All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015


I started this blog over five years ago with an account of a visit I paid to the lost River Fleet.  London's subterranean waterways have remained an obsession.  I don't know why.

Here is a picture of the gate which guards one of the mouths of another river, the Tyburn, under Westminster.  It's very difficult to get in there now - it flows beneath Buckingham Palace so I suppose they are very concerned about terrorists getting access to the Queen's loo.

Seeing it yesterday reminded me of the sewermen I met when I visited the Fleet.  A couple of them were quite old then and must have retired now I am sure.  They had spent all their working life roaming the vast underground labyrinths of London and had a knowledge of the system which had been passed down verbally for over a hundred years by those who preceded them. This knowledge could not be written down and will be lost when they are gone -  the privatised Thames Water company have stopped recruiting the necessary apprentices for the usual cost and profit reasons.

It must have been a strange and difficult job - and one with a kind of lineage back to the 'mudlarks' and 'toshers' described by Stow in his 'Survey of London'.  These were the hereditary 'guilds' of professional scavengers who trawled the Thames foreshore and the city sewers for valuable items (including dead bodies which could be sold to surgeons for dissection).

I asked the oldest sewerman what was the spookiest thing he had found underground  - expecting some horror story of vicious rats or mangled bones.  He told me that he seen many strange things but the one that haunted him still was the memory of the time he turned a corner into some subterranean chamber far below the Strand and discovered a perfect Victorian cast iron double bed-stead standing there in the darkness.  This otherwise innocuous domestic object was made so strange by the fact that there was no hole anywhere big enough for it to have fallen in.

In other words, somebody had taken it in gradually in pieces and for heaven-alone-knows-what-reason re-erected it there on purpose.


spillyjane said...

Your account of your visit to the River Fleet sounds like it was quite the adventure. I can totally understand the fixation with the lost rivers! Clearly the obsession is contagious as I have caught the bug as well.

Happily, fate has revealed that I will be in London this March, so I hope to have the chance to seek out the rivers myself. Should you have any particular recommendations (and if you don't mind, of course,) I would be happy to hear them.

Darren Allen said...

Dear Mr Kid,

You'll remember me, small perhaps, as he who enjoys sailing by your winds, possibly as the only person dancing at your hungamunga performance (why didn't they dance?). Forgive me for posting off topic - although I should say that, being the meadows and mountains kind, you've not been ineffective with your stories of London in giving purple and body to my always colourless and stretched-thin feeling for for the place - but I have a song which I'd like you to hear...

...if you like it, can you send me an email (details on my blog) because partly I want to do something with it and don't know how but mainly because that would be top-gallant good.

Yours, in abeyance,


Tamsin said...

More fantastic tales. It's especially strange (being from the countryside) to visualise all of that energy flowing underneath the city, seems far too easily tamed to me. I wonder what happens when flooding occurs? The bed would get soggy for starters.

On more unrelated notes I just stumbled across Beats Antique. Not much similarity, mainly reminds me of the Fifth Element soundtrack.

And just as you appreciate The Retronaut, he also likes your style.

ellie said...

epic, i would love to visit forgotten rivers and the such (:

clerkenwell kid said...

Well you can't see too much of them now. The River Lea is above ground in the east - and a bit of the Wandle is visible in Wandsworth. The Westbourne fills the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park and passes overhead in a green pipe at Sloane Square tube.

There are some wet muddy bits on Hampstead Heath - the beginnings of the Fleet (which fills Hampstead ponds). And overground that's it really apart from the places they discharge into the Thames.

But their presence is felt still in the topgraphy of the city - the Fleet valley is very obvious when you know where to look in Clerkenwell. Also they live on in many street and place names - Fleet Street, Tyburnia, Westbourne Grove, Walbrook etc.

With regard to trapped energy - it is true - you cannot really get rid of a river. The Fleet exploded spectacularly in the late 19th c and there are still tales of the odd eruption into city basements.

Nice blog Darren - thanks. I will link to it

Darren Allen said...

Thank you.

spillyjane said...

It's finally happened -- I've knitted Clerkenwell (socks.) Let me know if you'd like a pair or two for yourself and/or the shop. Hope you like them...

Ms. Kimba said...

I will also be in London, Addlestone actually, In March....I'll be thinking about this. And there's a shop?????

clerkenwell kid said...

Jane these are bloody gorgeous..

Yes and yes. Nix will be in touch


clerkenwell kid said...

Dear Ms Kimba

Follow the Antique Boutique Link

bARE-eYED sUN said...

now this was truly spooky! :-(

thank you for sharing this very interesting post. :-)


spillyjane said...

Thanks so much; I am delighted to hear that you like them! They are an absolute pleasure to work.

Ah, you've made my day -- looking forward to hearing from Nix.

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