Book review: ‘London’s Hidden Rivers’ by David Fathers

A dozen ancient tributaries of the Thames are still there, if you know where to look.

So many books have now been published about London’s ‘lost’ rivers that it seems wrong to keep describing them as such. Perhaps this is why writer and illustrator David Fathers plumped instead for the word ‘hidden’ in the title of his book about the city’s subterranean waterways, ‘London’s Hidden Rivers: A Walker’s Guide to the Subterranean Waterways of London’ (Frances Lincoln, £9.99, ISBN 9780711235540).

While it’s true that all the rivers he features were long ago banished underground after becoming clogged with all manner of waste, what self-respecting Londoner is genuinely ignorant of the likes of the Fleet or Tyburn? The former you can still bathe in (sort of) as it feeds the swimming ponds on Hampstead Heath. The latter can be viewed, albeit enclosed in a cast iron pipe, from a platform inside Baker Street station. It is also immortalised in the name of a convent close to where Catholics were executed at the Tyburn Tree gallows. Not totally hidden, then.

In all, 12 Thames tributaries feature in Fathers’ book. These waterways were, as he puts it, “press-ganged” to varying degrees into serving the city’s sewer system, principally the visionary network designed by great Victorian engineer Joseph Bazalgette. In curbing the cholera epidemic by consigning London’s leaky cesspits to the dustbin of history, Bazalgette probably did more for public health than even the NHS (created around 80 years after the great man’s masterpiece was completed) could ever hope to achieve.

Having recently voyaged into a Bazalgette sewer as part of an annual public event organised by Thames Water, I can confirm that these engineering masterworks are still in brilliant working order and they boast inch-perfect brickwork more worthy of a temple than a channel for urine and faeces, but I digress.

‘London’s Hidden Rivers’ is intended as a walker’s guide. It discharges this function superbly, most notably by being small and lightweight. No one wants a great big doorstopper of a book weighing them down on a hike. Fathers’ maps plotting the best ways to walk the course of the various rivers are easy to follow. His illustrations are prone to give budding urban explorers itchy feet, while his eclectic titbits of trivia will whet the appetites of all who wish to delve under the skin of this most multi-layered of metropolises.

Engineers will find much of interest. The route of Southwark’s River Neckinger goes past the Michael Faraday Memorial, the architecturally brutalist box in Elephant and Castle that contains an electricity substation for the London Underground and which honours the father of electromagnetic induction. Following the course of the River Effra, also in south London, leads one past some wonderful examples of Victorian engineering in the form of elevated rail lines installed because the land was vulnerable to flooding (because of the river, naturally).

These rivers may be buried but they are still there, and they can still make their presence felt. There have been numerous instances of the old waterways remerging to engulf basements after heavy downpours – for example, in 1977 in Marylebone inside what at that time was an abandoned manufacturing plant. The building is now home to Grays Antique Centre, and visitors to that same basement can now apparently view a small strip of water complete with fish and an ornamental bridge. This is claimed to be the famed River Tyburn – against all logic, but who would begrudge Londoners a few riverine myths? Such tall tales go to show in what high affection the ancient watercourses continue to be held. It’s amazing how once you start looking for them you will notice watery words like ‘brook’, ‘ford’ and ‘well’ cropping up in street names everywhere in the British capital. Then there are the manhole covers, aficionados of which reputedly include Jeremy Corbyn. They, like Mr Corbyn himself, are clearly something of an acquired taste. And finally there are the pumping stations, old factories, waterworks and sluice gates attached to the various ‘hidden’ rivers.

‘London’s Hidden Rivers’ may not be the most comprehensive book on the subject, but that is part of its charm. It’s slim, accessible and serves as a fab introduction. Though it is intended to be dipped into rather than read in any particular order, it rounds off, suitably enough, with a short article about Bazalgette’s legacy and the new Thames Tideway Tunnel – the so-called super-sewer, construction of which begins later this year.

The tunnel will mark the start of a new chapter for London’s rivers-turned-sewers. Once it is finished, the practice of discharging millions of tonnes of raw sewage into the Thames during times of heavy rainfall will pretty much stop, allowing the ecology of the mother of London’s rivers to recover to an extent. By the mid-2020s we could even start dusting off the plans, advanced by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire, to turn the River Fleet into a Venetian-style canal, or thinking about letting some of our other buried rivers see the light of day once more.

Close to where I live in east London there was recently a small campaign to resurrect the culverted Hackney Brook. The idea was given short shrift by Tom Bolton, the author of another book on London’s lesser-known waterways. “The attraction of these buried rivers is their mystery,” he told me. “The fact that they are there and not there, that we know about them but we can’t quite access them. That mystery is the crucial thing.”

Then again, perhaps he has a point.

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