diamond geezer

 Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
Fleet's end

And so my month-long journey along London's hidden river Fleet is complete. It's been a fascinating trip through a cross section of historic (and not so historic) London, proving that you can still follow the course of a subterranean river by following the clues on the surface (and proving that it is possible to tackle and complete a nigh-impossible cross-capital multimedia project just by chopping the journey up into 31 manageable stages). As a final flourish (and a final treat) I've plotted my entire route on a map, with photos. Zoom in, have a click around and you can see where I've been, and exactly where the Fleet used to flow. Buried, but not forgotten.

All my Fleet posts on one page with no interruptions
All 170 of my Fleet photos in five flickr galleries (NE NW upper middle lower)
Follow the Fleet across a modern map of London (NEW)

Reviewing the Fleet
Entering the Thames

Here it is, the very spot I've been tracking down for the last month - the mouth of the River Fleet. Look carefully, in the gloom underneath Blackfriars Bridge, there where the left bank meets the grey waters of the ebbing Thames. That arched hole in the wall, just behind the rusty ladder leading down from the Embankment into the river, that's where the Fleet storm drain flows out into the Thames. My journey is complete.

1) Take advice from an expert: I learnt how to find the mouth of the River Fleet from Sue, the guide who runs the "Lost World of the River Fleet" guided walk. Thanks Sue. [nb If you fancy going on the same walk it's running just once more in the next few months, on Saturday 16th September - departs Blackfriars station, exit 1, 2:30pm] [photo]
2) Wait for low tide: It's no good visiting the river at high tide, or even at medium tide, because everything will be hidden beneath up to seven metres of water [photo]. Wait for low tide or, even better, one of the especially low spring tides that happen around the time of the full or new moon (tide tables here). [nb There should be a pretty good view at 7am or 7pm this Saturday, for example]
3) Stand in the right place: Because the Fleet empties into the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge, in the dark space between the Embankment and the northernmost arch, your viewing options are very limited. Very limited indeed. In fact there are only three places (on land) from which the Fleet outfall can be seen:
a) Stand on Paul's Walk, the dingy passageway beneath Blackfriars Bridge, about halfway under the main span just to the left of the locked-up ladder. Hold your camera out above the water and take a photo looking straight down. [nb this method produces very unsatisfactory results] [photo]
b) Stand on the jetty at Blackfriars Millennium Pier, next to the ramshackle mustard coloured hut (opposite the top of the ramp) and look east [this photo shows you where]. [nb You'll need your binoculars/zoom lens] [photo]
c) Stand at the bottom of the steps leading down from exit 5 of the Blackfriars subway system [these photos show you where]. Hang out precariously over the parapet and look into the murky gloom under the bridge. Take a photograph or three. [nb Don't expect anything stunning - it's just a hole in the river wall criss-crossed by a couple of chains] [photo]

Reviewing the Fleet
Blackfriars Bridge

The first Blackfriars Bridge was opened in 1769, at about the same time that the lowest reach of the Fleet was covered over and renamed New Bridge Street. This nine-arch span made of Portland stone survived exactly 100 years before being replaced by the present wrought iron structure. [photo] Busy old Queen Victoria spent 6th November 1869 opening first Holborn Viaduct and then popping down Farringdon Street to open the new Blackfriars Bridge. A statue was erected in her honour on the north side of the bridge a few years later. Four equestrian sculptures were also planned, one to stand in each recess above the piers of the bridge, but they never materialised. The bridge has since been widened and is now the busiest of all the road bridges leading south from the City (although it's bloody dangerous on a bike). The view upstream is impressive, taking in the OXO Tower, Eye and Embankment, but the view downstream is blocked by a less than glamorous railway bridge. Two parallel railway bridges were built here in the late 19th century, but the westernmost bridge proved too weak for modern trains and was part-demolished in 1969. You can still see its peach-painted supporting pillars sticking up out of the Thames today, beheaded by progress, although they may be reused if the Thameslink 2000 project is ever resuscitated. [photo]

www.flickr.com: Fleet lower - Holborn to Blackfriars
(there are 50 photos in this bumper bonus selection)

 Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
the Embankment

200 years ago it wasn't just the River Fleet that stank, it was the whole city. One million Londoners produced a heck of a lot of sewage, most of which ended up in the capital's two hundred thousand cesspits, or in the street, or floating down towards the Thames. Conditions were at their worst close to rivers, such as the Fleet, where domestic water-closets often discharged directly into the stream. As the 19th century progressed outbreaks of cholera became more common, sometimes killing thousands of people, and the smell of the city on a hot day became intolerable. The situation came to a head during the 'Great Stink' of 1858 when the Thames became heavily polluted during a particularly hot summer. Lime-soaked curtains were hung from the windows of the House of Commons in a vain attempt to keep out the stench. Thankfully a solution was at hand.

Enter Joseph Bazalgette - an engineer with a vision. He believed (rightly, as it turned out) that London's stinky problems could be solved by a series of giant intercepting sewers which would divert brown waste safely away from the rivers in the centre of town. These sewers used gravity (and 318 million bricks) to deliver their cargo to two pumping stations at Crossness and Abbey Mills, both suitably downstream of the capital, where sewage was stored in reservoirs until the ebb tide and then released into the Thames. Three east-west sewers converged at Abbey Mills (just down the road from my house, so I've written about it before). The northernmost sewer fed down from Kentish Town and Hampstead, intercepting the waters of the upper Fleet along the way, while the middle sewer passed from Notting Hill through Clerkenwell. But when it came to constructing the Northern Low Level sewer, there was nowhere else for it to go except along the banks of the river Thames itself.

The Victoria Embankment, constructed by Bazalgette between 1864 and 1870, provided a new waterfront for central London and solved four important problems. Firstly it hid a giant sewer pipe, safely transporting the effluent of west London towards less affluent east London. Secondly it provided the perfect location for the construction of a new underground railway - today the District Line between Westminster and Blackfriars. Thirdly by reclaiming land from the Thames it narrowed the river and produced stronger defences against potential flooding. And fourthly a new four-lane road built on top of the Embankment relieved growing traffic congestion along Fleet Street and the Strand. Drivers whizzing along the current riverside dual carriageway probably don't realise that all of Chelsea's excrement still flows along beneath them.

Bazalgette's sewer system also finally demoted the Fleet from a buried river to an underground storm relief drain. Where once a babbling brook flowed into a navigable inlet, now sludgy brown liquid flows through a network of subterranean brick tunnels. Several connecting branch sewers converge on this dank Stygian puddleway, and one of the chambers lower down is as big as a cathedral with great vaulted ceilings. This is not somewhere that most people would choose to visit, but JD and Stoop specialise in underground drain exploration and they've made two journeys down the Fleet sewer during the last year. Their last, and most dangerous, expedition was back in June when they (and a daring Time Out journalist) made it nearly all the way down from St Pancras to the Thames.
"Stoop took out his big ass torch, which he'd been reserving for photos, so that we could get a look further down the tunnel. The beam stretched out ahead of us through the vapour and mist, "That's it!", I had caught a glimpse of the huge end chamber looking just as I'd seen it in an archive picture. Just ahead was the end of our journey down River, we strode ahead and using two iron rails set into the tunnel wall we climbed over the diverting wall which sends the flow into the intercepting sewer. The chamber beyond was free from any water flow, having just a thin layer of Thames sludge, it was an impressive array of iron gates, walkways, brickwork and ladders." (sub-urban Fleet sewer exploration, 2005)
Down in the sewers you're always at the mercy of the weather, or some waterworks operative diverting the flow from a channel above, so the trio's journey back up the sewer was rather more treacherous as the water level increased.
"A previously sealed hole in my waders had given up the ghost and one of my feet now weighed in at a good three kg more than the other. "I’m telling you it’s practically full up" - they both looked a little unconvinced until I emptied out about three litres of poo cocktail."
Read more here (or in last week's edition of Time Out). Oh, and they don't recommend you try following in their footsteps, just enjoy their photographs of the Fleet sewer instead. [More (slightly illegal) Urban Exploration links here]

 Monday, August 29, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet

As you might suspect from its name, Blackfriars was once a monastery. The black-robed Dominican Friars moved in beside the Fleet in 1278, right down near the river's mouth into the Thames where the inlet was still deep, wide and navigable. In 1382 religious reformer John Wycliffe was brought to Blackfriars by the Archbishop of Canterbury to stand trial for his beliefs. Towards the end of the hearing London was struck by a sudden earthquake (honest - even St Paul's was damaged) which Wycliffe took as a sign of God's displeasure, although the Archbishop disagreed and found him guilty anyway. In 1529 a court met at Blackfriars to hear the divorce proceedings of King Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. The consequences were equally seismic, and England split with the Church of Rome followed four years later.

By 1540 Blackfriars, along with all the other monasteries in England, had been dissolved. Some of the old buildings were converted into a private theatre which in 1608 was acquired by Richard Burbage for the use of his company of actors, the King's Men. Richard and his mate William Shakespeare used this indoor playhouse during the winter months, while continuing to perform Will's latest plays across the Thames at the Globe during the summer. Local residents weren't pleased by the regular disruption that raucous theatre crowds created on their doorstep. However, this didn't stop Shakespeare from buying the old Blackfriars monastery gatehouse in Ireland Yard [photo] as his London residence in 1613. The theatre lingers on only as a streetname (Playhouse Yard), but there's still one tiny segment of the old monastery wall to be seen hidden in a quiet courtyard here amidst the old medieval lanes [pictured].

Blackfriars is now better known as a mainline railway station (for trains to Bedford, Brighton, Sutton and Sevenoaks). It's not impressive and it's not big, but it does have platforms that extend out across the River Thames (and from which the view along the river is pretty outstanding [photo]). Meanwhile the monastery of Blackfriars is still commemorated by the Art Nouveau flat-iron pub over the road [photo]. It's 100 years old this year but was almost pulled down in the 1960s before being saved by a Betjeman-led campaign. Fight your way through the City drinkers spilt out across the pavement outside The Black Friar and look up at the big mosaic above the entrance [pictured]. There you'll see two dark-clad monks (one with giant fish in hand) standing in front of the old turreted friary beside the blue waters of the river Fleet - how it used to be here, many centuries ago.

(I really ought to stop here, because the river Fleet only ever flowed as far as Blackfriars, but nowadays there's still another 20 metres to go...)

The best of August

TV programme of the month: Still BBC2's marvellous Coast, which has been taking an eclectic wander around the UK coastline similar to my current amblings down the Fleet. The final part of the journey was last night, zipping around fast-eroding East Anglia, and there's a compilation of highlights next weekend.
Local TV programme of the month: Danny Wallace's series How To Run Your Own Country has been an entertaining and informative romp through the key issues any national leader needs to consider when establishing his or her own democracy. Danny's kingdom consists solely of his tiny loft apartment, which just happens to be in Bow and is (during the winter when the intervening trees are leafless) within sight of where I'm now sitting. I just hope that he (and his 30000 citizens) aren't planning on expanding his country at any time in the near future, otherwise I'm in danger of being annexed.
Album of the month: All the hype this month has rightly been aimed at Goldfrapp's Supernature, not just for the curvaceous cover art but more importantly for its luscious sensual melodies. This is 70s Bolan meets 80s electronica meets 90s chic, and it all makes for a 21st century mainstream classic with several standout tracks. Buy it now, before everybody else catches on.
Film of the month: I was expecting the worst when I was summoned to watch Unleashed, a Glasgow-based action movie featuring martial arts icon Jet Li. Sure enough the opening half hour was an orgasm of raw violence as Bob Hoskins ordered Danny, his human dog, to beat the crap out of everyone in sight. And then, when I least expected it, a wholly tangential piano tuner wandered on screen introducing themes of hope, self-discovery and redemption. The resulting action/romantic mishmash should have been corny B-movie tripe, but actually proved oddly endearing and unexpectedly watchable.

 Sunday, August 28, 2005

Other London stuff I've not mentioned while I've been wittering on about the Fleet:
• The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden closes at the end of this week for an 18-month-long upgrade. I thought I'd better take a look round, having somehow never visited the place (not since it was based in an old bus garage in Clapham, anyway), so I popped in last Friday. The collection is extensive and impressive, although now a little out of date (apparently the Jubilee Line is due to open in 1999). I enjoyed the selection of historic buses, the informative displays, the chance to stand in an old Metropolitan tube carriage and all the carefully-collected ephemera. There was even a 3D cross-section of Stockwell underground station, back in the days when gents could wear a top-hat and dress coat on the platform without being shot. One elderly visitor hobbling round the tram exhibit told me that as a boy he had been on the very last tram to descend into the Kingsway subway, and you could see the nostalgia in his eyes. There are just seven days left to visit (and maybe raid the shop's relocation sale), before something more modern emerges in 2007.
• Two anonymous faces can be seen staring out from advertising posters on many of London's buses and tubes this month. The "Casual Passer-by" is an eccentric project by Russian artist Braco Dimitrijevic in which he takes very occasional black and white photographs of random people and then exhibits them as art. Braco's 2005 London portrait is of an almost-elegant Chelsea woman, whereas his 1972 image features an ever-so-seventies gent with Brylcreemed hair and arched glasses. See them both now at Sadlers Wells Theatre or at the Tate Modern (or all over London).
• Have you ever dined out at the S&M cafe? I hadn't until last week but I can now thoroughly recommend meat-munching at any of their three London outlets (it stands for sausage and mash, by the way).
• The Tube Relief charity challenge took place last Thursday, raising cash for the victims of last month's tube bombings by attempting to visit as many of London's underground stations as possible in one day. Some of the participants even managed all 274. More here, here, here, here and (much more) here.

Reviewing the Fleet

1515-1520: After the Royal Apartments at Whitehall are destroyed by fire, Henry VIII spends £39000 establishing a royal palace on the western bank of the Fleet, close to its mouth with the Thames. The palace is named Bridewell after the nearby well of St Bride, and is opulent enough to host a visit by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.
1528: Henry invites papal representatives to Bridewell to discuss divorcing his wife, Catherine of Aragon. UK religion will never be the same again.
1531-39: Bridewell is leased by the French Ambassador - later immortalised in Holbein's most famous (and dead clever) painting.
1553: Henry's son Edward VI gives the palace over to the City of London, becoming a school for homeless children and a workhouse for the poor. Bridewell slowly evolves into a house of correction and prison for petty offenders, and other jails start to become known as 'Bridewells'.
1666: Great Fire Of London - burnt down - rebuilt (you know the drill by now)
1732: The fourth plate of Hogarth's Harlot's Progress is set in the Bridewell Prison (where Moll is imprisoned for prostitution).
1863: The old prison is demolished, and the Royal Hospital School moves to deepest Surrey. A new building is constructed on the site, retaining the 1802 gatehouse (which still stands and is occupied by Bark & Co Solicitors). Above the door is a keystone commemorating young King Edward (pictured).
2005: Don't bother visiting - Bridewell's a bit dull, the theatre's closed, and the rest of New Bridge Street is bland and featureless.

 Saturday, August 27, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
Fleet Street

London grew up around the twin centres of Westminster and the City, and medieval Fleet Street helped to link the two together. Initially the street led down from Aldwych into the Fleet valley to a wide ford across the (still navigable) river, but by 1197 a stone bridge had been built to span the waters. From here the road ascended Ludgate Hill, climbing through Ludgate into the City (close to St Paul's Cathedral).

I thought I'd show Ludgate Hill rather than Fleet Street in today's photograph because the view's better. In fact this view of St Paul's from Fleet Street is one of London's few protected views, and all modern skyscraper development is restricted along this particular line of sight. Richard Rogers's new Leadenhall Building, for example, has to taper towards the top so that it can't be seen from Fleet Street when it's topped out in a few year's time. It's just a pity that the buildings on either side of Ludgate Hill are so ugly.

Here's a map of the local area:
Fleet Street's association with the printed word began when William Caxton's apprentice Wynkyn de Worde set up a press at the eastern end of the street in the late 15th century. Newspapers moved in from the 18th century onwards, this location being perfectly situated between London's political and financial centres, until the very name 'Fleet Street' became synonymous with the national press. Most imposing of the various newspaper offices were those of the Daily Telegraph (pillared stone monolith) and Daily Express (black glass and chrome). With the advent of digital publishing all the UK's newspapers have now relocated elsewhere, notably eastwards towards Docklands, and presumably takings at local Fleet Street pubs are considerably lower as a result.FARRINGDON STREET
Former site of the Fleet Market
Some of the narrow lanes leading off Farringdon Road have names which echo the area's dockside past. Old Seacoal Lane and Newcastle Close are reminders that coal barges from Tyneside once sailed up the River Fleet as far as Ludgate. For many years this was also an industrial area. Above the Fleet you can still find Limeburner Lane, and over the road is Stonecutter Lane where masons satisfied London's growing need for paving slabs.

On this corner in 1702 was born the Daily Courant, England's first daily newspaper. This single sheet of newsprint, published by Edward and Elizabeth Mallett, aimed to provide news 'daily and impartially'. The Courant ceased production in 1735, which is why you can't wrap chips in a copy today.
Aldwych, Westminster
Former site of the Fleet Bridge
St Paul's Cathedral, City
St Bride's Church towers (or rather spires) high above the eastern end of Fleet Street. The first church on this site was built in the 6th century, named in honour of Irish nun St Bridget. The medieval church was destroyed in the Great Fire of London (the flames "rushed like a torrent down Ludgate Hill", according to one observer, then leapt the river in the strong east wind). Sir Christopher Wren's replacement is famous for its layered steeple (the tallest he ever built), which is said to have inspired a local 18th century pastrycook to design the first wedding cake. Wren's masterpiece had to be rebuilt after the destruction wreaked by a firebomb during the Blitz, although thankfully the steeple survived pretty much intact.
[Read a complete history of St Bride's here.]
Former site of the Fleet Canal
Four concave façades surround Ludgate Circus, constructed in the mid 19th century to form an elegant circular crossroads. The roadway here has since been raised, giving the illusion that surrounding shops are sinking. There were also once two pedestrian islands in the centre, each complete with its own obelisk, but now there's just a giant (faded) yellow box junction.

The view up Ludgate Hill is much improved since the removal of a railway viaduct, which since 1874 had carried trains from Holborn Viaduct past Blackfriars and across the Thames to South London. The line was buried underground in 1990 as part of the Thameslink Snow Hill Tunnel project. [link to abandoned station here]

 Friday, August 26, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
Fleetway comics

The best comics in the world came out of Fleetway House on Farringdon Street, or so I thought back in the 1970s. The Amalgamated Press building has now been replaced by yet another very ordinary office block, but this was once somewhere quite extraordinary. My brother and I were avid consumers of Fleetway's finest, and one of my biggest regrets is not keeping a few more back issues to nostalge over in my second childhood. Here are five favourites, followed by a few other comic gems from the period.
(Warning to comic connoisseurs: every blue link is worth a click, especially the first four above)

1) Krazy (1976-78): Quite the best comic ever, whatever you lot might think. Witty, clever, offbeat, and renowned for its cunning 'back cover disguises'. The most inventive material was to be found inbetween the comic strips, and I found Krazy's quirky humour to be wild, wacky and inspirational. Characters included: The Krazy Gang, The Buytonic Boy, Handy Andy, Paws, Ray Presto, Scaredy Cat, Birdman And Chicken
2) Monster Fun (1975-76): Few things appeal to pre-teenage boys as much as monsters, and this short-lived comic had monster appeal. The very best feature was the pull-out Badtime Bedtime Storybook in every issue, often illustrated by comic god Leo Baxendale (most of which I have been sensible enough to hoard keep). Characters included: Art's Gallery, Cinders, Creature Teacher, Draculass, Kid Kong, Tom Thumbscrew
3) Whizzer and Chips (1969-90): Were you a Whizz-Kid (led by Sid and his big snake, Slippy) or a Chip-ite (led by black-eyed Shiner)? Probably, secretly, both. Characters included: Fuss Pot, Odd Ball, Sweeney Toddler
See also: Whoopee! (long stayer, lasting from 74 to 85), 2000AD (might still be your favourite), Oink (a junior Viz), Shiver and Shake (precursor to Monster Fun), Buster (great granddaddy to all the Fleetway comics, into which all the others were eventually consumed, and which survived from 1960 to 2000)

Reviewing the Fleet
the Fleet Prison

Here's a site you don't see every day. They're building a new office block on Farringdon Street, on the site of what used to be the notorious Fleet Prison. Come back in a couple of years and there'll be a very shiny office block (called Ludgate West) here instead. But for the time being, if the blue gates in Old Fleet Lane are unlocked and open, you can peer in and see men in fluorescent yellow jackets at work where the ne'erdowells, debtors and petty bankrupts of London were once locked away. This brief period of reconstruction is a rare window into the past, except with JCB diggers where there ought to be tiny cell windows and wailing convicts. Here's a quick (and unexpectedly fascinating) history of the Fleet prison site:

1197: The first Fleet prison is built on a small eyot in the River Fleet, just outside the city walls. The prison has a square tower with four polygonal turrets, and the river provides a protective moat. [archaeological details here]
1381: The prison is burnt to the ground by Wat Tyler and his revolting peasants (and later rebuilt).
1666: The prison is burnt to the ground during the Great Fire of London (and later rebuilt). [map here]
1667-1754: 'Fleet marriages' were semi-official weddings conducted by clergymen incarcarated in the Fleet Prison. These priests made a living by solemnising vows for couples without parental consent or for those who wanted to avoid tax and licence costs. During the 1740s it is estimated that 15% of all the marriages in England were held within the 'Rules of the Fleet'.
1735: Plate 7 of William Hogarth's famous series of paintings The Rake's Progress sees upper crust debtor Tom Rakewell locked away in the Fleet, surrounded by desperate women and lunatics.
1780: The prison is burnt to the ground during the Gordon Riots (and later rebuilt). [map here]
1837: Charles Dickens, whose parents were themselves condemned to a debtors' prison, casts fictional Mr Pickwick away in the Fleet.
1842: The Fleet prison is finally closed, and is pulled down four years later.
1865: A railway line is constructed down the Fleet valley from Farringdon to Blackfriars, through the rear of the old prison site. Holborn Viaduct station survives until 1969. [network maps from 1899, 1905, 1935 and 1969]
1872: The Congregational Memorial Hall is built on the site of the Fleet prison, a spiky Gothic meeting house which is the headquarters for an offshoot of Methodism.
1900: The Labour Party is founded here, on this very spot, at a conference held in the main hall on 27 February 1900. (See, I told you this place was historic)
1969: As Farringdon Street becomes a characterless street of soulless office blocks, the Congregational Memorial Hall is knocked down to be replaced by a soulless office block called Caroone House. [archaeological details here]
2007?: A new soulless office block called Ludgate West opens on the site of Caroone House, on the site of the Congregational Memorial Hall, on the site of at least six different Fleet prisons, on a site of great history.

 Thursday, August 25, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
Holborn Viaduct

Most people think that central London is fairly flat, and for the most part it is, but here and there are some surprisingly steep hills. Take the short journey from Newgate prison (now the Old Bailey) to Holborn Circus, for example. There's a fairly steep descent down Snow Hill1 into the Fleet valley, a gradient which was considerably greater before the river was covered over, and then a similarly steep ascent up Holborn2 Hill on the other side. Medieval tradesmen taking goods to market in the City found this route particularly difficult, and occasionally treacherous. One particular lane leading down to the river from the east is still called Turnagain Lane, because if you brought your horse and cart this way you had no alternative but to back up and return the way you came. A proper stone bridge was built here in the Middle Ages and this became the northern limit of the navigable part of the Fleet. However, even with Holborn Bridge in place, the crossing was still not straight-forward.

The Victorians, as ever, had an answer. In the 1860s they built a magnificent curved viaduct across the valley, wiping away the slums beneath at the same time. Holborn Viaduct was the engineering miracle of its day, taking a full six years (and two million pounds) to build. Most people today think it's just a short bridge crossing Farringdon Road, but it actually stretches much further and is nearly half a kilometre long. The structure is a three-span cast-iron girder bridge, held up on granite piers, with four grand stairwells permitting descent to the roadway below. In the northwestern stairwell an engraving depicting the construction of the viaduct has been enlarged to enormous size as a modern tiled mosaic. Four classical statues mark the four corners of the main span - one each to represent Commerce, Agriculture, Fine Arts and Science3 - and a pair of bronze winged lions guard each end. Unfortunately it appears that the viaduct no longer meets certain modern health and safety regulations. New green barriers are being erected beneath the central span to protect its pillars from out-of-control lorries, and some especially ugly concrete blocks have been dumped along the edges of the main bridge, presumably to stop bendy buses accidentally smashing through the decorative ironwork and crashing onto the Farringdon Road below.
1 In the early eighteenth century a group of aristocratic ruffians called Mohocks took perverse pleasure in rolling old ladies down Snow Hill inside empty beer barrels. "As they neared the foot of the hill, they heard a groaning and stifled crying for help; and, sure enough, they found a buxom woman, the wife of a respectable citizen, tightly wedged into the cask, and much shaken and bruised by her rapid transit down the hill."
2 Holborn (pronounced with a silent L) was recorded as Holeburne in the Domesday Book, and means the stream (burne) in the hollow (hole).
3 The world's first public electricity generating station was opened alongside Holborn Viaduct in 1882 as part of an experiment to illuminate the lamps across the bridge.
21 photos of old Holborn Viaduct
Holborn Viaduct today
Londonist loves Holborn

(Jonathan Swift, 1710)

"Now from all parts the swelling Kennels flow,
And bear their Trophies with them as they go:
Filth of all Hues and Odours seem to tell
What street they sail'd from, by their Sight and Smell.
They, as each Torrent drives, with rapid Force
From Smithfield or St Pulchre's shape their Course,
And in huge Confluent join at Snow-Hill Ridge,
Fall from the Conduit prone to Holborn-Bridge.
Sweepings from Butchers Stalls, Dung, Guts, and Blood,
Drown'd Puppies, stinking Sprats, all drench'd in Mud,
Dead Cats and Turnip-Tops come tumbling down the Flood.

 Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet the Smithfield tributary A tributary of the River Fleet once ran from (approximately) Barbican tube station to the southern end of Farringdon Road, heading downhill through the bloody slaughterhouses of Smithfield meat market. Just for a change, I thought I'd do Smithfield in pictures.
Smithfield links: i ii iii iv v vi vii viii ix x xi xii (and a very happy St Bartholomew's Day to all at Smithfield) www.flickr.com: the Fleet Ditch - Clerkenwell and Farringdon
All my Fleet posts on one page

St Swithin's Day results (40 days on)
Weather on St Swithin's Day: dry
Had St Swithin been correct, we should just have enjoyed 40 consecutive days of glorious sunshine. But no. Since July 15th London has had (roughly speaking) a dry week followed by a wet fortnight followed by a dry week followed by an unsettled fortnight. The final results are as follows:
Number of dry days since July 15th: 20
Number of wet days since July 15th: 20

Which just goes to show that:
a) St Swithin was wrong (as he has been every year since 971 AD)
b) It's been wetter than normal (on average one third of days in London are wet, not one half)
c) This wasn't the best week to take time off work (it's raining again today).

 Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Would you Adam and Eve it?: East London sounds different these days, apparently. Many Cockney speakers have moved out of the East End to the suburbs of Essex, and in their place is evolving a spoken language which fuses Estuary English and Bangladeshi influences. This new street slang may not yet be widespread, but "creps" now means "trainers" and "nang" means "good" (so we're told). Can the following Cockney rhyming slang be far behind?
   apples and pears: mysterious non-Asian fruits
   Brahms and Liszt: classic old-school mixmaster duo
   dog and bone: contents of a typical takeaway meal   
   Jimmy Riddle: white lad pretending to be Bangladeshi
   merchant banker: recently-moved-in Docklands resident
   pen and ink: how people used to write before aerosol cans
   north and south: opposing gangs from Bow and Poplar
   skin and blister: what cheap gold jewellery gives you
   trouble and strife: when police search your rucksack
   whistle and flute: purveyors of well bangin tunes
(Any more?)

Reviewing the Fleet

Farringdon facts

Farringdon takes its name from William Farendon, a City goldsmith who snapped up ownership of this area in 1279.
Cowcross Street, which winds east from Farringdon, was so named because cows bound for Smithfield crossed the River Fleet here (until 1855, when the market stopped selling live animals).
Through the 17th and 18th centuries the Fleet here was narrowed to a stinking ditch by encroaching slum dwellings. The notorious Red Lion Inn backed onto the river in West Street. From here a plank could be stretched across the stream to aid the safe passage of fleeing criminals, while murdered corpses were sometimes dropped anonymously into the raging murky torrents below.
Before Farringdon Road was built, the main north-south road in the area was Saffron Hill, named after the herb grown on the slopes above the Fleet in the 18th century. It's still a tiny narrow lane, steep enough to worry the odd cyclist, lined by an incongruous mix of old inns, tatty workshops and spanking new office blocks. (photo)
Back in the 19th century Saffron Hill was a densely-packed area of slum dwellings and it was here that Charles Dickens located Fagin's Den, to which the Artful Dodger first led an innocent new recruit to his fate:
"Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public–houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door–ways, great ill–looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well–disposed or harmless errands. Oliver was just considering whether he hadn't better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill. His conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door of a house near Field Lane; and drawing him into the passage, closed it behind them." (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1837)
Farringdon Road was built on top of the new Fleet sewer in the 1860s, wiping away the old slums. At the same time Farringdon station became the eastern terminus of the world's first Underground railway (but we've mentioned that already). (photo)
If Crossrail is ever built, Farringdon will be a key interchange between Thameslink and the new east-west line. Crossrail's Information Exchange is located in a tiny drop-in centre next to the station.

 Monday, August 22, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet

Last year, as part of the London Architecture Bienalle, I stumbled upon an open-air exhibition in Clerkenwell called Discovering the Fleet. A trail of blue bunting hung from lamppost to lamppost following the course of the old river, while on Vine Street Bridge some arty people had installed a row of tall blue flags, a small sandy 'beach' and a narrow pool in a big blue pondliner. It was chucking it down with rain at the time, and the volunteer manning the exhibition looked semi-drowned in his orange kagoule. As a result all the information sheets pasted on the walls of the bridge were soaking wet, including a map of the lost rivers of London, but I was absolutely hooked. "Ooh", I thought, "I could write something on my blog about the River Fleet, maybe even a big month-long project." If the aim of this small exhibition was to raise awareness about some of London's hidden heritage then it succeeded, because you're reading the result.

Just behind Vine Street Bridge is the hole in the ground that gave Clerkenwell its name. The Clerk's Well was first recorded in the 12th century. It was originally located in the boundary wall of St Mary's Nunnery, and here each year the Parish Clerks of London assembled here on the banks of the Fleet to performed biblical mystery plays. After the Reformation the well was relocated in a basement, and you can still see it (well, sort of) through the window of some chartered accountants' offices at Well Court. (photo)

There's tons I could write about Clerkenwell, because it's well historic, but I'll just mention a few of the western highlights:
Clerkenwell Green: It's barely green at all, more tarmac-grey these days, with a paved seating area in the centre. Absolute hub of trendiness it is, if you like boutiques, gastropubs, fine dining and stuff. (photo)
Marx Memorial Library: The oldest building on the Green, its offices once used by Lenin (while in exile) to edit his Iskra propaganda newspaper. Established as a left-leaning library on the 50th anniversary of Marx's death in 1933, and still the only place in Britain where you can flick through bound volumes containing every single edition of the Morning Star. (sorry, closed August)
Middlesex Sessions House: Big building with Palladian facade, opened in 1782 as the courthouse for the county of Middlesex, more recently reopened as the London Masonic Centre (for aproned folk with trowels). (look inside)
Turnmill Street: In the 16th and 17th centuries this was North London's most prominent red light district. A different sort of hedonism survives today at world-famous club venue Turnmills - still hip but not quite as cutting-edge as it once was. I've never been myself, but Mike seems to have spent several years of his life there and can tell you all about the Trade years. (photo)

Book-reviewing the Fleet
The Clerkenwell Tales, by Peter Ackroyd

The undisputed expert on all things Clerkenwell is historian Peter Ackroyd. If you thought I was obsessional about London, then you've not read any of his stuff (and you should). The Clerkenwell Tales is the story of turbulent 14th century lives woven together at a time of mystery, prophecy and rebellion. Each chapter concentrates on a different character, echoing Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (and with some of the same characters). Prepare to meet a mad nun conceived on the dark banks of the Fleet, a secret quasi-religious organisation bent on carrying out dark deeds and several of the lowest members of medieval society. Ackroyd misses no opportunity to mention farts, belches and other animal smells, but then Ye Olde London always was a nasty and unsanitary place. This book appears to have been an excuse for Peter to write down every single fact he knows about London in 1399 in the disguise of a novel. That's not necessarily a bad thing, and your school history lessons might have been much more entertaining with Mr Ackroyd as a teacher, but sometimes excessive depth gets in the way of satisfactory breadth. I'm enjoying the book so far though, not least because my wanderings along the Fleet mean I know where most of it is set, and the story excellently illuminates of the minutiae of everyday life in London six centuries ago. [Read chapter one here]
Clerkenwell maintains a literary tradition to this day, and if you're interested you might enjoy the annual literary festival (website here, blog here).

 Sunday, August 21, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet

We're nearly in respectable Clerkenwell, but not quite. There's still one more dive to go, a low-lying depression once called Hockley-in-the-Hole - a name long since erased from the map. Around 1700 this was where the Fleet crossed the northern edge of London, with fields to the north and squalid slums to the south. Hockley-in-the-Hole soon became an infamous resort of the working classes. Here London's low-life gathered in the natural amphitheatre of the Fleet valley to watch and engage in a bit of heavy blood sport. Violent pastimes such as cock-fighting and bear-baiting may have fallen out favour with the middle classes, but local thugs, riff-raff and (especially) butchers flocked here for a quick fix of gore and death, or maybe just a good street brawl.
"Being a Person of insatiable Curiosity, I could not forbear going on Wednesday last to a Place of no small Renown for the Gallantry of the lower Order of Britons, namely, to the Bear-Garden at Hockley in the Hole; where (as a whitish brown Paper, put into my Hands in the Street, inform'd me) there was to be a Tryal of Skill to be exhibited between two Masters of the Noble Science of Defence, at two of the Clock precisely." (Richard Steele, July 1712)

"At the Bear Garden in Hockley in the Hole, near Clerkenwell Green, this present Monday, there is a great match to be fought by two Dogs of Smith-field Bars against two Dogs of Hampstead, at the Reading Bull, for one guinea to be spent; five lets goes out of hand; which goes fairest and farthest in wins all. The famous Bull of fire-works, which pleased the gentry to admiration. Likewise there are two Bear-Dogs to jump three jumps apiece at the Bear, which jumps highest for ten shillings to be spent. Also variety of bull-baiting and bear-baiting; it being a day of general sport by all the old gamesters; and a bull-dog to be drawn up with fire-works. Beginning at three o'clock." (early 18th century advert)
About 100 years ago the deep depression at Hockley-in-the-Hole was (at least partially) filled in and the slums were cleared away. Today the ASBO'd classes have moved on, and the area is now more famous as the site of the Guardian newspaper's main offices. The Coach and Horses pub (and the Guardian's car park) now stand on the site of the bloody ring where the dogfights, bullfights and swordfights once took place. It's much more peaceful here now, shielded downslope from the busy Farringdon Road, which is quiet enough for a modern encounter with the lost River Fleet. Stand outside the pub in the middle of Ray Street next to an anonymous-looking metal drain cover and you should still be able to hear the waters of the Fleet rushing along through the sewers, several feet beneath the ground. Well I've heard them anyway, just the once, but this historical phenomenon does rather depend on the weather. And if you're ever riding a number 38 Routemaster along Rosebery Avenue, try looking down from the top deck as you cross the bridge over Warner Street (yes, this really is a proper river valley) and see if you can still imagine thugs and vagabonds in the streets below yelling their support for battling bears, or just beating the hell out of each other for a laugh.
Following the Fleet: Warner Street, Ray Street

Some bits of the Guardian's website you may not have stumbled upon before:
the newsblog (much plagued by ranting drivel from amateur US political pundits)
the Culture Vulture blog (all the latest arty stuff)
the over-by-over Cricket commentaries (for fans of flannel)
the talkboards (the most popular news & politics discussion site in Europe, apparently)
the latest TV ratings (requires registration)
the Guardian stylebook (learn how to write proper)
Ask Jack (your computer's favourite agony uncle)
Notes & Queries (strange answers to even stranger questions)

 Saturday, August 20, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
the Great Ormond Street tributary

A tributary of the River Fleet once ran from (approximately) the Imperial Hotel on Russell Square to Mount Pleasant, wiggling its way roughly parallel to Guildford Street and Theobald's Road. You'll no longer find this river on any map, but you can easily trace its west-east path by following local parish boundaries (look, see how obvious it is). Here's a brief summary of what you'll find today in these east Bloomsbury streets:

Queen Square: ...may be named after a Queen (Anne, in this case) but it's no square (being at least three times as long as it is wide). In the peaceful central gardens stands the statue of another Queen (Charlotte, in this case, whose husband King George III was treated for his insanity in a nearby hospital). The river ran across the north of the square, where it was known as the Devil's Conduit. (photo)
Great Ormond Street (pictured): GOSH was the first children's hospital in the English speaking world, opened by Dr Charles West in 1852. It started as a converted 17th century townhouse with just 10 beds, but soon expanded into the house nextdoor. In 1875 enough money was raised to construct a purpose-built hospital on the site, and this survived until the mid-1990s when the Wishing Well appeal allowed the near-derelict Victorian building to be substantially enlarged. In 1929 JM Barrie donated all future royalties from Peter Pan to the hospital, which has no doubt saved the NHS several thousands of pounds a year ever since. Full history here. Gosh.
Lamb's Conduit Street: ...is named after the artificial stream that once ran here, dug in 1577 by speculator William Lambe to carry water from local springs to the City. The main pub, The Lamb, is a Victorian treasure, but Camden council have recently destroyed much of the charm of this old street by semi-pedestrianising it. (photos from "The Way We See It") (photo)
Doughty Street: A street of classic Georgian terraces made famous because Charles Dickens lived here between 1837 and 1839, during which time he managed to write The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens' house at number 48 is now a museum, not that many tourists seem to find their way here. I couldn't be arsed to fork out a fiver for the entrance fee so I was delighted to discover this virtual tour on the museum's website when I got home. (photo)
Gray's Inn Road: Where once a small stream crossed this historic thoroughfare (bong), today you'll find the gleaming and shiny headquarters of Independent Television News (bong). Next month ITN celebrates its fiftieth anniversary (bong), all the way from Sir Christopher Chataway to Sir Trevor McDonald (bong).
Following the Fleet: Queen Square, Great Ormond Street Hospital, Long Yard, Doughty Mews, Roger Street, Elm Street, Mount Pleasant

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