Wet Dreams

A few summers ago, inspired by another strange obsession, I finally left my sky-high apartment in Notting Hill for a new home here in this old Victorian tenement among the tightly clustered streets of the old part of town. From my windows now, it is only possible to see other buildings - in finally leaving my old place with its airy perspectives I descended into the heart of the city - where, directly under me, deep beneath the surface, flows the river Fleet, the greatest of London's lost tributaries to the Thames.

Along with the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Effra, the Walbrook and the Neckinger, the Fleet now exists only in the conscious life of the city by vague references in local street names and in the occasional watery incident in some deep basement or subterranean structure. But you can't get rid of a river. Flowing down from the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath, filling Hampstead ponds as it goes, descending through Kentish Town and past King's Cross, the Fleet still winds its way down to the Thames as it ever did - only now suppressed into a channel deep below the concrete.

Inexplicably haunted by peculiar dreams of this lost river, for months I bluffed, bullied and badgered Thames Water into finally allowing me to visit it. Accompanied by a gang of sewermen, equipped with full waterproof gear and gas mask, I watched as an innocuous looking manhole cover was raised in a pavement south of Holborn Viaduct. Descending a slender ladder and edging along a narrow ledge, down another ladder and along winding brick passageways, we made our way deeper and deeper into the darkness, accompanied by the ever-increasing sound of rushing water.

We made our way for what seemed an age around twists and turns and along ancient brick branching walkways. Suddenly, we emerged from the cramp of the tunnels into a vast chamber whose floor was covered in churning water and at whose far end were two vertical pairs of giant iron gates. This is the mouth of the Fleet that now only pushes the gates open into the Thames at times of storm.

It was a spooky, confusing place and even my companions seemed keen not to linger. We waded upstream in the warm darkness, listening out for rats and seeing with some wonder the haunches of ancient bridges still buried in the walls above the banks. Smaller tributaries emptied themselves into the stream from either side and occasionally, high above, a patch of daylight could be glimpsed. At the confluence of two channels, we dredged the bed of the water where I found a Victorian silver sixpence and an old, battered silver ring. Eventually, after further explorations we left the stream and climbed upwards again to emerge blinking into the relatively sweet air of Clerkenwell. I spent the next couple of hours in the back of the sewermens' van, drinking tea, smoking fags and listening to tall tales of the subterranean world below the city, invisible and unimagined to most of its inhabitants.

Was it a symbolic journey? Was it, in fact, real? Later, I sometimes wondered if perhaps I had dreamt it too. I still have no idea why it seemed so important and yet, afterwards, city seemed different, I was different, everything was different and a whole chain of events began that day that continues to this.

When I'm long gone, when this city and all its complications are long gone, the rivers will still be there, flowing freely once more, out into the land, out into each other and out into the sea, just as they always did………

13 comments:

Stella Polaris said...

Heaven's. I love the new song, I love the Podcast and I love this blog entry.

I hope this blog doesn't die, like some blogs tend to do. It's a beautiful read.

Alex de Campi said...

Impressive opening salvo. You write well. Keep it up.

..................................... said...

Looking forward to the next rehearsal!

Ant said...

Thanks for leaving us the podcasts. Keep them coming - I feel I'm slowly being drawn into another world by listening to them. I loved the story about the hidden rivers of London, my Dad used to tell me about them but I didnt really believe him when I was little. Later I discovered the Wandle, which exists as a little lake and a bit of river in South London before it gets pipe-bound.

Saw you at the RFH and the Spitz - and an addiction began. Decimated at your comments that TRTW are finished... what's next? Where can we catch more performances? Do we have to wait somewhere in damp, rat-infested drains...

mouchettes cat said...

feeling lost
i stumbled over the podcasts and find this weird place.
since broadband arrived in our village things things have been changing. And this site cements the lid on the old life here. no more Kicking the cat behind the tractor for me. No, its late night venting for me from here on inn.

thanx for a mind opening experience.
love the tales
thank the band for being great
love what the kids of clarkenwell are listening to
Next time your heading west come to tideford in cornwall. play in the pub, or the tub or wherever.

we are close to the port eliot literary festival
maybe we see you there next summer. if not b4.

anyways i'm off now to try and find somthing to do untill the next podcast is disceminated.



FYI Tideford or tide ford is the first place you can cross the river lyner at any tide.

clerkenwell kid said...

well, we are all lost dear Cat aren't we?.

we were down in Cornwall in late summer - how long ago and far away that seems now - would love to come again soon......

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nell said...

I keep coming back to re-read this one. It grabs at that part of me that spends far too much time thinking about bits of the past that have been hidden away from modern eyes. I always want to get at them...touch them. I'm still trying to figure out how to get into the sewers below Hampton Court Palace.
It tickles me to no end that you were able to see that lost bit of the Fleet.

Cheers,
nell

clerkenwell kid said...

hey nell

Couldn't get you into Hampton Court - I'm not sure they'll lt you see the Fleet even in these paranoid times but you could check out: "London beneath the Pavement" by Michael Harrison, "The Lost rivers of London'' Nicholas Barton or "Underground London" by Stephen Smith (all currently on AL Quaida reading lists) for more watery anecdotes - ther's a particularly good one about a pig getting stuck in the Flett and being found two weeks later many pounds HEAVIER.......

nell said...

Dang! And I was going to try to include the Fleet in my next Sneaking Into Places You Should Not Be itinerary.
Strangely...I have checked out all three of those books and keep intending to buy them...but I am torn on which one to get first.
We have stayed at Hampton Court three or four times now through the Landmark Trust and each time I get a little bit closer to seeing the hidden bits. The guards keep teasing me for knowing more about the place than they do. That is due in part to my husband tracking down the three book series Ernest Law wrote on the history of the Palace. (I have a thing for certain buildings and he has a thing for humoring me.) I'm determined to get into a particular tower that is one of the last remaining examples of royal apartments being stacked. Shortly after the tower was constructed the trend changed towards a series of connecting apartments on one level. (I'm still not sure why I want to see this, but I try not to question things that worm their way into my dreams.) The tower is now a private residence so I might have to turn on the charm and smile sweetly to gain access.
I love a good dead bloated pig story. The belly of the lovely dead pig on display in kitchens at Hampton Court can be viewed from the sewer. It was too large so they sunk it down to make it fit. How odd is it that I would like to tickle that dead pig belly? Yet another thing I should not question.

Cheers,
nell

nell said...

Okay...so I got rambling about my architectural obsessions and forgot to ask...what sort of shape is the Fleet in these days? I know that from the mid 1600's through to the mid 1700's it was consistently referred to as being little more than an open sewer. Hence the covering it up part of the story.

Cheers,
nell

clerkenwell kid said...

when i saw it it the lower part was in a beautiful oval brick tunnel (designed by Bazalgette presumably). the upper reaches get too small to walk in but the large chamber at the outfall into the thames is spookily big.

the water is actually pretty clean now - it only really takes surface water from the city streets - no solids....

nell said...

Ahhhh....Bazalgette...the man who helped end the "Great Stink of London" and keep cholera at bay. Take that Christopher Wren! (I suppose I should stop taunting the dead. But..what are they gonna do? Give me bad Hoo-Doo?)
Happily these days there are far fewer "solids" in the streets of London.

Cheers,
nell