Exactly 400 years ago today, on Wednesday 29th September 1613, water from the New River flowed into London's water supply for the first time. It had travelled 40 miles, ever so slowly, all the way from springs in Hertfordshire to fields near Clerkenwell. The difference in height between the start and the end of the New River was contrived to be a mere five metres, that's five inches a mile, hence the shallow gradient and the gentle flow. At New River Head a reservoir called the Round Pond was built, 200 feet in diameter and lined with oak. Water exited as required through a cistern and stopcocks, then via a series of wooden pipes to the company's subscribers in the city. Indeed the entire system worked by gravity, there were no pumping stations in those days, an astonishing technological achievement for the early 17th century.
On the prescribed day, which was Michaelmas 1613, a grand opening ceremony was held at the New River Head. The project's creator, Sir Hugh Myddleton, was present, as was his brother Thomas (who was elected Mayor of London later that afternoon). This happened...
A troupe of labourers, to the number of 60, or more, well apparelled and wearing greene Monmouth caps, all alike, carried spades, shovels, pickaxes and such instruments of laborious imployment, marching after drummes twice or thrice about the Cisterne, presented themselves before the Mount, where the Lord Mayor, Aldermen, and a worthy Company beside, stood to behold them.
At the opening of the Sluice, a speech was given.
"Now for the fruits then: Flow forth precious spring
So long and dearly sought for, and now bring
Comfort to all that love thee; loudly sing
And with thy crystal murmurs strook together
Bid all thy true well wishers welcome hither."
At which words, the flood gates flew open, the stream ran gallantly into the Cisterne, drums and trumpets sounding in triumphal manner; and a brave peal of chambers gave a full issue to the intended entertainment.
As London grew, New River Head grew too to meet its need for water. The circular basin was extended and a larger outer reservoir constructed. Buildings grew up around the reservoir, including a windmill, a Pump Station and The Water House. The New River Company held its meetings in the latter, paying for an oak panelled boardroom out of their considerable profits. This was preserved when the Company was wound up in 1903 by the creation of the Metropolitan Water Board. They decided to base their HQ at New River Head, building a suite of offices and a laboratory block around the Outer Pond in the 1920s. The rest of the Water House was knocked down but the Oak Room was preserved, transferred very carefully to the first floor of the new building. No water has flowed this far since 1946 when a decision was made to terminate the New River three miles earlier at Stoke Newington reservoirs. The MWB (aka Thames Water) is no longer based here, the entire site has been converted to luxury apartments. But Thames Water are still allowed access into the Oak Room for 28 days a year, and for two of those they extend that invite to Open House visitors. So I went.
The Oak Room is a marvellous sight. You gain entrance via the seriouslygranddoors off Rosebery Avenue, which brings you to the concierge desk, then up the stairs into the former admin block. It seems strange passing people's front doors where previously there'd have been telephone receptionists and shorthand typists, but I bet each flat packs a pretty impressive price tag. Head up the stairs and round a landing to first a narrow anteroom and then the Oak Room proper. It's well named. The walls are darkly panelled, with a truly magnificent carving of a royal coat of arms in wood above the fireplace. It's thought to be the work of Grinling Gibbons - nobody's truly sure, although few would have the skill to carve so complex a design (including protruding unicorn horn) in one piece. Alongside are carvings of watery creatures such as lobsters and crabs, plus a few more than might actually have been found in or on the New River. And then there's the ceiling. A central lozenge features a portrait of King William III, who was on the throne in 1697 when the Oak Room was built, surrounded by cherubs and a ring of gilded plasterwork. Bordering that are further moulded designs depicting villages and towns to be found along the New River, plus dolphins and mermaids and swans and that sort of thing. There's big money in water supply, that fact never seems to change, although Thames Water no longer boasts a luxury HQ and now fires out bills from a trading estate in Swindon.
New River Head still covers a sizeable portion of Upper Clerkenwell close to Sadler's Wells Theatre. It takes at least five minutes to walk all the way around, during which time you might spot the remains of the windmill, an 18th century engine house and a John Lewis van delivering monster electricals to a resident. Thames Water still have a borehole here which draws groundwater from the aquifers, and the site has been connected to the enormous subterranean Thames Water Ring Main. Meanwhile slightly further up the hill Claremont Square still houses an underground reservoir for the storage of water, this on the site of the original Upper Pond.
But for the New River aficionado, where you need to go is Myddleton Passage, round the back of the theatre up the alley by the pub. The very last gateway is unlocked during daylight hours and allows entry to a viewing platform over the site. It's hard to make out much of the original structure, now that most of the internal space is ornamental gardens, but a plaque shows an evocative illustration of the ponds and the broader site in 1752. There's a lot of additional information on some boards down the side, with plenty of detail on the history of New River Head, the New River and the New River Path. Throw in a schematic map of the river etched into the concrete, and the whole thing is very nicely done. If you're not up for a long walk you could always come pay tribute here today, plus you might get to watch a recreation of that grand opening ceremony 400 years ago. Hugh Myddleton's Glory is being acted out on the lawns with music, food and fireworks, attended by Thames Water grandees, residents of the current building, and other invited guests. If you fancy tagging along, this looks like your ticket.
And that really is it for my month-long journey down the New River. London owes much of its prosperity to Sir Hugh's wooden channel, because without a fresh supply of drinking water there could have been no expansion. Even more impressive, then, that 8% of the capital's water supply still arrives this way, slinking gently through the fields and towns of Herts and Middlesex, 400 years on.