Tag Archives: Fleet

Walking London: rivers and tubes

‘What a bounteous banquet of costly viands is spread before an ardent-minded, grateful-spirited Perambulator!’ Old Humphrey’s Walks In London

‘One must perambulate early and late in all weathers, to know a little about London’. The London Perambulator

London is a gift for those who wander. Sometimes you can pick a new area and just stroll wherever the whim strikes you; sometimes you can take a different route between two familiar destinations. Either way, you’ll find your appreciation of the city is inordinately increased.

There is a healthy industry in London walking – M@ recently compiled a list of his ten favourite for the Guardian – but if you need something cheaper and more challenging, you can always take a self-guided walk over a longer distance. I once walked the Thames from St Paul’s to Hampton Court on a Sunday afternoon, criss-crossing bridges and sticking as close to the river as possible. It was particularly satisfying to see how easy it is to walk on the river bank – the only place I had to take a significant detour was around the ever-weird Chelsea Harbour.

In a similar vein, a couple of books have recently come out on the theme of London walking. Walk The Lines is about Mark Mason‘s decision to walk every tube line in London, above ground, an overall distance of 403 miles that takes him everywhere from Amersham in the north-west and Epping in the far east to Morden in the deep south.

Mason enjoys discovering new parts of the city and peppers his book with brilliant London trivia but is at his best when writing about the pleasure walking can provide. As he writes, ‘Once you’ve caught the bug, you feel an urge to plan your walks, be it thematically, geographically or by some other means. There must be a raison d’être for your ramble.’ This, he thinks, taps into a similar mentality to that of a collector: ‘It’s not about studying, about observing or noting. It’s about collecting. About claiming the city’s greatness, or at least some small part of it, for yourself.’

Mason’s book is a fun read, but you couldn’t very well use it to walk the tube lines yourself, even if you were lunatic enough to want to do so. Tom Bolton’s London’s Lost Rivers, however, bills itself as ‘A Walker’s Guide’ and is a terrific mix of history, topography and practicality. It maps – astonishingly diligently – the courses of eight of London’s buried rivers, so walkers can follow them for themselves, pointing out items of interest they can see along the way while also offering some historical context about the subterranean rivers.

Along with Nicholas Barton’s The Lost Rivers of London, it’s essential for any fan of buried rivers (Diamond Geezer says much the same here). The atmospheric Polaroid photographs by SF Said are a nice touch, as is the introduction by the great Londonphile Chris Fowler. Highly recommended.

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Secret London: stink pipes

There is one of these just around the corner from where I live.

Herne Hill stink pipe

It’s long, thin, green and old and thrusts straight into the air like a giant’s, er, finger. It’s not a telegraph pole – there are no wires coming off it – and it’s too tall to be a broken street lamp.

It is, in fact, a stink pipe, one of four such items of street furniture that can be found within a half-mile radius of Brixton Water Lane. These stink pipe were built around the same time as London’s Victorian sewer network in the 1860s and are basically just huge hollow pipes that allow potentially lethal gas to escape into the atmosphere, far above the rooftops.  They often seem to located near the locations of culverted rivers – these ones are found more or less on the route of the Effra or its tributaries – suggesting that when these rivers were incorporated into the sewer system, they required some sort of additional safety valve (the buried Fleet famously exploded at King’s Cross after just such a build-up of gas in 1846).

Some stinkpipes are rather elaborate, but the ones I’ve seen around Herne Hill and Brixton are pretty basic and utilitarian. If you want to find some finer examples, like the fine crowned stench pipes of Kennington Cross, you should check out the excellent London Stench Pipes blog, which is devoted to these marvellous oddities leftover from Victorian London.

London’s lost rivers

There is almost endless fascination with London’s lost rivers, as can be seen with the publication of Paul Talling‘s fine – if brief – new book on the subject. I have written about them a number of times and this article first appeared in Time Out in 2008.

Londoners love what they cannot see. Take the excitement that is generated by ‘ghost tube stations’ such as Museum and Aldwych that sit unused beneath our feet and can occasionally be glimpsed from trains. Yet people rarely blink when they descend escalators into the remarkable interiors of busy, living stations. Concealment and abandonment excited the mind more than the here and now.

So it is with London’s lost rivers. Anybody can check out the quirky Lea or watch the Wandle weave serenely past Merton Savacentre, but mention Brixton’s Effra or the City’s Walbrook rivers and the eyes of a certain sort of Londoner will light up, and a torrent of trivia about lost rivers will gush forth. This is an interest that can take us to unusual places. When Design for London recently mounted London Open City, an exhibition about creating new spaces in the capital, the idea of restoring buried rivers got people talking. The Sunday Times claimed Boris Johnson was going to greenlight the scheme and Peter Bishop, then director of Design for London, said: ‘When these rivers are opened up, Londoners will be absolutely amazed.’

Which was great news for James Bowdidge, a property developer with a yen for the Tyburn. ‘As soon as I learnt about it, I became fascinated with the old river and the way you could see it in street patterns,’ says Bowdidge, who channelled his enthusiasm into a curious project – ‘an angling society for a river that didn’t exist’. The Tyburn Angling Society, an irregular supper club, was born – Ken Livingstone attended their 600th anniversary dinner, 600 being a number they plucked out of thin air.

So far, so whimsical.

However, Bowdidge – a London buff with half an eye on property prices – has also looked into raising the Tyburn, which was covered in 1750 but still meanders underground from Hampstead to Westminster. ‘I asked an architect to draw up plans of the building that would have to go. We write to Westminster City Council about it every now and then. But they are sceptical because this particular plan requires the demolition of their headquarters.’

Now Bowdidge’s hope is renewed. ‘If you look at the planning statement the Mayor brought out, you can see a degree of support for this sort of project. And now the subject is live it’s worth thinking about seriously – what could you do? There’s no reason why you couldn’t reinstate the river through Regent’s Park. You don’t have to demolish billions of pounds of property, there are places where you could really bring it back if you looked at it pragmatically.’

Well, perhaps. The notion that Boris has gleefully embraced the scheme is not supported by the raised-eyebrows reaction of a GLA spokesperson, who told me: ‘Opening up parts of London’s subterranean river networks is one of many ideas proposed at the exhibition… As with all the ideas designed to stimulate thinking, a full study would need to be undertaken before any could be taken forward.’

In other words: Never. Gonna. Happen.

At least, not with the Mayor’s money. But there are always other pockets to pick. In 2003, the Environment Agency rescued the Quaggy, a tributary of the Ravensbourne, from an underground culvert in Kidbooke’s Sutcliffe Park, and there are plans to restore the Ravensbourne itself in Lewisham town centre, paid for by a regeneration group called Urban Renaissance in Lewisham (which includes the Quaggy Waterways Action Group). Architect Will Alsop has floated a similar scheme for Croydon, where a branch of the Wandle is interred. He says, ‘The buried river thing Boris is banging on about is a really good idea. In Croydon, the Wandle was only buried in 1967 so you can easily bring it back in patches: ponds or lakes or some elements of river. And you don’t even have to bring them back; you can leave some underground and go and see them there.’

Which brings us neatly to the most interesting scheme, that of Nick Robertson, a designer and London obsessive who once walked the Thames from source to sea with Peter Ackroyd (‘every Saturday for a year’) and harbours a fascination for the Fleet. Bowdidge refers to the infamously filthy Fleet as ‘the ditch’, and Robertson does not disagree. ‘There’s nothing artistic about the Fleet,’ he says. ‘It was bricked up for good reason. He’s right to call it a ditch. But some ditches are worth celebrating.’

Robertson’s plan was ‘the confluence of several ideas’. One was a walk he completed along the course of the Fleet – ‘it was a river route, you could see it in street names, and in the topography and geology; a river that wasn’t there, but was.’ A second influence was an exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1996 called ‘Living Bridges’, which author Stephen Bayley has said marked the ‘moment when bridges have become showpieces of architects rather than engineers’. And the third was a visit to the Monument, the column raised by Wren and Hooke in 1677 to commemorate the Great Fire.

Robertson explains: ‘What interested me about the Monument was that it wasn’t representational. You climbed this big Doric column and saw what you saw, which was the extent of the destroyed city. The Monument is not the monument – what you see, the rebuilt city, is the monument. Stylistically, it’s of its time but conceptually, it’s way ahead.’

Robertson and an architect friend Iain Johnston explored options. ‘We discussed whether it was a good idea to open up the river and very quickly dismissed it because most plans to open up the hidden river are missing the point. The point is this river is covered. That’s what is interesting. To open it up is to ignore the historical process. And it’s ignoring the mystery, the charm. If you opened up the Fleet, it would regress to what it was, an urban river: charmless, shit-filled.’

Instead, Robertson ‘thought it would be interesting to have a bridge that went underground and the obvious site was Ludgate Circus because that was the site of the Fleet Bridge and Wren’s bridge when he tried to turn the Fleet into a canal.’ They designed a subterranean chamber that went under the road and had a glass floor through which visitors could observe the still-living Fleet. ‘A warped bridge over a warped bridge’.

He sent his proposal to the head of Thames Water where, as far as he knows, it still resides. The Fleet and the Tyburn were incorporated into Joseph Bazalgette’s sewer system in the 1860s and both Bowdidge and Robertson have blagged trips underground with Thames Water sewer workers. Says Robertson: ‘One of the things I found most interesting was the amount of decoration. The designers stopped and thought what they were doing even though nobody was going to see it – it’s effectively dressing up shit.’

It’s true. London river-sewers are artfully constructed, beautiful things that deserve celebration, both for what they are now and what they used to be. The Guardian’s Ian Jack disagrees. When confronted with Bowdidge’s cheerful scheme of tree-lined tributaries, he wrote that the Tyburn was a ‘sewer owned by Thames Water and more remotely by pension funds in Canada and Australia. It has been a sewer for hundreds of years as part of a combined system, far too expensive to separate, that carries rainwater and human waste.’

And that’s that. Robertson at least sees a way past this brutal approach, and while his Fleet Bridge is the sort of imaginative scheme destined to go nowhere, he also believes the Fleet should be remembered in simpler ways, such as surface markers along its course of which there are none. It seems London is ashamed of its lost rivers, or at least of its treatment of them.

‘The Fleet is something London has buried,’ says Robertson. ‘So it appeals to people who feel strongly about the occluded side of London history.’ The best way to deal with it, he thinks, is to go down and confront this ‘trapped nerve’.

‘It was once a bubbling brook of bucolic bliss, then it turned into an open sewer, then it was bricked up,’ he says. ‘Now it needs to recreate itself in a different way. To open it up is to miss the point, pandering to a nostalgic view of London. London should never be nostalgic.’

Spoken like a true Ballardian (and Ian Jack would surely approve), but everybody, even a ruthless modernist, is allowed to look back every now and then and wonder. So Robertson tells me to head up Farringdon Road and down Ray Street towards Back Hill. There, in the road outside The Coach & Horses, is a grill, and ‘when you stand over it,’ says Robertson, ‘you can hear the Fleet belting beneath your feet.’

So it does, the magnificent sound of a torrent of water battering its way downhill directly beneath London streets. Sewer or river, call it what you will, but the Fleet lives on. Deep waters run still.

More London books

Continuing a bookish theme, a couple of current and forthcoming releases have caught my eye.

First is ‘London’s Lost Rivers’ by Paul Talling and published by Random House. This is the first serious update of Nicholas Barton’s classic 1950s underground river book and it will be interesting to see what new information about the Fleet, Effra, Westbourne et al that he has uncovered.

Jamrach's Menagerie

The second has been catching my eye in the window of Herne Hill Books every time I walk past it. ‘Jamrach’s Menagerie’ is a novel by Carol Birch published by Canongate.  This is a novelised account of the famous occasion a bengal tiger escaped from London petshop Jamrach’s. It was from this shop that the animal-loving artist Gabriel Dante Rossetti probably purchased the pet wombat, whose death left him so bereft.

Incidentally, if any publishers are reading this and fancy sending me London-themed books to add to my collection, my conscience would have no hesitation in happily accepting them.

Inside the Fleet: exploring London’s lost rivers

I wrote this piece for Time Out in 2005 and for some reason it’s never been available online. Until now.

It’s only as the filthy brown water rises above my thigh-high waders and my feet struggle to grip the tunnel’s slimy floor that I realise that drowning in a river of shit after breaking into a London sewer would be a really, really crap way to die.

It all began so well. I found Jondoe and Stoop, two urban explorers who get their kicks investigating drains, lost rivers and derelict buildings, on the internet and asked them if I could come on their next journey beneath the city streets.

We met near Farringdon. The plan is to explore one of London’s lost rivers, the Fleet, which once flowed from Hampstead to Blackfriars. Although long bricked over, the Fleet, like many of London’s old rivers, still flows underground through a series of pipes and culverts. Joseph Bazalgette integrated these rivers into his sewer system, using them as storm-relief drains to carry overspill into the Thames when the main east-west sewers were swelled beyond capacity. These days, heavy rain can still cause sewage to flow into the river via the Fleet.

Jondoe and Stoop have been in the Fleet before, but turned back when the stench became overwhelming for even these experienced drainers. This time, they are determined to reach the end. They believe no other UK urban explorer has made the trip, largely because it takes considerable planning to find a way into London drains. Urban explorers are driven by a combination of adrenalin and curiosity, and take their hobby seriously. This trip has been months in the planning. They’ve popped many manholes looking for the right entry point, and the weather has to be right – no rain for at least three days before we enter.

In a nearby car park, we change into waders, boiler suits, flourescent vests and hard hats – the latter more for disguise than protection. Carrying a couple of traffic cones, we’re suddenly transformed into construction workers, practically invisible to passers-by. Nobody bats an eyelid as we walk through busy streets to the selected manhole, stick some cones round it, lift the cover and climb down the ladder into the gloom.

We enter a feeder tunnel with a five-foot ceiling, which means we have to abandon our hats and walk with cricked necks. It’s cramped, damp, dank and dirty but doesn’t smell too bad. Stoop and Jondoe glide like skaters along the slippery floor while I splash clumsily behind, using slimy walls to keep my balance. We head downwards along a series of mini-waterfalls. The light and noise that intermittently emerges from the grates overhead suggest we aren’t getting deeper, but simply following the gradient of the road. It’s a curious feeling, being isolated in the dark but with occasional glimpses of London reminding us that normal life continues up above.

Eventually we reach the end of the feeder tunnel and swing into the Fleet itself using broadband cables that make useful subterranean handrails. It stinks in here and the air is heavy with a strange mist. Jondoe points north, to where the Fleet is blocked by the main east-west sewer. Ominous clumps of matter fester in pools all around. ‘Don’t disturb them,’ he says. ‘It’ll be full of gas that just sits there and collects.’

As he speaks, one of the hard hats we’d left by the entry point shoots out of the feeder tunnel on a wave and floats towards the Thames, bobbing along the shallow water that moves sluggishly down the centre of the tunnel.

We follow, heading south. The tunnel is around ten feet tall and wide, so we can walk two abreast. It’s about the same size as a tube tunnel. The smell slowly subsides, although lumps of faeces and toilet paper gather in places where they’ve washed against the brickwork. Otherwise, there’s just a trickle of brown water ferrying the odd cotton-bud downriver.

It’s no hellhole, but still a far cry from the Fleet’s sixteenth-century heyday as one of London’s key tributaries, when, flanked by wharves and warehouses, it was a centre of London commerce. It separated Westminster from the City and carried cargo to the Thames, was compared unfavourably with the four rivers of Hades by Ben Jonson, was briefly turned into a canal and then covered in portions from 1732, by which time it was little more than an open sewer.

But this was not the end of it. In 1846, the Fleet exploded, its sewage gasses bursting the street above, rendering King’s Cross Road impassable, destroying Clerkenwell poorhouses and smashing a Thames steamboat against Blackfriars Bridge. This river, it seems, has a habit of coming back to ambush those who thought it dead and buried.

Almost two centuries later, traffic and police sirens are audible overhead, competing with the constant crash of water that flows from numerous side tunnels, feeding the central trickle. Rats stop and stare as we walk past. I nervously keep my torch shining on them until we have moved on.

Before Ludgate Circus, the Fleet splits into two parallel tunnels, directly replicating the pattern of Farringdon Street overhead. Otherwise, it’s impossible to work out exactly where we are. The tunnel heads south, but is full of turns. At one point we notice large iron rings cemented into the wall. They are support for scaffolding, but look like mooring rings. Throughout, the Victorian brickwork is surprisingly beautiful for something that is so rarely seen.

 

After about two miles of trudging, we emerge into an enormous end chamber, more than 20-feet high and elaborate in design and construction. Two short tunnels lead from here, ending in huge metal flaps, which we assume open directly into the Thames.

After taking pictures, we head back. Immediately, we realise there’s a problem. It’s much harder to walk uphill against the flow of water. On the way down, the water was a stream, heading back, it’s more like a river. We labour onwards and upwards in the dark, but it’s tough work.

Stoop eventually says what we’ve all been thinking. ‘Is it just me,’ he asks, ‘Or is the water getting deeper?’

Water which before barely covered our feet is now above our knees, flooding downhill towards us at pace and rising slowly all the time. Wading into the tide, our clothes are heavy with water and our feet struggle to grip the slimy stone floor. Panicking rats scurry up the walls to get out the way of the bubbling water.

 It’s frightening. Nobody knows we are down here and as our pace slows I begin to ponder our options. Should we press on, or brave a side tunnel, where a ladder may at least take us above water level, so we can sit it out. But how long would that take? And what if the water keeps rising and the side tunnel we’re in doesn’t have access to the street? 

We reach a turn where the water has become a torrent and Stoop tries to brace himself against the tide but instead starts sliding backwards towards me, threatening to skittle us all into the dirty water. For a split second I consider what an undignified death this would make, and with one final effort we press on, forcing ourselves to a point where we can stand without getting knocked off our feet. But we’re exhausted.

Then Jondoe shouts, ‘That’s where we came in!’ It is indeed. We pull ourselves up into the feeder drain via the broadband cable and watch the river below us boil to a frenzy. The Fleet is back with a vengeance. Later Jondoe explains, ‘Somewhere further up the sewer they must have been doing some maintenance and so diverted the flow down the Fleet.’ It is, he says, something he’s never experienced before.

Twenty minutes later, after an exhausting walk through the smaller drain in the course of which I bang my head several times on overhanging pipes and bricks, I haul my battered, sodden body up the ladder and into the sunshine. It’s bright outside. The air smells clean. Half-a-dozen people across the road pay us no heed as we emerge from the manhole and sit slumped in the road, moving only to remove our waders and empty them back down the drain.

We trek back to the car in soaking socks, leaving a trail of footprints behind us.