Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The River Tyburn

And finally in this series, the West End's lost river. That'll be the Tyburn, a long-departed stream which used to run through some of the most tourist-friendly spots on the planet. The Queen lives on it, Big Ben overshadows it, and shoppers on Oxford Street regularly wade across it. Even better, its valley remains readily visible most of the way down, even through Marylebone and Mayfair, should you ever fancy tracking it down. I've had a go.

The River Tyburn started its journey from the uplands of Hampstead, as did its streamy neighbours the Fleet and the Westbourne. All three ran sort-of parallel down to the Thames, with the Tyburn sandwiched inbetween the other two. It trickled south through St John's Wood, keeping to the west of the heights of Primrose Hill, and then into what is now Regent's Park. The boating lake here is the river's most obvious legacy, but one of the bridges over the Regent's Canal hides a similar secret. The Tyburn slipped out of the park past Baker Street station and on into Marylebone, where meandering Marylebone Lane still mimics the river's former course. Oxford Street is crossed close to Bond Street station (look for the very obvious dip in the road when you're out Christmas shopping). Then on into the heart of Mayfair (via Brook Street, obviously), curving around Berkeley Square to cross Piccadilly and into Green Park. The original stream crossed the front of Buckingham Palace before swinging east through St James's Park (home to another no-coincidence water feature) and splitting in two. These final rivulets once surrounded Thorney Island, a dry-spot in the marsh upon which Westminster Abbey and the Palace of Westminster were built. Drainage hereabouts later forced the diversion of the river south, with a fresh course running down to Pimlico. One river, three possible endings, all now long gone.

There are several theories as to the derivation of the name Tyburn. The 'burn' bit is fairly straightforward, being derived from 'bourne' which means stream. But the first part of the name is probably linked to that split in the lower river. It could therefore come from 'Teo' (meaning 'two') or 'Tie' (meaning 'enclosing'). The first of these is given credence by King Edgar's royal charter, dated 951AD, which names the stream Teo-burna. Alternatively the entire name may mean 'boundary stream', or else might be a contraction of 'the Aye bourne', whoever or whatever 'Aye' was. Take your pick.

Other places named after the Tyburn:
Oxford Street: Until the 1780s, known as Tyburn Road
Tyburn: A small medieval village at the western end of Tyburn Road (population in 1086, eight families)
Tyburn Tree: Site of London's most notorious place of execution, in Tyburn, close to where Marble Arch now stands.
Tyburn Brook: A completely different lost river, a tributary of the Westbourne, which flowed from the gallows southwest into Hyde Park
Marylebone: Parish whose was church originally known as 'St Mary's church by the bourne'.

The river Tyburn's fate was decreed by its location. Early settlers were drawn to its delta, at Westminster, to form London's second nucleus. Its lower marshes were drained in Tudor times to create fertile land for farming and hunting. Then, as the city started to extend into Mayfair and Marylebone, the river had to be driven underground to provide sanitary living conditions for new residential quarters. Full burial came in the mid 19th century with the construction of an underground conduit, the King's Scholars' Pond Sewer (named after a pool used by Westminster School's top pupils for fishing and bathing). It's straighter and wider than the old river - for much of its length an elliptical brick tunnel - and still in use for foul-smelling run-off to this day.

Businessman James Bowdidge recently proposed that the Tyburn be restored to the surface, forcibly if necessary, by knocking down all the buildings in its path north of Piccadilly. An most peculiar motive for a property developer, it has to be said, but James is also the honorary secretary of the Tyburn Angling Society so claimed his priories were mostly fish-related. Assuming his plans to be tongue-in-cheek, or at best impractical, your best chance of spotting the Tyburn continues to be searching for clues on the surface.

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

» Londonist walks the Tyburn (in three parts)
» Exploring the Tyburn sewer (blimey) (ooh) (golly) (ah)
» James Bowdidge's presentation on behalf of the Tyburn Angling Society

The River Tyburn
1) Hampstead → Regent's Park

Unusually for a lost river, the top of the Tyburn is really obvious. On the corner of Fitzjohn's Avenue and Akenside Road in Hampstead, a short trek south of the tube station, are the remains of a commemorative drinking fountain [photo]. Nothing gushes forth here today, but this was once the site of the "Shepherd's Well" which supplied the villagefolk of Hampstead with drinking water [photo]. Other local wells may have left a nasty mineral taste in the mouth, but water from the Shepherd's Conduit tasted clean and pure and so was much in demand. A penny a pailful, for those who couldn't be bothered to fetch it themselves. The track back to town survives as "Spring Path" [photo], and the Gothic pile on the corner is still known as Old Conduit House [photo]. Like I said, really obvious, all the clues are there.

The Tyburn ran down towards Swiss Cottage, past a statue of Sigmund Freud, centuries before either of those were ever there [photo]. About a foot in width, this was once a sparkling stream whose waters very rarely dried up. It passed through the western fringes of Belsize Park, crossing what are now leafy residential avenues, and slipping between the local leisure centre and a glassy mega-hotel. A second tributary rose further to the east, with its source in the grounds of Belsize Manor. In 1728, as Bellais House, this was a "beautifully situated" place of public amusement for the more genteel members of Georgian society. No trace of that house remains today, merely the townhouses that now cover the old estate, although there's still a clear ripple in the contours leading down from Belsize Park Gardens.

Both branches of the Tyburn curled round the western flank of Primrose Hill, which kept them apart from the larger River Fleet on the opposite side. The two tributaries met up on Avenue Road before edging into the borough of Westminster and following the line of Townshend Road. Houses are big round here, with gated driveways and swivelling cameras, but still somehow on the pleasant side of aspirational. Meanwhile the remains of the river trickle beneath the streets through the Kings Scholar's Pond Sewer, constructed circa 1825 with a quirky brickiness that Jon can tell you lots more about.

And then, Regent's Park. The river headed in beneath the Thirties apartments on the northern flank, before reaching an artificial valley carved across its course. This belongs to the Regent's Canal, which architect John Nash was forced to drop into a cutting so that it's perceived ugliness couldn't tarnish the rest of his great park. So the Tyburn has to cross over the canal [photo], and its pipes form the basis of the Charlbert footbridge. Most people walk over the top without even guessing [photo], but the folks at SilentUK have been for a crouch through the underworld...
"The pipe shifted into a smaller egg shape, before long reaching the Regents Canal. The pipe split into two rather unfavourable 4ft pipes, carrying the flow over the canal via a bridge, fun, but the show must go on. Slowly striding through the black, chunky liquid, dangerously close to catching some splash in the face, bags catching at every possible opportunity, thank god it was only 40 metres."
The pipe continues underground, but a separate Tyburn legacy is ever-so visible on the surface of Regent's Park. It's the boating lake [photo]. Don't think small and round. This lake's more bunch-of-bananas shaped, and curves almost all the way down the western side of the park. One finger starts close to the American ambassador's back garden [photo] and is therefore under permanent Secret Service scrutiny. Another starts nearer to the Zoo, this representing a very minor tributary which could never originally have been deep enough to support a pedalo [photo]. But the lake curls too much to precisely match the original Tyburn. Don't be fooled - this entire ornamental lagoon was artificially created by excavation when the park was first landscaped. It was originally fed by the Tyburn's piped-in waters, at least until January 1867 when the ice broke killing 40 men and boys skating on its surface. The water level was immediately lowered, and ice skating's been banned here ever since [icy photo]. Rest assured that the sewer's long been diverted to bypass the lake altogether, so all that floats here now are hireboats and waterfowl. [photo]

Following the Tyburn: Shepherd's Path, Akenside Road, Fitzjohn's Avenue, Belsize Park, Winchester Road, Harley Road, Wadham Gardens, Elsworthy Road, Avenue Road, Acacia Road, Townshend Road, Shannon Place, Eamont Street, Prince Albert Road, Charlbert Street, Charlbert Bridge, Outer Circle, Winfield House, Regent's Park Boating Lake.

The River Tyburn
2) Regent's Park → Oxford Street

The River Tyburn exited Regent's Park further north than you might expect. The former stream never reached the final curl of the boating lake beyond the footbridge. Instead it slipped out of the park nearer Sussex Place, where the London Business School stands today, and fairly close to the northern end of Baker Street. This is the magnetic point that draws in tourists attempting to find 221B - a purely fictitious address, not that this stops the Sherlock Holmes Museum pretending to be based there. Inquisitive visitors ought to be suspicious that the entrance is located immediately between 237 Baker Street and 241 Baker Street, but most fail to spot the fiddle. [photo]

The Abbey National used to be based where Holmes' home should have been, but its HQ has recently been redeveloped into luxury apartments. At least they kept the tower. Here the Tyburn veered to the west of Baker Street, traversing the busy Marylebone Road across a very obvious dip in the land. It clipped Gloucester Place, somewhere in the vicinity of Algeria, Lithuania and Honduras (or at least their respective embassies). Then back to Baker Street through the middle of another former blue chip HQ - Michael House. Marks and Spencer was run from here for years, but bosses moved out in 2004 in favour of less austere offices on Paddington Basin. In its place is a vast new mixed use development, name of 55 Baker Street [photo], clad with a faceted glass lattice (best viewed from inside rather than out [photo]).

Next up, Marylebone proper. The Tyburn followed what's now Blandford Street, past the former bookseller where a young Michael Faraday spent eight years as an apprentice. Today it's an estate agents, obviously, but they've had the good grace to name themselves Faradays, and there's a proper non-blue plaque above the door [photo]. No, the Tudor Rose pub isn't Tudor, it's a 1930s pastiche. Blandford Street reaches Marylebone High Street at a pedestrian-friendly triple zebra crossing [photo]. Up the other end of the high street is St Mary's church, originally named after the river as "St Mary the Virgin, by the bourne". Bit long, that, so it was shortened to "St Mary le burn", and later to "St Marylebone". The Tyburn lives on, at least as a corrupted suffix.

On any modern map of the area, the one road which looks out of place is Marylebone Lane. Everything else is straight and griddy, and yet this backstreet meanders in errant curves. That's because it was once the country lane round here, and the Tyburn ran alongside. Today's it's a boutique-y street which Time Out likes feature all-too regularly in its "quirky shopping" features. Of note is the delicatessen/cafe owned by Paul Rothe & Son [photo], stacked with repetitive jars and still with a late Victorian sensibility. A pub halfway down used to have the very-relevant name of "The Conduit of Tybourne" [photo], but under new ownership has recently reverted to the more-original "Coach Makers". Then there's the unique Button Queen [photo], located at the precise point where the Tyburn veered right to leave the lane. This fragile blue store used to be a wildly out-of-time stockist of all things buttony, but has recently been demolished to make way for new development. The business survives across the road, you'll be glad to hear, but with regrettably less charm.

The line of the river crosses Wigmore Street to pass into St Christopher's Place - a favourite midweek haunt for shopaholic ladies who lunch. This narrows to a tiny alleyway [photo] before emerging somewhere you'll definitely recognise - the heart of Oxford Street [photo]. More specifically, the gentle dip in the road located close to Bond Street station, slightly downhill from the Disney Store on one side of the valley and Selfridges on the other. Shoppers on London's most famous retail thoroughfare probably don't realise that Oxford Street was called Tyburn Road up until the early 18th century, at which point it was renamed after the university town 50 miles straight on past Marble Arch.

The City of London is a couple of miles away from here, but medieval residents obtained their drinking water from this particular stretch of the Tyburn. Lead pipes were laid from here to Cheapside during the reign of Henry III, and these eventually developed into a series of nine conduits that survived several centuries. Conduit Street, between New Bond Street and Regent Street, is still named after what's probably London first public utility supply system. Nowadays the only alleged appearance of sparkling Tyburn water hereabouts is in the basement of Grays Antiques [photo]. 200 dealers have stalls in this collectibles complex (which is located just around the back of Bond Street station), and those in the Mews building share floorspace with a most unusual water feature [photo]. A shallow channel, filled with golden fish, runs from one end of the basement to the other and is crossed by a small arched bridge in the centre [photo]. The owners assure visitors that this is the actual Tyburn, and absolutely not an ornamental culvert fed by water from the mains. It could, I suppose, be fed by groundwater seeping from the surrounding clay, but I fear it's nothing more than a damned good bit of marketing.

Following the Tyburn: Outer Circle, Sussex Place, Baker Street, Glentworth Street, Marylebone Road, Gloucester Place, Blandford Street, Marylebone Lane, Jason Court, St Christopher's Place, Gees Court, Oxford Street.

The River Tyburn
3) Oxford Street → Buckingham Palace

If you think you know Mayfair, a walk along the route of the lost river Tyburn may change your mind. This begins somewhere familiar enough - South Molton Street. The peculiar diagonal angle this street makes to the surrounding roads is explained by the parallel Tyburn, which ran immediately behind the houses on the western side. The stream precisely defined the eastern boundary of the Grosvenor estate, one of Mayfair's most exclusive neighbourhoods, and was arched over and made into a covered sewer in the 1720s. The buried Tyburn became South Molton Lane, still a mere backstreet even today and nowhere near as aspirational as its fashionista neighbour.

Brook Street's up next, a major east-west thoroughfare named after the river it once crossed [photo]. George Frideric Handel was one of the first residents to move in when the estate was developed, in 1723, and lived for nearly 40 years a few doors up from the culverted Tyburn. And yes, if you're wondering, this is indeed the Brook Street in which the Brook Street Bureau was formed. Margery Hurst's famous secretarial employment agency started out here in 1946, and continues to be named after a lost river even though company HQ is now in St Albans.

The diagonal line of the Tyburn continues along Avery Row - a narrow alleyway named after the bricklayer originally responsible for culverting this stretch of the river, Henry Avery. The stream never quite reached as far east as New Bond Street, instead twisting south down Bourdon Place to cross the foot of Grosvenor Hill. The hill's quite pronounced, even today, rolling down past a chain of hemmed-in mews houses [photo]. They're all backwaters it seems, the streets along which the Mayfair Tyburn flowed, and none more so than Bruton Lane. This miserable service road kicks off at the Tudorbethan Coach & Horses [photo], then enters a grim netherworld of rear frontages, monolithic office blocks and fire escapes [photo]. If the folk who invented the London version of Monopoly had seen this side of Mayfair, they'd have made it the first brown instead of the last blue. [photo]

Hay Hill's next, another proper Mayfair slope, which diverted the Tyburn westward across the corner of Berkeley Square. Back when all round here was grand mansions, the river used to divide the back gardens of Devonshire House and Lansdowne House. Now paved over, this section has become Lansdowne Row - a back passage of small shops and sandwich bars that's packed only at lunchtimes [photo]. Another curving road mimics the Tyburn's former course, namely Curzon Street [photo], which leads to the delightful off-beat enclave of Shepherd Market. From 1686 to 1764 this was the spot where London's largest May Fair was held - a fortnight of drinking and debauchery held on open land beside the brook. Wining and dining is a little more refined here now, with both river and festivities despatched elsewhere. [photo]

The Tyburn's crossing of Piccadilly is more than obvious, emerging from Mayfair via Brick Street (alongside the Japanese embassy) [photo]. The indentation continues into Green Park [photo], across the western half where fewer tourists stroll and where the trees are too dense for deckchairs [photo]. This area was originally called Upper St James's Park but split off to earn its new "Green" title in 1746. An ornamental lake once lay on the line of the river, almost precisely in the centre of the park [photo], and was named the Tyburn Pool. It might still be there had the area been better looked after, but Queen Victoria considered the pool an eyesore and had it filled in. Green Park's been pleasantly bland ever since. [photo]

And so to Buckingham Palace, built close to the point where the medieval Tyburn once drained into the Westminster marshes [photo]. Centuries of drainage lent the river a firmer course, initially east towards Westminster, later diverted underground south towards Pimlico. The current Palace therefore stands not on a river but a sewer, which reputedly passes underneath the front courtyard and beneath the south wing [photo]. If you're the illegal adventurer type it's perfectly possible to clamber down into the egg-shaped brick drain and inspect the Queen's effluent, although I'm told it's nothing special. As for the swirling ornamental lake in the Palace's back garden, the backdrop to many a royal stroll and garden party, this might appear to be Tyburn-related but it's not [photo]. Its waters are fed in from the Serpentine, half a mile yonder, which means they're actually derived from the lost river Westbourne. [photo]

Following the Tyburn: South Molton Lane, Avery Row, Bourdon Place, Bruton Place, Bruton Lane, Berkeley Street, Lansdowne Row, Curzon Street, Shepherd Market, Brick Street, Piccadilly, Green Park, Constitution Hill.

The River Tyburn
4a) Buckingham Palace → Westminster

The final stretch of the Tyburn, from Buck House east to the Thames, isn't especially well documented. That's a) because this was originally marshland, and b) medieval Londoners weren't especially interested in drawing accurate maps as a legacy to future generations. What is certain is that the most obvious route, along the line of the lake down the middle of St James's Park, isn't the original. This started life as a long ornamental canal, arrow-straight, created by a French landscape gardener at the behest of king Charles II. 150 years later the Prince Regent asked John Nash for a more naturalistic redesign, and he created the curving lake we still see today [photo]. So, lovely though the view is from the central bridge near the pelicans, it's definitely not rivery. [photo] [photo]

Instead the waters of the Tyburn probably followed Buckingham Gate, which is a mostly tedious road heading downhill from the southern corner of the palace [photo]. Past the Wellington Barracks, past the end of Petty France, then forking left at the Blewcoat School (now the National Trust's main London giftshop). It tracked Caxton Street before flowing straight through the modern site of New Scotland Yard, peculiarly enough [photo]. And then across Victoria Street into Abbey Orchard Street, which was indeed where the nearby Abbey grew its fruit, but is now covered by a Peabody Estate and some ugly civil service bastions.

A millennium ago the Tyburn bifurcated approximately here. Its twin streams formed the western boundaries of Thorney Island - then a small eyot in the Thames covered by thickets. As the highest land hereabouts it was the only place capable of supporting foundations, so the nucleus of Westminster grew up on the island with the Abbey and the Palace at its heart. Expansion required drainage, so Thorney gradually merged with the mainland and lost its identity. Today the name survives only in Thorney Street, which is the service road round the back of MI5's HQ at Thames House.

Branch 1 of the lower Tyburn passed to the north of Westminster Abbey and up to the foot of Whitehall. It supposedly ran along the line of King Charles Street [photo], between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and HM Treasury [photo]. And then across the foot of Whitehall, south of the Cenotaph, to reach the Thames in the vicinity of Westminster Pier [photo]. Don't go looking for traces today, there's nothing to see. Meanwhile branch 2 continued through Dean's Yard at the back of Westminster School [photo] - an esteemed private establishment who are holding their 450th Anniversary Gala tonight. Then along Great College Street, which feels more Winchester than Greater London, and out into the Thames south of the Houses of Parliament [photo]. The mouth would have been somewhere in Victoria Tower Gardens, and a storm drain outlet is still visible at low tide close to Lambeth Bridge. [photo]

Following the Tyburn: The Mall, Buckingham Gate, Caxton Street, Victoria Street, Abbey Orchard Street, Dean's Yard, Great College Street, Victoria Tower Gardens.

The River Tyburn
4b) Buckingham Palace → Pimlico

To fully remove the lower reaches of the river Tyburn, its waters were dropped into a brick sewer in the early 18th century. Rather than tracing the route of the river towards Westminster, the new culvert instead headed south from Buckingham Palace and made for the Thames at Pimlico. This was the King's Scholars' Pond Sewer, named after Westminster School's ablest pupils (which is perhaps not the way they'd prefer to be remembered). Soon after leaving the royal residence it today passes beneath more mundane backstreets, then past the big new shopping/office complex at Cardinal Place. I'm guessing it flows beneath Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre [photo], which is something best not considered when you're sitting in the stalls. The sewer's also causing problems with the construction of a new ticket hall for Victoria tube station at Bressenden Place, because the brown tube isn't as far below the ground as engineers would like.

Next up, an unexpectedly grim back passage. That's King's Scholars' Passage, a lengthy access road squashed between six-storey brick cliffs round the back of Vauxhall Bridge Road [photo]. If you can ever avoid visiting, do. This emerges outside the Queen Mother Sports Centre (no, she never popped by for an Age Vitality Workout, it's merely named after her). The sewer then follows the curve of Tachbrook Street, which is delightfully Georgian-terrace on one flank and depressingly postwar-block on the other [photo]. Nearly there. One final stretch beyond Pimlico station, beneath the Tachbrook Estate, and we're at the Thames.

Unusually for a lost river, the bottom of the Tyburn is really obvious. Two houses stand out beside the busy riverside dual carriageway, being rather older than the modern piles to either side [photo]. One's Rio Cottage, labelled with a plaque announcing it was built in 1832 "as part of Kingschoole Sluice". Nextdoor at number 140C is Tyburn House - similarly old looking but with an extra storey on top. Between them they guard the exit to the King's Scholars' Sewer, which disgorges (when necessary) beneath one resident's back window [photo]. They can even nip down a metal staircase at low tide to their own pebbly beach, if they're brave enough. And in case all the clues aren't obvious enough, a slab of slate affixed to the riverside path charts a rundown of the Tyburn's progress all the way from Shepherds Well to Tachbrook Street [photo]. Journey's end, job well done. [photo]

Following the Tyburn: Stafford Place, Stag Place, Bressenden Place, King's Scholar's Passage, Upper Tachbrook Street, Tachbrook Street, Buonaparte Mews, Balvaird Place, Grosvenor Road.

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