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’  https://maps.nls.uk/index.html

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.

Walking the lost River Peck

In this walk we go in search of the course of the ‘lost’ River Peck that gives its name to Peckham in South London. The Peck is said to rise near One Tree Hill in Honor Oak and then flows above ground across Peckham Rye before re-entering its culvert as it flows through the streets of Peckham just to the west of Copeland Road. Our walk then goes past Peckham Bus Garage to Kirkwood Road and picks up the course of the river again at Asylum Road near Queens Road Station. The river most likely flows beneath Brimmington Park but we continue along Asylum Road to look at the Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution Asylum. The walk takes us along the Old Kent Road to the point where the Peck crosses the road and heads along Ilderton Road to make its confluence with the Earl’s Sluice near Bermondsey South Station.

Thanks to the Peckham Society for their great blog post on The Peck

Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution Asylum Old Kent Road
Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution Asylum

Route of the walk/ course of the River Peck:
One Tree Hill – Oak of Honor
Brenchley Gardens
Marmora Road
Homestall Road
Peckham Rye
Rye Lane
Copeland Road
Blackpool Road Peckham Bus Garage
Brayards Road
Kirkwood Road
Lugard Road
Queens Road Peckham
Asylum Road Peckham
Old Kent Road
Ilderton Road SE16
South Bermondsey Station

Video shot in June 2021

Walking the River Neckinger – Lost Rivers of London

A walk tracing the course of The River Neckinger, one of the Lost Rivers of London.

The river rises on St George’s Fields, now the park around the Imperial War Museum. From here it follows Brook Drive to Elephant and Castle. We walk along Newington Causeway to Borough High Street and pick up the echoes of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which references this spot at the start of the pilgrimage. Our walk then follows the course of the river along Long Lane, past the Kipling Estate and the end of Bermondsey Street. Bermondsey Square sits on the site of Bermondsey Abbey, once one of the most important ecclesiastical institutions in Europe. The river is said to flow along Abbey Street which was once navigable as far as the Abbey.

We then follow the Neckinger across Druid Street and Jamaica Road to an area that was once known as Jacob’s Island. Mill Street takes us to St Saviour’s Wharf where the Neckinger makes its confluence with the Thames.

This video was filmed in December 2020

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.

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

A walk from Kensal Rise to Primrose Hill

A walk through the streets of northwest London starting at Wrentham Avenue in Kensal Rise and ending at Primrose Hill

In this video I also introduce my project in collaboration with Kensal Rise Library for Brent 2020 London Borough of Culture in the Brent Biennal

If you scroll back through the archives of this blog (stretching through the ether to 2004) you’ll see that much of my ‘study’ of London came from random spontaneous drifts through the city being guided by my feet and finding whatever I found. This is still my primary method of mapping out the city even though much of my ‘work’ is produced from more focused expeditions. This walk was partly a return to the practice of drift or dérive, where I dispensed with my everyday concerns and allowed myself to be “drawn by the attractions of the terrain” (Guy Debord). However I was unable to completely dispense with the reality of the 34 degree heat of the afternoon.

Heading out of Kensal Rise via Wrentham Avenue, I was keen to pay a visit to Tiverton Green, a location that several people I’d interviewed in the area had mentioned. It’s said that on a clear day you can see the North Downs.  I then followed Brondesbury Park to Salusbury Road, Queens Park , then turned along Lonsdale Road to Brondesbury Road.

Kensal Rise

where the River Westbourne crosses West End Lane

We cross Kilburn High Road which forms part of the Roman Road of Watling Street, believed to be a much older trackway. In West End Lane I could sense the contours of a river valley and discovered once at home that the buried ‘lost’ river of the Westbourne or the Kilburn (Kilbourne) that rises in Hampstead, flows beneath Watling Street near this point on its way to make its confluence with the Thames at Chelsea. “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” (Alan Ivimey, Wonderful London).

Kensal Rise walk

Passing Abbey Road and Priory Road, with its resonances of Kilburn Priory, we work our way to Finchley Road and Swiss Cottage before turning off Adelaide Road down Harley Road to Primrose Hill. This venerated spot was once the meeting place of Bards and Druids (the modern version) and is one of the protected views of London. For all of those more celebrated resonances, it was a white stone on the side of Barrow Hill that drew me in. Did it mark the possible burial site of fallen warriors in some epic battle of the distant past, or was it more prosaically a boundary marker?

London’s Lost Rivers – the Black Ditch with Tom Bolton

A Walker’s Guide to London’s Lost Rivers – Volume Two

Tom Bolton’s second volume of walks along London’s Lost Rivers traces the paths of eleven subterranean watercourses. Whereas Volume One mapped out the better known lost rivers of London such as the Fleet and the Tyburn – Volume Two is a guide to the more obscure buried streams and brooks that shape the city – the Bollo Brook, Cock and Pye Ditch, Counter’s Creek, Falcon Brook, Hackney Brook, Moselle, and Stamford Brook. Tom took me for a walk along the first river in Volume Two – The Black Ditch, rising somewhere in Stepney Green then wending its way through the East London streets of Stepney, Poplar and Limehouse before making its confluence with the Thames at Limekiln Wharf.

Black Ditch

“In it’s very name The Black Ditch reveals its status an unappreciated river. Despite its route, which runs through the heart of the East End, the Ditch is generally dismissed as no more than a sewer.” – Tom Bolton

Black Ditch

London’s Lost Rivers – A Walker’s Guide by Tom Bolton is published by Strange Attractor Press