13 Rivers Run Through It


Ahoy there, me hearties and warmest greetings to Londonists new and old.  Adorn yourselves with windcheaters and that tough lipsalve that comes in powder blue tubes, as we climb aboard the salty raft of the Good Ship Bluebird for this week’s tour of 3 of London’s 13 lost rivers.

I can hear the mocking giggles from here, dearest readers. 13?  Ma Bluebird been at the bottle of YoHoHo and a bottle of rum.  Again?  Poor foolish girl.  There is only one river in London and it is the one that snakes insiduously from east to west or even from west to east and which we only ever see in its televisual representation in the opening credits of Eastenders as we are too lazy to walk to the riverbank.   The Thames.  Whilst boats are female, the Thames is a hairy, furry male.  Old Father Thames launches his face out sloppily from a hardened crust of stonework down where the river turns east.  The Thames is the reason the city exists in the first place, from the day one Roman centurion lunched on Celts, scratched his brass battle helmet and thought: “Aha.  From here I can bring cocoa in from the Indies and we can make Maltesers.  World domination will be ours.”

But the Thames is, as we have pointed out, a Father.  His children are probably 13 street arab, mischievous streams that pulse and run under our city.  For you can build over a river, but a river will always be a river and it will always remain.  The 13 bastard progeny of the curly haired Daddy Thames include The Langbourne, The Wallbrook, The River Fleet, The Tyburn, The Westbourne, Counter’s Creek, Stamford Brook, River Brent, River Rom, Earl’s Sluice, The River Peck, The River Neckinger, The River Effra, The Falconbrook, The Graveney River, The Beverley Brook, Sudbrook, Hackney Brook, The River Moselle.  What wonderful words.  The River Moselle sounds like one of those floating restaurant cruises that sluice up and down the Thames nightly (“dinner and dance £60 per head river cruise…) whilst Beverley Brook sounds like a Transport for London secretary.  Most of the remaining offerings sound like public houses, but my absolute favourite has to be Earl’s Sluice.  I can’t work out whether it sounds like a racing horse or a venereal disease (Not tonight, darling.  I have a slug of earl’s sluice.  Been told to wash it in weak solution of tea tree oil and water and a dab of live yoghurt…).  No such sexual decadence for “River Brent”, however.  It smacks of office supply discount stores furniture and grey filing cabinets and muffin topped ne’er do wells bent on civic cruelty counting out the monies gained from parking permit violations.  You can only imagine the fun Dickens would have had with the name “River Neckinger”.   Oddly enough, parts of Oliver Twist, including the well-deserved violent death of Mr Bill Sykes, occur at St Saviour’s Dock, at Jacob’s Island, which is where the Neckinger met The Thames.

Where are these lost watery avenues underneath London?   Well, of all of them it is the Tyburn, the Fleet and the Walbrook that perhaps are the best known.  These are the ones I will tell you about today.  That is not because there isn’t information on the others, or that I cannot be arsed to find that information out, but rather the main three are the most interesting.  The Westbourne isn’t that interesting.   It ran through West London.  They built West London.  The covered up the Westbourne and dammed a section of it to make The Serpentine.  That is sort of the end of the story.  Counter’s Creek, which sounds like a Daphne du Maurier novel, is tiny – running only from North Kensington down to Chelsea. What interests us here at Bluebird Towers are the big players, those echoes and energies present in the history of these damned tributaries.  How do they pulse up and rupture through the paving of our modern city, and what have they ever done for us?  Souwester at an angle, rubber boots on to wander amidst the boats and trade avenues of ancient London, off we go!  Down we go beyond the sewerage system, and before the railway, into a city where the only sounds are the mewling of Roman slaves, the shoeing of recalcitrant horses, the chipchip sound of the Roman interior designer installing yet another modern villa style kitchenette and the ripple and surge and roar of the rivers.

The Walbrook runs through the old Roman City, going south from Finsbury and ending up just outside Cannon Street Station.  It was the second most important river to the Romans, after the Fleet, as it brought fresh water in and shunted waste water out towards the Thames.  The Temple of Mithras, unearthed during archeological digs in the 20th Century, was on its banks.  We do not know much of The Temple of Mithras but at Bluebird Towers it’s our educated guess that it was a nightclub dispensing dancing treats and cheese sandwiches to the higher echelons of Roman political aristocracy.   What we don’t know is what the Romans called it, as its name of “Walbrook” is Anglo Saxon, so probably got named in the 6th century AD well after the Romans had hopped it.  The Lord Mayor paid for the River Walbrook to be covered up in 1440.  But the Walbrook continues to be a hard worker. In 1860 it was incorporated into the sewer system, where leaks from the Walbrook by The Bank of England can be meted out to adjust the local water table levels when required.  Bits of it also branched off to be utilised in different areas ; a branch of the Walbrook that stretched up to Islington was used to power a lead mill as late as 1830.  The Bluebird has decided that it really should not be known as a “lost” river at all.  It isn’t lost, merely unable to see daylight for 550 years, but, like a vision of a Wellsian dystopia, toiling away under the surface of the city, working all day and all night where us inhabitants of the upper world will never see in.  Silent, stalking, resourceful river, marking out the filth, flushing through the sludge and stench, oblivious to the plague, fire, Luftwaffe bombs and capital equity funds raining down on top of it since it last saw light. In 1999, various members of “Reclaim The Streets” staged an extraordinary attempt to liberate the river from the capitalist city around it by opening hydrants all along its route, perhaps in the desperate hope that some bankers might fall into it and drown.  Fascinating photos of the Walbrook can be seen from the website of intrepid underground explorer, Steve Duncan at http://www.itsnicethat.com/articles/steve-duncan.

The Tyburn comes from the Fitzjohns Avenue. After that it essentially follows the route of the No 13 bus, through Swiss Cottage, St Johns Wood, skirting the Park and from there into Marylebone.  It is a narrow river, far smaller than the Fleet or the Walbrook.  An idea of its movement can be gained from Marylebone Lane, which directly follows its course.  At Gray’s Antiques Centre, at the top of South Molton Lane, tenants moving into the basement a while ago found that basement below three feet of water.  The Tyburn had gone nuts, slipping its way up from the nether world.  Being a very chichi antique trading depot, Grays Antiques have stated they have successfully dammed a small amount of the Tyburn in its below ground level antiques mall and instated a healthy cluster of goldfish, which you can visit yourself if you wish to see this ancient river surrounded by over-priced art deco teaspoons and grumpy, old men who repair watches.    Those interested in the Tyburn should peruse this video of Walking the Tyburn here http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&hl=en-GB&v=qspO6UtpCOg but of course, walking the Tyburn in the late 17th Century would be very different from holding a hand-held camera through the tight, classy streets of modern day Marylebone.  The recorder is less likely to have tripe in his belly, the walk is unlikely to be fettered by vast splats of horse shit under foot and the local populace are unlikely to be wearing bonnets and exhibiting herpes sores (probably).  In the early 13th century, the Tyburn was used to supply water to the local communities, but with three and half miles of leather piping, it must have tasted like the upholstery of an expensive car .  In the seventeenth century, they thought ‘Fuck it’ and moved the water supply out to Hertfordshire, whereupon the Tyburn became fetid and obligingly filled itself up with poo.

The River Fleet is the largest of these subterranean tributaries, reaching a width of 100 yards in Roman times.  If it had a Twitter hashtag it would be #ginandmoney.  I have decided it is my favourite.  The Fleet was like the M1 to the Romans – a large river, for major trade movement.  Wells were built along its banks and streams, particularly in Clerkenwell, which was so famed for its local streams (Clerk-en-well) that three gin distilleries chose to set up business there in the 17th and 18th centuries, to use Fleet water for distilling purposes.  It is dammed at Highgate Ponds and Hampstead Ponds and casts its route southwards through Camden Town and into The Thames.  (Roman enthusiasts among you will know that Boudicca met her grisly end at Battle Bridge, on the site of the modern day Kings Cross Underground Station.  Battle Bridge was a bridge over the Fleet river.)  By the end of the 13th century it was essentially a sewer, thereby following the Tyburn’s example of filling itself full of shit by about 1350.  Sir Christopher Wren’s suggestion of widening and enlivening this river were rejected in the late 17th Century.  And quickly and silently the great Roman river got annexed and cut down.  In 1737 the top half north from Holborn to Ludgate Circus was enclosed, although it took nearly 150 years to brick the whole river over.  A million of us pass over it every day and don’t know.  Check out the sloping side streets off Farringdon Street.  Many of these were once Fleet river banks.  Read the story over at The Londonist for a great description of a modern day trip down into the Fleet with a film crew, lead by senior ‘flusher’ Rob Smith : http://londonist.com/2010/08/a_trip_down_the_fleet_river.php   The river hasn’t seen daylight since Hampstead was developed in the later half of the 19th century, covering over the last portion of the Fleet in about 1870.  A commemorative tube line was to go ahead – The Fleet Line – in the 1970s, which would very roughly follow the route and end up in Fleet Street.  But then the Queen reached her Silver Jubilee, so they terminated it at Charing Cross and named it The Jubilee instead.  And that, as they say, was that.   Until of course they decided it wasn’t enough to terminate the Jubilee at Charing Cross after all, and extended it in a riot of millenial fever to North Greenwich in the late 90s.  I don’t know what the Fleet had to say about it.  The Fleet won’t stay invisible or silent.  Wait for very low tide, take the Thameswalk exit at Blackfriars Station, and look for the ladder by Blackfriars Bridge that descends into the water.  You can also hear the roar of The Fleet in front of The Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street, EC1.  Stand in front of it and listen to the power of carbon dioxide and H2O that helped make London the gin capital of the modern world.

Is it too wild to suggest that this is not a City paved with gold or built on lime so much as it is built on water?    Rather than having become obsolete, London’s lost rivers form the backbone of our modern sewage system, adapting and shifting silently under our streets, oblivious and unconcerned as to what we’re up to.  There we go, strutting, preening, agitating and endlessly stressing on the marked paved streets above over the unceasing, flow of  the ancient rivers, as they peer up at our old Empire and previous incarnations with that weary, jaded glance of a citydweller who has seen it all before.

Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every two weeks, so our next instalment will be on March 28th.  See you then!

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