Every September, London celebrates its lifeblood with the Totally Thames Festival. But this grand old river isn’t the city's only waterway. There are plenty more out there to consider, many of which have been banished below ground over the centuries and now flow right beneath our feet. Here’s a selection of some of those mysterious, lost waterways.
Once running from Kensal Green to Chelsea, Counter’s Creek is believed to have taken its name from ‘Countessebregge’, a fifteenth-century bridge built by the Countess of Oxford near present-day Olympia. ‘Samfordesbrigge’ (‘Bridge of the Sandy Ford’ to you and me) was another place where you could mosey on over the Creek. The name has since morphed into ‘Stamford Bridge’, home of The Blues. In the nineteenth-century the Creek was converted into a canal, then a railway. Hop on the Overground between Shepherd’s Bush and Imperial Wharf today and you’re pretty much traversing the Creek’s old riverbed. What remains of the Creek now meets the Thames close to the former Lots Road power station.
Back in the day, the Effra was the main river south of the water. Wide and deep, it’s said that King Cnut – careful with that spelling – managed to sail his troops along it towards what is now Brixton, probably docking somewhere near the Ritzy (well, that’s my guess anyway). Another legend relates to a coffin that the Victorians buried too close to the Effra at West Norwood Cemetery. The casket plopped into the river and rode the rapids all the way to the Thames. Thorpe Park, eat your heart out. In the 1850s the Effra was converted into a sewer and can now be seen emerging beneath the MI6 HQ at Vauxhall.
Running beneath the heart of Nappy Valley, the Falconbrook’s name is a nod to the falcon bird that once appeared on the Lord of Battersea Manor’s crest. Clapham Junction's Falcon pub and Falcon Road give props to the river and it was outside the station in 2007 that the lost waterway made a surprise return when it burst through and flooded the area.
Tricky to envision now, but the Fleet once flowed openly through King’s Cross and Farringdon. Even harder to imagine is how awful it must’ve ponged as the river was notoriously filthy. In 1710 Jonathan Swift wrote about the 'dung, guts and blood', 'drown’d puppies' and 'dead cats' that clogged the waterway. In ‘Oliver Twist’, Charles Dickens based Fagin’s den at Saffron Hill, close to the Fleet’s sludgy, crime-ridden bank. Not far from there is Ray Street where, if you listen carefully, you can hear the Fleet gushing through the drains below.
Now vanished amongst a tangle of sewers, the Hackney Brook wound along a picturesque backwater from Holloway to the River Lea. When the brook was channelled underground in the 1860s workers on the Stoke Newington stretch unearthed a bunch of 200,000-year-old flint axes, thus proving that Stokies were the earliest Londoners.
‘Neckinger’ – or ‘devil’s neckcloth’ – is a grisly seventeenth-century nickname for the hangman’s noose. And yep, they did indeed execute crooks – more specifically, pirates – beside this old river. The gallows was located on Bermondsey’s Jacob’s Island where the Neckinger met the Thames. In days gone by Jacob’s Island was a hideous slum. Charles Dickens dubbed it the 'capital of cholera' and it was here, in ‘Oliver Twist’, that the ferocious Bill Sikes met his violent end.
Also known as the ‘Earl’s Sluice’ after the Earl of Gloucester who lorded it here in the twelfth century, the Peck trickles beneath Camberwell, Peckham and Bermondsey. As with other London rivers, poverty and disease flourished along its course and locals were quite happy to see it squirrelled below ground in the 1870s. You can have a peek at the Peck in Peckham Rye Park’s Japanese Garden where part of the old river still exists in the open.
In the 1800s Stamford Brook’s source at Acton was celebrated for its medicinal properties and folk would come from all over to sup. Apparently it also made a cracking laxative. Just like today’s trendy aqua, water from Stamford Brook was bottled up and sold to well-off city types. The river was filled in during the early twentieth century but can still be seen entering the Thames beneath Hammersmith’s Furnival Gardens.
Derived from an olde word for ‘boundary’, the first written mention of the Tyburn harks back to 785 AD. Starting in Hampstead, it runs beneath Swiss Cottage, Regent’s Park and then right through the heart of the West End. In medieval times, wooden pipes channelled water from the Tyburn all the way to Cheapside where local market traders were no doubt grateful for its refreshing properties. One branch of the river flows directly beneath Buckingham Palace, another deep below the Churchill War Rooms. Elsewhere, a water feature – complete with fish – in the basement of Grays Antique Centre claims to be part of the Tyburn. Cute gimmick, guys.
Running from Shoreditch to Cannon Street, the Walbrook is the Square Mile’s own hidden waterway. When the Romans founded Londinium the Walbrook played a key role, providing the fledgling city with clean water and a dock. The Romans also constructed a temple to Mithras – a mysterious cult associated with shady rituals – on the Walbrook’s bank.
Like the Fleet and the Tyburn, the source of the Westbourne lies in Hampstead. Hints of the river’s course can be spotted in road names such as Pont Street, Knightsbridge and Frognal (which really does allude to our little amphibian friends). If you’ve ever caught a tube to Sloane Square station you would’ve passed beneath the river Westbourne without even realising – it flows right above the platforms in a sturdy, iron trough.