diamond geezer

 Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Regular readers will know that I never blog about anything that's been sent to me in a promotional email. I say never, but I'm about to make an exception. PR minions should note that I'm making an exception solely for the following four reasons...
      a) It's a book about (hooray) London's lost rivers.
      b) I was planning to blog about Tom's book anyway, before his PR lackey emailed me about it.
      c) I paid for my own copy.
      d) It's better than good.


London's Lost Rivers - A Walker's Guide by Tom Bolton
Strange Attractor Press, 272 pp, £14.99


There is something innately fascinating about a lost river beneath a major city. Above ground life bustles on, seemingly unaware of the landscape that existed here before urbanisation wiped it away. But look carefully, if you know where to look, and there are clues to follow and valleys to track. So innately fascinating are London's lost rivers that two books have been published this year on this particular subject. First there was the book I nearly wrote but absolutely didn't, back in May. Full colour, lots of background information, two dozen rivers covered, the snapshot approach. And now Tom's written a second, published a couple of weeks ago, subtly different to the first. Here's why you should buy a copy.

As an aficionado of lost rivers, what particularly fascinates me is where they went. It's great to spot evidence on the ground here and there, but what I really want to know is where the trickling stream once ran. That's why, when I decided to spend a year tracking London's lost rivers, I went out and walked all of them. Source to mouth, via outer suburbs and inner estates, following the vanished blue line as best I could. So when I was asked to write a book about lost rivers, I wanted to write about a journey down them. "No," said my publisher, "we want pictorial highlights with a fact-dense textual accompaniment, we don't want a guided walk." Tom's written the book I wasn't allowed to write, he's written a book of guided walks. That may mean it doesn't sell so well, but it's a far more coherent way to write about a subject dear to my heart.

Eight of London's lost rivers get the full treatment in Tom's book. From top to bottom, about thirty pages each, mixing walking instructions with fact-dense textual accompaniment about features along the way. Tom isn't averse to pointing out a blue plaque or an interesting building nearby, even if it has bugger all to do with the lost river. And that's my style too, we're neither of us fluvial purists, we're describers of London. It's good text too, packed with freshly dug-up facts, including much about the vanished rivers that I wish I'd known before. Even better, I don't recall seeing much in Tom's exposition that made me go "actually, no, that's a mistake, it was never like that, you've got this wrong." London's lost rivers are a complete nightmare to research - they vanished so long ago - so I know how easy it is to slip in several unintentional untruths. Be it drain covers in Belsize Park, ponds on Peckham Rye Common or Roman temples in the City, I'm not sensing that Tom has got much wrong.

Plus there are maps, lots of them in close up detail, depicting where Tom thinks all these lost rivers used to flow. Along Bruton Lane, down Curzon Street, along White Horse Street, across Piccadilly and into Green Park, on one map, for example. There's plenty of artistic licence because nobody knows precisely where all these lost rivers went, let alone accurately enough to draw a meandering wiggle round Brixton Market. But I've previously spent hours researching the location of these lost rivers, far much more carefully than most other Londoners, and I never* thought "ooh no Tom, you're miles out on that one". Take each map with a slight pinch of salt, but also a degree of confidence that the river's course is pretty much accurate.
* Apart from the map on page 208, which is upside down (apart from that)

The maps for each chapter link together to depict a suggested walking route for each river. Continue along Farringdon Lane, cross Clerkenwell Road and continue down Turnmill Street. They're all very clear, dead easy to follow on the ground (which, given that Tom's book is a walker's guide, I'd strongly recommend that you do). I've tracked all of these rivers in real life, and I recognised almost every street that Tom's walking routes follow. He's missed out a few tributaries to keep it simple, but that's because following tributaries rarely makes for a satisfying linear walk. Follow his instructions from Hampstead down the Fleet (or Tyburn) (or Westbourne) to the Thames, and you can have confidence that you're following the right valley all the way.

If I have a major complaint, it's that Tom's been highly selective which rivers he's written about. All the big lost rivers are included (Fleet, Tyburn, Westbourne, Effra), and some of the smaller ones (Walbrook, Earl's Sluice/Peck, Neckinger), which is great. But there's no Falcon Brook, nor Hackney Brook, nor Stamford Brook - probably because they don't make for quite such interesting walks. Most unfortunately there's no Counter's Creek, which I'd absolutely definitely have included, and would have made for a really interesting stroll past Holland Park, Earl's Court and Stamford Bridge. And then Tom blows it at the end by including the Wandle as his eighth river. Even though he admits it's more "mislaid" than lost, this a river that's fully visible for almost all of its length and really shouldn't be here at all.

If you want photographs, Paul's book from earlier this year is hugely better. Tom's volume has only eight photos, all of an arty Polaroid style that's charming but not in any way informative. Here they are along with 55 others, in a gallery on Flickr, if you want to enjoy them for free. As well as better photos, Paul's book also features a more comprehensive selection of waterways, and is more dip-in-able. But if you want an authoritative guide to where London's lost rivers used to be, and how to track them down, Tom's your man.

It's pricy, at £14.99, especially for a book that's thick but not especially large. Pocket-sized, I think you'd say, which is clearly more practical for a walking guide than something of coffee-table dimensions. Strange Attractor Press aren't a major publishing company, so we can't expect bargain basement bestseller prices. But I didn't regret a penny of my almost-fifteen-quid, because I know how much effort goes into writing a historical-geographical-hybrid transcript. I could have bought Tom's masterwork on Amazon for less, but I made the effort to pop into Rough Trade East in Shoreditch to pay full price to the independents. I hope his book sells well, even though distribution will be limited and its target audience isn't exactly mainstream. And I'd hope that several of you will want to acquire a copy, because if readers of this blog aren't target audience then I don't know who is.

» Tom's Lost Rivers blog (intermittent)
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» Strange Attractor Press (book details)
» Londonist book review


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