Like most Londoners I am intrigued by its lost rivers. I like to show people who don’t know the Westbourne as it crosses above the platform at Sloane Square Tube station in its cast-iron tunnel, and when we lived in Clerkenwell I liked to follow the course of the Fleet River down from King’s Cross. It’s easy to see the old valley, and it is not, as Peter Ackroyd solemnly assures us somewhere, running along half way up a hill. Rivers tend not to do that, even lost ones.
(What a lot of nonsense that London book of his is, by the way. Half the facts are wrong, and where you might reasonably expect original information, such as the course of the Fleet, he fails you. For instance, I wanted to know exactly where the Tyburn gallows stood. The code for the A to Z would do; I didn’t need a special map. I was prepared to dig through a lot of his vamp-till-ready stuff about how beastly it was in the olden times. But not a clue. I guess he couldn’t be arsed to find out. Or his researcher couldn’t.)
Anyway this isn’t about Peter Ackroyd, although I haven’t quite finished with the Fleet.
When I came to London to work in 1966, before I went to University, I was in an office building in Kingsway. One day for a treat I was taken to the basement to see George Bernard Shaw’s death mask, which they kept there. Either there was limited storage space or they were hoping to be able to use it to call his spirit from the nether world if ever London were in mortal danger: one or the other. Anyway, when I had gazed respectfully on the old man’s hairy and rather cross-grained features my guide took me by the arm and led me to the edge of the little subterranean room.
“Put your ear to the wall.”
I heard the very faint sound of rushing water, muffled by ancient brick.
“It’s the Fleet,” said my Virgil, “one of the Lost Rivers of London.”
It was of course no such thing. The Fleet is a good half mile to the west, and there are no other watercourses round there. I can only think that it was the office sewer. But I worked that out later, and in the meantime it fired my imagination.
The one London river that is not lost, apart of course from the Thames, is the Lea. Living in west and central London as I had for all my time here I had never had to reckon with the Lea. I knew it was there and that it had a valley. I thought of it in the context of Waltham Abbey, whatever that was, and that was probably due to Iain Sinclair who I am sure has gone into print on the subject of both. He too I have never been able to read with ease, although what he writes about would have been fascinating in the hands of someone else, unlike Ackroyd’s dreary litany of beastliness in the olden times. Sometimes the sentences go on for ever: sometimes, verbless, they cut you off at the knee.
Anyway it has become, now that we live in E13, necessary to engage with the Lea River.
Our friend George, who is one of life’s volunteers, takes parties on rambles further up the Valley. He says that it’s beautiful and I mean to find out. There is a website, but it commoditises everything in the infuriating way that they do today. You want it to tell you where you can walk and how to get in, preferably with the aid of a map. Instead it gives you the names that they have given the different permitted walks; possibly – I forget – their sponsors; and how to join.
(Join? How do you become a member of a valley? Do you think that Samuel Palmer got a gold membership card for his Golden Valley in Shoreham; loyalty points every time he felt the breath of God on his shoulder?)
Obviously there was to be no help there, so I resolved to fend for myself. I decided to start with the blunt end, and on Sunday afternoon I took the Tube to Canning Town and walked down to where the Lea flows into the Thames. This is overlooked by one of those roads that goes everywhere. I have often looked out of the car window and wondered what particular bits of water were: whether they might be the Lea or a canal or an inlet from the Thames. The Thames itself makes extravagant curves round here and you can never quite tell. To get by Tube to Westminster, both north of the river, you cross it four times.
When you are on the ground, however, you can sort out the various muddy spits of land. Some are devoted to industrial activity, some are clearly waiting to be developed and some have nature. One spit is called the Bow Creek Ecopark. I thought that on a nice Sunday afternoon it might be crowded but I was the only person there. There are osiers growing and birds wading and seats to watch them doing both from and occasionally the DLR trundles overhead on its way to Lewisham.
I walked further down towards the Thames and came to the old East India Dock, now also a nature reserve, but with more in the way of picturesque brickwork than Bow Creek. This was where the ships of the East India Company came and went, and out of the East India Company grew the British Empire. Now it is very quiet and you think how small the mighty ships must have been to dock there.
Signs send you on to Trinity Buoy Wharf, which is actually at the point where the Lea debouches into the Thames. Despite a certain Hacknification in its approaches (wall art, a large white fish) this is full of wonders, musical wonders indeed, and I shall write about them separately.