How do you plan a walk through a city? I am in London, ready to walk, and already lost in the sense of possibilities that the city has to offer. I could follow the Thames, this way or that. I could choose a neighbourhood and try and walk every street. I could follow a famous road, or the quickest route between two well-known landmarks. Or I could follow a river, a lost river, buried beneath the city streets.
Standing at Blackfriars Bridge, looking back across the river to the south bank from where I came, across to the Shard and the other buildings that remind me I have never spent enough time in these city to be able to account for and date the changes, it is the last of these ideas that I am putting into action. Inspired by Tom Bolton and his London’s Lost Rivers I am going to follow the route of the Fleet, the best I can, from Blackfriars to King’s Cross and to see what I see along the way.
The Fleet is London’s largest subterranean river, formed from two headwaters at Hampstead Heath and flowing for about six miles beneath the city until it empties into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge. Once wide enough for boats to dock there, the Fleet was turned into a canal in the 17th century and then buried, piece by piece, over the next two hundred years. At Blackfriars I lean out over the embankment, the sound of construction rattling between my ears as cranes swing above my head and men in hard hats and high viz jackets shout to each other across the building site. Is that the river there, beneath the bridge in the shadows? It is hard to tell. I am too nervous to lean out any further. I pull back and take one last look at the Thames. Then I turn and begin to walk.
I am armed with a Googlemap that traces the route of the river and which streets to follow to be as close as possible to the well-hidden Fleet. At first I am walking up a main road, along Farringdon Street in the direction of Ludgate Circus and Fleet Street. The latter, named for the river, conjures up images in my head of hardnosed journalists but they are long gone, even if their watering holes and former office buildings remain. But my detour up Fleet Street allows me to look back, down towards Ludgate Circus and get a feel for the topography of this corner of the city.
That I know the river is there, buried beneath Farringdon Street, helps me make sense of what I am looking at. The street runs noticeably downhill, falling away to where was once was the old embankment and bridge that crossed the river, before rising up again on the other side towards St Paul’s. The river explains what I am looking at, even if all that remains above ground of the Fleet is the name of the street I am walking along.
I press on, past the Italian consulate and the Holborn Viaduct, beautiful in the morning sunshine, and then the less-than-salubrious outer reaches of Smithfield Market. From here, I leave the main road behind and my route up to King’s Cross takes me along back streets, through a world of service elevators and “no waiting” signs; past lock-up garages and small businesses; past car parks occupying what look like bombsites and a mix of once-grand houses divided up into flats and newer estates with locked gates.
Standing outside a communal garden, where a key is available for any neighbours who wants to use the space to dig and water, or simply relax, I realise I have lost track of the Fleet, my attention drawn first to an old courthouse that now houses a backpackers hostel, and then a striking tower block and the communal garden itself. But it doesn’t really matter. Using the Fleet was just a starting point; a line to follow to give some structure to my walk. In any case, it is almost done. A bookshop, the pub, and a friend will soon be waiting. The Fleet has been a good guide, and maybe next time, I will continue my journey, upstream to Hampstead Heath, to the woodlands, the views back across the city and the ponds from which the river emerges.
Words & Pictures: Paul Scraton
You can find out more about Tom Bolton’s London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide on his website. Thanks to Tom for inspiring this walk.
In February I’ll be returning to London for the first time in three years, and this piece has given me much food for thought as to how I might spend my free afternoons. I was particularly struck by what you said about the river explaining what you could see; I like the idea that something whose presence is known about but not visible can help us to interpret what is there before our eyes, which of course is what all those stories buried in the landscape can do if we’re minded to listen.
Best wishes from Catalonia