pools and gravel, information boards and warnings, but the area by the Mill itself is relatively unscathed. It’s just difficult to get access to that part of the stream. Eventually we decided we’d just have to go by the sound of babbling and less on sight.

At that point we thought we’d found the end of the Northbrook, but were also drawn to mark the flow into the Exe. So we squeezed past the installation of inspection chambers and the new walls obscuring the residents’ views, and walked down to the small patch of grass by the calm wide bend opposite Riverside Valley Park. It’s one of my favourite views of the river. The walk is always further than I think, but it was worth it… not least because looking at Open Street Map later, I saw that it marked that section of millstream as Northbrook.

Here’s the first section between Exe and Topsham Road, including photos of what we could find of the mouth. Click on the thumbnail for a full-size image.

We were then on a stretch that I’d explored and written about before: “Where the water bubbles over a few stones or a concrete lip in the bed, and there’s a view downstream through overhanging branches sheltering little brown birds flitting from bank to bank, it almost feels like a proper stream. But then it’s difficult not to notice the plastic bags snagged in the scrub and the (preferably unidentifiable) litter in the stream, not to mention the drowned tyre and most of an exhaust system.”

Yet now there is evidence that somebody cares. Ludwell Life, working with Wonford community, Devon Wildlife Trust, and the City Council, have planted a bench, and have held several clean-up events. If only the stream could be naturalised, and all that concrete dug out!

After going under Ludwell Lane, the stream is strait-jacketed to flow within a ruler-straight channel. There’s a slice of green and a tarmac path beside it, and the path itself takes on characteristics of a more natural water-course, winding sinuously around and under trees.

We’re now tracing the boundary of St Loyes. In following the Northbrook, we’re also following part of the Exeter Green Circle, a 12-mile circuit through the valley parks, green lanes, and some quite suburban and industrial areas too. It’s a lovely way of exploring parts of Exeter you might not otherwise reach.

Speaking of not reaching… At the Woodwater Lane bridge crossing, we can only gaze at the channel between flats. And further up Rifford Road, there’s a culvert that goes quite some distance to the other side of Honiton Road. Once the crossing was a hump-backed bridge. It’s still called Heavitree Bridge, though the only evidence of a stream there now is in the naming of Brookdale and Brook Cottages.

Beyond Honiton Road and Heavitree Bridge, we continued north up Sweetbrier Lane and Vaughan Road, noting some Heavitree stone in the garden walls on the corner of Birchy Barton Hill. The Northbrook is still not above ground for another few hundred metres, even though its course is in the dip of the Sweetbrier Lane allotments.

At this point, I found out that Diana was navigating with 19th century maps overlaying OpenStreetMap on her smartphone, at first impression a pleasing confluence of ancient and modern.

Old maps reveal the past; they tell stories of the old land, the old ways and lives. As the ghosts of Exeter’s hinterland in Victorian times rose up from the underground stream, they helped to give depth to the present suburbs. Old maps show us a world where the relationship between things and places is more important than complete precision. Gazing at their markings means gazing into a deeper time. But they are out-dated as tools. We struggled to locate ourselves. The imprecisions in roads, rivers and boundaries, overlaid with changes to land use, buildings, demolitions and rebuildings, mean that they fall short when we try to use them to find our way around modern space.

And yet, and yet there are still two responses. One is to recognise that we no longer live in olden times. We have to face up to our changed and changing world, and make new maps. The other is to shrug our shoulders and say “So what?”. Knowing where we are is over-rated. I had the Exeter Green Circle guide, a modern OS Explorer map, and an Exeter Street Plan in my bag, and the OsmAnd app on my phone. Did those burdens add to my happiness? Much better to follow our noses, allow ourselves to get lost, and open ourselves to new places and experiences. Maps interrupt our attentiveness and distance us from the here and now.

Ironically then, as I was reminiscing over an earlier walk in the area with Mythogeography, we managed to miss Northbrook’s lowest confluence – a fork to the right that appears to start in the Arthurian roads in Beacon Heath, plunge beneath Whipton north of Pinhoe Road, and emerge again near the Summerway Park of the pseudo stone circle.

We were still following the Green Circle. There’s a pleasant area of grass and trees along Vaughan Road, then Hamlin Lane Playing Fields. To the right of the path area are the fields. To the left is the brook in a dip of wilderness. There is a route down to the water, possibly where cattle were led to drink. It could almost be a ford, although there is no way up the other side. Further on there is an overgrown BMX track, and next to this we at last found some more evidence of a bit of loving and playfulness: a stepping stones crossing, and ropes for swinging from the trees.

Just by Polsloe Bridge station, we stopped to look down at another culvert, and I realised I was crossing the Northbrook every time I’d cycled to the University. It’s amazing what you miss when travelling at even the speed of a bicycle, and are not paying attention to the naming of places… like Bridge.

Over Pinhoe Road, and through some snickets, and we reached St Katharine’s Priory at the perfect time to take advantage of the Community Café for a bite of lunch. The Priory is a good example of a building that incorporates some Heavitree stone, and is situated in a green oasis of lovely grounds running down to the Northbrook. We had a good investigation, found the culvert, and had a chat to a couple of local enthusiasts. But time was now pressing, so it was off into Mincinglake Valley Park.

Here, the Northbrook is known as the Mincinglake Stream. The root is the same as in München, that is the German for “by the monks/nuns”.  The nuns of St Katharine’s dammed the stream to create a fish lake, hence the “nun’s lake”. There is no lake to be seen now, and there is no stream to be seen either if, as we did, you take the footpath up to the right. Eventually we crossed back to the left side, but still no stream. Diana recalled that Mincinglake used to be a landfill site, and we suspected that the stream was buried for most of its course through the Valley Park [later confirmed]. There’s another culvert at the bridge on Stoke Hill, and finally we and the stream are reacquainted.

This is one of the most pleasant sections of the Northbrook’s course, and in places it could almost be described as a babbling brook. The channel is more natural, fringed with plant life, and shaded by weeping willow. But that hasn’t encouraged greater care for the landscape. It’s blighted by a ruined bridge, with its ugly concrete supports and intrusive orange safety barrier, pollution, rubbish, and more culverts.

Now the path leads through woodland fringing the suburbs. It turns west and becomes a holloway where we have to diverge from the stream.

Here upstream the Northbrook is many rivulets, and over the hedgebank and grass fields we have tantalising glimpses of wooded evidence secreted in valley folds. We take a sharp turn north to seek the western-most rivulet and source, not the furthest from the mouth, but the easiest to pursue. About half way to the Stoke Hill iron age fort, we encounter a tiny dribble piped under the path, choked with fence posts and other detritus.

It seemed a fitting end to our exploration.

My photos attached to this post are not going to win any prizes. They are not beautiful, or particularly well-composed or well-lit. They do not capture the depth of the field of view. In a way, though, they do capture the Northbrook’s character and our attitude towards it and many urban streams like it.

At the end of the walk, we found ourselves a bit underwhelmed, saddened by the lack of care and attention paid to this small piece of nature. It has mostly been viewed as a threat, a flood risk, that needs to be suppressed, instead of a life-giving habitat that can, that does already, enhance lives and could enhance many more. We saw some evidence that this is changing in Ludwell Valley Park. It is heartening to know that there are always a few who do care, and that plans are afoot to improve water quality and increase natural habitat. Still the concern to reduce flood-risk is likely to result in more rather than less concrete, more attempted control, and less living in harmony.

So I find myself asking the questions: What does it mean to love and cherish a place? To inhabit a place, to watch and wait, be immersed and attentive, to conserve or preserve it, shape it for life, let it shape in return, enjoy it, savour its beauty and goodness? How will it respond?

Update 22 February 2021

1,250 days after our walk, I explored the bank of the Exe opposite the mouth of the Northbrook, for the first time! I’ve only lived in Exeter nearly 18 years. But this is a positive that has come out of COVID for me – the impetus to explore the parts of the local area that I hadn’t quite reached.

Northbrook mouth from the opposite bank of the Exe