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.