THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON The River Walbrook 3) Bank - Cannon Street
The Walbrook lives on, in name only, in the heart of London. One of the City's 25 electoral wards is named after the river, which once ran precisely along the ward's historic western border. There's a street called Walbrook[photo], and has been for centuries, which may be short but boasts the Mayor's Mansion House at its head. Nextdoor is a church named St StephenWalbrook - one of Sir Christopher Wren's finest post-conflagration rebuilds, and also the institution responsible for founding the Samaritans helpline in 1953 [photo]. In sharp contrast alongside is a ribbed black office block in an upturned-jelly style, nearing completion and to be known by its new tenants as the WalbrookBuilding[photo]. But the river didn't quite flow past all this lot, down the street that bears its name, but instead about 50 yards or so to the west.
This is a right ugly chunk of London, unless you're into near-demolishedModernist office blocks [photo]. Bucklersbury House and its neighbour Temple Court were knocked up in the 1950s, and will be knocked down very shortly. While the wrecking balls wait and a locked fence keeps Londoners at bay, Legal & General's flapping windows now let in the rain. One ancient relic survives on view - the Roman Temple of Mithras. its stonework was discovered by workmen while Bucklersbury House was being laid out in the 1950s, and archaeologists subsequently recovered several marble sculptures of gods and goddesses from the dig. The finest relics were put on display in the Museum of London, while the temple was rudely shifted to its current position on a gloomy raised platform beside Victoria Street [photo]. If sufficient money is ever forthcoming, a new development called Walbrook Square will be constructed on the site, with the re-relocated Temple of Mithras at its heart. Judging by the plans, there'll be few mourners when the demolition balls swing for Walbrook Square in 50 years time.
The Walbrook crossed Cannon Street precisely where today's contours suggest it did, beneath Horseshoe Bridge to the west of the current station. The next street down is Cloak Lane, formerly Cloaca Lane (after the Latin name for sewer, which tells you all you need to know about the medieval smell locally). Here could be found the church of St John the Baptistupon Walbrook, one of the unlucky City churches not chosen to be rebuilt after 1666. It suffered a further blow when the District line ploughed through the churchyard in the 1880s, and all human remains were disinterred into a small barred vault (which, unexpectedly, can still be seen). And then comes Upper Thames Street, which marked the line of the quayside in Roman times but is now an unpleasantly busy arterial road. One of the main gates in London's defensive wall was here, named Dowgate. The Walbrook here was 14 feet wide as it flowed out into the Thames - an improbable fact which you can ponder while sitting in Whittington Garden watching the pigeons in the fountain. [photo]
As Londinium expanded inexorably to become London, the mouth of the Walbrook gradually migrated south. The river flowed between dockside wharves to join the Thames about 120 feet to the west of Cannon Street station, where it's still possible to see a concrete trough at low tide marking the end of the London Bridge Sewer[photo]. This is also the spot from which the City chooses to despatch its rubbish. Containers of reeking refuse are piled up at WalbrookWharf until high tide when they're taken away by barge to some unfortunate part of Essex. The barges have lost-river-related names (Walbrook, Holebourne, Turnmill etc) and they're huge, especially when viewed from the pebbly beach [photo]. Access is along the edge of the station, past the chlorine-pumping gym and down a set of slippery steps beside The Banker pub, should you fancy a spot of mudlarking. The beach is littered with fragments of brick, tile and china, as well as rounded glass fragments and considerably more seashells than you might expect. A row of damp squidgy wooden posts marks the line of some old jetty [photo], and the smell of rotting vegetables and vinegar hangs in the air. That'll be the Walbrook - long vanished on the ground, but impossible to disguise.