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.
If 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…