The Fleet, London’s best known lost river, slices down from Hampstead Heath to the Thames at Blackfriars, enclosed entirely in Victorian sewer tunnels... well almost. If you know where to look, there are several places where the Fleet can be seen flowing blatantly above ground. Further along its route it can be seen and heard by anyone willing to crouch over a back street drain cover. Visit this unusual selection of spots to witness the diminished, but yet powerful, presence of a mighty buried river.
Vale of Health, Hampstead
The trail begins on the west side of Hampstead Heath, the top of the ridge. Vale of Health is now a pleasant, strangely isolated corner of Hampstead, but its cheerful name is a rebranding exercise. During the 17th century it was Hatchett’s Bottom, waterlogged, malarial and a source of the Fleet. When Hatchett’s Bottom was drained, Vale of Health Pond was created, and it feeds the Hampstead Brook which is the western arm of the River Fleet. Locate the grating pictured above, at the pond’s south-west corner, and follow the path into the woods to find the stream itself. Here, hidden among thick trees and undergrowth, is the only place where the Fleet still flows above ground. Standing on its green banks, it is hard to believe there could be a city here at all.
The Hampstead Stream flows gently across the heath, at first hidden away but more and more visible as it becomes the string of ponds for which the Heath is well known. The Viaduct Pond, above, with its fine bridge, is connected via a small tributary. Then there are three more ponds — the Mixed Bathing Pond, No1 Pond and No2 Pond — originally reservoirs formed by damming the Hampstead Brook, which supplied London with drinking water. The river can be seen draining away through a grille at the south end of No2 Pond. It once fed a fourth reservoir, the lost South End Pond, which was drained in 1858 to build Hampstead Heath Station.
The grounds of Kenwood House, London’s grandest mansion, have been claimed from Hampstead Heath. The Concert Pond, pictured, features a two-dimensional bridge inserted as a back-drop. The setting is made possible by the Highgate Brook, the eastern headwaters of the Fleet, which can be seen bubbling from the ground in a grove of trees at the south-west corner of the house. The stream quickly gathers pace to feed the Lily Pond and then the Concert Pond, but the spring seems to go unnoticed.
The Highgate Brook, like its Hampstead counterpart, was dammed to create an even longer string of reservoirs, now also ponds. From the Concert Pond, the stream flows down a steep slope to the Stock Pond, and then in quick succession the Ladies’ Bathing Pond, the Bird Sanctuary Pond, the Model Boating Pond, the Men’s Bathing Pond and finally the Highgate No1 Pond. Two of these, along with Mixed Bathing Pond on the Hampstead side, offer a chance to swim in the waters of the Fleet itself, before it gets mixed up with the sewage system. Grab the chance before long-running plans to close the Highgate Ponds and rebuild the dams are put into action.
Churchill Road footbridge
After its flamboyant displays on Hampstead Heath, the Fleet vanishes into the storm sewer tunnels that carry it on the rest of its journey to the Thames. However, this does not mean it is completely out of sight. The next clear indication of a river is not far from Tufnell Park tube station. A footbridge cross the railway lines, connecting York Rise (in Dartmouth Park) to Ingestre Road on the Tufnell Park side. Crossing alongside is a fat, flaking pipe which contains the Highgate Brook. It is unlabelled and apparently unloved, but without it the river would go no further.
The Hampstead and Highgate Brooks meet in Kentish Town (by Quinn’s pub at the junction of Hawley Street and Kentish Town Road) but nothing is visible until further south. At the bottom of Lyme Street in the Camden hinterlands, a heavy iron grating sits in the the road outside the Prince Albert pub. Because it is in a bike lane getting down close is a little risky, but it is worth it. The Fleet can be smelled in the form of a drainy odour, heard rushing past, and seen as a surprisingly strong flow of water glinting away in the gloom.
Between Camden and Farringdon, the Fleet hides away again. From King’s Cross the Fleet’s thalweg is increasingly clear (thalweg is the delightful word for the lowest point of a river valley). However, the river is not visible again until it has passed under the Rosebery Avenue bridge to reach Ray Street. Outside the Coach and Horses pub another solid grating conceals the Fleet sewer, the water clearly audible and visible as eyes become accustomed to the dark. This was once the centre of Hockley-in-the-Hole, a damp and diseased neighbourhood of ramshackle housing built around and over the Fleet. It was popular as a dubious resort, with gambling, bear baiting and other inventive forms of animal torture. The Coach and Horses, which recently closed, is on the site of the original Hockley tavern, where in 1709 one of the bears killed the landlord. This is one pub London cannot afford to lose.
Through the back streets of Farringdon, Saffron Hill weaves downhill to meet the buried Fleet at the junction with Greville Road. A classic Fleet drain cover offers a clear sighting of the river rushing beneath, its gentle roar masked by the traffic. Saffron Hill, its name betraying its origins as part of the Bishop of Ely’s garden, became one of Victorian London’s notorious rookeries. Among the tangle of streets was Field Lane, where Dickens located Fagin’s Kitchen in Oliver Twist, and the Red Lion pub which was linked to 18th century London’s favourite villains: Jack Sheppard, Dick Turpin and Jonathan Wild. In the pub’s cellar a trapdoor supposedly led to the Fleet, so that wanted men could make a quick getaway. The rookery was demolished and Farringdon Road built in the 1840s, with the Fleet dispatched below ground.
Although the Fleet cannot strictly be seen or heard from Holborn Viaduct, it is tantalisingly close. This stretch of the Fleet was known as the Holebourne, and Holborn Viaduct is quite clearly a bridge across a wide deep valley carved out by its flow. Standing on Holborn Viaduct and looking south, towards Blackfriars and the Thames, there is a powerful feeling of being suspended above a river. The Fleet was wide and navigable below Holborn, and side streets with names such as Stonecutter lane and Old Seacoal Lane hint at the medieval docks, where the stones for Old St Paul’s Cathedral were unloaded. The water has been replaced by a flow of cars and buses, while the river is carried in cavernous twin tunnels under Farringdon Street.
Leon at Ludgate Circus
There is no Fleet to be seen at the Ludgate Circus branch of Leon, but there is a mystery to solve. Ludgate Circus is located beside an ancient Fleet crossing, where Fleet Street bridged the river, but the King Lud pub that used to guard it has gone. The building now occupied by Leon was the King Lud from 1870 until 2005, latterly a Hogs Head. Former regulars claim that the pub boasted a stretch of the Fleet itself, which could be seen flowing under a glass floor panel, possibly in the basement. There is no trace of this now, and staff claim there is nothing the basement holds no secrets. So is this just a rumour, or did the Fleet once flow in the King Lud?
Under Blackfriars Bridge
Once a broad, tidal inlet occupied by ships, the mouth of the Fleet has declined over several centuries and is now just a dark hole in the Embankment. Hidden away in the shadows under Blackfriars Bridge, at the spot where papal banker Roberto Calvi was found hanging in 1982, the outfall is hard to see. The best view is from Blackfriars Pier because, although the foreshore may be technically accessible at low tide, it is not advised. The hole may look small for what was once a substantial river, but it handles a lot of water. In heavy rain the sewers overflow into the storm system, which carries the Fleet, and the power of the water flips open 2.5 tonne steel doors to reach the Thames. The Super Sewer project will end this, changing the Embankment here for good. Construction work has already begun on a new pier, so take your chance while you can to pay tribute to the still-mighty Fleet.