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Going underground

So here’s another quiz question – aimed at those readers who know their way around the City of London.

Q: what do Fleet Street, Holborn and Walbrook have in common?

A: An unauthorised version of Mornington Crescent?*

Nope. Think What Lies Beneath:  No? All right, I’ll tell you. They are all reflect the water courses, now flowing underground, whose paths they follow.

London is a surprisingly watery place, as you would perhaps expect from a town built on the marshland surrounding a great river. Over time though, the many rivers, brooks and streams flowing into the Thames have been encased, culverted and built over, as the city above them grew. But  clues to their continued existence remain in the names of the streets built above them.

The River Fleet

The River Fleet, open to the elements

The  Fleet is the largest of London’s underground rivers. Its source is up in Hampstead, and it flows into the Thames just by Blackfriars Bridge- following the path of Fleet Street above. It was enclosed in Victorian times, when people first realised that  its use as an open sewer was hazardous to public health. Incidentally, Boris Johnson, when mayor of London, proposed that sections of the Fleet be opened up again. The Environment Agency weren’t keen on the idea.

There is a grating in Farringdon Street in Clerkenwell, where you can actually hear the gurgling of the river below, as I did on one trek to Farringdon, over the noise of the outdoors drinkers in the pub nearby. The image here shows the river in 1844, open to the elements.

The Bourne conspiracy

One of the many small streams which ran into the Fleet River was the old stream, or “Old Bourne”. So was derived the name Holborn, some historians believe. The stream was driven underground when culverted in the 1700s.

Bourne was the old Saxon name for a stream, so its integration into place names is a clue that there’s running water nearby. It’s very common within place-names in the south and south-west of England. Think Eastbourne, Sherbourne, Fishbourne.

Moving out of London for a while; in the west country there are several places with  Winterbourne in their names. A winterboune was a stream or bourne which only flowed in winter. Since these places tended to be in areas of chalk underfoot, the streams tended to dry up in the summer.

But there are also other bournes in London too, whose paths are constrained or bricked over. Their existence is only obvious from the names of the places where they continue to flow.

The Westbourne – as in Westbourne Grove- courses from Hampstead to Chelsea, (via Kilburn, another bourne) – and is crossed by the Knights’ bridge. It empties into the Thames at Chelsea.

The Tyburn, rising in Hampstead again, flows through Regents Park, passing through the parish of Saint Mary’s by the Bourne – Marylebone. It  meanders via Victoria, entering the Thames at Vauxhall.

Tyburn the place was of course the site by the present day Marble Arch, where public executions took place. The only bloodshed nowadays is when trying to cross over the multiple traffic lanes to the Edgware Road. It was not actually named after the river Tyburn, but rather the Tyburn brook, which was a tributary of the Westbourne.


And of course, the brook place names explain themselves.  Walbrook, which rises in Finsbury to the north, flows into the Thames near to Cannon Street. The Romans used the Walbrook extensively to ferry goods up from the Thames into the walled city. They even built a temple to the god Mithras on its banks, near to where Bucklesbury and Walbrook in the City are now. Old city workers may have hazy but pleasant memories of the Mithras Wine Bar, which was near that very spot.

The Temple of Mithras, Walbrook. Now enclosed in the basement of Bloombergs.Temple of Mithras, Walbrook, City of London.




Peter Ackroyd – London Under

My interest in London’s underground history was  triggered by this marvellous book by Peter Ackroyd, who writes extensively about our capital city. The chapter on lost rivers was especially interesting and my blog here has drawn on that, for which grateful thanks. I would thoroughly recommend this to all you history buffs out there, especially Londoners.




“South of the river”

So to finish…. three other lost London rivers, now culverted or covered,  mentioned by Ackroyd, and all “south of the river”:

The Effra:  It flows from Norwood via Dulwich to enter the Thames north of Brixton. King Canute is reputed to have sailed up the Effra to Brixton, where presumably there was a landing place. Clues remain in road names such as Coldharbour Lane and Water Lane.

The Wandle: Flowing from Croydon via Lambeth to – Wandsworth of course.

The Neckinger: From near the Oval via Elephant and Castle and the New Kent Road, it entered the Thames at Neckinger Wharf. Ackroyd relates that pirates were hanged at Neckinger Wharf, and were said to be wearing the devil’s neck cloth, also known as – a neckinger.

Hiding in plain sight

Once again, history is there, hiding literally under our feet, but to uncover the secrets we need to lift our heads up and look at the place names and street names around us, to make sense of the hidden geography underground, waiting to be found.


P.S.*  Mornington Crescent ?

A game played on the BBC Radio 4 quiz show “I’m sorry, I haven’t a clue”. Contestants have to make their (theoretical) way from a given underground station to Mornington Crescent station, using the underground network. So, a contestant might start at Canary Wharf. The second contestant might then suggest a leap to Piccadilly Circus. The next contestant could then suggest Notting Hill Gate, only to be challenged as to the legality of the move. They might then counter with Newbury Park, only for the fourth contestant to triumphantly exclaim “Mornington Crescent!”. The rules? Nobody knows. Look it up on Google.


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