Exploring the secret river flowing beneath London

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Oct - 10 - 2011

Miners’ lamps flash against the cold, damp subterranean walls and the tunnel ahead looks interminable. And if claustrophobia and darkness were not enough to deter the faint of heart, there are rats and the rising tide to think about while splashing through a foot of dirty water.

The Thames is not the only great river to have graced London in the city’s long history. The Fleet was a clear sparkling river that for centuries ran from its source at Hampstead Heath to the Thames. Now its banks are found in a series of labyrinthine sewer tunnels, deep underground, for the brave and hardy to explore.

Trudging along in thigh-high boots, the walk isn’t easy — it is against the current and rather bumpy, but the ghosts of times gone by are a constant companion…

The River Fleet’s long and fascinating history goes all the way back to Roman times, when it was a major river and contained one of the oldest tidal mills in the world. Later on, in Anglo-Saxon times, the river was a dock for shipping at the point where it joined the Thames in a marshy tidal basin 100 yards wide. You can still see iron hoops that may have been used to tie up ships to the banks.

At one time, gaily dressed women with parasols and men in their top hats promenaded in nearby gardens. They partook of the ‘healing’ waters at spas along the Fleet’s upper route — such as those in Bagnigge, a famous well. Further into London, however, it was a different story. As industry inexorably made London its headquarters, the River Fleet declined into a mishmash of sewage and garbage. Even old carcasses were thrown into it.

In 1598 John Stow, author of The Survey of London, wrote that the Fleet was “impassable for boats, by reason of the many encroachments thereon made, by the throwing of offal and other garbage by butchers, saucemen and others, and by reason of the many houses of office standing upon it.” A “house of office” was a toilet that emptied into the river below.

When London was seized by the terrifying experience of the Great Fire in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren proposed that the Fleet be widened, and it was turned into the New Canal. The New Canal was broader (about 30 feet wide) and straighter.

The wharves can still be recalled in the short lanes and alleys of Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane. It is clear from the alley names that one of the most common products at the wharves was coal that came down the coast. The upper canal was culverted over in 1737 to make the Fleet Market.

Finally, due to disuse, stink and sewage, the final operations to cover the river were carried out in the 1870s. From this point on, the Fleet was out of sight if not always out of mind…

The river is still a tidal river, and those who want to make arrangements to visit the underground tunnels have to be careful about timing: the water will rise to the roof within 30 minutes. It’s not a place for the easily scared.

Due to the Great Stink of 1858, when sewage made the smell of London unbearable, 70% of all of the city’s river networks were covered. You can guess where they were, however, by the road names. Fleet Street is still one of the most famous streets in London, known for its past use by newspaper companies.

If you happen to be at the Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street, Clerkenwell, there is a grating through which you can hear the sounds of the river. The remains of The Fleet are found deep underground, in one place as much as 40 feet below ground.

Here, we see slick, shallow steps leading down further into the depths of the sewer; when exploring this place today there is always a sense of journeying back in time…
Yes, the Fleet River Sewer still flows under London, the residue of a time long past when it was a river, and later a destination not just for detritus and waste, but also for the people who earned a living in its dank, smelly waters. So-called mudlarks and toshers scavenged items of value there, including bits of coal that had dropped off barges. Often these people were small children trying to eke out a living underground.
Nowadays the river is still visited, but mainly by those interested in its history, and in exploration — like the robust and excellent photographer who took these images. If your curiosity has been piqued, it’s possible to make arrangements with Thames Water to go down yourself and tour the river.

Written by Michele Collet
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