Monday, August 01, 2005
Reviewing the Fleet - August 2005
Reviewing the Fleet
THE RIVER FLEET
London is famous for one river and one river alone - the Thames. But there were once several other rivers crossing the clay basin of the lower Thames valley, all long since covered over by the capital's suburban sprawl. And the greatest of these was the Fleet. I've been busy tracking down the visible remains of this long-lost river and I'll be telling you all about my travels over the next month. It's a fascinating journey from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day and, even better, it's all downhill.
The River Fleet rose (indeed still rises) to either side of Parliament Hill, with one branch tumbling down from Highgate and the other from Hampstead. Check out a relief map of London and you'll see that several rivers once flowed down from the heights of Hampstead, including the equally-lost Westbourne and Tyburn. From Hampstead Heath the two forks of the Fleet ran through what is now Belsize Park and Kentish Town before amalgamating in Camden, then flowed on through St Pancras and Kings Cross. The river here was once up to 20 metres across, widening further through what would become Clerkenwell and Farringdon as other small tributaries linked up. Eventually, after a five mile descent, the Fleet reached a tidal basin 100 metres wide at the mouth of the Thames, right beneath where Blackfriars Bridge now stands. It was this feature that gave the river its name, from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fleot' meaning 'tidal inlet' or 'a place where vessels float'.
The waters of the Fleet were fresh, clear and sparkling, at least until Londoners arrived. The lower reaches of the river formed the western boundary of the medieval city, just outside Ludgate close to St Paul's Cathedral. During the 13th century mills, meat markets, tanneries and other industries grew up along the banks, polluting the river with blood, sewage and other unpleasant waste. As more water was drawn from the river it gradually became shallower and slower-running, frequently silting up with smelly rubbish. Well-to-do Londoners still flocked to various spas, springs and wells further upstream which were said to have healing properties but, further downstream, the Fleet gradually became an undrinkable open sewer lined by slums and prisons, and a conduit for the spread of disease. Sir Christopher Wren got his hands on the area following the Great Fire of London and by 1680 he had transformed the lower Fleet into the New Canal, more reminiscent of Venice than London. But the canal was poorly used (and still stank) and so soon fell into disrepair. The Fleet's days were numbered.
1730s: Channelled underground from Holborn to Fleet Street, beneath what is now Farringdon Road.
1760s: Filled in and arched over from Fleet Street to the Thames, covered by what is now New Bridge Street.
1810s: Submerged between Camden and Kings Cross due to urban growth surrounding the new Regent's Canal.
1860s: Incorporated throughout into the capital's new network of sewers, designed by Joseph Bazalgette.
1870s: Disappeared in its upper reaches beneath the new suburbs of Hampstead and Kentish Town.
The Fleet started as a river, declined to a brook, dwindled to a ditch and was finally demoted to a drain. Today it serves no function greater than as a storm relief sewer, buried unnoticed beneath the bustling streets of modern London. Only a few small streams and ponds are still visible, right up near the source on Hampstead Heath, but the river still leaves its trace further down across central London if you know where to look. Stand in the right place (I'll tell you where later) and you can still hear the waters bubbling up through an innocent-looking drain cover. Contours can be a dead giveaway too - the very obvious valley between Clerkenwell and Holborn, for example, could only have been carved by a once mighty river. And there are still plenty of clues left behind in street patterns and street names (such as those pictured below), tangible evidence of the capital's forgotten rural and industrial past. I'll be exploring all these riverside locations and many more further down the page, starting high above Hampstead. Do join me in reviewing, and re-viewing, the Fleet.
The essential Fleet
Book: The Lost Rivers of London Nicholas Barton [scholarly, detailed but expensive]
Book: The Groundwater Diaries Tim Bradford [quirky, personal and not especially informative]
Map: the lost rivers of London [pdf]
Maps: 1300, 1676, 1705, 1749, 1786, 1799, 1827, 1830, 2004 [track down the Fleet for yourself]
History: Henry Harben (1918), Peter van Linden, A.N. Wilson, Rhodri Marsden, Google Answers
Fleet northeast: Kenwood to Camden (via Kentish Town)
Reviewing the Fleet
The source of the Fleet
My journey begins at the source of the eastern branch of the river Fleet (or at the sources, for there are in fact several). With the aid of a good map I located as many sources as possible and then yomped around the Kenwood area to try to take a photograph of each one. This proved tricky because most of the sources were hidden away in shady undergrowth, and some of the tiny streams had dried up in the summer heat. But the top of Hampstead Heath is the only place left in London where you can still see the River Fleet on the surface, as a river, so it was well worth the effort. And I was ultimately successful, as my Flickr photostream reveals.
Reviewing the Fleet
The northernmost source of the River Fleet lies 100m above sea level in the ancient woodland of Caen Wood, on a sandy ridge at the very top of Hampstead Heath. The Highgate branch of the river rises in the grounds of what is now Kenwood House, an 18th century neoclassical villa owned by top judge Lord Mansfield. The richly decorated library is especially fine, and the stuccoed facade quite magnificent. In the 1920s the property was in danger of being sold off and the estate given over to housing. But Lord Iveagh, heir to the Guinness millions, stepped in and bought the house for the nation, bequeathing with it an outstanding art portfolio that can still be seen today. For free. I was particularly taken by a Constable miniature of the local heathland and a Rembrandt self-portrait, but also enjoyed works by Vermeer, Turner and Gainsborough, and a series of Stuart portraits upstairs in the Suffolk Collection. Maybe I'll come back and do the tearooms in 20 years time.
Every summer Kenwood hosts a series of open air concerts, rather more Classic FM than Radio 3, and definitely more Radio 2 than Radio 1. Last weekend you missed Will Young, but you're not yet too late for Jools Holland, Katie Melua or the last night of the Kenwood Proms. Life is rather more quiet and sedate here for the rest of the year. Kenwood's grounds are huge, and really quite diverse. There are ornate gardens, there's untouched oak woodland, there are extensive meadows, and there are statues by Moore and Hepworth. There's also a lush green lawn leading down to an idyllic pair of lakes, although that white structure at one end is actually a wooden cut-out masquerading as a bridge. And look more carefully in the summer-browned grass, just to the south of the main terrace, and you may spot a thin meandering wiggle of earth which (in wetter weather) is one of the sources of the river Fleet. Further west, in mid-meadow, a second source originates in a fenced-off sphagnum bog. It's much more pleasant than it sounds and, if you manage to find the gated entrance, you can stand in the middle surrounded by bees, butterflies and waving marsh flowers. Magic.
by bus: 210
Reviewing the Fleet
It is, quite frankly, astonishing that so large an area of unspoilt heathland should still exist just four miles from central London. Hampstead Heath covers 800 acres of prime quality real estate, and yet it's covered not by houses but by grass, trees and wildlife (and slightly dodgy blokes after dark). It nearly wasn't so. In the early 1800s most of Hampstead Heath was owned by lord of the manor Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson. He was keen to make a sizeable fortune by selling off his land for development, but the required Act of Parliament was stopped in its tracks by an outcry in the Commons. Sir Thomas tried again and again over the next 40 years, but was always thwarted by local public opinion. On his death in 1869 his estate was promptly snapped up by the Metropolitan Board of Works for the princely sum of £45000, plus £2000 expenses. Many further acquisitions were made, extending still further the area of protected land, and the preservation of this unique heathland habitat is now the responsibility of the Corporation of London.
You just can't beat the pleasure of a stroll across Hampstead Heath in the summer sunshine. Maybe you'll head for the open grassland, perhaps you prefer the wooded undergrowth, or maybe you'll just follow one of the well-worn paths and see where it takes you. It's even possible to find remote areas well away from the picnickers, the kite fliers and the dogwalkers if you look carefully enough, usually up on the highest ground in the centre of the heath. And the view can be spectacular, either across the Fleet valley towards the summit of Highgate or (more popularly) south from Parliament Hill towards the meandering Thames. It's only up here, with such an impressive panorama spread out before you, that you begin to realise just how wide central London really is. Can the Gherkin and the Post Office Tower really be quite so far apart? Apparently so.
There's a new attraction on the slopes of Parliament Hill this summer - a Jack and the Beanstalk sized desk and chair. It's contemporary art, obviously - a 30 foot tall wooden installation by Italian artist Giancarlo Neri entitled The Writer. Giancarlo describes his work as "a monument to the loneliness of the writer", which I can relate to, then ruins the illusion by adding that he "challenges the notion of the writer's inherently private workplace by installing it in the most public of contexts", which is clearly artistic bollocks. The piece looks impressive from a distance and has proved a magnet for flocks of heathgoers who come to stare, touch or just sit and eat sandwiches at its feet. Close up the wood looks a little cheaper and less sturdy although, judging by the graffiti on the side of the tabletop, it's strong enough for an (illiterate) hooligan to climb right up to the summit.
The Corporation of London - the landowner
The Heath and Hampstead Society - local guardians since 1897
Heath Hands - the local volunteer force
Map, map; trails, trails [pdfs]
A Hampstead Heath walk
A (very) full history of the Heath
Reviewing the Fleet
None of the ponds on Hampstead Heath are natural, including the string of six Highgate Ponds down the Fleet valley on the eastern side. These were formed in the late 17th century when the upper reaches of the river Fleet were dammed, creating reservoirs which supplied drinking water to the St Pancras area further downstream. Here's my clickable guide to the Highgate ponds [map here], working down from north to south:
Stock pond: It's quite quiet this one, wooded on almost all sides and very much left to its own devices as a nature reserve.
Ladies' bathing pond: Don't think young maidens in bikinis, think old matrons sporting bathing costumes (or perhaps rather less). The pond is well screened by trees from the eastern entrance ["Women only. Men not allowed beyond this point"] but you can get a full eyeful from the footpath along the western edge. This unique facility has recently been under threat of closure, forcing the Corporation of London to introduce a £2 admission charge. Further details here.
Bird sanctuary pond: It's a pond, and it's a bird sanctuary, what did you expect? In particular expect to see a lot of waterfowl, the odd nesting kingfisher and maybe even local resident twitcher Bill Oddie.
Model boating pond: This one's very shallow. Before Playstations, frisbees and hard drugs, young Victorian boys used to spend their free time whipping toy yachts across big lakes, like this one. You don't see much of that sort of activity any more, even round here."The sunset tipped with gold St. Michael's Church, Men's bathing pond: The male equivalent of the oestrogen-soaked pool three ponds north, also recently under threat of closure. Nude bathing is popular, as is jumping into the very cold water from the big jetty in the middle. The bodies on show are a mix of old and wrinkled and young and toned. On a hot day several of the bathers preen themselves on the small lawn outside the entrance after they've finished splashing about in the Fleety waters.
Shouts of boys bathing came from Highgate Ponds,
The elms that hid the houses of the great
Rustled with mystery, and dirt-grey sheep
Grazed in the foreground" (John Betjeman)
Highgate number 1 pond: There's been absolutely no originality whatsoever in the naming of this pond. Some ducks live here. Once home to "The Monster of Highgate Ponds" - a 1961 Children's Film foundation classic.
Reviewing the Fleet
The Fleet heads underground as it exits Hampstead Heath across Highgate Road, between the post office and the tennis courts. It used to run along the surface beside wiggly Swains Lane, but today it lies buried deep beneath a blanket of high class Victorian suburbia. In its higher reaches Swains Lane is a surprisingly steep and narrow road, more San Francisco than central London. A tributary of the Fleet once tumbled down this hillside from the heights of Highgate and, almost precisely where this branch of the river used to start, is the most amazing cemetery in the capital.
Highgate Cemetery was one of London's first private graveyards, opened in 1839 when local churchyards became too densely populated. There are ornate headstones, giant mausoleums and magnificent tombs, all laid out across the hillside in an imposing Gothic style. Up at the summit the Circle of Lebanon is a ring of sunken burial vaults centred around a tall cedar tree, the final resting place of lesbian novelist Radclyffe Hall (amongst others). Close by is the Egyptian Avenue, a stone tunnel with columned entrance worthy of an Indiana Jones film set. Admittance to the old cemetery is by guided tour only, run by quirky ageing volunteers who insist on due reverence (and make sure you've turned your mobile off). My dad and I were lucky enough to visit three years ago, and we found the place dark, mysterious and magical. Perfect setting for a vampire story, it is.
So successful was Highgate Cemetery that an extension was built across the road on the eastern side a few years later, this rather flatter and more open. It's here amongst angelic headstones that some really famous people are buried, and you can walk in their presence for the bargain price of two pounds (plus another quid for your camera). Many make a special pilgrimage here to pay homage at the grave of Karl Marx, whose bearded stony features stare down from the top of a large granite plinth inscribed with the words "Workers of all lands unite". Elsewhere you may stumble across the remains of authoress George Eliot, bookshop founder William Foyle, top scientist Michael Faraday, poet Christina Rossetti, postage stamp inventor Sir Rowland Hill, actor Sir Ralph Richardson and comedian Max Wall. One of the most recent burials (in 2001) was that of author and hitchhiker Douglas Adams, although his grave is unmarked. And, in amongst all the great and good, lie the undistinguished Victorian middle class - gone but not forgotten.
Highgate Cemetery links (because other people can do this place justice better than I can)
Friends of Highgate Cemetery (they run the place, oddly)
Tales of the Highgate dead, or find a grave here
London cemeteries, including Highgate West and East
Gothic photos, comprehensive photos, yet more photos
A bit of a history of the place
Reviewing the Fleet
Dartmouth Park is one of those residential London suburbs that I bet you've never heard of, probably because it doesn't have its own station. It lies south of Highgate, west of Tufnell Park and north of Gospel Oak, clinging to the eastern edge of Hampstead Heath. The gated avenues to the north are lined with exclusive suburban mansions and mock Tudor apartments, whereas the terraces to the south are rather more ordinary. It's also one of the best places in the capital for Fleet spotting. Look carefully and the former path of the river becomes blindingly obvious from the contours of the land. Several local roads dip down as they cross York Rise, revealing very clearly that a long-lost river once took this path down the hillside. Along the former riverbanks there's a tasteful old gastropub (the Dartmouth Arms) and, up the side wall of Roots hairdressing salon, a lovely faded painted advert for KM Lann outfitters [FANCY WORK, CORSETS, GLOVES, HOSIERY, LACES, RIBBONS, HABERDASHERY, FLANNELS, FLANNELETTES, CALICOES, UNDERCLOTHING, MAIDS' DRESSES, CAPS & APRONS]
But my most exciting find in Dartmouth Park was at the foot of York Rise, where a graffitied footbridge crosses the Gospel Oak to Barking railway line. There are two pairs of tracks, the southern running though a cutting much lower than the northern, and it seems unlikely that any underground river could pass beneath this manmade chasm. And so a big black pipe bursts briefly from the railway embankment, arching up over the tracks alongside the footbridge before plunging back down into the earth. It's very short, it's seen better days and it's well hidden beneath a leafy canopy, but I'd lay money that this ancient pipe carries the remains of the river Fleet. Above ground. It seems that even the deepest subterranean rivers have to pop up for air occasionally.
Following the Fleet: Swain's Lane, Brookfield Road, York Rise, footbridge, Ingestre Road, Burghley Road
Reviewing the Fleet
It's said that Kentish Town gained its name from the river Fleet - here a small stream originating in Kenwood, hence the "Ken Ditch". By the 15th century Kentish Town was a wealthy farming village, although regular flooding had forced the growing settlement to recentre slightly further from the river's edge. The middle classes moved in during the mid 1800s as omnibuses and then steam trains brought Kentish Town within commuting distance of the City, and this stretch of the Fleet was buried forever beneath rows of terraces. Follow the path of the old river today and you'll pass round the back of the music venue Forum, across the St Pancras railway and through a modern industrial estate. From here the trail leads through quiet Ocado-serviced residential streets, across Anglers Lane (where an old man's memories of fishing on the 19th century Fleet are written on the side of a Nando's restaurant), then on down busy Kentish Town Road to Camden Town. And here, beside what is now Quinn's Irish pub on Hawley Street, the eastern branch of the Fleet met up with the western branch and merged to form one great river. Of which more later...
Following the Fleet: Greenwood Place, Midland Mainline, Kentish Town Industrial Estate, Cathcart Street, Alma Street, Anglers Lane, Kentish Town Road
www.flickr.com: Fleet NE - Kenwood to Camden (via Kentish Town)
Fleet northwest: Hampstead to Camden (via Belsize Park)
Reviewing the Fleet
The Vale of Health
Time to backtrack to Hampstead to follow the western branch of the Fleet down to Camden. The groundwaters of the upper Fleet amass beneath the steep slopes to the west of Hampstead Heath, once bursting to the surface via springs and the Chalybeate Well (pictured). In 1701 these iron-rich waters were exploited by local landowner John Duffield who laid out a fashionable spa along Well Walk, and people came from far and wide to enjoy music and dancing (and the tavern and gambling dens outside). This area was later covered by dark tree-lined avenues of luxury mansions, and has for several centuries been home to the artistic and wealthy. John Constable, for example, lived out the last ten years of his life at number 40 Well Walk, while more recent local residents include Boy George and Esther Rantzen. Walking the elegant hillside avenues, I can well see the attraction.
The northwestern source of the river Fleet lies in the Vale of Health. Sounds lovely doesn't it, and today it is, but 300 years ago this was "a stagnate bottom, a pit in the heath" and an unhealthy mosquito-ridden spot. We're up around the highest point on Hampstead Heath, beneath the road that joins Jack Straw's Castle (giant old pub, now housing development) to Spaniard's Inn (even older and more historic pub, with tollgate that narrows the main road to a single carriageway). The boggy marshland here was drained in 1777 to create a small reservoir and the name was changed too, from Hatch's Bottom to the rather more sanitary Vale of Health. A tiny secluded village grew up above the pond, attracting such esteemed residents as James Leigh Hunt [romantic poet], Stella Gibbons [Cold Comfort Farm] and DH Lawrence [Lady Chatterley et al], and even Byron and Shelley once shared a cottage here. It's still a gorgeous (and unexpected) middle class enclave, complete with old black lampposts and winding alleyways, but also with sky-high house prices to match.
The pond at the Vale of Health is a marvellous place to stop, pause and reflect. I know because I've tried on three separate occasions to take a photograph of one particular lakeside view, only to be edged out by fishermen, snogging couples or fierce-looking men with giant unleashed dogs. The swans don't seem troubled by all the attention, however, nor the local residents peering out from their exclusive waterside gardens. In the southern corner is a small muddy beach, down where the yellow irises bloom. Here I spotted a seemingly insignificant rivulet of water exiting the pond and disappearing into a low hole beneath a metal drain cover. Following the contours downhill I discovered a tiny stream hidden deep in the undergrowth - the Fleet valley in miniature. For a magical 100 metres I tracked the river beneath a leafy oak canopy, descending through the bracken, tumbling beneath fallen branches. Here, well away from any well-trodden path, the fledgling river Fleet descends much as it must have done for hundreds of thousands of years, untouched and unspoilt. Sssh, don't tell everybody.
Reviewing the Fleet
Like their Highgate counterparts on the opposite side of Parliament Hill, the Hampstead ponds were created in the late 17th century by damming the waters of the upper Fleet. Now they're perfect for fishing, bathing, walking, or just exercising the dog. Here's my clickable guide to the five Hampstead ponds [map here], working down from north to south:
Vale of Health pond: We did this one yesterday, remember?
Viaduct pond: My favourite of the five (pictured), a gorgeous teardrop-shaped lily-covered pool. It's named after the red brick viaduct that runs across the northern tip, wide enough for a two-lane road but now carrying only a quiet footpath. The viaduct was built by greedy landowner Sir Thomas Maryon Wilson who mined clay and established sulphurous kilns on the Heath, then transported wagonloads of bricks away to build local houses. The brickfields, thankfully, have long since vanished beneath fresh vegetation as nature reasserts itself.
Mixed bathing pond: Not only are there separate male and female bathing ponds over on the Highgate side but there's also a mixed bathing pond over here in the Hampstead valley. Alas three all-year outdoor bathing pools are proving hard to fund, so the landowners are currently torn between making penny-pinching charges or swingeing cuts. Needless to say, local bathers are aghast and in campaigning mood.
Hampstead number 2 pond: Fisherman's haunt, thankfully not swimming with number twos.
Hampstead number 1 pond: Favoured destination of Heath visitors who can't be arsed to venture more than 100 yards from the car park. Clamber down by the water's edge and, if you're as lucky as I was, you can stand surrounded by butterflies, dragonflies and inquisitive wildfowl.
Famous nearby residents
Ernö Goldfinger (2 Willow Road) - the Hungarian architect of the Trellick Tower designed this modernist family home for himself and moved in in 1939. Near neighbour Ian Fleming hated the design so much that he sought revenge by naming one of his Bond supervillains 'Goldfinger'. The house is now owned by the National Trust, and a tour of this tiny time capsule is heartily recommended.
John Keats (Keats Grove) - the 19th century romantic poet lived at Wentworth Place in a road which has since been named after him. His sweetheart Fanny lived nextdoor and it was in this Hampstead garden, sat beneath the plum tree, that he composed his most famous Ode To A Nightingale. Keats died of tuberculosis at the age of just 25, and his house is now a museum.
Reviewing the Fleet
Whereas Fleet Street EC4 is world famous, Fleet Road NW3 is rather more ordinary (apart from the fact that the river of the same name still runs beneath it). Fleet Road is a fairly steep one-way street about half a kilometre long, just south of Hampstead Heath station. It's a very typical North London thoroughfare lying well off the tourist trail - and rightly so. At the top of the road is South End Green, the last outpost of Hampstead, where George Orwell once spent several months working in a bookshop (now a pizza restaurant). South End Green is choked by buses, with queues of 24s and 168s stacked up and a-revving at this over-busy terminus [photo], and quite frankly the South End Green residents have had enough [campaign website - saveourgreen.co.uk]. Unfortunately the alternative is to relocate all the parked 24s in Fleet Road instead [photo], and Fleet Road residents are mounting an equally vigorous opposition to these polluting proposals [campaign website - saveourstreet.co.uk]. There's plenty of neighbourly bickering and nimby-ing for the Ham and High to get its teeth into here.
Other than queueing buses, the most striking feature of Fleet Road is the Royal Free Hospital which towers high above everything at the top of the hill. It's a troubled facility, still reeling from receiving zero stars in the recent health review, and this month announced plans to shut 100 beds to save money. In the hospital's shadow is The White Horse pub, although I'm told The Stag halfway down the road serves a better pint. Fleet Road is also the place to come if you fancy buying a magazine from Fleet News (pictured), a bottle of vodka from Fleet Food & Wine or a curry from the Fleet Tandoori. To the south stands the Fleet Community Centre, complete with multicultural Fleet mosaic, and at the bottom of the hill is OFSTED-acclaimed Fleet Primary School. While much of London may have forgotten that subterranean rivers run beneath their feet, there's certainly no chance to experience fluvial amnesia down Fleet Road.
Reviewing the Fleet
snippets from Gospel Oak / Kentish Town
Gospel Oak: Michael Palin is this suburb's most famous resident. He tongue-in-cheek-ly announced in April "I'm too old now for these big series. Perhaps I could do a simpler one, like A History of Gospel Oak." If you've not read all of Michael's many travel books, you may be thrilled to discover that they're all (yes, all) available to read online on his wonderfully comprehensive Palin's Travels site.
Lismore Circus: Once the centre of an elegant Victorian street pattern, now redeveloped as a grassy public space in the middle of a godforsaken council estate (derelict shops, locked community centre, graffitied murals and mounds of dog poo). Quite eerie really. [photo]
Malden Road: The Newberry Arms was once a CAMRA-approved pub, but recently closed and is now in the process of being turned into apartments. Local campaigner Christopher Truman believes that the new flats are being built on a sacred site. He says "The river runs down Malden Road, right in front of the pub. I would remind them of the very powerful spirits of the River Fleet who might just rise up against them. Certainly they might flood any basements. No one will ever have a sound night's sleep there. Ever." Nutter.
Talacre Road: There are only six Kronk gyms in the world, each devoted to nurturing boxing excellence (including Lennox Lewis and Naseem Hamed). All of the Kronk gyms are in America - except for one incongruous corrugated iron shed in Kentish Town. Detroit it ain't. [photo]
Harmood Street: You wonder how some shops survive, especially hidden away down quiet residential backstreets, but presumably Walden Books survives by being quirky, independent and unique. It looks like someone's house transformed into a corner of Hay-on-Wye. Specialises in literature, history of art and philosophy. [photo]
Quinn's Irish Free House: The mustard and yellow pub [pictured] that you can't fail to notice on the corner of Kentish Town Road, Camden Road and Hawley Road. And it's almost on the very spot where the two upper branches of the River Fleet joined. Which means we've been here before. Ready to continue on down to the Thames? Ever onward...
Following the Fleet (approximately): Greenwood Place, Hampstead Heath station, Fleet Road, Gospel Oak Estate, Lismore Circus, Wellesley Road, Malden Road, Queens Crescent, Bassett Street, Rhyl Street, Talacre Road, Prince of Wales Road, Harmood Street, Clarence Way, Hawley Road
Reviewing the Fleet
Camden was just a small peaceful village on the banks of the Fleet until the early 18th century, at which point the Regent's Canal arrived. You remember the Regent's Canal - I spent a week walking the length of it back in May... which is good news because it means I don't have to go into great detail about the canal today. Here's a map of Camden Town in 1827, with the canal cutting across the centre and the tiny Fleet still visible wiggling through the outskirts of the growing town. The two branches of the upper Fleet joined just north of Hawleys Lock, and the canal then followed the path of the amalgamated river between what is now Kentish Town Road and Camden Road. The river's route carefully avoids all the well-known tourists haunts of modern Camden, passing instead the old TV-AM studios and the shiny grey Sainsbury's built on the site of the Aerated Bread Company (ABC) bakery. There are no henna tattoos here.
And then comes Lyme Street, a quiet tree-lined breath of calm. We're back in residential Camden with smart three-storey houses, well-kept gardens and every parking space at a premium. Nelson Mandela popped by a couple of years ago to unveil a blue plaque commemorating freedom fighters Ruth First and Joe Slovo who lived at number 13 while South Africa sorted itself out. And at the southern end of the street, just outside the Prince Albert pub, I found this drain cover making a strange noise. It wasn't raining, and it hadn't been for days, but I could plainly hear the sound of rushing water through the grate beneath my feet. It could only be the piped torrents of the Fleet river rising up from below, exactly where my map said they should be. I got some funny looks from the pub regulars when I started taking photographs of the drain cover but what the heck - you can't be a successful psychogeographer without losing your street credibility occasionally.
The 1830 map shows the next section of the Fleet as a charming canalside stroll along meadowed riverbanks. The river meandered through the grounds of the Royal Veterinary College, past "Mr Agar's Farm" and (just as a salutary reminder that Victorian life wasn't all idyllic) past the St Pancras Workhouse. You couldn't describe the modern landscape here as charming. St Pancras Way is an ugly light industrial road lined by mail depots, builders merchants and grim offices. The Head Office of designer clothing company Ted Baker at number 6a even self-mockingly calls itself "The Ugly Brown Building", and they're not wrong. But, just south of here, I discovered a London jewel I'd never stumbled upon before, and I'll wax lyrical about that next.
Following the Fleet: Hawley Road, Regent's Canal, Lyme Street, College Street, Georgiana Street, St Pancras Way
www.flickr.com: Fleet NW - Hampstead to Camden (via Belsize Park)
Fleet central: St Pancras, King's Cross
Reviewing the Fleet
St Pancras Old Church
There are two St Pancrases in London. One is the beautiful gothic station next to Kings Cross (and we'll come to that below) but the other is much older, differently beautiful and rather more secret. It's certainly somewhere I'd never been before until I edged past the building site to the north of the station and stumbled upon a village church and its unexpected churchyard. And what a pleasant surprise St Pancras Old Church turned out to be. I was charmed by the secluded gardens, tree-shadowed from the blazing sunshine and dotted with tombs and memorials to the long-dead. During my visit I shared the churchyard with three mysterious ladies who were busy getting changed into brightly coloured flowing period dresses. A spiky sundial commemorating Victorian philanthropist Baroness Burdett-Coutts provided an atmospheric backdrop to their ensuing photoshoot (as it did in 1968 when the Beatles shot album sleeve photos here). Shortly the three ladies moved on to the grand fenced-off mini-mausoleum built in memory of Sir John Soane (architect of the Bank of England), whose central dome (believe it or not) inspired Giles Gilbert Scott to design the classic 'K2' telephone kiosk. Maybe the trio were here in remembrance of local novelist Mary Shelley (author of Frankenstein) who learnt to read by tracing the inscription on her mother's gravestone here, and later spent many a quiet hour sitting reading in the shade of the churchyard. Blimey, there's a lot of history on this site.
Pancras was a Roman teenager, beheaded in Rome in 304AD for failing to renounce his Christian faith. A church dedicated to the newly canonised St Pancras was established here on the banks of the river Fleet a decade later, making St Pancras Old Church one of the oldest Christian sites in the UK. A few Norman features remain but most of the present building is a Victorian restoration, and the Fleet here has long been culverted. In the early 19th century a new (more convenient) St Pancras Church was built half a mile closer to town, leaving the old building to become virtually derelict amongst the slums of Somers Town. And then came the railways. When the Midland Railway sought to find a route across the Regent's Canal into their new London terminus they had two choices - straight through the local gasworks or curve through Old St Pancras graveyard. They chose the latter route because ten thousand dead bodies required no compensation payments - many at the time were not impressed. The apprentice architect charged with overseeing the dignified removal of coffins, bones and human remains was none other than a young Thomas Hardy. Under his supervision several headstones were tightly rearranged around one particular ash tree (now named the Hardy Tree) and today the tree roots and stones lie intermingled in silent tribute.
Hardy was moved to write a poem."O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
'I know not which I am!'"
(Thomas Hardy, The Levelled Churchyard, 1882)
And what do you know, exactly the same thing is happening again because of another new railway, in the 21st century. The last stretch of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link also passes through the old churchyard, and there are 2000 more dead bodies in the way. Or were, because the contractors have already been in with their mechanical diggers and carted off bags of bones for reburial elsewhere. So it says here. There are no new news stories, because it seems we never learn from the past.
Reviewing the Fleet
St Pancras station
Travel by train to London from anywhere in Northern England and you'll almost certainly arrive at one of three large mainline stations - Euston, St Pancras or Kings Cross. All three are lined up along a short half mile stretch of the Euston Road, built here because back in the 1830s this was the edge of the built-up capital. Look on this 1830 map, for example, and I bet you can spot the prime location on which Euston station would be built seven years later. St Pancras station was the last of the three to be built, the Midland Railway knocking down several acres of miserable slums to squeeze their tracks through to the booming metropolis. But oh boy, was the resulting building worth the wait!
The Barlow Train Shed (1865): At the time the station's single span roof was the greatest in the world [74m across, 30m high and 213m long] - the widest and largest undivided space ever enclosed. Trains pulled in above street level because the St Pancras railway entered London over the Regent's Canal, whereas the line into Kings Cross burrowed under. This left space for a vaulted undercroft beneath the platforms, with the pillars carefully spaced to allow the storage of three-wide stacks of Burton beer barrels brought in by rail from Staffordshire. [more here, here and here]
The Midland Hotel (1873): Gilbert Scott's gothic masterpiece is one of London's greatest architectural treasures. The Midland Railway ran a competition to ensure that their new station's frontage would outshine every other London terminus, and in selecting Scott's extravagant turrety design they were 100% successful. For just 14 shillings a night hotel guests could luxuriate in gold-leafed rooms with lavish furnishings, and perhaps try out the new-fangled hydraulic "ascending chambers" to move between floors. [more here, here, here and here]
St Pancras Chambers (1935): The hotel proved to have a limited lifespan, not least because a smoky, sooty station wasn't the perfect location for an opulent overnight stay. The building was turned over to railway offices and left to decay, before a failed fire inspection in 1980 forced its closure. I got to see inside the faded hotel a few years ago as part of Open House weekend. Only a handful of rooms were deemed safe to enter but much of the former detail had survived, and we were allowed to climb the magnificent staircase - a treat denied to current tours (the very last of which takes place in a fortnight's time). [Take a virtual tour here]
Eurostar Terminal (2007): Finally, after a century of gradual decline, St Pancras station is being reborn as the London terminus for trains from Paris and beyond. I even got to take a guided tour of the building site last year as part of Open House weekend. The platforms are being extended (out over the course of the old river Fleet), the train shed is being restored and the undercroft will be the new Eurostar arrivals hall. Oh, and the hotel's reopening. Let's hope they don't ruin it. [More here, here and here (and on this blog in 2007)]
Reviewing the Fleet
the Euston Road tributary
A tributary of the River Fleet once ran from (approximately) PC World on Tottenham Court Road to St Pancras Station, wiggling parallel-ish to what is now the Euston Road. Here's a brief summary of what you'll find today in these North Bloomsbury streets:
University College Hospital ...which would be where I spent my last night in casualty, you may remember. A new skyscraping turquoise and white hospital has just opened, pumped full of far more NHS cash than the crumbling Victorian building ever was, dominating the Euston Road skyline. A workman was taking down the 'Accident & Emergency' sign on the old site when I walked past - the NHS moves onward and upward. (photo)
University College: UCL was the third university to be established in England (in 1826, several centuries after Oxford and Cambridge) and the first to admit students of any religion (hence initially vilified by the church as 'The Godless Institution of Gower Street'). The mummified body of philosopher Jeremy Bentham sits in a glass case near the entrance, and very convincingly alive he looks too.
Upper Woburn Place: Until last month you probably wouldn't have known where this short road was. Bet you do now, sadly.
Tavistock Square: Ditto this peaceful gardened square. There's a statue of Gandhi sitting crosslegged in a flowerbed in the centre, a tree planted in remembrance of the victims of Hiroshima up the central footway and a Conscientious Objectors' Memorial on a big rock at one end. How ironic that a place so devoted to non-violence should have been visited by terrorism. (photo)
Woburn Walk: Very easily missed, this leafy Victorian backstreet is a narrow pedestrian bolthole complete with flagstones and old black and white shop fronts. There's a herb shop, a few boutiques and a couple of restaurants, plus a sandwich bar in the house where Irish poet WB Yeats lost his virginity (at the age of 31). It's all charmingly out of place, and out of time. (photo)
British Library (pictured): Not your average lending library, this. For a start it's huge, secondly there are big sculptures outside, thirdly it contains a copy of nigh everything ever published in the UK (including some absolute treasures), and fourthly it's even open on Sundays. Unheard of. And the library's web address - bl.uk - is probably the (joint) shortest in the world... unless you know better?
Following the Fleet (approximately): Tottenham Court Road (PC World), Grafton Way, University College Hospital, University College, Endsleigh Gardens, Upper Woburn Place, Woburn Walk, Flaxman Terrace, Euston Road, British Library, Midland Road, St Pancras Station
Reviewing the Fleet
King's I: If you'd been standing on this spot 300 years ago, in front of the modern electronic departure board at King's Cross station, you'd have got your feet wet. The River Fleet flowed through what is now the main ticket hall, and still flows underneath through the Fleet Sewer.
King's II: This part of London was originally called Battlebridge (1705 map here, 1786 map here). The bridge in question spanned the River Fleet at the northern end of Gray's Inn Road, while the 'battle' is said to be the final defeat of Queen Boudicca (chief warrior the Iceni tribe) who burnt 1st century Roman London to the ground. The legend that she is buried somewhere beneath one of the station's platforms is almost certainly untrue, however.
King's III: King's Cross might still be called Battlebridge had King George IV not died in 1830. An ugly monument was erected in his memory close to the turnpike where the bridge had once stood, but proved so unpopular that it was demolished six years later. However, it was during this six year window that the Great Northern Railway announced the name of their new London terminus - King's Cross - and the name has stuck ever since.
King's IV: King's Cross station was built on the site of a former smallpox and fever hospital (which you can see in this 1830 map).
King's V: The Great Northern Hotel was built inbetween King's Cross and St Pancras in the 1850s to serve travellers passing through both stations, and its smart curved frontage follows the banks of the old River Fleet (aerial model shot here)
King's VI: An incredibly complicated warren of stairs, tunnels and subways is being constructed beneath King's Cross station as part of the redevelopment of the station, often resulting in lengthy subterranean detours for commuters. Construction of the underground passageway to the new 'Northern Hotel Stairs' required the modification of the crown of the old Fleet Sewer. I hope they finish soon - it's a right mess down there. Latest updates here.
King's VII: Above ground King's Cross mainline station is due to undergo a £400m revamp over the next few years, including roof repairs, a new concourse, a restored façade and the creation of a huge open piazza in front of the station.
King's VIII: Classic Ealing Studios film The Ladykillers was filmed 50 years ago in the rundown Victorian backstreets behind King's Cross station. With all this regeneration going on, there's not much of this area still to be seen. See the location then and now - here and here.
King's IX: JK Rowling slipped up when she launched the Hogwarts Express from King's Cross platform 9¾. Platforms 9 and 10 are to be found in the ugly modern annexe - not the old Victorian station - and they're separated by two railway tracks - not a pillared wall. It turns out that JK forgot to do her research properly and was thinking about Euston station instead. Helpful KX station managers have erected a fake Platform 9¾ sign on a nearby out-of-the-way wall, however, and tourists can frequently be discovered here pretending to push a trolley through the brick wall.
King's X: King's Cross has never ever been an upmarket part of the capital, bedevilled for the last two centuries by slums, factories and prostitutes. Current clean-up plans aim to change all this, and by 2015 the area should have been reborn as metrosexual office nirvana "King's Cross Central". I bet it'll be bland, soul-free and latté-infested, so visit now while (some) character remains.
Reviewing the Fleet
the Metropolitan railway
During the 1860s two tunnels were constructed almost simultaneously between King's Cross and Farringdon - one carrying a railway and the other burying a river. The river in question was (of course) the Fleet, whose disappearance underground was part of the construction of London's great sewer system (of which more later). And the railway was the world's first underground railway, opened in 1863 between Paddington and Farringdon as part of a grand plan by the Metropolitan Railway to link together several North London rail termini. The line was constructed using the 'cut and cover' method (dig a big trench, line it with bricks, cover it over) and for most of its route followed the Marylebone and Euston Roads, which caused massive traffic chaos during the construction period. Strange but true fact: the earth excavated during the construction of the Metropolitan Railway was dumped on the southwestern outskirts of London at 'Stamford Bridge', where it was later used to create the terraces at Chelsea's new football ground.
On leaving King's Cross the new Metropolitan Railway burrowed in an open cutting (better for letting the steam escape), and if you stand in Wicklow Street (or any of several neighbouring streets) you can still see the gaps carved through the terraced houses where the railway passes below. The tracks then continued southeastward buried beneath the Farringdon Road, and it was here in the summer of 1862 that disaster struck. The new parallel Fleet Sewer suddenly and catastrophically burst its walls, flooding a half-mile stretch of the railway to a depth of ten feet. Here's how the Illustrated London News reported the event (and you can see their front page illustration here)."A warning was given by the cracking and heaving mass and the workmen had time to escape before the embankment fell in... the massive brick wall, eight feet six inches in thickness, thirty in height and a hundred yards long, rose bodily from its foundations as the water forced its way beneath... The scene was, indeed, well worthy of a visit." (Illustrated London News, 6th September 1862)Rapid repairs were needed before the Metropolitan Railway could finally open a few months later, and the Fleet was finally tamed and hidden."Yesterday the Metropolitan (underground) Railway was opened to the public, and many thousands were enabled to indulge their curiosity in reference to this mode of travelling under the streets of the metropolis... It is gratifying to remark that, notwithstanding the eagerness of the public to get into the carriages, even when the trains were in motion, no single accident, of any kind, was reported." (Observer, 11th January 1863 - click for full article)Oh, and while we're on the subject of the Underground, yes it is true that the Jubilee Line was once going to be called the Fleet Line (because it was originally planned to run beneath Fleet Street). But it's the Metropolitan that's the true Fleet line, and always will be.
Reviewing the Fleet
North of the City (above the stinkiest smelliest sewage-ridden waters) the Fleet was long known as the River of Wells. Close to what is now King's Cross Thameslink station there was St Chad's Well, an ancient spring once of great importance (until the Midland Railway came along and removed all trace). Further down there was Black Mary's Hole, another mineral spring of some repute (until it was shamelessly converted into a cesspool). But when late 18th century gentlefolk fancied a grand afternoon out, they headed instead to the elegant charm of Bagnigge Wells."Come, come, Miss Priscy, make it up, and we will lovers be:It's said that Charles II's mistress Nell Gwynne once lived in the big country house at Bagnigge Wells but it was not until 1757, when two mineral springs were rediscovered in the gardens, that the house was opened to the public. Water from the two wells was piped to a double pump installed in a central domed colonnade. The well closest to the house had clear iron-rich waters, while the other was thought to possess cathartic properties.
And we will go to Bagnigge Wells, and there we'll have some tea.
And there you'll see the ladybirds all on the stinging-nettles
And there you'll see the waterworks and shining copper kettles.
Oh la! Oh dear! Oh dash my vig, how funny." (18th century song)"Hight Bagnigge; where, from our Forefathers hid,Visitors paid threepence for the privilege of taking the waters from the pump, or else retired to the Long Room to drink their fill at eightpence per gallon. For the next forty years an afternoon at Bagnigge tea gardens was considered the height of good taste. The middle classes flocked here in droves to sip tea, or to attend one of the many concerts, or just to stroll around the ornamental gardens on the curved banks of the River Fleet.
Long have two Springs in dull stagnation slept;
But taught at length by subtle art to flow,
They rise, forth from Oblivion's bed they rise,
And manifest their Virtues to Mankind." (Bagnigge Wells by W Woty, 1760)"Thy arbours, Bagnigge, and the gay alcove,But it was not to last. Bagnigge slowly gained a reputation for 'loose women and boys whose morals are depraved' and its popularity declined. In 1813 the proprietors went bankrupt, forcing them to sell off much of the gardens to stay afloat, until eventually the spa was knocked down to be replaced by a tavern. The wells became overgrown, the waters impure, and in the 1860s the coming of the Metropolitan underground railway finally wiped away the lot.
Where the frail Nymphs in am'rous dalliance rove;
Where prentic'd Youths enjoy the Sunday feast,
And City Matrons boast their Sabbath's rest
Where unfledged Templars first as fops parade,
And new made Ensigns sport their first cockade." (Churchill, 1779)"Will you go to Bagnigge Wells, Bonnet builder, O!Only one trace of Bagnigge Wells remains today - a white stone plaque topped by a carved head (pictured) set into the wall of number 63 King's Cross Road. This plaque once stood on Bagnigge House, was later transferred to the pump room at Bagnigge Spa and now looks out over a bus stop. Former owner Nell is still commemorated across the road in a stepped alleyway named Gwynne Place, her grand house replaced by a nasty characterless Travelodge. On the site of the riverside gardens now stand the modern (and very ordinary) council blocks of Wells Square and Fleet Square. And you won't catch the middle classes around here any more - they're all too busy sipping Evian and building water features in their own gardens instead.
Where the Fleet-ditch fragrant smells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the fishes used to swim, So nice and sleek and trim,
But the pond's now covered in, Bonnet builder, O!" (popular song, 1839)
Following the Fleet: King's Cross station, Pentonville Road, King's Cross Thameslink, St Chad's Place, King's Cross Road, Cubitt Street
www.flickr.com: Fleet Central - St Pancras, King's Cross
If you can't read anything below this post,
click here to read about the remainder of the river Fleet.