Londoners, listen up as something other than the capital’s chaos is within earshot. Hidden below a layer of concrete, there flows the long-lost network of London’s subterranean rivers.
These streams, bearing evocative names such as the Effra and the Fleet, are tributaries of the Rivers Thames and Lea. They were used for different purposes in ancient times, before facing the same fate: becoming part of the sewerage system during the nineteenth century.
“These rivers are buried under the city and are different in size,” said Tom Bolton, author of London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide.
“Some of them were just streams, such as the Tyburn; some were slightly bigger and are still partially above ground.”
The Fleet, which gave its name to the street once home to Britain’s national newspapers, is one of the biggest hidden rivers in the capital. It still surfaces in two ponds in Hampstead Heath, before going back underground.
“The Fleet had a navigable section down towards the Thames,” Bolton said. “In medieval London, the stones used to build cathedrals and other goods, such as coal and wood, were hauled on this river.”
The river can still be heard today in several locations: through some gratings in Ray Street, in front of the Coach and Horses pub, and in Charterhouse Street, just off Farringdon Road.
Although visible waterways in London are enjoying a renaissance, hidden rivers remain outside of London’s popular culture.
“These rivers are the only remaining examples of the earliest landscapes before London arrived.”
“Londoners might know about them, but they are certainly away from sight,” said Bolton. “These hidden rivers are the only remaining examples of the earliest landscapes before London arrived. They were there before the Romans, before there was any London at all.”
Such landscapes are part of London’s literary subculture, and are recurring characters in the fantasy novels of Ben Aaronovitch. In Rivers of London, the rivers are controlled by supernatural, unpredictable divinities battling for command of the city.
“The character of Mama Thames walked in from another story idea,” said Aaronovitch.
“Then, I looked at a map of the rivers of London and I found out there was one called Beverley Brook and I thought ‘Hey, that’s a character!’ and decided to use all of them.
“Some of them have very obvious personalities, such as Tyburn and Fleet, while it took me ages to delineate how others would be like.”
Aaronovitch’s seventh novel will be published on 28 September, and will feature the rivers once again.
“It’s a bit of a spoiler, but yes, the rivers will be in the new one,” he said.
“They are everywhere in the books because everywhere you go around the city there’s one!”
These lost waterways are indeed everywhere. To all Londoners wanting to know what’s hidden beneath the pavement, keep your ears open and go with the flow.