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Monday, April 06, 2009

The Fleet

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.

  • At 4/06/2009 02:36:00 PM, Blogger Jennifer wrote…

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  • At 4/06/2009 02:38:00 PM, Blogger Jennifer wrote…

    This strikes me as an unexpectedly--almost inexplicably--cool journey. What a great opening sentence, too; that'd go on my list of "how to open a piece of writing" any day.

    (Whoops. Blew it the first time I tried to post.)


  • At 4/06/2009 03:48:00 PM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…


    In Rome, too, you can see and follow the remains of the old Cloaca Maxima, but I don't think any water is flowing through it these days.



  • At 4/07/2009 06:50:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous wrote…

    Apparently the vestiges of the Walbrook river make their presence felt in a boggy corner of the Drapers' Company garden off Throgmorton Avenue in the City... (Stow fans may know of this site as the place stolen by Thomas Cromwell from Stow's father!).


  • At 4/07/2009 10:05:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    Great post!

    So how much are walking tours led by Bardolph going for these days? And is the preferred currency pounds or pints?


  • At 4/23/2009 11:24:00 AM, Blogger Inkhorn wrote…

    I think there's a plaque marking the Fleet -- or one of its branches -- on a building on the south side of Angler's Lane, just before it runs into the Kentish Town Road. As I recall, this is (or used to be) the back side of a Portuguese chicken shack. Nando's? Something like that. I think that puts it a little upwind of Quinn's.


  • At 5/08/2009 01:51:00 AM, Anonymous Anak Salatiga Belajar Seo wrote…

    wow just wow ...
    very kool photos ...
    if i were you ...
    i'm just to far away from those things


  • At 5/08/2009 03:33:00 PM, Blogger Unnatural Philsopher wrote…

    It's infuriating how much this makes me want to go and wander the streets tracing it.
    I was teaching a group of school-kids the other day who really could not cope with the idea of a places geography changing. I shall keep this in mind as an example for them.


  • At 7/26/2009 10:43:00 AM, Anonymous John Yeoman wrote…

    There's a colourful confirmation of Jonson's disgust in Swift's City Shower:

    'Seepings from butcher's stalls, dung, guts and blood,
    Drown'd puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
    Dead cats and turnip-tops, come tumbling down the flood.'

    Strangely, Samual Scott's painting 'Mouth of the River Fleet' depicts the river as idyllic, somewhat Venetian. Stow has his usual choice words to say about the Fleet. There's a link to Stow's 1603 survey at: yeomaniana.blogspot.com.


  • At 1/06/2010 07:32:00 PM, Blogger Unknown wrote…

    This comment has been removed by the author.


  • At 1/06/2010 07:39:00 PM, Blogger Unknown wrote…

    I'm always happy to read that others are still curious about such things as I. Perhaps I can help by way of some visual aids to bolster your text. Here's a few links to some photographs.

    Downstream of Quinn's pub, in the vicinity of Camden St: One

    Looking upstream, in the vicinity of St. Pancras Old Church: Two

    Close to the Bagnigge Wells site: Three

    Further downstream, in the area of Mount Pleasant sorting office, former House of Correction site: Four

    The grate you show and mention in Ray street sits above this corner, which follows the contour of the street above: Five

    The site of Christopher Wren's Fleet Bridge, since relined with brick but the stonework still exists under the brickwork (approx location Ludgate Circus): Six

    Just prior to it's Thames outfall at Blackfriars: Seven

    p.s. I'd advise against any thought of venturing into these locations. Very strongly so. The dangers of such an activity are too great to list. The images, though fascinating, provide a false representation of the real life environment as they are artificially lit and taken using long exposures. Enjoy vicariously.


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