Secret London: Part IV – Subterranean rivers

Fleet Street was once the home to most of Britain’s newspapers and remains a major central London thoroughfare. This, you probably know.

What you may not know is that Fleet Street takes its name from a river that passes beneath it. The river Fleet is one of London’s many subterranean rivers that flow – often entirely underground – to feed the Thames.

The Fleet rises in North London from the hills of Hampstead and Highgate and has been dammed to form the famous Hampstead swimming ponds. The stream then disappears out of sight until it reaches the Thames.

Well… almost out of sight…

Imagine the funny looks I got taking close-up pictures of drain covers in Clerkenwell. The running water you can make out through the drain grill on Ray Street just north of Smithfield Market is actually the River Fleet running about 20 feet beneath the road. That is London’s largest underground river.

The Fleet once coursed through London above ground alongside other London rivers that have disappeared underground, such as the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Stamford Brook, the Counter’s Creek and the Walbrook. Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge, is named after an old bridge that used to cross the Stamford Brook before it was diverted underground. The wealthy area of Knightsbridge is named after a bridge that used to cross the river Westbourne.

But now, these rivers are largely rain-water sewers that nobody can see. They even enter the Thames largely unnoticed.

The Fleet enters the Thames directly underneath Blackfriars Bridge. I visited on Sunday at high-tide and so couldn’t see a thing, but I am reliably informed that directly beneath the ladder shown below is a an opening which can be seen at low tide.

To make up for my bad timing, I cycled along to Vauxhall Bridge to show you another river-mouth that is partly exposed even at high tide.

Flowing under the MI6 building is the South London subterranean river Effra:

London was once awash with streams and rivers carving up the city. Much of the far east of London was just a large boggy marsh. In the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, Londoners have increasingly banished much of the water that shaped London underground. I think that is a bit of shame.

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