diamond geezer

 Saturday, November 27, 2010

The River Tyburn
1) Hampstead → Regent's Park

Unusually for a lost river, the top of the Tyburn is really obvious. On the corner of Fitzjohn's Avenue and Akenside Road in Hampstead, a short trek south of the tube station, are the remains of a commemorative drinking fountain [photo]. Nothing gushes forth here today, but this was once the site of the "Shepherd's Well" which supplied the villagefolk of Hampstead with drinking water [photo]. Other local wells may have left a nasty mineral taste in the mouth, but water from the Shepherd's Conduit tasted clean and pure and so was much in demand. A penny a pailful, for those who couldn't be bothered to fetch it themselves. The track back to town survives as "Spring Path" [photo], and the Gothic pile on the corner is still known as Old Conduit House [photo]. Like I said, really obvious, all the clues are there.

The Tyburn ran down towards Swiss Cottage, past a statue of Sigmund Freud, centuries before either of those were ever there [photo]. About a foot in width, this was once a sparkling stream whose waters very rarely dried up. It passed through the western fringes of Belsize Park, crossing what are now leafy residential avenues, and slipping between the local leisure centre and a glassy mega-hotel. A second tributary rose further to the east, with its source in the grounds of Belsize Manor. In 1728, as Bellais House, this was a "beautifully situated" place of public amusement for the more genteel members of Georgian society. No trace of that house remains today, merely the townhouses that now cover the old estate, although there's still a clear ripple in the contours leading down from Belsize Park Gardens.

Both branches of the Tyburn curled round the western flank of Primrose Hill, which kept them apart from the larger River Fleet on the opposite side. The two tributaries met up on Avenue Road before edging into the borough of Westminster and following the line of Townshend Road. Houses are big round here, with gated driveways and swivelling cameras, but still somehow on the pleasant side of aspirational. Meanwhile the remains of the river trickle beneath the streets through the Kings Scholar's Pond Sewer, constructed circa 1825 with a quirky brickiness that Jon can tell you lots more about.

And then, Regent's Park. The river headed in beneath the Thirties apartments on the northern flank, before reaching an artificial valley carved across its course. This belongs to the Regent's Canal, which architect John Nash was forced to drop into a cutting so that it's perceived ugliness couldn't tarnish the rest of his great park. So the Tyburn has to cross over the canal [photo], and its pipes form the basis of the Charlbert footbridge. Most people walk over the top without even guessing [photo], but the folks at SilentUK have been for a crouch through the underworld...
"The pipe shifted into a smaller egg shape, before long reaching the Regents Canal. The pipe split into two rather unfavourable 4ft pipes, carrying the flow over the canal via a bridge, fun, but the show must go on. Slowly striding through the black, chunky liquid, dangerously close to catching some splash in the face, bags catching at every possible opportunity, thank god it was only 40 metres."
The pipe continues underground, but a separate Tyburn legacy is ever-so visible on the surface of Regent's Park. It's the boating lake [photo]. Don't think small and round. This lake's more bunch-of-bananas shaped, and curves almost all the way down the western side of the park. One finger starts close to the American ambassador's back garden [photo] and is therefore under permanent Secret Service scrutiny. Another starts nearer to the Zoo, this representing a very minor tributary which could never originally have been deep enough to support a pedalo [photo]. But the lake curls too much to precisely match the original Tyburn. Don't be fooled - this entire ornamental lagoon was artificially created by excavation when the park was first landscaped. It was originally fed by the Tyburn's piped-in waters, at least until January 1867 when the ice broke killing 40 men and boys skating on its surface. The water level was immediately lowered, and ice skating's been banned here ever since [icy photo]. Rest assured that the sewer's long been diverted to bypass the lake altogether, so all that floats here now are hireboats and waterfowl. [photo]

Following the Tyburn: Shepherd's Path, Akenside Road, Fitzjohn's Avenue, Belsize Park, Winchester Road, Harley Road, Wadham Gardens, Elsworthy Road, Avenue Road, Acacia Road, Townshend Road, Shannon Place, Eamont Street, Prince Albert Road, Charlbert Street, Charlbert Bridge, Outer Circle, Winfield House, Regent's Park Boating Lake.

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