diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 24, 2010


On the face of it, only one river runs through the centre of London. But there used to be many more. Before our forefathers carpeted the Thames vale with homes and offices, a network of natural waterways flowed down from the surrounding slopes across several now-drained square miles. Where once were fertile meadows, now hundreds of thousands live crammed together in multicultural streets and highrise estates. Where once were trickling brooks, now Victorian culverts burrow deep beneath snarled-up traffic jams. And where once were meandering lines on a map, now an army of amateur psychogeographers can be found attempting to trace the paths of evocative waterways now hidden from view.

There's a huge swathe of central London where rivers used to be but no longer are. Along the Thames from Wandsworth down to Deptford, the mouths of incoming tributaries have been replaced by a series of storm relief outfalls. In Hampstead Heath or Upper Norwood, a raindrop landing on one side of the watershed will flow downhill in open channel, whereas a raindrop landing the other side will disappear almost immediately from view. There are no riverbanks in Kilburn, Mayfair or Brixton, not any more. Only after exceptional rainfall do these subterranean streams ever re-exert themselves along their former course, bubbling up through drains and leaking into ill-prepared basements. In quieter times nothing short of selective linear demolition can ever raise these rivers back above ground floor level, and no amount of ill-informed bluster from Mayor Boris will ever return London's lost rivers to the surface.

Believe it or not it's now five years since I spent an entire month tracing the path of the long lost River Fleet. I started up at the source, both of them, and followed the route taken by the now-underground river all the way down to the Thames. It remains the most popular thing I've ever written. Countless comments at the time, unexpected contact from blokes who've been down exploring the sewers with boots and torches, and a slew of inquisitive emails ever since from Fleet-hungry folk worldwide. Even last night, while I was writing this, a message landed in my inbox from deepest Welwyn Garden City to say thanks for all the Fleety stuff. No problem, and I bet I enjoyed writing it even more.

It's the maps that intrigue many. You can't see these rivers any more, but where precisely did they go? What's up top where the brooks and bridges used to be, and is there any remaining echo in the placenames and landscape of today? A photograph of a map of the Fleet, hastily snapped on a sodden Farringdon wall in 2004, has become one of my ten most-viewed photos on Flickr. Only true cartographical evidence, such as this, allows us to confirm that the semi-mythological Fleet used to run directly beneath such unlikely spots as Great Ormond Street Hospital and the concourse at King's Cross station.

The definitive book about London's lost rivers remains Nicholas Barton's scholarly tome, published fifty years ago. It's detailed, historical and well-illustrated, but even then fails to dig too deeply into the minutiae of what precisely flowed exactly where. It's certainly no walking guide, unless you count the must-have fold out map [jpg] [pdf] tucked into the back of the book.

And so, in the absence of any published replacement, I'm making it my task for 2010 to track and trace the remainder of The Lost Rivers of London. I've done the Fleet, so I won't be doing that again. Which leaves about ten lost rivers to explore, both north and south of the Thames, which I'm hoping to cover at a rate of approximately one each month. And I'll be starting tomorrow with one of the bigger ones. If you can't wait until then, or until December for the last one, here's an alphabetical preview of what's coming up (plus a few useful weblinks to ponder).

Counter's Creek [subterranean view]
Effra [walking it]
Falcon [walking it]
Fleet [been there, done that] [170 photos]
Hackney Brook [Iain Sinclair lecture notes and podcast]
Neckinger [Wikipedia stub]
Peck [tracked by Londonist]
Stamford Brook [unlikely mouth plans]
Tyburn [traced by Londonist]
Walbrook [Barry says] [map]
Westbourne [subterranean view]

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan17  Feb17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
life viewed from london e3

email    twitter    G+

my flickr photostream

What's on this month?
28 Jan – 23 Apr (10am-4.30pm)
Sussex Modernism
The sixth annual exhibition at Two Temple Place focuses on radical art/writing in Sussex, and is damned excellent.

twenty blogs
ian visits
blue witch
city metric
the great wen
edith's streets
spitalfields life
in the aquarium
round the island
wanstead meteo
london museums
christopher fowler
ruth's coastal walk
london reconnections
dirty modern scoundrel

quick reference features
Things to do in Outer London
The DG Tour of Britain
Comment Value Hierarchy

read the archive
Feb17  Jan17
Dec16 Nov16  Oct16  Sep16
Aug16  Jul16  Jun16  May16
Apr16  Mar16  Feb16  Jan16
Dec15  Nov15  Oct15  Sep15
Aug15  Jul15  Jun15  May15
Apr15  Mar15  Feb15  Jan15
Dec14  Nov14  Oct14  Sep14
Aug14  Jul14  Jun14  May14
Apr14  Mar14  Feb14  Jan14
Dec13  Nov13  Oct13  Sep13
Aug13  Jul13  Jun13  May13
Apr13  Mar13  Feb13  Jan13
Dec12  Nov12  Oct12  Sep12
Aug12  Jul12  Jun12  May12
Apr12  Mar12  Feb12  Jan12
Dec11  Nov11  Oct11  Sep11
Aug11  Jul11  Jun11  May11
Apr11  Mar11  Feb11  Jan11
Dec10  Nov10  Oct10  Sep10
Aug10  Jul10  Jun10  May10
Apr10  Mar10  Feb10  Jan10
Dec09  Nov09  Oct09  Sep09
Aug09  Jul09  Jun09  May09
Apr09  Mar09  Feb09  Jan09
Dec08  Nov08  Oct08  Sep08
Aug08  Jul08  Jun08  May08
Apr08  Mar08  Feb08  Jan08
Dec07  Nov07  Oct07  Sep07
Aug07  Jul07  Jun07  May07
Apr07  Mar07  Feb07  Jan07
Dec06  Nov06  Oct06  Sep06
Aug06  Jul06  Jun06  May06
Apr06  Mar06  Feb06  Jan06
Dec05  Nov05  Oct05  Sep05
Aug05  Jul05  Jun05  May05
Apr05  Mar05  Feb05  Jan05
Dec04  Nov04  Oct04  Sep04
Aug04  Jul04  Jun04  May04
Apr04  Mar04  Feb04  Jan04
Dec03  Nov03  Oct03  Sep03
Aug03  Jul03  Jun03  May03
Apr03  Mar03  Feb03  Jan03
Dec02  Nov02  Oct02  Sep02
back to main page

the diamond geezer index
2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003 2002

my special London features
a-z of london museums
E3 - local history month
greenwich meridian (N)
greenwich meridian (S)
the real eastenders
london's lost rivers
olympic park 2007
great british roads
oranges & lemons
random boroughs
bow road station
high street 2012
river westbourne
trafalgar square
capital numbers
east london line
lea valley walk
olympics 2005
regent's canal
square routes
silver jubilee
unlost rivers
cube routes
capital ring
river fleet

ten of my favourite posts
the seven ages of blog
my new Z470xi mobile
five equations of blog
the dome of doom
chemical attraction
quality & risk
london 2102
single life
april fool

ten sets of lovely photos
my "most interesting" photos
london 2012 olympic zone
harris and the hebrides
betjeman's metro-land
marking the meridian
tracing the river fleet
london's lost rivers
inside the gherkin
seven sisters

just surfed in?
here's where to find...
diamond geezers
flash mob #1  #2  #3  #4
ben schott's miscellany
london underground
watch with mother
cigarette warnings
digital time delay
wheelie suitcases
war of the worlds
transit of venus
top of the pops
old buckenham
ladybird books
acorn antiques
digital watches
outer hebrides
olympics 2012
school dinners
pet shop boys
west wycombe
bletchley park
george orwell
big breakfast
clapton pond
san francisco
children's tv
east enders
trunk roads
little britain
credit cards
jury service
big brother
jubilee line
number 1s
titan arum
doctor who
blue peter
peter pan
feng shui
leap year
bbc three
vision on
ID cards