Paul Talling has been on a mission to discover waterways that once ran through the suburbs and capital, writes Nick Elvin
Every day as we walk, drive, cycle or take a bus through the capital, we pass over countless buried cables, Tube lines, cellars and sewers. But also hidden below our feet are the once important, now largely forgotten rivers that acted as sources of clean water, sewage channels and transport links for London’s residents.
A new book, London’s Lost Rivers, charts the course of these waterways from source to end – for example the famous Fleet, as well as the Moselle, Tyburn and Westbourne. Author Paul Talling has used documentary evidence, such as old maps, to discover the rivers’ courses and how they have changed.
Paul says: “There was a book in the 1960s, Lost Rivers of London, but it was quite theoretical. I wanted to make something more up to date, with pictures; something people could take on a walk with them.“
The book shows how the rivers shaped the city, forming borough and even county boundaries, transport networks, fashionable spas and stagnant slums. It describes how they all eventually gave way to railways, roads and sewers. Armed with his camera, Paul traces their routes and reveals their often overlooked remains, such as riverbank steps, healing wells, ’stink pipes’, gutters, and even unexplained bridges in parks.
Paul says: “The River Fleet in central London was a big river. It was used for shipping coal – today there are roads with names like Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane. While I was doing the research I was realising just where many of the street names come from. Coal used to come in from up north, along the estuary and up the Fleet.“
The Fleet has its sources on Hampstead Heath, where it was dammed in the 1700s to create reservoirs (the Heath’s famous ponds), while further downstream its presence led to the construction of the Holborn Viaduct.
There’s also the Tyburn, with its two sources in Belsize Park and the Shepherd’s Well in Hampstead. When Regent’s Canal was built it cut across the river, so the Tyburn is carried across via a footbridge – the channel is hidden below the walkway. The river even flows through the basement of an antiques store in central London.
The Moselle takes its name from the mossy well and hill that spawned Muswell Hill – it has several sources in the Highgate area, which join up before it flows down to Wood Green, Tottenham, and eventually out into the River Lea. To the north, the Royal Gunpowder Mills of Waltham Abbey are home to drained, abandoned canals that once served what was an important industrial site.
London’s Lost Rivers follows on from Paul’s last book, Derelict London, in which he photographed and researched buildings that had reached the end of their lives and were perhaps due for demolition.
“They were locations I walked past every day and I decided to take a few photos,“ he says. “It just grew from there.“
London’s Lost Rivers is out now, published by Random House. Paul also leads guided walks along the river routes - further details at: www.londonslostrivers.com