Today we were going hunting. No, not for the Peregrine falcon - the fastest animal in the world and devourer of dirty London pigeons, nor the rare London variety of the Bolbitius fungus. Today we were in search of London's largest subterranean river - The River Fleet. Largest? There's a smaller one - I hear you ask? You may be surprised to know (or you may not, depending on your general subterranean river knowledge), that there are around SIXTEEN, yes, sixteen, so-called 'lost' rivers running underneath our Capital - many of them having played an important role in the development of our City.
These rivers have sadly been mostly forgotten, as the metropolis of London grows, buildings being built upon buildings - pushing them underground, forced into culverts and flowing out of the people's consciousness altogether. It is somewhat surprising that these rivers have been forgotten, especially when they have affected the City's topography and many street names, buildings and other areas reflect the rivers' involvement in the area. In recent years, parts of some London rivers have been restored to their previous above-ground state, and in some cases fish have been reintroduced. In June 2008 outline plans to reinstate some underground rivers were published by the office of Mayor of London, and in January 2009 a partnership between the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Greater London Authority set out a strategy for putting this into effect by creating the River Restoration Centre.
Now we don't claim to be experts on this subject, so all you qualified subterranean river hunters out there, don't judge us. We just like to have fun in our lunch break and explore as far as we can within the confines of one hour. So here goes, our quest for the Fleet begins!
A gorgeous sunny day was bestowed upon us, perfect for river hunting activities. We jumped on the tube and emerged into daylight at Farringdon Station amongst the chaos of the new station construction. We headed in the direction of Charterhouse Street where it joins Farringdon Road. We were in search of an elusive grid in the middle of the road where apparently we would be able to hear the gushing waters of the Fleet itself below our very feet! We spied the grid in the middle of the road - quite perilous to reach, but we had come this far, we were not about to turn back.
The grid in the middle of the road
Dodging London traffic, we dashed across to the middle of the road. Looking down at the grid, it really didn't seem particularly interesting. From our standing position, we saw nothing, and heard nothing! So we decided drastic measures were required. I decided to go down for a closer look/listen while Deborah kept a look out for passing trucks.
Very disappointing to say the least. Just a dry hole with chewing gum wrappers and a few cigarette butts. A passing taxi driver asked "enjoying yourself love?", and a cyclist stopped to ask what I was doing, so of course we were happy to explain. This led to an interesting conversation and a mutual swapping of London facts. We were not deterred by this seeming failure!
We decided to turn our heels northwards in the direction of the Coach & Horses pub in Ray Street. No, not for a pint to drown our sorrows, but to investigate further grating in the middle of the road! When we reached Ray Street, we could clearly see how the position of the river underground could still be seen in the surrounding streetscape - an obvious flowing river shape through Ray Street and beyond, a valley where the river once flowed. The grate was right there in the middle of the road. Time to investigate.
The grate in question outside the Coach & Horses pub
I'm happy to report that we were rewarded for our efforts!! As we got down on bended knees, we could hear the river rushing below us, loud and clear!! Time to take sound samples! We were overjoyed at finding the rushing (if somewhat smelly) waters of the Fleet.
Me taking a sound recording - audible proof!
Click here to listen to my recording of the Fleet! (If this doesn't work, apologies, will investigate)
Deborah collecting photographic evidence
Now that we had found what we'd been looking for, we decided to order ourselves a cold beverage to reward our efforts at the nearby Coach & Horses. As we sat there, looking along Ray Street, we allowed our minds to drift back in time and tried to imagine the once fertile valley where the wonderful River Fleet had flowed. Over our ice cold tipples we discussed various facts about Tte Fleet.
The River Fleet's headwaters are two streams on Hampstead Heath; each is now dammed into a series of ponds made in the 18th century, the Hampstead Ponds and the Highgate Ponds. At the south edge of Hampstead Heath these two streams flow underground as sewers which join Camden Town. From the ponds the water flows underground for 4 miles to join the River Thames.
Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon fleot - 'tidal inlet'. In Anglo-Saxon times, the Fleet served as a dock for shipping.
Entrance to the Fleet River - Samuel Scott c. 1750
In Roman times, the Fleet was a major river, with its estuary possibly containing the oldest tidal mill in the world. In Anglo-Saxon times, the Fleet was still a substantial body of water, joining the Thames through a marshy tidal basin over 100 yards wide at the mouth of the Fleet Valley. Many wells were built along its banks, and some on springs (Bagnigge Well, Clerkenwell) and St Bride's Well, were reputed to have healing qualities; in the 13th century the river was called River of Wells.
The river also gives its name to Fleet Street which runs from Ludgate Circus to Temple Bar at The Strand. During the 1970s, a planned London Underground tube was to lie under the line of Fleet Street and was originally named 'Fleet Line'. However this part of the route was not constructed and the line was terminated at Charing Cross and renamed as the Jubilee Line to commemorate the Queen's Silver Jubilee of 1977. There were some objections to the cost of renaming the line and protest leaflets appeared with the slogan 'Would Jubileeve It?'.
After a jolly historical discussion we realised we were short on time and jumped in a passing taxi, arriving back in the office with minutes to spare. Another enjoyable trip, and over the moon that we'd discovered what we had set out to find.
Following on from our Fleet discovery adventure, we decided that to finish the story off nicely it was necessary to trace the Fleet right up to where it flows out into the Thames. So we did. The very next day. It was murky, wet and dreary, perfect conditions. You see, in wet weather the murky Fleet can be seen gushing into the Thames at a right angle on a very low tide from the Thameswalk exit of Blackfriars station, immediately under the Blackfriars Bridge. We attempted to time it right with the tide table, low tide here we come.
So off we went, and found ourselves quite promptly standing in the exact spot we had aimed for. We were looking for a ladder that descends into the water - if we looked down from here, we should see the Fleet gushing out.
Hard to spot, but the Fleet exit is just under the bridge on the left
Slightly better view
Not easy to spot but just under the bridge here you can see the archway where the Fleet is joining the Thames. Unfortunately the tide was a little too high to see the gushing. But not to worry, we had found the official Fleet exit and it was amazing to know that the river was flowing out into the Thames silently below us. The sneaky Fleet!
Until next time viewers.
"You can bury them deep under, sir; you can bind them in tunnels, ...but in the end where a river has been, a river will always be". - Thrones, Dominations