Old map of London’s Lost Rivers

map of London rivers

This hand-drawn map from Wonderful London Volume 2 (published circa 1926) shows the Central London tributaries of the Thames – the Effra, the Neckinger, the Falcon Brook, the Wandle. North of the Thames we have the Counters Creek (here marked Bridge Creek), the Westbourne, the Tyebourne, the Holebourne (River Fleet), and the Walbrook. The contours show the high ground where the springs bubble up to the surface and then helped shaped the city we live in today even though all but one of them has been buried beneath the ground (the Wandle being the exception).

In the essay accompanying these illustrations, Alan Ivimey describes the fate of these Thames tributaries:

“They are right in the very heart, or, more accurately, in the bowels of London. For the fairest of these streams have been obliterated from the face of the earth to become dirty drains beneath its skin, or at least emaciated trickles writhing feebly in what remains of their old beds towards the everlasting Thames.”

Thames basin diagram

This simple sketch simply shows the shape of the Thames basin as a cross-section where many further London rivers and tributaries rise and flow. We see the high grounds of Addington Hills near Croydon to the south and Totteridge, Hendon and Hampstead to the North. Herne Hill and Crystal Palace form the highlands of the inner South of London with Primrose Hill marking the highground of North London just beyond the congested centre.

Ivimey describes how London might have looked when the rivers ran freely through the fields:

“In the lush meadows of Westbourne, near the highway to Harrow, the citizen of London could once see dragonflies and loosestrife, or, lying face down in the buttercups, tickle a brace of trout against the coming Friday.”

We rarely think of London in terms of its topography, flattened out in our minds by tube journeys and bus routes. Cross city cyclists tell a different story, feeling the river valleys in their tightening calves. For the walker the shape of London is unavoidable – ascend one of the peaks in this drawing and you’ll see the city revealed.

3 Comments

  1. John Low   •  

    Always fascinated by the ‘lost rivers’ in yours and Iain Sinclair’s writings, John. We have a few in Sydney, too, most notably, of course (as you probably know), the old ‘Tank Stream’ which supplied water to the early Port Jackson settlement. Places on the rigorously guided tours are hard to get (a lottery system) but you can walk its route at street level (self-guiding markers lead the way). Particularly enjoyed the way Alan Ivimey sought to resurrect the original landscape through his imagination. London has some wonderful old guides. A favourite book on the Thames (found in an second-hand bookshop in Katoomba some years ago) is ‘Sweet Thames Run Softly’ by Robert Gibbings, first published in 1940. He was an artist who travelled the length of the river in a small boat and his engravings illustrating his voyage are wonderful.

  2. StraightWhite   •  

    I have a copy of Nicholas Barton’s ‘Lost Rivers of London’, published in 1962 (ISBN 09503656 37). Its prose is quite academic and stilted but its also an exhaustive guide, including many maps, sketches and photographs.
    I live in Leytonstone, which claims to have a lost river of its own – the fillebrook, and indeed has Fillebrook Road named after it. At the bottom of my road is a grilled drain cover and in the distant depths can be heard the gushing of water……

    • JohnR   •     Author

      That’s a wonderful book, the classic in fact. Tim Bradford’s Groundwater Diaries is also good. I’ve done a few walks along the Philly Brook – there are some posts on here with maps, video and audio recordings

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