Rivers run through London’s long and storied history, the veins through which its life force has surged for millennia and made it into one of history’s great cities. Today, the Thames remains a picture postcard icon of London, snaking past some of the city’s (and the world’s) biggest tourist destinations: Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the Tower of London all lie on its banks. Even the means of crossing it – Tower Bridge, Waterloo Bridge, the modern incarnation of London Bridge and the Millennium Bridge to name just a few –have become attractions in their own right, with many of them hailed as marvels of engineering and design.
However, while tourists and Londoners alike flock to the Thames for picturesque landscape shots and selfies, London’s aquatic history is not limited to this great river. The Thames has no less than twenty one ‘main’ (!) tributaries in Greater London, with each of these having a significant number of their own branches. Some of these flow above ground and in sight, but many others lie underground, having been built over during London’s urban expansion and flow through underground culverts. London’s plethora of rivers and waterways was once central to its flourishing as a city, with water required for drinking water, harbours, mills, tanneries, and various other forms of industry. Another of their key functions – and perhaps the one which most differentiates the modern River Thames from past times – was waste. While rivers have been sewers for London’s population since time immemorial, as the population boomed more and more of the city’s waterways were converted into stinking open sewers, damaging to the population’s health and only sorted out by the Victorians, who subsequently paved over many of them. The River Walbrook, which flows underneath the heart of the City of London and was the river on which the Romans built their Londinium, is perhaps the prime example of this. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay on the former site of the Walbrook, the City of London, Montcalm City Suites is a luxurious property and the perfect base from which to explore all central London’s attractions.
Another of London’s famous lost rivers is the Effra which, like the Walbrook, was converted into an open sewer and now lies mostly underground. A plaque near Vauxhall Bridge marks the spot where the Effra joins the River Thames. The River Fleet, meanwhile, was notoriously feculent, described by Gulliver’s Travels author Jonathan Swift as filled with “dung, guts and blood” in the early 18th century. Prior to overpopulation relegating the Fleet to a waste disposal chute, it had been a valued corridor of trade: the materials which built St. Paul’s Cathedral were carried along the river. Today, the sharp hills of Pentonville Rise and the now dry Holborn Viaduct both indicate where the River Fleet once flowed. Outside St. Pancras Old Church, in an area now more famous as the site of an international train station and transport hub, is a plaque showing people bathing on the banks of the Fleet in 1827.