diamond geezer

 Monday, January 25, 2010

The River Westbourne
An overview

Three of London's lost rivers, and arguably three of the most important, began their descent in Hampstead. They're the Westbourne, the Tyburn and the Fleet, and from here they each ran roughly southwards and roughly parallel down to the Thames. The Westbourne was the westernmost of this trio, the west stream, or "west bourne". Several streamlets joined forces on the upper slopes to form the river proper, joining together by Kilburn to form what was once a fairly substantial watery presence. Another major tributary fed in from Queen's Park, and then the main stream turned southeast through Maida Vale and Bayswater (only one of whose names is river-related). Next up is the largest remnant of any of London's lost rivers - the Serpentine in Hyde Park - here royally enlarged in the early 18th century to create an ornamental lake. And then south beneath Knightsbridge, on through Belgravia and out into the Thames in the grounds of the Chelsea Royal Hospital. About six miles source to mouth, across some of the most expensive real estate in the capital.

It's housing that's responsible for most of the Westbourne's disappearance. Newly-built homes wouldn't sell if there was an open sewer running alongside, so developers footed the bill to culvert and cover the contaminated waterway. In the Westbourne's case this created the Ranelagh Sewer, implemented segmentally and not completely covered over until the 1850s. This subterranean Victorian infrastructure still survives and can be wandered down, so long as you're a Thames Water employee or an illegal adventurer with a penchant for muck-filled brick-lined tunnels.

In at least two places the former Westbourne still marks the western boundary of the London Borough of Westminster, most notably as it meanders otherwise-inexplicably through Belgravia. And yes, this is the lost river that supposedly flows through a tube across a tube station. But no, that's not Westbourne Park, which (for a reason) is more than half a mile away from anywhere the river once ran. There's so much to explain about the Westbourne, which I'm planning to do over the course of the next week. Two updates daily, hopefully at twelve hour intervals, all the way down from Hampstead to Chelsea. Let's go with the flow.

Other names for the River Westbourne
Cye Bourne, Kelebourne, Kilburn
Bayswater, Bayswater River, Bayswater Rivulet
Serpentine River
The Bourne, Westburn Brook
the Ranelagh River, the Ranelagh Sewer

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