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The walls of one of the most diverse and vibrant cities in the world, London, have got many stories to tell. The city that was originally founded by Romans as Londinium and withstood a number of devastating historical events , now represents a place where the past meets the future. As many other ancient settlements, London was founded along the sources of drinking water. The river Thames being the most well-known among them, is not the only one imprinted in the history of this city. However, it is one of the fewer ones that survived a rapid urban development. Once being a source of fresh water and fish, a driving force for Industrial Revolution, trading and transportation, rivers of London later became polluted sewers. There are around 20 rivers and streams in total that are now hidden under the streets of the city and almost forgotten.

In this blog entry I will tell about three major rivers, all taking its beginnings in North London. Once being an important part of urban environment of London, they are lost forever now.

The River Fleet being buried underground during Victorian times

River Fleet which is formed by two springs running from Hampstead Heath, joining in Camden Town and running under King’s Cross. It was one of the largest rivers in London reaching 100 m width when it met Thames at Blackfriars. It is also the most known subterranean river of London. The word ‘fleet’ originates from Anglo-Saxon and means ‘estuary’ or ‘inlet’. The river ran beside St Pancras Church not far from the present railway station. This church was known as one of the oldest Christian worship sites in Europe.

As many other rivers that ran through cities in those times, the Fleet became heavily polluted by human and industrial waste, turning from a major river of Anglo-Saxon London into a large sewer. As the area around the Fleet became packed with slums spreading deceases, its surroundings were undesirable to live. The cheap land now was a popular place to build prisons and most of the old London’s prisons were built along the banks of River Fleet. Further development of London and places like Regent’s Canal and construction of Metropolitan tube line completely buried river underground. At the moment River Fleet is an underground system of sewers running across Central London

The River Fleet in our days. Image credit: Flikr, sub-urban.com

 

Originally running from Shoreditch to Cannon Street , Walbrook brought fresh water from the north into the inner London and carried away waste into the Thames. It surely influenced Romans in their choice of the site of London after their invasion in 43CE. The Walbrook River divided Roman London into two parts. Being once a supply of fresh water, the river became very unsanitary in Anglo-Saxon and Norman London. Although being filthy, it thrived in Medieval London by supporting local and international trading and by serving as a transportation route. Also, the natural power of the river was used by millers, tanners and leatherworkers who built their shops along its banks, making river’s contribution essential to the industrial development of the city.

The River Walbrook exit point into Thames (click the image to read more)

Remained an open river until 14th century, it was almost completely covered by the end of 16th century as the houses were built over it. Although the river now exists only underground, the streets of London still keep some signs of its presence in the old days. St. Stephen’s Walbrook Church is one of those existing landmarks which originally was located on the West side of the Walbrook River. The original building of the church was destroyed in the Great London Fire in 1666 and, although the physical building isn’t the same that was visited by medieval inhabitants of London, its location remains the same. Walbrook now is a small street hidden between the Walbrook Church and modern tall buildings near Cannon street station in the City of London

The Roman temple of Mithra which was built by the River Walbrook and discovered in 1954 (click the image to read more)

 

Another river worth mentioning is the River Westbourne. Originating from streams in Hampstead Heath and joining up with another tributary called Kilbourne, the Westbourne River flows through Hyde Park and Sloane Square meeting Thames near Chelsea Bridge. The river is known by its crossings one of which was Knightsbridge. A stone bridge was quite infamous in its times as a favourite haunt of highwaymen.

Left-Westbourne River running under London (click the image to see more captures by Martino Zegwaard). Right-Westbourne river in a metal pipe above Sloane Square tube st

Another crossing at Sloane Square, was called Blandel Bridge and was nicknamed as ‘Bloody Bridge’ due to a murder that happened here in the 16th century. The Serpentine in Hyde Park was formed by the river Westbourne water supply. However, it is now supplied from other sources due to pollution of the River Westbourne. The River Westbourne can now be seen running in a pipe above rail tracks at Sloane Square Tube Station.

References:

A wonderful collection of images by sub-urban.com
 Martino Zegwaard, photographer, “urban wanderer” and traveller
The Lost Rivers of London, Nicholas Barton & Stephen Myers, 2016
London’s Lost Rivers, Paul Talling, 2011

Featured image source https://www.wallpaperfusion.com/Image/london-skyline/24342/

 

School of Architecture
Planning and Landscape
Newcastle upon Tyne
Tyne and Wear, NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 208 6509

Email: nicola.rutherford@ncl.ac.uk


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