The Neckinger is an odd river, both flowing out of and back into the Thames, making an island of an area south of the river currently occupied by South Bank, that for a while was called Jacob Island. The river has completely been built over – qualifying it as ‘lost’ and is the second such river of London along which I have invited people to follow the course. The idea is that there’s plenty of clues of the missing river and simply it’s fun to look for them. Where they don’t appear plentifully, there are other surface details to be intrigued by.
This year, we’d increased out number by personal recommendation from those who attended previously. I sense there’s a real thirst for group observation, with no real agenda of what’s worth noticing. Explanations of curiosities are approached by layered comment and observation. Perhaps we don’t get to the bottom of a ‘mystery’ but the shared experience of suggesting explanations, regardless of background – is a very satisfying experience.
The routes are all determined by Tom Bolton in his book London’s Lost Rivers. A few weeks ago, one of our river walkers pointed out that Tom was now marketing his own river walks. Ours are all-invite only (or by recommendation), done for the sheer fun of seeing what we encounter along the way and seeing who turns up for the event and the ad hoc ‘conference’ afterwards. I feel that at some point over the next five years, our paths will cross…
The premise of the book is that it charts the route of the river, suggesting evidence such as street names, landscape geography, public art and the occasional glimpse of the river itself. Where there is nothing to report, Tom comments on the history of the buildings, especially when there is a literary connection or grisly crime. I decided after last year’s Fleet trip to drop reading aloud most of these comments when we noticed that there were all sorts of bits of river evidence to be found that wasn’t being reported in the book. This may well reflect the publisher’s influence rather than Tom’s observations and I accept there is a finite market for people who want to peer into grids in the middle of the road. But for me, the walks are supposed to be about rivers rather than Marlowe’s bar brawls. As such, a lot of the walk was spent walking over the area we knew the river to be, where this was possible, looking for grids that may reveal the Neckinger. There is a real moment of intrigue when these usually ignorable grates afford an aperture into that lost watery world, like glimpsing a phantom.
For whatever reason, the Neckinger is largely invisible in any form, even climbing down to the banks of the Thames doesn’t reveal the outlet. There’s some evidence in the street levels and names of a river bank, then at the half-way point our discovery of the river window grid. There’s plenty else to keep us occupied, personal favourites being a fortress-like school wall composed of previous rubbled walls and a cluster of houses with a bizarre outline that hints at their mediaeval origins. Finally we finally see our river named in the Neckinger Estate where an archway into a block of flats seems to deliberately straddle the underground river, according to Tom’s map. We’d have missed all of these delightful moments in our usual movements through this city, and only one of these is actually in the book. Pub breaks are determined by occasional, rainfall – seems right.
At the end of the walk, at St Saviours Dock, we finally see the Neckinger snaking over mudflats and back into the Thames. Stats show our speed was a leisurely 1 mile an hour. On the other side of the rive, wholly unnoticed by our party, the first stage of the Tour de France was entering the city.
Photos by Helen Frosi ‘cept the one above.