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

Hockley-in-the-hole

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

Railway Walk Odyssey with World War 2 Bomb Gospel Oak to Perivale

To celebrate the re-opening of the Barking to Gospel Oak line (albeit with the original two carriage trains that were running on the line before its temporary closure last year for conversion to 4 carriage trains) I decided to hop on a train at Leyton Midland Road Station to Gospel Oak. The plan from there was to walk a section of the railway from Hampstead Heath to Willesden Junction that we somehow missed from the London Overground film I made with Iain Sinclair.

The nightwalk I filmed with Iain and Andrew Kotting ended for me at Hampstead Heath, having walked up from Haggerston. Iain and Andrew continued round the 33-mile circuit through the night finishing at 10 the next morning. The station is closed today. A 500lb World War Two German bomb had been discovered on a building site near the tracks and had closed the line from Camden Road to Willesden Junction.

Billy Fury Way Finchley

Between Hampstead Heath and Finchley Road and Frognal Stations the Overground runs through a tunnel bored through the heart of the hill. I pass the site of the great composer Edward Elgar’s house and at Finchley Road progress along Billy Fury Way – although unlike Elgar, the 1950’s Rock’n’Roller seems to have a tenuous connection to the area, from what I can find it amounts to occasionally recording at the nearby Decca Studios.

WW2 Bomb Brondesbury Willesden Lane

People mill around at West Hampstead and Brondesbury Stations, trying to plot alternative transport routes with the line still closed. Then at Willesden Lane and Winchester Avenue I come to the police tape closing off the road. The bomb is about 100 yards away beneath a crane of a building site. Everybody has been evacuated from a large area spanning from Brondesbury to Queens Park. Several schools have been closed. There are a group of around 5 or 6 people speaking to the solitary policeman asking when they might be able to go back to their homes. One old man stands stock still on the wrong side of the tape telling the police officer that he doesn’t have anywhere else to go and no family or friends to call. A lady from the Council arrives shortly and takes him off to a refuge Brent Council have set up for residents from the evacuated area. Cars pull up to the road block then turn round and head back down Willesden Lane. It is a surreal scene.

Willesden Junction

I move on through Paddington Old Cemetery and Queens Park, past Kensal Rise Station and arrive tired at Willesden Junction where the London Overground filming resumed with a walk around the area in the company of Iain Sinclair and Chris Petit.

P1040823

I could end the walk here, neatly filling in a gap of my Overground circuit a year too late but can feel an extra couple of miles in my feet. I head up Harlesden High Street and then turn west into the Park Royal Industrial Estate – the largest in London. Picking up the A40, a pang of childhood nostalgia that is associated with this road wells up. I grew up within its acoustic footprint some 20+ miles away in Buckinghamshire and this western edge of London was our idea of the big city.

Hoover Building Perivale

The Hoover Building is getting another make-over, from a Tesco megastore to luxury flats. The light fades to black. Tail lights on the incessant thrum of passing cars sparkle like Christmas lights. Time to head up to Perivale station and head home.

A Summer Solstice Perambulation of the Prehistoric Mounds of London

The idea has been with me ever since I first picked up a copy of E.O. Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London : its mounds and circles’ – to walk between the mounds on the summer solstice. In her criminally under-celebrated book Gordon describes how the mounds and circles of the British Isles are the remnants of a lost culture. No news there when looking at the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge (30,000 pagan celebrants this year), but London?

The only acknowledgement of the significance of these sites was a record of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids forsaking Stonehenge in favour of performing ceremonies at Tower Hill in March 1963.

I confess that resonance was added by the fact that at the time I lived yards away from Penton Mound at the top of Pentonville Road. But what vision of the city would be formed by perambulating between its founding sites – the great monuments that were at the centre of a thriving city long before the Romans rocked up.
Westminster/Tothill to Bryn Gwyn/The Tower of London to Penton/ New River Upper Reservoir to The Llandin/ Parliament Hill – a day to achieve it in.
In its original formulation this would have been a grand ritual unifying the city led by the nation’s Druids. In this inaugural event it maybe fitting that it is a family affair – just me and my sister.

I meet Cathy on Broad Sanctuary at 2.15pm after a detour to the Widescreen Centre to pick up a role of TriX black & white Super 8 film to attempt a film of the ritual – a 3 minute in camera edited film. We are delayed longer than planned at Westminster – get caught up with the small good natured demonstration on Parliament Square in support of the Iraqi people. We blow the cover of the supposed Heritage Wardens who confess to being GLA employees spying on the demo (there are barely double figures present). We move on over Westminster Bridge leaving the Royal Gorsedd and cut behind County Hall haunted by the spindly Wicker Man that they call The London Eye. Then its down Roupel Street, Union Street and into the quiet. We ponder upon the fetishisation of dereliction as we marvel at some beautiful crumbling relics – one a stone doorway with the word ‘OFFICE’ carved into the lintel adrift in an empty street. I realise that with my focus being on the film it cancels out words – my notebook virtually empty – the whole 2 hour wander to Tower Hill only inspiring a single note – ‘Great Maze Pond SE1’ which I take to fit in with the pagan theme of the derive (mazes being created in oak groves and markers of places of druidic ritual).
We spend little time at Tower Hill/ Bryn Gwyn – along with Westminster/ Tothill – as I feel an overwhelming urge to deny the desecration of the sites by the invaders – the so-called Parliament at the ancient place of congregation and communal law-making and the Prison on the site of the British people’s fortress where the severed head of Bendigeid Vran, first king of this island, is said to be buried. I record them on camera but we move on enjoying the calm City streets.

Into Barbican from Moorgate through the halls and out into Whitecross Street guided by Hawksmoor’s spire on St Luke’s. On Goswell I show Cathy the Mount Mills fortification and we follow the Cromwellian defences through Northampton Square and out to face Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate. We skirt its perimeter and I then point out the Mount Zion Chapel – redolent of a riff in Gordon that links the British Mounds to their spiritual cousins in Palestine (a few years ago I emailed Mount Zion Chapel to enquire what had guided the location of their chapel – I received no reply).
Cathy leaves me at the Penton to complete the final leg alone. It’s 7.30pm and I should stop for a cuppa somewhere but Islington at that time on a Saturday is geared up for one thing only. Also as I push on along Penton Street I’m too awash in a sea of memories of my happy years spent living here.
The Penny Farthing has been given a confused make-over and is now a restaurant serving an odd combination of pizza and sushi – I suppose they don‘t attempt to trade in on the pub‘s heritage as the true home of cricket – the pavilion for the club that would become the MCC after they moved across town to Marleybone. Change takes on odd forms – a tattoo parlour has opened next to the corner shop that supplied me with cans of beer and emergency nappies.

Down Copenhagen Street and walks (and blog postings) past come back as do trips to playgroups and the wonderful library on Thornhill Square. I get second wind.
Turning the corner into York Way I shoot some of the old station posts that seemed to have survived the coming of the Eurostar. Then the vista of the day – the cleared scorched earth west of York Way – a train slowly moving across the land below three enormous silos – I consider running off the remainder of my film here – a Tarkovskian landscape worthy of its own 50ft of TriX.

Gordon relates York Way’s original name, Maiden Lane to its purpose of leading people to their places of congregation (Maiden Lane that runs through Covent Garden lines up with Parliament Square). I note the street name of a sorry backstreet behind a warehouse – Vale Royal – the last indicator of the rich mythology linked to this area from Boadicea’s last stand to the first Christian Church (in the world!).

I’ve now decided to keep going without a stop till I ascend the top of the Llandin – a continuous yomp from the south end of Tower Bridge. Up along Brecknock Road where the dark ridge of Highgate Woods marks the horizon. Down through Dartmouth Park and I’m there on Parliament Hill Fields. I must be hallucinating because I see a white robed Druid atop the hill – yes. I grab the camera and zoom in – not a Druid but the freshly painted white monument to right of free speech that exists here. I do a kind of stop-frame dance around the stone till the film runs out and the journey is over – 50 feet of film, 10 miles and 6 hours walking.

london

The Coffee Cup

Met the excellent and unique Nick Papadimitriou for coffee the other night. We hooked up in Hampstead in the only place where you could meet in NW3 without feeling nauseatingly bourgeois (for the record I love Hampstead, I’m just bitter that I can’t afford to live there). The Coffee Cup in the High Street claims to be the oldest Coffee House in London, a spurious claim considering that The Jerusalem Tavern in Clerkenwell served coffee to Samuel Johnson and is still in business albeit as a pub (I’m sure you can still get a coffee), but it’s tatty, dusty and unpretentious. Nick seems to know everybody who walks through the door.

We inevitably end up talking about what Nick refers to as “our specialisation”. Well he’s certainly a specialist, the one and only true Deep Topographer, I didn’t want to confess to him that I’m not sure what if anything my specialisation is. I mention that I now walk along Fleet Road on my way home from work. Nick says, “I hate the Fleet. It’s like Whitechapel.” There’s no answer to that. It’s what makes Nick unique and brilliant, statements like that. (Browse the archives of this blog and you’ll find plenty of references to the area around the banks of The Fleet – l have a deep bond to that territory that I used to walk in the dusk on my way back from the South Bank).

We’re both a bit weary but we have to have a walk no matter how short. “Do you fancy a walk to Golders Green?”, knowing that this will not just be a schlep along the A502 to the tube station I can’t say no.

Nick takes me into Sandy Wood first off. There’s a chance we’ll encounter some cottaging as Nick did the other day on Mill Hill Golf Course when he emerged from a concrete water channel to find an overweight man in a beige thong eying him up, who took one look and scampered off. We discuss how cottagers manage to feel a moral superiority over psychogeographers, nobody who rummages around in woods and public loos should feel any kind of moral superiority over anyone, we don’t, dog walkers can be a bit sniffy too.

Sandy Wood is beautiful, a revelation for me. Self-proclaimed ‘professional pedestrian’ John Hillaby used to walk here with Sir Christopher Andrewes, “the distinguished virologist and a much travelled man”, and exchanged notes on the flora and fauna of London.

Nick takes me over the road to show me the Heath extension and the Seven Sisters, he tells me this is his favourite part of the Heath. We pass two middle aged men in blazers, “Evening”, I say. No reply. “John couldn’t you tell? They look like members of The Jewish Ramblers, the alert will be sent out. Tregaskis will be after us.”

We enter the Garden Suburb. I’ve never been here before. Will Self grew up here. It’s a strange old place. It reminds me of a very nice inter-war council estate.

Soon we’re at Golders Green. I see The Refectory Arms, and remark that it looks a bit rough. “Hendrix played there. So did Crème.” There is no such thing as an ordinary walk with Nick.

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Parliament Hill Caff

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Parliament Hill is one of the London Mounds identified by E.O. Gordon in ‘Prehistoric London…’
Maiden Lane, now York Way, led the way from Penton Mound which was the journey we took on the No.214 bus all hot and bothered.
The mounds would have been used in pagan times as places of congregation, ritual and play. And there we were splashing around in the paddling pool and chasing someone’s pet rabbit.