The Philley Brook / Fillebrook is lost no more

The Philley Brook / Fillebrook - Leytonstone's lost river
The Philley Brook / Fillebrook

It was great to get a really clear view of Leytonstone’s lost river, the Philley Brook (Fillebrook) down beside Auckland Road allotments at the weekend. I’d only previously caught glimpses of dark water through the weeds obscuring the culvert. But now with the undergrowth cleared away the river can be clearly seen flowing above ground. To my knowledge this is the only point where the Philley Brook can be seen, although it can be heard in a number of locations running beneath the streets of Leytonstone and Leyton (I didn’t really hear it in the upper Walthamstow reaches).

The Philley Brook / Fillebrook - Leytonstone's lost river which is prone to cause flooding in Leyton, Leytonstone and Waltamstow
The Philley Brook
The Philley Brook beside Auckland Road allotments Leyton
The Philley Brook goes back underground

Moments before this glorious sighting I’d bumped into Claire while filming a Q&A video for my YouTube channel. I mentioned that I felt I hadn’t resolved the question of where the Philley Brook (Fillebrook) made its confluence with the River Lea or if it merged with the Dagenham Brook first somewhere beneath the Eurostar railway sidings. Being a water professional, Claire recommended taking a look at the Environment Agency Long Term Flood Risk maps. And my word, what a revelation. The course of the buried rivers of the area is marked out in dark blue. Thank you Claire!

Flood Risk map Leyton
Flood Risk map Leyton - Philley Brook / Fillebrook

A walk along Leytonstone’s Lost River – the Philley Brook (Fillebrook)

A walk along Leytonstone’s Lost River – the Philley Brook (or Fillebrook) – part of a series of walks for Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019.

The route of the walk in the video is as follows:

Fillebrook Route

Start at St. Andrew’s Church – go behind to patch of land beside St. James Lane – Bury Field Farm – note church on boggy high ground – gas lamp beside church – note course across Forest Road

Follow the footpath beside St.Andrew’s Church and turn left  into Coleworth Road

Turn right into Hainault Road to block of modern flats – brook runs through car park

Turn left into Lytton Road

Turn left into Wadley Road

Brook cuts across Ripley Mews and Temple Close (linking to carpark behind flats) – can hear under street iron

Continue back along Lytton Road

Turn left into Esther Road – see where brook comes through metal gate continues under houses – flooding

Back to Lytton – look down across back gardens

Turn left into Wallwood Road – Wallwood Farm Estate – Stratford Langthorne

See where brook comes through opposite Kings Passage

Listen to river in Kings Road (be careful of cars) – then it goes through St. John’s Ambulance

Along Kingswood Road to Queen’s Road – see brook running across – listen (watch out for traffic)

Kingswood Road – ex-Fillebrook Road

Turn right into Fairlop Road – then left into Bulwer Road – left into Chelmsford (alt. route goes from Grove Green Road straight into Fillebrook Road)

Turn right Into Fillebrook Road from Chelmsford Road opp Damon Albarn house and Leytonstone & Wanstead Synagogue

At end of Fillebrook Road turn right into Drayton Road – Drayton Road sound of river opposite flats – then left into Southwest Road

Turn right into Avebury Road – right into Cavendish Road – left into Scarborough Road

Philley Brook Fillebrook

The Philley Brook in Drayton Road

Turn right into Grove Green Road – look at Stuart Freeborn Murals on other side of the railway – Heathcote and Star Pub

Turn right at Heathcote into Pretoria Road – then left into Newport Road

[Ian Bourn diversion not in the video but on guided walk: Grove Green (Farm) – Stuart Freeborn – Claremont Rd – Northcote Arms -Francis Road]

Across Francis Road – alleyway into Dawlish Road

Through Sidmouth Park

Cross Leyton High Road – note –  Brooke House – go through Coronation Gardens  – maze + water feature

Exit onto Oliver Road – note Leyton Beach – turn left

Turn right into Dunedin Road – (note Ruckholt Road) go through new development to Orient Way – end at Allotments

Graham Millar M11 Linked

Listening to Graham Millar’s M11 Linked on Grove Green Road


Walking in Waltham Forest talk

I’ll be giving an illustrated talk about my walks for Waltham Forest Borough of Culture at Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society on Wednesday 16th October – more details here


Pub Chat – talking walking at Filly Brook, Leytonstone

Episode 3 of Pub Chat finds me having a pint at the brilliant Filly Brook, Leytonstone. This is obviously my favourite ‘pub’ name in the world (Filly Brook isn’t strictly a pub, more of a tap room) being named after Leytonstone’s lost river that gurgles beneath the street just yards away. In fact, Weston’s map of the Philley Brook / Filly Brook from this very blog is framed on the wall inside. The beer’s great as well. On this occasion I was supping a collaboration between Filly Brook and Pretty Decent Beer Co., Connections Pale Ale, in celebration of the month-long cultural festival hosted by Filly Brook with £1 from every pint being donated to charity.

Filly Brook Leytonstone

Walking Walthamstow’s Lost Rivers – the Higham Hill Brook


In the course of my hunt for the lost rivers of Walthamstow I came across this paragraph in the Victoria County History:

“Higham Hill sewer flowed from Chapel End across Blackhorse Lane to Dagenham brook. The brook flowed south to Leyton, joined by Moor ditch from Markhouse common. Most of Moor ditch was piped in the 1880s. Parts of the Higham Hill sewer, Dagenham brook, and Blackmarsh sewer west of the brook ( Its continuation in Leyton was known as Shortlands sewer), were diverted or filled in when the flood relief channel was built in 1950–60.”

And it was also marked on the 1840 map of Walthamstow. There was another lost river of Walthamstow to be staked out on foot.

I headed out on a sunny Friday afternoon, along Hoe Street and into Forest Road, which is shown as Clay Street on the 1777 Map of Essex at this point. The quest would start at the Water House, now the William Morris Gallery, as the 1777 map shows a watercourse flowing West from the moat in what is now Lloyd Park, in a more or less straight line to the River Lea. Comments on the Walthamstow lost river video (the Philley Brook) had mentioned a river flowing beneath Winns Avenue in Walthamstow. This aligned with the route of the stream rising in the Water House moat. However, descriptions of the course of the Higham Hill Brook and 19th Century maps place the source as Higham Hill Common, further north, but not so distant as to rule out a relationship (as discovered with the multiple sources of the Philley Brook / Fillebrook).

I headed in the direction of Priory Court, the shape of the road seeming to mirror the contours of the river on old maps. The assumption being that the river must cut through the post-war council estate and pass either through, or around Higham Hill Common Allotments. There were no massive indicators here, but on Higham Hill Road the point where the subterranean stream crosses was apparent. This also aligned with the site of Walthamstow Avenue FC’s Green Pond Road ground, now a housing estate. A former resident of the area, Robert, confirmed in a comment on the YouTube video that the river indeed flowed beneath the pitch: which is why it had a reputation for poor drainage and matches always being postponed during late December and January. Also knew an old lady from my time attending At Andrews church who lived on Green Pond farm which is where the football ground and dairy were built on and she told me of her childhood playing by the brook in the 1920’s.

Higham Hill Brook

From this point to the confluence with the Dagenham Brook the route was fairly clear – the walk taking me down Higham Street (where a footbridge is marked on an old map), and into Chamberlain Place. The river then passes through a huge new housing development, Blackhorse Yard, which includes plans to include the re-surfaced stream in the design. A rare example of daylighting in London. 

Luckily for me the Higham Hill Brook meets the Dagenham Brook in the Forest Industrial Estate near two breweries so I was able to celebrate the successful conclusion to the walk with some fresh beer from Signature Brew.

East London Walk in Search of a Mystery

A few years ago I was sent an incredible email that contained correspondence between two allotment holders concerning the causes of flooding in Leyton. Previously I was completely fixated on the more elaborate stories contained in this exchange. But recently, revisiting the email for research into the fringe of the Olympic Park for my new book, I released that I’d overlooked the mentions of multiple buried watercourses that are claimed to have historically run through Leyton. So I set out on Easter Monday to hunt for these mysterious buried rivers that are said to flow beneath the streets of Leyton, in addition to our much loved (and celebrated on this blog) Philley Brook (Fillebrook / Philly Brook).

Map of buried rivers in Leyton East London.
Open Street Map “© OpenStreetMap contributors” using data available under the Open Database Licence
Map showing the possible course of buried rivers in Leyton that could cause flooding in the area
Open Street Map “© OpenStreetMap contributors” using data available under the Open Database Licence
‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’

I continued my walk north, passing Etloe House which seems to have had its own stream or ditch. And then progressed along Markhouse Road where I started to shadow the Dagenham Brook until I encountered an accessible open stretch in the new development off Blackhorse Lane around Vanguard Way. It was a fascinating walk that opened up so many new avenues of intrigue in the topography and folklore of Leyton and Walthamstow.

2021 – A Year of Great Walks

It barely needs to be stated that 2021 was another strange year – let’s leave that aspect there. But it was another great year of walks for me personally – a year that has seen my YouTube channel grow to over 40,000 subscribers (something I thought would never happen).

Winter walks

Back in January I finally made a video of my walk through London’s Little Italy that I started documenting and researching nearly 20 years ago when I lived at the Angel and formed part of a chapter in my book This Other London (which was re-printed in paperback again this year finding new readers). Then came a series of walks tracing and uncovering local lost rivers – The Alders Brook (more overlooked and neglected than lost), the Walthamstow branch of the Philley Brook (Fillebrook) which was one of my highlights of the year, and the Higham Hill Brook.

Continuing the riverine theme, it was fantastic to walk along the West bank of the River Roding with the brilliant Paul Powlesland, from Ilford to the new Barking moorings that Paul and the River Roding Trust created. It was so heartening to see all the great work that the Friends of the River Roding have done cleaning and clearing that bank of the river, restoring an ancient footpath along the riverbank.

Paul Powlesland
Paul Powlesland & Jenny at the end of their epic River Roding walk
River Lea Walk

Places of transition

As Spring slowly started to emerge I explored some of the changing areas of London around Hackney Wick, Stratford and Greenwich Peninsula. These are some of the themes I dig into in my next book which should be published in 2022. I also took a trip out to the western edge of London to visit the medieval village of Harmondsworth, which is threatened by the planned expansion of Heathrow airport.

Fascinating chats

It was a great pleasure to visit the fantastic Maud Milton in her studio at Trinity Buoy Wharf where she creates the wonderful mosiac roundels that can be found at some of the London Overgrond Stations. And mentioning the Overground reminds me of the walk I did with Iain Sinclair along the Thames estuary at Tilbury talking about his new book The Gold Machine. We also discussed this onstage over two nights at the essential Wanstead Tap where I’d also had the enormous honour of doing a sold-out three-night run of talks in May.

River Walks & Old Haunts

I did more river walks throughout the year – the lost rivers of The Peck and the Hackney Brook, the urban watercourses of The Rom, the Wandle (with the brilliant Prof Kate Spencer), the River Pinn, and the Dollis Brook. There were also walks exploring some of my old stomping grounds around Canonbury and Camden.

Out to the Sea

Some of my highlights were walks along estuaries out to the sea – first walking the final section of the Essex Way following the Stour out to Harwich, then drifting the final stretch of the Thames Estuary to the Wakering Stairs looking out along the treacherous Broomway at sunset. On the final weekend of October I managed to get out to Orford Ness coming back on the last boat til Spring 2022. What an experience that was.

The Broomway at Wakering Stairs

Group Walks

2021 was also a year of group walks – always a great experience for me. Firstly it was some Leytonstone Town Centre strolls in the summer for Waltham Forest Council. I also created a series of audio guided walks around notable cemeteries for a wonderful organisation called Advantages of Age and then we met up for a group walk around Nunhead and Camberwell Cemeteries.


Another personal highlight was going down to St. Leonards-on-Sea to spend the day with visionary filmmaker Andrew Kötting and ending our jaunt around the town with a trip to the place where his seminal travelogue Gallivant began (the film that inspired me to start making films).

City stories

In the dark midwinter days I’ve found great comfort revisiting some of the locations that I started exploring and researching in the early days of this blog, recording wanders around the territory of Bunhill Fields, St Luke’s and City Road, and then a couple of days before Christmas, linking together a series of resonant points around Fleet Street.

I’m a little taken aback, to be honest, when I look back over these journeys across the year as a whole, and it makes me excited about the year ahead.

Looking for the Lost Rivers of Walthamstow

I received a curious communication via Instagram which triggered a 10 year unsolved mystery involving a buried river in Upper Walthamstow. The message informed me of an incident a few years ago where a woman had seen some workmen investigating a leak in the area. They descended a set of steps beneath a manhole cover outside the flats in Bisterne Avenue that they said led down to a stream that appeared to run the length of the road. This immediately captured my interest and as soon as I looked up Bisterne Avenue on the map I knew I had to investigate further.

In 2009/10 I started researching the course of the Philley Brook (Fillebrook) – the buried river running beneath the streets of Leytonstone and Leyton for an episode of my radio show with Nick Papadimitriou on Resonance fm. The staff in the archives at Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow pulled out a collection of resources for me to study. There were the 19th Century ordnance survey maps that clearly showed the Philley Brook running down through the fields of Upper Leytonstone, beneath the railway line and onwards across Leyton High Road where there was a footbridge, and then to make its confluence with a smaller river at Collins Ferry on the River Lea. There were also newspaper reports spanning nearly 100 years mentioning the river and and efforts to deal with the flooding of the ‘Fillebrook Valley’ that only seemed to be resolved in the mid-1990’s. However the newspaper report in the Guardian and Gazette from May 1994 mentioned the source of the river not rising near the end of James Lane at Whipps Cross as in all the other sources and maps, but above Wood Street in Walthamstow. The only way to resolve this anomaly was on the ground.

Consequently, when I headed out with Nick in November 2010 to record our episode of Ventures and Adventures in Topography we started our quest in Wood Street, Walthamstow. Here in a narrow lane between some garages and the cricket ground we met a man who told us of the water running along this track. We followed it back to the high ground on the forest edge and there concluded that it must either be a separate stream altogether or perhaps an alternative source of the Philley Brook. In any case we had a rendezvous to keep with local historian David Boote in Leytonstone, the authority on the area and a person who knew the course of the river. We checked in on the documented source of the Philley Brook behind St. Andrew’s Church, Leytonstone and indeed it bore all the indicators of the source of a river. The ladies serving tea in the church confirmed that a river did indeed run beneath the ground near the church and recent building works behind the church had disrupted the watercourse and flooded parts of the church. David Boote then confirmed the course of the river as rising at the end of James Lane, as stated in the 19th Century documents at the Vestry House. Our detour to Walthamstow had been a red herring.

But it always bothered me that there was indeed some kind of buried river in Upper Walthamstow, unacknoweldged, unnamed, and as far as I could tell uncharted. The current lockdown gave me the chance to re-open this 10-year old cold case of the missing lost river of Walthamstow. I wrote it on my plan for YouTube videos – ‘The Lost River of Walthamstow’ – although I had no lost river, could find nothing online, nor on the old maps I’d found. The Instagram message changed everything – here was a confirmed sighting by water board staff bang in the vicinity of the reports from 2010. The hunt for the lost river of Walthamstow was on.

Forest Rise Walthamstow

Forest Rise Walthamstow

Passing the wooded fringe on Forest Rise brought back memories of that November day with Nick 10 years ago. It was freezing cold and damp. Snow would arrive before broadcast day closing off the studio, meaning we had to pre-record in my box room and send via the internet in a foreshadowing the way a lot of radio has been produced during lockdown.

Working past St. Peter’s in the Forest I arrived at Bisterne Avenue. There were no major indicators of a buried river as such, but I now know that the manhole mentioned in the Instagram message was located behind the block of flats. Another person has also been in touch since the video was posted to YouTube confirming a buried stream running behind the flats.

At the end of the street I figured the stream could either follow the bend of Fyfield Road or flow directly down the hill. An unnaturally wide gap in the terrace opposite seemed to indicate the latter. I’d have to walk in a wide loop to get to Waverley Road on the other side of the houses and the railway line which gave me the opportunity to return to the laneway running parallel to Greenway Avenue where we’d met the man 10 years claiming the river ran behind his house. In the week before the walk somebody had sent me a series of maps from an architects office on which were marked underground rivers in London. One clearly showed the course of the Cran Brook which I’d walked last year. Another showed the Philley Brook flowing through Leytonstone and Leyton. But there in the corner of the map was another buried watercourse, rising on the far side of the cricket ground in Upper Walthamstow, arcing behind Greenway Avenue and then crossing Wood Street and picking up the route described in the report on the water works in the 1994 Gazette article. This appeared to be confirmation of the hunch we’d had that day, that a buried river ran through the area. I still had to somehow reconcile this with the stream rising in Bisterne Avenue.

Passing along Wood Street, past the brilliant covered market, I came to the bottom of Waverley Road which lined up with the gap in the houses opposite the end of Bisterne Avenue. This seemed consistent with the possible flow of the river. After posting the video to YouTube, a comment supported this hypothesis. The commenter said their house backed onto Waverley Road and flooding in a neighbour’s garden was confirmed as coming from ‘an underground river’.

Walthamstow map 1840

I followed this course across Wood Street into Havant Road where just after St. Gabriel’s Church the road rises to Shernhall Street, placing the river running South beneath Turner Road. On the bend in the street, as Turner Road also rises towards the high ground, there was an alleyway potentially indicating the continuation of the buried river. I can’t quite describe the buzz of encountering this little passage when it looked as if I’d hit a dead end. Now the proposed route lines up with the watercourse marked on the 1840 map running South to Leyton and Leytonstone – at which point it is named on the map as the Phillebrook. Returning home from my first spontaneous walk sniffing out the course from the shape in the land, I was still unsure I’d found the elusive lost river of Walthamstow until I came across the 1840 map in the Victoria County History along with this blessed paragraph of text:
“West of Wood Street, flowing south to Leyton, was the watercourse which gave its name to Shernhall (‘filth stream’) Street, which it used to flood near Tinker’s bridge (Raglan Corner). In Leyton it was called the Phillebrook. It now runs underground.”

This was where I now found myself – West of Wood Street following the flow southwards towards Leyton. I continued the line of the river through the new development on Marlowe Road and past the large chapel on Valentin Road that I’d later find on the 1840 map. Zooming in on the photograph of the the architect’s map it appeared as if the river ran behind the chapel. Indeed once again a comment on the YouTube video offered further corroboration:
“Under the hall cica 1850 which backs on the Marlow Road estate, is a old boiler room, this always flooded following heavy rain, more often than not bringing with it a dead rat, and occasionally a live one. However the water did not smell and was considered to be ‘fresh’ rather than sewage. An electric sump pump had been fitted in the 1950’s to cope with it. I think this is good evidence for a subterranean stream.”

The stream then runs along Brooke Road – more likely named after local landowner Lord Brooke rather than the watercourse, before cutting behind the church on Oliver Road and running along the backs of houses on Shernhall Street (‘filth stream street’). An alleyway cuts through into Raglan Road and here I have to admit the way forward is inconclusive. On the one hand we have ‘Tinker’s Bridge at Raglan Corner’, and also a handwritten note by borough archivist Frederick Temple written some time in the early 20th Century recording that a local inhabitant had told him:  ‘As a child in the 1880’s there were floods in the road by the Lord Raglan Public House. The beer barrels were floating about in the cellars’ . This would also suggest the river running along Eastern Road past the Lord Raglan. However the architect’s map shows it cutting across Raglan Road and crossing Lea Bridge Road and then flowing beneath the gardens of Eatington Road and Fulready Road. This makes no sense on the ground. The most likely course takes the Philley Brook (as it would now be called) through the car showroom forecourt on Lea Bridge Road and then beneath a long tract of open land behind West End Avenue to Whipps Cross Hospital. This route is partially supported by the 1994 report of pipes being laid in Peterborough Road.

James Lane Leytonstone

James Lane Leytonstone

In any case the river almost certainly flows through the grounds of Whipps Cross Hospital where it crosses James Lane in low point in the land. The Leytonstone Fillebrook is said to rise ‘in Bury Field Farm’ at the end of James Lane. This was in the notes from the Vestry House and also in other older records. However it’s only now revisiting these notes I also see that the Victoria County History, in the section on Leyton, states:
‘The Phillebrook or Fillebrook, ‘Phepes Broke’ in 1537, entered Leyton from Walthamstow west of Whipps Cross, flowing south and south-west to join the Dagenham brook west of Ruckholts. In 1868 it was still open, but by 1904 it was piped from James Lane to the sewage works in Auckland Road; the last open stretch from West End Avenue to James Lane was closed in soon after.’

This open section of the Phillebrook / Fillebrook can be seen on the 1893 Ordnance Survey Map running from a pond to a footbridge in James Lane.

It was a special feeling to stand there in James Lane and consider that perhaps this 10-year mystery was partially put to rest. I’d say there’s evidence to suggest that the Philley Brook / Fillebrook (there’s also Phepe’s Brook) most likely has multiple sources – two in Upper Walthamstow that join to the West of Wood Street, and another on the high ground behind St. Andrew’s Church where the brook is known to flow still causing flooding in recent years. This branch joins the Walthamstow stream either in James Lane or Forest Road near the electricity substation, from where the conjoined river follows it’s well documented route through the streets of Leytonstone and Leyton. But as this article and the video demonstrates, there are still many questions to be answered about this beguiling lost river of Walthamstow.


Watch the walk along the continuation of the Philley Brook here

Here’s the next video in the series of Lost Rivers of Walthamstow – the Higham Hill Brook