For many, the River Thames is the only river in London that they know. Except that London has many rivers that centuries ago flowed freely through the first settlements and the early days of the city. Of course, as London became more built up, many of these rivers were covered over and eventually forgotten. Twenty-one of these tributaries flow into the city, and some still flow above ground, though you may not realize it even if you’re looking for them. Names such as the Fleet, the Ching, the Darent, the Ravensbourne, and more can still be found if you look hard enough, so let’s take a deeper look into the waterways that flowed through London.
Several rivers and waterways originate in Hampstead, such as the Westbourne and the Tyburn. The latter actually flows under many major London locations such as the St. James Park, Westminster Abbey, and even Buckingham Palace. Mostly underground now in flowing through man-made tributaries, there are a few places you can see the river, but one is Gray’s Antique Centre, where a rivulet can be found in the basement. The River Fleet is another well-known “lost” river and saw use as a major waterway during Roman times. Christopher Wren argued for widening the river after the Great Fire, but his plan was rejected, and the Fleet was turned into a canal and later into part of the sewer system. Part of the Fleet can still be seen today under Blackfriars Bridge.
The River Walbrook is another tributary with a history stretching back to the Romans, who built a temple to Mithras on its banks. The temple site was uncovered in 1954, then moved to Victoria Circle, and then moved back to be part of the Bloomberg company’s new London headquarters. The covering of the Walbrook began in the 15th Century, and the Walbrook was eventually culvertized and became part of the city sewer system. Such was to be the fate of many of London’s other rivers, as river such as the Walbrook, Fleet, and Westbourne were transformed into sewers to help alleviate the city’s wastewater problem in the 19th Century.
However, even as the underground rivers were absorbed into Joseph Bazelgette’s sewer system, the impact they have on above-ground London remains. Paul Talling, who has written a book on London’s underground rivers and leads a walking tour, says that you can see what’s left of the Fleet Valley in the shape of Farringdon Road. District and neighborhood borders are also affected, and Mr. Talling points out that one side of the River Westbourne is Westminster while the other is Kensington and Chelsea. In fact, those who visit Hyde Park would find even it was fundamentally changed by the altering of the river, as Queen Caroline ordering it damned up in 1730 led to the creation of the Serpentine that flows through the park today.
Some others still have a desire to see these lost rivers brought back to prominence. The Tyburn Angling Society, a farcical organization, advocated returning the river to its original status so that people could go fishing along its banks as in olden times. Of course, the humor in this suggestion comes from the fact that, as mentioned above, this would mean the destruction of several London landmarks including Buckingham Palace. The organization Reclaim the Streets has in the past sometimes opened fire hydrants, especially along the River Walbrook’s location, to “reclaim” the street for the river. For now, however, those who want to see more of these lost rivers will have to content themselves with taking Paul Talling’s walking tour to get the best sense of these ancient waterways.