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.

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

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

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


Through the ‘Urethra of London’

Weston’s map showing the Philly Brook

“Geographically Leytonstone is just a case of in one end and out the other. It’s not the end of the road like Whitechapel, nor is it the beginning of the end like Southgate. Leytonstone, if it’s like anything it is the urethra of London.”
Lenny’s Documentary, Ian Bourn (1978)

I came across the above quote from a film by Leytonstone film-maker Ian Bourn not long after I moved to the area. I quickly became aware that previous repeated viewing of the films of fellow Leytonstonian, John Smith, had left such a powerful imprint upon my psyche that they may well have influenced my decision to move out here to E11. I decided to further research what I then termed the ‘cinematic topography of the north eastern frontier’.

Leytonstone at one point had the largest population of artists of any place in England. The building of the M11 Link Road was both the cause of this Left Bank blossoming out east, through the empty properties it produced after compulsory orders were served, and then the construction of the road some years later brought about its end. The artists only moved on after a protracted stand-off with the road builders and a prolonged eviction. The M11 Link Road Protests loom large in the psyche of the area and have luckily been well-documented.

underground stream near Wood Street

But this was not the subject for our Ventures and Adventures expedition through Leytonstone and Leyton. We chose to chart a less contentious and mythologised feature of the landscape – a small, underground stream running a course of just under two miles beneath the streets. The Philly Brook seems to have been virtually forgotten and is recorded merely in the name of a street, Fillebrook Road, and that of a house near the Leyton Orient football stadium, Brook House. The stream can be heard gurgling through the street irons on Southwest and Queens Roads. Otherwise the only clue lies in the valley it has carved out of the local terrain.

The solitary reference in literature I could find was in The Story of Leyton and Leytonstone by W.H. Weston published in 1921 which has two hand-drawn maps showing the course of the stream. So I decided to have a rummage in the archives at the Vestry House Museum in Walthamstow.
The Vestry House staff greeted my research enquiry enthusiastically and when I arrived, there was a small pile containing all their references to the Philly Brook, or Fille Brook. One was cream envelope marked ‘Uncatalogued Ephemera L13.7 The Fillebrook’, and inside was a photocopy of an article from the local newspaper printed in 1994.
The other direct references in text came in the form of series of handwritten notes and cuttings made sometime in the interwar period by local antiquarian Frederick Temple.

Nick looking for the source

It was with these clues that Nick and I set out to follow the course of the Philly Brook. To add an element of genuine erudition to the walk we arranged to meet local historian David Boote half-way along the route. David has also researched the stream and had a fairly solid idea where it runs.
I met Nick at Leyton Midland Road overground station and it was clear that the journey from Gospel Oak had seduced him to the charms of this beguiling train-line. I recently found a great article by Bruce Jerram and Richard Wells published in 1996 passionately defending the significance of the then “much derided” North London Line. Fourteen years on and it is now a vital part of the transport infrastructure feeding into the new city arising around the Olympic Park at Stratford.

I’d got the idea from one of the newspaper articles at the Vestry House that the Philly Brook rose, not near James Lane as it commonly assumed, but further north near Wood Street in Walthamstow. So there we headed.
Two hours later and after the exciting discovery of an underground stream running between some garages and a 19th Century cricket ground, and Nick broke the news that what we had found was a quite different, but unmapped, water course that most likely ran through Walthamstow to link up with the Dagenham Brook or Coppermill Stream further towards the Lea Valley.

Source of the Philly Brook near St Andrews Church

And so we effectively restarted our walk and ambled across the edge of Epping Forest to where the Philly Brook rises at the end of James Lane near Whipps Cross Hospital.
I ducked into the cafe at St Andrews Church to grab a cup of tea. When I told the ladies working there what we were doing they said that the building of some flats behind the church had caused a spring to come up in the basement or crypt. The Philly Brook lives! I thought. Apparently, flooding of basements was common in the area until the building of the Link Road, which seems to have displaced not only the E11 avant garde but also tamed the rising waters of the stream.

We made our rendezvous with David Boote a mere two hours late and then took a walk through the valley of the Philly Brook that meandered as the stream once did – taking a whole three hours to complete the final mile-and-a-half. Much verbiage was spilled along the banks of the brook, plenty of it highly entertaining but unbroadcastable on the radio show (due to time and not inappropriateness).

looking down the course of the stream

Finally at the end of the walk, and after forgetting to pay homage to composer Cornelius Cardew who had lived and died not far from the river’s run, we reached what we thought was the end. But as the stream no longer appears above ground we would have to be content to leave this to conjecture. And then Nick squinted through the gloom at his Village London atlas and proclaimed that the Brook met the Mill Stream right near where we were stood on a traffic island near Dunedin Road. He disappeared into some undergrowth and then yelled out – here was the stream. And there we believe it was, running meekly through a concrete culvert beside the allotments, still unseen and unheralded.

Download the podcast of this episode here

Some links and further reading

Platform’s work on London as a city of watersheds

Cornelius Cardew’s Great Learning Performed in Leytonstone

Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society

Philley Brook
Filly Brook
Philly Brook