London’s Lost Rivers From Above: The Westbourne

Helping you find the sights, sounds, and occasional smells of our buried waterways.

Along with the Tyburn and Fleet, the River Westbourne is one of the ‘big three’ lost watercourses north of the Thames, now buried and used as a sewer. It shares a similar point of origin to its siblings, rising in Whitestone Pond on Hampstead Heath. From there, it flows down through Hampstead, Kilburn, Paddington, Hyde Park, on to Knightsbridge, and out into the Thames at Chelsea.

Of the three, the Westbourne is the most accessible. You can even get inside it by clambering down to the foreshore at Chelsea Embankment during low tide. The opening is obvious, taking up half the height of the Embankment wall. You can penetrate perhaps twenty metres or so before firm steel hatches block the way.


View Underground London in a larger map

Londonist’s Map of Subterranean London.

The next obvious (and famous) evidence of the river comes at Sloane Square Tube station, where a metal conduit carries the waters over the tracks. The Westbourne can then be traced through the streets of Chelsea and Belgravia (see map for route) and on in to Hyde Park via Knightsbridge (the name thought to come from a watery crossing point).

Westbourne water originally fed the Serpentine, but is now diverted East of the lake. North of the park, a bridge once carried Bayswater Road over the Westbourne, where the Swan Inn still stands. You can clearly see the ancient river valley as a dip in the road at this point.

The route becomes harder to follow once we enter the Paddington and Maida Vale areas. Names such as Upbrook Mews and Conduit Mews offer reminders. More signs can be found in Kilburn, where a plaque marks the point where the stream was once bridged by the Roman Watling Street (now Kilburn High Road). Further plaques commemorate the Kilburn wells (a spa on the banks of the Westbourne), and a flooding event from the 1970s on West End Lane. Beside the latter, you can clearly hear fast-moving water from a nearby drain. The journey from here up to Hampstead Heath is somewhat confused by the branching of differnet tributaries. The only other hint of the river we came across was the sound of running water at the Northern end of Reddington Gardens.

Further (and, frankly, much better) pictures of the inside of the Westbourne sewer can be found here.

Images by M@ Brown and Paul Cox. Previous entries in this series.

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  • http://undefined queensway26

    Found this to be very interesting. Can you say where CONDUIT PLACE W2 fits into this please?

    • M@

      I believe the name refers to an old spring in this area, which (from medieval times) was taken by conduit into the City of London. Google Bayswater conduit for more info.

  • http://undefined Eltanin

    Blimey, it flows right under my back garden! I never knew… thank you!

  • http://undefined Jeremy

    A correction to your information.

    The River Westbourne runs down Frognal in Hampstead. If you are outside No 45 and stand in the middle of the road you will see an open water sluice (2 metal bars) and at that point you can hear it running down the hill.There is also historical reference to Frognal and River Westbourne both written and pictorial.

    Once you identify this opening you will see many similar metal grids all over the hills of Hampstead on this side of Fitzjohns Avenue. The difference being that others remain comparatively silent whilst the Frognal one rings with a lovely tone.

    The Westbourne runs all the way down Frognal and turns the corner just as the road does and then zips away southwestward under Finchley Road cuts across the railway tracks and heads towards Kilburn/South Hampstead.