Walking the River Fleet – London’s Lost Rivers

The Course of the River Fleet

“Just South of Caen Wood there are to be found half a dozen ponds all strung out in a line which runs North and South. These are called Highgate Ponds. The Holebourne flowed out of the most southerly of these, and was soon joined by a tributary, which came from near the present Highgate Cemetery and went just North of Swain’s Lane.
The Holebourne crossed and recrossed the Highgate Rd, met a Brook from Parliament Hill and Kentish Town somewhere between Chalk Farm and Camden Town stations and then almost followed what are now the tram lines past Crowndale Road and down to Kings Cross. A brick bridge crossed it here, and the neighbourhood was once called not Kings Cross, but Battle Bridge for Boadicea is said to have fought the Romans here.
Keeping to the line of Kings Cross Rd, the Holebourne went on by Saffron Hill – sweet name! – and past the present junction of Clerkenwell Rd with Farringdon St. From the top of a tram going from Old Street towards the Holborn terminus the Valley of the old stream can be seen very clearly. There was a distinct Hill from Saint John’s Gate down to Farringdon Road and up again to Grays Inn Rd, Farringdon St still roughly follows the line of the old valley of the stream, though, of course, the level has altered. Over the deep cleft, which Holborn Viaduct (built 1867 to 1869) now spans, was a fine stone bridge, and between it and the Thames the stream was called the Fleet. This was crossed by Three Bridges, at Harp Lane, Fleet Street and Bridewell.
But this talk of modern streets must have begrimed the picture. The Holebourne has fallen from a higher grace than any of its sister streams the very names of streets remind us of how different the Vale of Holebourne used to be from the dark and dismal thing it is now.”
Alan Ivimey, Some Lost Rivers of London, Wonderful London Volume 2 (1926)


“… one or more tributaries of the Fleet rise near the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath and flow in one stream via Hampstead Ponds and South End Green along Fleet Road to Gospel Oak. This stream then proceeds due south through west Kentish Town, crossing Prince of Wales Road just below Angler’s Lane (the derivation is obvious) and then continues in a slightly more eastwards direction till it crosses the lower part of Kentish Town Road below the Castle Inn, at almost the same place the where the Regent’s Canal has run since 1820. But just before making this cross to the eastern side of the road it is joined by its other main tributary, a stream which rises in the grounds of Ken Wood, and flows down through Highgate Ponds (which are old reservoirs) on the edge of Parliament Hill.”
Gillian Tindall, The Fields Beneath (1977)

River Fleet Hampstead

Hampstead Heath Tumulus

The Source of the River Fleet on Hampstead Heath – The Vale of Health

The River Fleet is London’s most famous, most notorious, and most mysterious ‘Lost’ River. It rises on Hampstead Heath and has two sources. One is in Kenwood where it flows down the East side of the Heath feeding the Highgate Ponds. It then meanders through the streets of Dartmouth Park and Tufnell Park to combine with the second source in Kentish Town. The other branch was the one that I would follow, and rises in the Vale of Health on the western edge of Hampstead Heath.
I crossed Parliament Hill from Gospel Oak Station and admire the tract of land that lay between the two sources of the Fleet. In the fold of this vale is the Hampstead tumulus. According to Walter Besant writing in 1863 this was a burial mound containing the bodies of the citizens of the original Iron Age London built on the top of Ludgate Hill (where St. Paul’s stands today), who fell in a great battle with the people of what would become Verulam after the Roman conquest. However, excavations have not found any human remains.
It was in the woods below the tumulus that I picked up a trickle gurgling through the valley floor – the River Fleet. It was quite a moment to see this legendary ‘lost’ river running above ground. I followed this brook through the ferns and mud, crossing plank bridges back to the source at the Vale of Health.
I then retraced the stream back to the chain of Hampstead Ponds down to Hampstead Heath Overground Station, South End Green and Fleet Road.

River Fleet

Gospel Oak to Kentish Town

The Cork and Bottle on the corner of Fleet Road was once The White Horse, a legendary music venue. Apparently there’s a plaque nearby which announces the presence of the Fleet running beneath the street, but I somehow managed to miss it. The ground is noticeably lower to the left of Fleet Road and can be seen through the gate of Byron Mews so I wonder if this is the course of the river. I was uncertain of where the river flowed from the end of Fleet Road, so I proceed along Mansfield Road, Gospel Oak, and turned into Heriot Place to get a view of the open space at Lismore Circus which would be a strong candidate for the course of the Fleet. I knew the Fleet ran near Grafton Road from the days when I worked nearby and saw the waters flooding Andy’s sandwich bar near the railway bridge. However I noticed on the map that Spring Place runs parallel to Grafton Road and more neatly aligns with Anglers Lane which Gillian Tindal identifies being a spot where people fished in the Fleet.
From here I followed Kentish Town Road to Quinn’s Pub on the corner of Hawley Road, the point where the two sources of the Fleet are said to combine into a single watercourse for their journey to the Thames and out to sea (or since the 1860’s into Bazalgette’s sewer system on the Victoria Embankment).

River Fleet St Pancras Old Church

St Pancras Old Church

Camden Town to Kings Cross

I passed by Camden Gardens beneath the proposed route for the Camden Highline garden built along a disused railway line. Tom Bolton wrote on Londonist that you can see/hear the Fleet outside the Prince Albert Pub in Lyme Street. And there through the street iron the dark waters of the Fleet can just be made out deep below the street. Moreover it can certainly be smelt, with a strong whiff of sewer filling the air.
The river then follows the line of Pancras Road taking us to St. Pancras Old Church which we know once stood on the banks of the River Fleet. The discovery of some roman walling in the foundations of the current medieval church led to claims that it may have been the site of a 4th Century place of Christian worship, which if true, would make one of the oldest Christian sites in the world. It’s just one of many wonderful stories attached to the ‘River of Wells’. A little further along its course we arrive at Kings Cross Station which was formerly known as Battle Bridge and spawned the legend that Queen Boudica made her final stand against the Romans here near the banks of the Fleet. Some even theorised that the warrior Queen’s body lay buried beneath Platform 8, or perhaps it was Platform 10.
Across the road in St. Chad’s Place we find the story of the battle between Edmund Ironside and King Canute which caused a medicinal spring to burst from the ground and became a site of pilgrimage. St. Chad is the patron saint of medicinal springs. From here the river is said to flow beneath Kings Cross Road, which leads us to the site of Bagnigge Wells where a plaque at No.61 Kings Cross Road behind the bus stop marks the site. The Fleet flowed through the gardens of this once famous pleasure garden at one time owned by Nell Gwynn. The Open Street Map shows the Fleet running beneath Cubitt Street which certainly seems to align with the shape of the land and leads us into Phoenix Place.

River Fleet Map

“© OpenStreetMap contributors” https://www.openstreetmap.org/copyright

Clerkenwell to the Thames

In Phoenix Place I bumped into fellow River Fleet Walkers, Bart and Tracey, looking into the excavations at the old Mount Pleasant Parcel Sorting Office that was destroyed by an incendiary bomb on 18th June 1943. Bart shone his torch through the grates of a man-hole cover and there sparkled the waters of the Fleet deep beneath our feet – it was a magical moment.
The site is now the focus of a large redevelopment by Taylor Wimpey called ‘Postmark’. Developers are referring to the ‘River Fleet corridor’ as a zone of development opportunity. Reading the shape of the land the Fleet appears to flow right through the blocks of new flats but then runs next to a row of houses in Dorrington Street dating from 1720 built before the river was forced underground, which seems an usual place to build such a row of fine houses. The Ordnance Survey map of 1868 to 1873 does show a dotted line, most likely indicating a boundary of some sort (Parish?), running down Kings Cross Road, down Phoenix Place and into Warner Street and Ray Street to Farringdon Road. In other words following the Fleet. And we know that rivers were often used to demarcate boundaries. Which would indeed place the river running around the western side of the terrace in Dorrington Street.

John Rogers River Fleet

River Fleet photo by Tracey

River Fleet


By now the light had faded to darkness – the best time to perambulate this dark river valley. The sloping streets of Little Italy rise out of the Fleet to Clerkenwell Road. Outside the Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street we get another great view of the Fleet. Tom Bolton mentions this in his post on Londonist. In Springs, Streams and Spas of London History and Associations published in 1910, Alfred Stanley Foord writes:
“One writer, Mr J.G Waller points out that the holes that gave the Saxon name to the Holebourne are still marked by the sites of Hockley-in-the-hole now Ray Street Clerkenwell-and Black Mary’s Hole, Bagnigge Wells.”
Bart shone his torch down the two street irons in the road illuminating the ‘holes’ down into the Holebourne. The Victorian bricks glowed white in the torchlight and the Fleet could be clearly seen, and be heard loudly flowing.

“Another ‘hole,’ of worse repute, was in the immediate vicinity, and is better known to the reader of London literature as ‘Hockley-in- the-Hole.’ There assembled on Sundays and holidays the Smithfield butchers, the knackers of Tummill Street, and the less respectable denizens of Field Lane”, Chambers Book of Days, pub. 1888

My temporary companions departed at this point and I crossed the river at Kings Cross Road to visit the site of the Clerks’ Well at 14 – 16 Farringdon Lane. From here we pass straight along Farringdon Road sploshing in the waters of the Fleet where once sail barges brought cargos to the dockside. You can detour into Saffron Hill to visit Dickens’ One Tun pub as mentioned in Oliver Twist, or along Fleet Street to visit the Bride’s Well at Bridewell Church. If you climb the stairs to Holborn Viaduct you get a fantastic view back along the River Valley in both directions.

River Fleet drawing

From Springs, Streams and Spas of London History and Associations published in 1910, Alfred Stanley Foord

The final section of the walk takes us down into the underpass at Blackfriars Station and out onto the Victoria Embankment to look out into the Thames and imagine when this was once a busy dockside at the mouth of the Fleet stretching back through time at least to the days of Roman London. Although reduced to the status of a sewer, the waters of the Fleet still flow on beneath the streets.


More Lost Rivers of London walks can be found here

The Tyburn

The Walbrook

The Philley Brook (Fillebrook)

The Black Ditch

The Cran Brook

The Shortlands Stream

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