diamond geezer

 Monday, November 29, 2010

The River Tyburn
3) Oxford Street → Buckingham Palace

If you think you know Mayfair, a walk along the route of the lost river Tyburn may change your mind. This begins somewhere familiar enough - South Molton Street. The peculiar diagonal angle that this street makes to the surrounding roads is explained by the parallel Tyburn, which ran immediately behind the houses on the western side. The stream precisely defined the eastern boundary of the Grosvenor estate, one of Mayfair's most exclusive neighbourhoods, and was arched over and made into a covered sewer in the 1720s. The buried Tyburn became South Molton Lane, still a mere backstreet even today and nowhere near as aspirational as its fashionista neighbour.

Brook Street's up next, a major east-west thoroughfare named after the river it once crossed [photo]. George Frideric Handel was one of the first residents to move in when the estate was developed, in 1723, and lived for nearly 40 years a few doors up from the culverted Tyburn. And yes, if you're wondering, this is indeed the Brook Street in which the Brook Street Bureau was formed. Margery Hurst's famous secretarial employment agency started out here in 1946, and continues to be named after a lost river even though company HQ is now in St Albans.

The diagonal line of the Tyburn continues along Avery Row - a narrow alleyway named after the bricklayer originally responsible for culverting this stretch of the river, Henry Avery. The stream never quite reached as far east as New Bond Street, instead twisting south down Bourdon Place to cross the foot of Grosvenor Hill. The hill's quite pronounced, even today, rolling down past a chain of hemmed-in mews houses [photo]. They're all backwaters it seems, the streets along which the Mayfair Tyburn flowed, and none more so than Bruton Lane. This miserable service road kicks off at the Tudorbethan Coach & Horses [photo], then enters a grim netherworld of rear frontages, monolithic office blocks and fire escapes [photo]. If the folk who invented the London version of Monopoly had seen this side of Mayfair, they'd have made it the first brown instead of the last blue. [photo]

Hay Hill's next, another proper Mayfair slope, which diverted the Tyburn westward across the corner of Berkeley Square. Back when all round here was grand mansions, the river used to divide the back gardens of Devonshire House and Lansdowne House. Now paved over, this section has become Lansdowne Row - a back passage of small shops and sandwich bars that's packed only at lunchtimes [photo]. Another curving road mimics the Tyburn's former course, namely Curzon Street [photo], which leads to the delightful off-beat enclave of Shepherd Market. From 1686 to 1764 this was the spot where London's largest May Fair was held - a fortnight of drinking and debauchery held on open land beside the brook. Wining and dining is a little more refined here now, with both river and festivities despatched elsewhere. [photo]

The Tyburn's crossing of Piccadilly is more than obvious, emerging from Mayfair via Brick Street (alongside the Japanese embassy) [photo]. The indentation continues into Green Park [photo], across the western half where fewer tourists stroll and where the trees are too dense for deckchairs [photo]. This area was originally called Upper St James's Park but split off to earn its new "Green" title in 1746. An ornamental lake once lay on the line of the river, almost precisely in the centre of the park [photo], and was named the Tyburn Pool. It might still be there had the area been better looked after, but Queen Victoria considered the pool an eyesore and had it filled in. Green Park's been pleasantly bland ever since. [photo]

And so to Buckingham Palace, built close to the point where the medieval Tyburn once drained into the Westminster marshes [photo]. Centuries of drainage lent the river a firmer course, initially east towards Westminster, later diverted underground south towards Pimlico. The current Palace therefore stands not on a river but a sewer, which reputedly passes underneath the front courtyard and beneath the south wing [photo]. If you're the illegal adventurer type it's perfectly possible to clamber down into the egg-shaped brick drain and inspect the Queen's effluent, although I'm told it's nothing special. As for the swirling ornamental lake in the Palace's back garden, the backdrop to many a royal stroll and garden party, this might appear to be Tyburn-related but it's not [photo]. Its waters are fed in from the Serpentine, half a mile yonder, which means they're actually derived from the lost river Westbourne. [photo]

Following the Tyburn: South Molton Lane, Avery Row, Bourdon Place, Bruton Place, Bruton Lane, Berkeley Street, Lansdowne Row, Curzon Street, Shepherd Market, Brick Street, Piccadilly, Green Park, Constitution Hill.

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