Monday, January 12, 2009


The peerless Jonathan Calder - peerless in the sheer range of esoteria featured on his Liberal England blog - has recently highlighted a plan to restore some of the Lost Rivers of London to their natural glory.

The Lost Rivers have long held a fascination for me. They merited a chapter in that wonderful book London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd - the man who should have been Mayor of London all along in my view - and, many years earlier, a whole book of their own in Nicholas Barton's The Lost Rivers of London (1960), which is probably now out of print but well worth snapping up if you ever come across it in a secondhand bookstore in Hay-on-Wye or Cromford or some such place.

Jonathan draws our attention to a little-reported proposal to open up some of the rivers of south and east London, including the Effra and the Ravensbourne, which have long been culverted beneath parks. A brilliant example of what can be achieved by this can be seen in Sutcliffe Park, near Kidbrooke, where Gill and I lived before we moved to Derbyshire in 2004. A sterile open space has been utterly transformed into a natural river valley by opening up the River Quaggy, which had previously been submerged since 1964.

But in my view, the Environment Agency's plans don't go far enough. If they really want to do something radical which would make Central and North London a much pleasanter place to live and work, they should open up the Fleet, which wends its way from its source beneath Hampstead Ponds through some of North London's grimiest streets, flowing into the Thames just south of Fleet Street.

The river which gave its name to the national newspaper industry has been buried for more than 150 years and for much of that time was a sewer, a fact which some will doubtless regard as deeply symbolic.

Ackroyd records in his book that at one point, the noxious gases in the underground river built up to such a point that it exploded, taking three houses in the Kings Cross area with it. If tape recorders had been invented at the time, this would probably have constituted the loudest recorded fart in the history of the world, ever.

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David Gladwin said...

Fans of Christopher Fowler's London detectives Bryant & May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit will have learned much about the lost rivers of London from the second of their adventures, The Water Room.

More on this and Bryant & May in general at Christopher Fowler's website.

I suppose I should also post a link to somewhere you can buy the book, but if you're interested enough then Mr Fowler has done this for me, on the pages for the individual titles onm his site.

So, if you don't happen to be in Cromford right now, here instead is the Scarthin Books website

Paul Linford said...

Scarthin Books has a website? Has Miriam finally managed to drag them into the 21st century then?

David Gladwin said...

Did you actually follow the link and visit the Scarthin Website, Paul?

It works and everything, but its refusal of all things flashy and modern gives the (presumably correct) impression that it would run on steam if it could.

So perhaps we shouldn't credit Miriam - or whoever might have been responsible - for dragging them much further than the late twentieth century.

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the compliment, Paul.

Last time I was at Scarthin I bought a book called "Lincolnshire Potato Railways" just for the title.

David Gladwin said...

Was it any good, Jonathan?

Jonathan said...

I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the subject. There were miles of the things.