Lost Rivers of London 1: The Fleet

The lost rivers of Birmingham have merely been mislaid. Head to London for rivers that are truly buried.

Last year, I was given Tom Bolton’s wonderful book “London’s Lost Rivers” which describes the overland course above seven of London’s underground rivers. Each river has become lost by design: at some point during London’s growth, the need for new land has superseded the need for a river. The presence of the rivers can still be felt however. Bolton describes how the rivers have shaped the physical landscape and how town planners have capitalised on these contours (for example, a railway line will run through a valley). There is a cultural echo too, in building and street names, references to former bridges and banks and in public art. The river itself can occasionally be seen or heard through surface level grids and drains. The challenge as an urban walker is to discover and piece together the evidence.

The first lost river I knew about was the Fleet, running from Hampstead Heath through Kentish Town, Kings Cross, Farringdon and Blackfriars, at which point it empties into the Thames, so I decided to begin there. I invited a few friends to join me one sunny Sunday on an invisible riverside meander. The source of the Fleet is Whitestone Pond, near Hampstead Heath. This is London’s highest natural point and is marked by a trig point. It was a glorious day and beautiful electric blue damsel flies skittered above the surface of the water and bullrushes puffed yellow pollen in the breeze. As we consulted the map, a couple who were paddling in the pond asked where we were going. We explained were heading to the Thames, following the course of the Fleet. Learning that they were standing in the source really seemed to pique their imagination and there’s certainly an unquantifiable mystique about searching for underground rivers and seeing their influence.

The first mile or so of the river is above ground, in the form of stream flowing through a sequence of pools on the heath. Bolton charts the route to be as near as possible to the river and at some points that means pushing through brambles and overgrowth along a barely perceptible pathway. The real joy of walking the route is being given a reason to visit new places and make chance discoveries. The river has already set the route long before there was any city to walk through. The landscape and its contents take on a new significance through the filter of the lost rivers theme: a covered pool table at a caravan site seems to be making a poetic gesture. As the Heath ends, the river dips below ground through a grill and doesn’t re-emerge until the Thames.

At this point the guide book does something very interesting. Tom Bolton is clearly a Londophile and the walks are colourfully illustrated with local history, literary references and grisly crimes when the river passes by a significant site, such as the bullet hole riddled wall of a pub in Hampstead, the scene of the Ruth Ellis shooting. But because the river itself is determines the route, it means that large sections aren’t standard guidebook territory. The challenge then is to find something valuable in the available urban fabric and I feel there is always something to worth seeing or knowing about wherever you are: everything is evidence of something. On a guided tour, or a self guided tour, the world looks different. An internal switch has been set to “observe”, rather than the “destination” factory setting. Bolton annotates the backroad-zigzagging with relevant comments and unblenching observations.

Once back in the urban environment, the usually overlooked grids and vents in the road often afford a glimpse of the river and various utility installations hint at access to the underworld. An abandoned junkshop features a display of cobwebbed fishing tackle in the window, obviously after the fact but nicely fitting the theme. We passed the Fleet Primary School, Fleet Tandoori and Fleet Flats on Fleet Road – all named after the road primarily, but ultimately referencing the river. A local second hand bookshop shows a map of the Fleet in its window with a helpful YOU ARE HERE pointer, while depictions of the river through history appear in tiled murals and mosaics along the course. Tantalisingly, not all of these appear in the book, allowing river sleuths to make their own discoveries. We probably missed a lot.

The full route, including one false turn and recovery, took ten miles and a whole afternoon to complete. Once we reached Fleet Street, tremendously thirsty and completely wiped out, the Blackfriar became the ultimate destination, mere yards from the Thames. On a previous visit, I’d noticed access ladders that go from the path at Millennium Pier down to the river bank which I’d considered exploring but this will have to wait until next time.

There are six rivers remaining in the guide: a regular summer outing then, between now and 2019!