|One of the good things about living in Old Europe is that there are plenty of abandoned sewers, and on Sunday I walked much of the route that the Fleet River once flowed. Still flows, in fact, although now it’s a subterranean waterway. The Fleet was a major river in Roman and Anglo-Saxon Britain, with wells and springs dotting its banks: hence Clerkenwell. But by the time we get to our period, it was in a terrible way, a dumping ground for all kinds of waste. Ben Jonson’s ‘On the Famous Voyage’ imagines two part-drunk city boys journeying up the polluted Fleet Ditch from Bridewell to Holborn, perhaps in search of a brothel. Richard Helgerson called Jonson’s verse one of ‘the filthiest, the most deliberately and insistently disgusting poems in the language’, which is praise of a sort. And it is an insistently scatological poem: ‘How dare / Your daintie nostrills … / Tempt such a passage? when each priuies seate / Is fill’d with buttock? And the walls doe sweate / Urine.’ Not unlike a couple of north London pubs I frequent.|
Anyway, today you can still see the origin of the Fleet on Hampstead Heath in the form of the eighteenth-century ponds, created by damming the Fleet’s two headwaters. The Fleet’s two streams then travel underground, through Dartmouth Park, down Kentish Town, where they join, under Quinn’s: the bright yellow Camden pub, for those of you with local knowledge, itself no friend of daintie nostrills. From there, the Fleet heads to Kings Cross: no obvious signs of it here, although there is a plaque marking Fleet-derived ‘Bagnigge Wells’, where, if you were one of the ratherest things in eighteenth-century London, you might take the waters and the tea. The sign stands behind a bus-stop, opposite a hideous Travelodge on the spot of Nell Gwynne’s former house. (The bus-stop is called ‘Gwynne Place’.)
The Fleet then runs on to Farringdon Road, cutting its way under gastropubs full of Guardian journalists, eventually exiting into the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge.
So far, so underground, but, rather thrillingly, it’s possible to hear the Fleet passing beneath, at one point. There is a grate in the road outside the otherwise forgettable Coach and Horses pub, on Ray Street, just off Farringdon, and if you risk lying down with your ear to the ground, you can hear the amazingly loud sound of the Fleet’s rushing water. ‘All, that they boast of Styx, of Acheron, / Cocytus, Phlegethon, our haue prou’d in one.’
The other chance for Fleet-glimpsing is beneath Blackfriars Bridge. The spot is unmarked, but if you have a low-tide, and if you walk to the right, and lean out as far as you can, you can see, lurking, the hole where the Fleet hits the Thames. It’s hidden away – everyone walks by – but you can see the waters that started off in dainty Hampstead, tumbling out into the Thames.