diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hackney Brook

All of the other lost rivers I'm writing about in this series flow into the Thames. This one's different - it flows into the Lea. Also atypically, it flows eastwards. Utterly typically, it's completely vanished. OK, so there are a couple of telltale fluvial remnants along the way, but not many, and very few that'd make you go "oh blimey, there really did used to be a river here". Things were very different back when Queen Victoria came to the throne, with a considerable stream wending its way round Stoke Newington and through the centre of rural Hackney. But pressure to build housing saw the river rapidly buried, some of it diverted into Bazalgette's Northern Outfall Sewer, and within a generation all brookside vistas had vanished.

An acknowledged expert on the Hackney Brook is Iain Sinclair, London's very own semi-impenetrable narrator. Should you own a copy of his Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire you'll know that the penultimate chapter is devoted to the borough's lost river. The text meanders rather, as is Sinclair's way, generating atmosphere rather than revealing anything of substance. But look more carefully at the map on the book's cover and you'll spot a pale blue line threading down from top left to bottom right. That's the Hackney Brook, that is - apart the bottom right section which heads in completely the wrong direction. It definitely flowed via Hackney Wick, not Well Street Common, for which geographical inaccuracy I blame the good man's illustrator.

Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire (Penguin) (Amazon)
The book's cover as a poster (but not in quite good-enough resolution)

Water - a Sony Award-winning Hackney Podcast featuring Iain following the route of the Hackney Brook (oh this is good)
Iain's talk - The Hackney Brook and Other North West Passages (listen, or read the transcript)
Podcast from Resonance FM - includes Iain tracing the Brook's route with a dowser

That's the problem with Lost Rivers - you can't even trust what you read about them in books, because so much remains hearsay and supposition. But I'm going to give it a try here. From Holloway to Hackney, via two football stadia, several parks, a cemetery and a Tesco car park. Some of the river's route remains admittedly woolly, particularly in the upper reaches on the slopes of north Islington and through the shifting marshland of Hackney Wick. But its path through most the London borough of Hackney is rather better documented, and the dips across Stoke Newington High Street and Mare Street are pretty obvious once you think to look. Plus there is one spot where you can still say "oh blimey, there really did used to be a river here". A Brook in Hackney. Who'd have thought?

An approximate map of the Hackney Brook's course (my best Google map attempt)

The Hackney Brook on Wikipedia (it's not much, but it'll have to do)
Map of the Hackney Brook (and the Lea Valley) (from 1611)
Cary's London map of 1837 (Hackney) (Hackney Wick)
Sketch Plan of the Hackney Brook, Compiled by E. Bolus (a zoomable art-print)
North London drainage basins (the Hackney Brook's is in blue) (pdf map)

» Previous rivers in this series: Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger

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