L ND N

 Saturday, July 31, 2010

THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The River Walbrook


The Walbrook is one of the most important rivers in the world, which is pretty impressive for a river that no longer exists. It's not as important as the Thames, obviously, but the spot where these two rivers met defined the nucleus of a great global city. The City of London emerged along the line of this shallow river valley rolling down to the Thames, then spread across the contours of two low hills rising to either side. Drinking water, defensive position, strategic location, perfect. Those two hills still exist, with St Paul's Cathedral marking Ludgate Hill to the west and the Royal Exchange atop Cornhill to the east. But the Romans wouldn't recognise the valley which once divided their walled city into two halves, because the sparkling river has irreversibly vanished.

The Walbrook is therefore incredibly difficult to follow. You'd think it would be easy, passing as it did through one of the most well-documented square miles on the entire planet. But this means it disappeared early, several centuries before any other London lost river bit the dust. What had once been a "fair brook of sweet water" had by the 13th century become an ugly sewer that was "neither fair nor sweet". The middle and lower reaches of the Walbrook were paved over in 1463 thanks to a hygiene-minded Royal Act, and the original watercourse hasn't been seen since. Few accurate maps of the area were drawn up in medieval times, and the landscape has been built upon and built upon and built upon over the intervening years. So the account I'm publishing below is based on historical scraps I found in books, some approximate published maps and a bit of guesswork.

An approximate map of the Walbrook's course (my best Google map attempt)

THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The River Walbrook
1) Shoreditch - Liverpool Street


Trying to locate the source of the Walbrook is fraught with difficulty. It's said by some to have arisen in Moorfields - once a large area of marshy fenland outside the City walls, broadly where Moorgate station and Finsbury Circus stand today. If so, expect the stream to have 'emerged' and 'coalesced', rather than bubbling forth from one distinct spring. Others think there were lots of tiny brooks draining a wider area to the north of the City. If so, then as one modern hydrologist has it, "Walbrook is merely a generic term for a network of convergent southbound streams". A third group are convinced that the river had slightly longer tributaries, probably two, one of which flowed down from Islington and the other from Shoreditch. If so, they'd probably have been pretty piddly streams, possibly only much in evidence after a decent amount of rainfall. I've decided to run with this third option, because I've seen it in print most often. Starting in Shoreditch.

St Leonard's ShoreditchYou'd think "Shore Ditch" was a sure fire reference to something lost river-y, but apparently this isn't the case. There was a wellspring here once, allegedly, close to the Roman road junction outside St Leonard's Church [photo], and this could have been the Walbrook's most northerly source. Don't go looking for any evidence on the ground, but the blogger at Spitalfields Life has had a long chat with the vicar and he assures us the river once flowed from here. The fledgling Walbrook would have dribbled south through the heart of trendy Shoreditch [photo], quenching the bar-ghetto between Curtain Road and Shoreditch High Street [photo]. Precisely here could be found Shakespeare's first two London theatres - The Theatre and The Curtain - so it's a pretty good bet that young Will relieved himself into the Walbrook on a number of occasions.

The river would have followed the line of the old Broad Street Railway, which may or may not be a lucky coincidence. It entered the modern City of London beneath the Broadgate Tower [photo], the ancient valley now marked by a chasm of glass and steel between lofty heights [photo]. And then south across the extensive financial wastes of the Broadgate development. You'll find no medieval street patterns here, just a warren of mighty office blocks dumped down where Broad Street station and its sidings once stood. Seething with suits from Monday to Friday, at weekends its solitary piazzas echo with workmen, cleaners and the occasional lost tourist [photo]. Running parallel to the rail terminus at Liverpool Street [photo], it's here at ye olde Moorfields that the Walbrook proper began.

THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The River Walbrook
2) Liverpool Street - Bank


London WallThe Walbrook entered Roman Londinium through a culvert under the city walls about halfway between Moor Gate and Bishop's Gate. It brought fresh water for drinking and cooking, so it was allowed to pass unhindered beneath the ragstone bulkhead. And as the brook beneath the wall, that's how the Walbrook got its name. Probably. Very little about this river is certain, you should know that by now.

The entrance point today is marked by an unlikely dual carriageway sloping down past the church of All Hallows On The Wall. This building is a rare survivor in a sea of modern architectural tedium, although at the top of the hill the new spire-topped Heron Tower injects a striking contrast into the skyline [photo]. And then on into the city proper, and an area you way not know too well. There are a lot of gates and walls and narrow alleyways, as if those round here would rather not too many of the outside world wandered by. If Throgmorton Avenue's locked off then slip down the nearby passage and enter the mysterious enclave around Austin Friars [photo]. Wiggly lanes lined by obscure financial institutions, plus De Nederlandse Kerk (which has been serving the capital's Dutch community since 1550). Alas the Walbrook ran slightly further west, past Drapers Hall, through what's now the chunky brown lump of Angel Court. Over the last fifty years, it seems, architects have infilled umpteen corners of our great City with stacked-office ugliness.

Tokenhouse YardTo Tokenhouse Yard. This is a neat yet non-descript EC2 cul-de-sac, with a narrow alley at one end leading to a snack shop and gentleman's barbers. Along one side is an elegant fa├žade with classical columns, and along the other a building site [photo]. Really quite typical. But this is apparently the spot where two tributaries of the Walbrook met. Above this point marshy uncertainty, below this point a fairly definite river course. There's even a map of the Walbrook stuck to the building site wall, because construction projects in the City have to take archaeology very seriously. Roman remains (including a timber-lined drain) have been found beneath basement level, the poster informs, as well as telltale lost-river alluvium. London's original watery dividing line passed straight through here, then south to Lothbury.
"Now for the North side of this Lothbury, beginning at the East end thereof: Upon the Water-course of Walbrooke, have ye a proper Parish Church, called St. Margaret. Which seemeth to be newly re-edified and builded, about the Year 1440. For Robert Large gave to the Quire of that Church one hundred and 20 Pounds for Ornaments. More to the Vaulting over the Water-course of Walbrook, by the said Church, for the enlarging thereof, Two Hundred Marks."
Not many medieval churches had to be specially constructed so that a stream could pass underneath! By the time Wren rebuilt St Margaret's after the Great Fire there was no need for special vaulting as there was no longer a river [photo]. But there were genuine underground issues at the next building across the street - the mighty Bank of England [photo]. Sir John Soane had to deal with the buried Walbrook when he designed and constructed the City's financial fortress - its waters were seen trickling beneath the foundations. A similar, though unexpected, archaeological revelation occurred in the late 1950s when the "Travelator" at Bank station was being installed. Next time you're walking down to the Waterloo & City line on Europe's first moving pavement, be aware that you're also wading through the channel of the deep-buried Walbrook. [photo]

THE LOST RIVERS OF LONDON
The River Walbrook
3) Bank - Cannon Street


The Ward of WalbrookThe Walbrook lives on, in name only, in the heart of London. One of the City's 25 electoral wards is named after the river, which once ran precisely along the ward's historic western border. There's a street called Walbrook [photo], and has been for centuries, which may be short but boasts the Mayor's Mansion House at its head. Nextdoor is a church named St Stephen Walbrook - one of Sir Christopher Wren's finest post-conflagration rebuilds, and also the institution responsible for founding the Samaritans helpline in 1953 [photo]. In sharp contrast alongside is a ribbed black office block in an upturned-jelly style, nearing completion and to be known by its new tenants as the Walbrook Building [photo]. But the river didn't quite flow past all this lot, down the street that bears its name, but instead about 50 yards or so to the west.

Temple of MithrasThis is a right ugly chunk of London, unless you're into near-demolished Modernist office blocks [photo]. Bucklersbury House and its neighbour Temple Court were knocked up in the 1950s, and will be knocked down very shortly. While the wrecking balls wait and a locked fence keeps Londoners at bay, Legal & General's flapping windows now let in the rain. One ancient relic survives on view - the Roman Temple of Mithras. its stonework was discovered by workmen while Bucklersbury House was being laid out in the 1950s, and archaeologists subsequently recovered several marble sculptures of gods and goddesses from the dig. The finest relics were put on display in the Museum of London, while the temple was rudely shifted to its current position on a gloomy raised platform beside Victoria Street [photo]. If sufficient money is ever forthcoming, a new development called Walbrook Square will be constructed on the site, with the re-relocated Temple of Mithras at its heart. Judging by the plans, there'll be few mourners when the demolition balls swing for Walbrook Square in 50 years time.

The Walbrook crossed Cannon Street precisely where today's contours suggest it did, beneath Horseshoe Bridge to the west of the current station. The next street down is Cloak Lane, formerly Cloaca Lane (after the Latin name for sewer, which tells you all you need to know about the medieval smell locally). Here could be found the church of St John the Baptist upon Walbrook, one of the unlucky City churches not chosen to be rebuilt after 1666. It suffered a further blow when the District line ploughed through the churchyard in the 1880s, and all human remains were disinterred into a small barred vault (which, unexpectedly, can still be seen). And then comes Upper Thames Street, which marked the line of the quayside in Roman times but is now an unpleasantly busy arterial road. One of the main gates in London's defensive wall was here, named Dowgate. The Walbrook here was 14 feet wide as it flowed out into the Thames - an improbable fact which you can ponder while sitting in Whittington Garden watching the pigeons in the fountain. [photo]

Walbrook WharfAs Londinium expanded inexorably to become London, the mouth of the Walbrook gradually migrated south. The river flowed between dockside wharves to join the Thames about 120 feet to the west of Cannon Street station, where it's still possible to see a concrete trough at low tide marking the end of the London Bridge Sewer [photo]. This is also the spot from which the City chooses to despatch its rubbish. Containers of reeking refuse are piled up at Walbrook Wharf until high tide when they're taken away by barge to some unfortunate part of Essex. The barges have lost-river-related names (Walbrook, Holebourne, Turnmill etc) and they're huge, especially when viewed from the pebbly beach [photo]. Access is along the edge of the station, past the chlorine-pumping gym and down a set of slippery steps beside The Banker pub, should you fancy a spot of mudlarking. The beach is littered with fragments of brick, tile and china, as well as rounded glass fragments and considerably more seashells than you might expect. A row of damp squidgy wooden posts marks the line of some old jetty [photo], and the smell of rotting vegetables and vinegar hangs in the air. That'll be the Walbrook - long vanished on the ground, but impossible to disguise.


www.flickr.com: my Walbrook gallery
[22 photos altogether - some fascinating, some tedious] [map]


An approximate map of the Walbrook's course (my best Google map attempt)


A history of the Walbrook (from a group campaigning for its restoration)
In search of the Walbrook (with Spitalfields Life)
Amy Sharrocks walks the Walbrook (with ribbons) (pdf)
Exploring the London Bridge Sewer (which the Walbrook has become)


» Previous rivers in this series: Fleet, Westbourne, Falcon Brook, Counters Creek, Neckinger, Hackney Brook, Effra


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