London Corners: Underground Waters



It sometimes seems like Londoners spend half their lives trying to keep water out of their houses. In Scott Wood’s ‘London Urban Legends’ there’s mention of the River Tyburn turning up in Gray’s Antique Market, near South Molton Lane in central London.

The basement of the market was originally under six feet of water, the reason for this supposedly being a running tributary to the Thames – the hidden River Tyburn. Before Oxford Street took its present name in the 18th century, it was known as Tyburn Road, which led to the Tyburn hanging gallows at the site of Marble Arch and Tyburn Lane (now Park Lane).

The river rises at Shepherds Well in Hampstead and flows through Regents Park and the West End to the Thames via The Mews. As the area became built up the river was culverted, but Gray’s is fond of pointing out that there’s one place the clean running water of the Tyburn can still be seen – in the basement of Grays Mews, where it is now full of goldfish and has a camp little bridge going over it.

From the 13th century, the Tyburn supplied water for London through conduits of elm trunks, which were later changed to leather pipes. The earliest written record of the Tyburn was in 785 A.D. Brook Street in Mayfair takes its name from the Tyburn, often referred to as the Tyburn Brook from the 15th century.  The Tyburn Estate was recorded in the Domesday Book as a manor that consisted of no more than 150 people and was worth only 52 shillings.

There have always been tributaries just under the pavements, some of which could be seen. I remember that when you when to the Gents’ loo in the old Becky’s Dive Bar, the really disgusting old bar that used to exist at the bottom of some stickily-carpeted stairs in the basement of the Hop Exchange, Borough, you had to step over a running stream which looked like a conduit for an underground river. For memories of Becky’s horrible bar (‘My customers don’t come ‘ere to drink the decor’) visit this site.

divebarexterior_croppedIf you don’t mind appearing a bit mad, stick your head near the drain just outside the Coach & Horses in Clerkenwell and you’ll be rewarded by a glimpse of the Fleet rushing South. Waters passing North to South are supposed to be good for the wellbeing of a building, which is good for me as the Fleet passes directly through my basement (there’s still a capped well down there).

You can find the course of the Fleet by walking along the towpath going East from Camden and seeing where the path is permanently flooded. We tend to forget that the river and the tributaries define London. My father always used to forecast rain by bird cries – accurate as it turned out, because seagulls come in from the windy coastline as the weather changes. London’s canals are once more filled with fish, but seagulls never seem to dive for them. With the embarrassment of a London summer now firmly out of the way, expect to see more windswept gulls…


6 comments on “London Corners: Underground Waters”

  1. jan says:

    The wooden pipes still exist though obviously not in use – the remains of these pipes can be seen in the back gardens of a few maybe just a couple of houses in Queens Square Holborn and nearby.

    When you walk along the road next to the antiques market with wot we are told is the Tyburn in the basement although some insist that its mains water now and the Tyburn is safe within its culvert

    (i honestly dunno) you can hear water rushing along beneath you. The Tyburn then heads off down to Grosvenor Square beneath the most haunted house in London then toward the palace and beyond and its

    actually signposted near the Thames the point where the tributary hits the main river. The Tyburn to the north and the Effra to the south near the MI5 building near Vauxhall bridge which came up here a few weeks a

    ago. This part of the river was probably sacred to ancient man a sacred confluence of rivers with probably an eyot or perhaps an isle of gravel at the site.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Is it my imagination or can you see something suspiciously like old conduit near the bridge in the above photo? Basement flooding is a real concern in our neck of the woods, but it’s usually backup from storm drains. Love the goldfish.

  3. chazza says:

    I remember Becky’s Dive Bar very well. It was a grand place and the fact that you were not certain whether you would emerge free of injuries caused by an unprovoked attack from the vicious cat, falling down the stairs or being rectally impaled by the sudden liberation of yet another broken spring in the malodorous sofa made it all worth while.
    My finest memory is of a team of cricketers – in full regalia – dancing on the pavement outside with a team of Morris dancers (also in full regalia) at some ungodly hour. I was so inspired by this liberating sight that I broke into Borough Market and carried home on the Tube a full sack of cabbages; it seemed a good idea at the time….Real pubs like that are a thing of the past….

  4. Hank Young says:

    The Fleet, according to all sorts (including that nice Mr Ackroyd) would certainly seem to be audible outside The Coach, but a fellah (usually reliable) told me that a mate of his, who was once the landlord, took him down into the cellar and showed him a low, circular structure, like a well, with a wooden cover. When he lifted it, there was the Fleet, churning happily by. I’m not surprised it’s kept quiet tho’ – the queue of Londonjunkies like us would probably go round the block and somewhat outweigh the extra trade. If, o’course, it’s there. One never know, do one?

  5. admin says:

    I think this is the first time rectal impalement and Morris dancing have shared a comments page, but I can’t be sure.

  6. John Griffin says:

    Declined to decline on the sofa so many decades ago when living by the War Museum. Taken there by a strange lass who I declined to impale (far far too weird) – she told all and sundry I was gay which led to a couple of interesting weeks at Kens & Chelsea Social Services 🙂

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