From Wonderful London Vol. I
I was flicking through the pages of Wonderful London (circa 1921) Sunday afternoon and stopped at a photo of some young men on a set of steps by the river.
The caption reads:
“The Walbrook once ran down the gentle slope of Dowgate Hill and barges used to moor there … the Britons may have traded somewhere near this site with the ships from Gaul.”
This was enough to make me head out into the night to follow its course.
Wonderful London has a chapter on Some Lost Rivers of London describing the route the river took through the City before it was buried in the mid-15th Century.
“It rose in Moorfields and went through the City wall, and so got its name, near Moorgate. It flowed under the site of the Bank past the Mansion House, along the street called Walbrook and so by Dowgate into the Thames.”
Ackroyd proposes another explaination of the name – that it is “derived from Weala broc, ‘brook of the Welsh’, which suggests there was still a defined quarter for the ‘old Britons’ in their ancient city”.
It seems that the Walbrook was one of the most signficant rivers in Roman and early medieval London. It ran through the heart of the ancient City dividing it in two. When the Romans arrived they built a temple to Mithras and a port on its east bank. The invading Saxons later used it as the boundary between the east and west of the City – with the invaders on the West bank and the Britons to the East.
I headed to the street named Moorfields to look for where the stream rises, although I have a feeling the whole area once went by that name. When the Walbrook ran freely this was an area of boggy marsh-lands. This may explain the relatively large amount of open space hereabouts, of Finsbury Square (where the Ocuppy protestors camp) and the artillery grounds, in a zone that has some of the most expensive land in the world.
I can’t read a landscape like Nick Papadimitriou, that man can sniff out a buried stream like some kind of urban Navajo, but I’ve done enough river walks with him to pick up a few basics. Moorfields didn’t seem to have a river/stream valley in the area but there was the low lying area just off Finsbury Circus where the Cross Rail works are drilling deep.
When I get home I checked the Cross Rail archaeological reports and indeed they have struck the Walbrook running along the course of Blomfield Street and they are searching for the remains of the Roman bridges that crossed the stream.
I breach London Wall and am drawn into Great Swan Street which curves down to low-lying land – the course of the river? Passing the Chartered Accountants Hall and following the contours of the street I traverse Copthall Avenue and find myself at Angel Court.
The City is eerily deserted on a Sunday night – the only other people I see are the lonely figures sat on sentry duty at the front desks of the office blocks. Although I have the streets to myself, there is the ever-present feeling of my every step being picked up on hundreds if not thousands of CCTV cameras.
I have a note from the London Topographical Record of an excavation of Angel Court in 1974 that uncovered a portion of the river, noting that it “dominated the original topography and habitation of the district north of Lothbury and Throgmorton Street”. Remains of a Roman embankment were also discovered along with Roman relics, coins, shoes and painted wall plaster. Hundreds of styli for writing were also discovered where scribes had tossed them from their windows into the water, perhaps in frustration or disgust. In my imagination it is just one particularly bad-tempered Roman clerk who continuosly made mistakes.
Behind the Bank in Lothbury I note a dip in the road that could well indicate the course of the Walbrook. Lothbury is an ancient enclosure, or haga, of the city, a fortified burgh of Lotha’s folk, an early Kentish king.
An excavation of the stream in the 19th century found a large quantity of human skulls in the river bed. One theory is that they were the remains of a Roman legion that surrendered to British tribes following a siege of a city, they were massacred “in ritual Celtic style” and their heads thrown into the Brook.
|Walbrook beside Mansion House|
With the City now dominated by huge blocks of concrete, glass and steel and its workaday streets the parade ground of a besuited army of clerks and accountants it’s easy to forget the more earthy history of this place; when blood was spilt on these very streets in battles to control the City, when the trade was hauled up from wharfs rather than sent down a high-speed connection, when the City was the heart of London life rather than a capitalist encampment staffed by suburban commuters.
Past the Tallow Chandler’s Hall and into the darkness of Cousin Lane I find the set of steps that look like the ones from that beguiling collodion photo in Wonderful London at the top of this post. There isn’t a soul around, it’s low tide so I walk a little along the shore looking for where the Walbrook makes its confluence with the Thames but I find nothing.
But there’s no doubt that the Walbrook still lives – coursing beneath the City streets – waiting to spring back to the surface at the first opportunity – which I imagine will be anytime soon thanks to Cross Rail.
|the precincts of central London|
Among the mountain of topographical books that I found in Hay last weekend the one that I bought was A Guide to the Structure of London (1972) by Maurice Ash. I was hooked by a glance at these amazing maps and the chapter titles:
1. In search of London’s identity 2. The skin of an onion? 3. The geography of conflict 4. Journeys and sojourns 5. A strategy for identifying London 6. Town trails
|types of housing tenure, 1966|
Ash opens by asking the question of whether London exists, “There is just one question to be asked before one begins a book on the structure of London: Does London exist?”
Due to the diversity between Deptford High Street and Hampstead Heath and lack of common interest he wonders if “the entity of London is a fiction”.
|the central spaces of importance for conservation|
I would love to imagine Ash in conversation with Patrick Keiller’s character Robinson in a grubby formica-tabled worker’s cafe, or perhaps at Brent Cross Regional Shopping Centre. In Keiller’s film, London, Robinson posits that “the true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists … London was the first metropolis to disappear” (you can watch this part of the film here at 3.44)
|plan for the South East, 1967|
Ash suggests that we should think of London as a region rather than a city, a region that has consumed the Green Belt and moved beyond. He identifies this new area of London the “Outer Metropolitan Area (the OMA), which for statistical purposes at least is bow taken to extend from beyond the Green Belt to about 40 miles from the centre of London”.
|strategic plan for the South East, 1970|
The book ends with six journeys through London that illustrate the thesis within the book: walking circuits in South London around Elephant and Castle, inner East London from Stepney Green, and inner West London from Earl’s Court; and then wider sweeps by car north and south and the outer metropolitan areas.
I wonder what following the same journeys today would tell us about whether London actually exists or is merely a fiction?
maps reprinted by Ash from Research Paper SRI, September 1966
|The Castle ‘honesty’ Bookshop|
|I could feel the call of the Breacon Beacons all weekend|
|River Wye – Offa’s Dyke Path runs along the left bank|
|Globe at Hay – site of the Crunch Festival|
|Bob & Roberta Smith and Jake Chapman amongst the yurts at Crunch|
Back in April this year I was asked to show a work-in-progress cut of my documentary about artist Bob and Roberta Smith at the ICA. I wrote about it here at the time.
Now that 25 minute cut has taken on a life all of its own. It’s currently looping in Pierogi Gallery’s Boiler space in New York where Bob has a show (there is also some more recent footage projected onto his Gotham Golem sculpture).
The film is also being shown this Sunday, 20th November at the Crunch Festival of art and philosophy in Hay-on-Wye with Bob doing a talk afterwards about his recently launched, Art Party – a bohemian reposte to the Tea Party.
The photo at the top of this page is the reason this film came into being – my desire to find out what happened inside that shed, the mysteries of the Leytonstone Centre of Contemporary Art. Now I know – I think.
Been meaning to do this walk for a while – heading south in a straight line from Leytonstone across Stratford and Abbey Marshes bound for the Plaistow Levels beside the river Thames.
“Local history is the cradle of true patriotism, and local patriotism is the best stimulant to efficiency and progress”
Fifty Years A Borough 1886-1936 – The Story of West Ham by Donald McDougall, 1936
“There seems to be no doubt that the name comes from the Saxon, indicating the Street by the ford, or Stratford”.
“It is quite likely that the area was a centre of communal life of the (pre-Roman) period and that it saw Druid ceremonial at its best”
East Ham and West Ham were simply known as Hamme at the time of Edward the Confessor.
Alfred the Great is said to be responsible for the creation of some of the watercourses around Stratford such as the Channelsea River which he created to drain water from the Danish ships moored in the River Lea.
|Channelsea River 2|
“These streams had for many years been deteriorating, silting up, and at times giving off very offensive smells.”
|the marsh monster|
“But before there were small clustered villages, and before the unassailable fortress stood sentinel on the bank of the river, what people lived in the forests and marshy lands? What did they do in the struggle to live?
The first great work of these unrecorded hands was to build a wall of earth all along the north bank of the river so tha a great belt of swampy land was made fertile and flourished into meadows and pastures.”
The Story of Tower Hamlets, 1967
West Ham Abbey “stood on the banks of the Channelsea River, one of the waterways created by Alfred the Great, in a very low-lying area now almost entirely covered by factories, warehouse and gasometers.”
Fifty Years a Borough
Monday evening I went along to Leyton Town Hall (now Orwellianly renamed Leyton Management Offices – what are they managing I worry?) to attend Ken Livingstone’s ‘Tell Ken’ event.
I took the liberty of recording a few bits which you can listen to above.
Overall I found Ken’s tone very positive – I had become disillussioned with his last term as mayor towards the end, with his seemingly too cosy relationship with the corporate interests of the City of London and his love of skyscrapers and big developments. He seemed to have long forgotten the Red Ken that I met when chairing a Labour Students public meeting during the City Poly occupation of 1991.
Maybe I had primed myself for disappointment by using the Labour Party’s refusal to select Ken as its mayoral candidate in 2000 and his subsequent expulsion as the long overdue catalyst for leaving the party I’d viewed as a birthright.
The fact that he later rejoined the party and stood for Mayor as a Labour candidate in 2004, even after the invasion of Iraq at a time when Labour was very much the belicose Party of war, was a bit too much for me at the time.
(Some unfortunate young Labour candidates knocked on my door around this period and received a rant about how they were no better than members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party with hands drenched in the blood of Iraqi children – they didn’t seem to see this coming for some reason).
However, he atoned slightly this evening by repeating his commitment to wealth redistribution – and using whatever means at his disposal to help bring that about – such as giving free travel to kids as 40% of children in London are from families living below the poverty line.
He would also look to expand the capital’s social housing sector – although I wasn’t clear whether he can build housing as mayor – and return housing estates as the kind of mixed communities they once were (such as I grew up in), rather than now where you need to be homeless and jobless to be eligible for housing.
Ken explained that the only reason he signed up to the Olympic bid was to get £8bn worth of investment into the East End. He talked about how the land south of the Olympic Park to the Thames would be the next big development area with capacity for 40,000 new homes and 50,000 jobs and that the mayor should be selling this opportunity to the growing markets in China, India and Brazil.
I asked him about Trams – and whether he would revive his proposals to extend London’s Tram network beyond Croydon. To this he conjured up a beguiling image – a tram route that would follow the North Circular from Wembley arcing across the north of London to Waltham Forest.
That romance of that vision alone is almost worth my vote.
There’s more info about Ken’s campaign to be re-elected mayor here.
Do you think there’s any chance that we’ll be able to write-off the Boris years as some kind of bizarre collective halucination?