Counter's Creek: In Search Of London's Unknown River

David Fathers
By David Fathers Last edited 101 months ago

Last Updated 15 February 2016

Counter's Creek: In Search Of London's Unknown River
Lots Road Power Station. Illustration by David Fathers.

Ask any Londoner to name a hidden or lost river and they will probably mention the Fleet or the Effra. The river they rarely, if ever, refer to is Counter’s Creek — despite its impressive CV.

Counter’s Creek rises within the boundaries of Kensal Green Cemetery and flows underground, south-south eastward for 7km through Kensington, Earls Court and Chelsea to join the Thames by the former Lots Road power station. In the creek’s final few hundred metres, where it is visible, it is better known as Chelsea Creek.

Map: Counter’s Creek

By the early 19th century, Counter’s Creek had become an open sewer. Landowners of properties adjacent to the stream petitioned successfully to have it buried. In the late 1820s, the final 3km of the creek was canalised, to a width of 30 metres, to bring in vital commodities such as coal and building materials to west London and feed the housing boom. However, the Kensington Canal, as it was known, failed financially and was bought by the West London Railway Company. In 1859, they filled in the canal, culverted the creek and laid railway lines above it. The track is now part of the London Overground line.

Counter’s Creek forms the boundary between the boroughs of Hammersmith & Fulham and Kensington & Chelsea. Lining its banks are two of the ‘magnificent seven' cemeteries (Kensal Green and Brompton) and also four major stadia (two former and two current): White City (home of the 1908 Olympic Games), Earls Court, Olympia and Stamford Bridge (home of Chelsea FC). Westfield shopping centre sits on its western flank.

Left to right: The Brompton Cemetery, Olympia, the former Earls Court and Lots Road power station.

The stream, by the way, took its name from a bridge, the Countessbrugge, located close to what is now Olympia. It was built in 1420 and funded by the Countess Matilda of Oxford, whose family owned the Manor of Kensington. Over time, the name ‘Countess’ has eroded into ‘Counter’s’. And yet despite this aristocratic connection not a single street, terrace or mews is named after the creek, unlike its more fashionable neighbours, the Fleet and the Westbourne, which have a multitude of streets, lanes and groves to promote the waters (sewers) flowing below.

There is, however, one possible oblique street reference to the Creek. Just off Holland Park Avenue, in a line with the stream, is Clearwater Terrace. Is this a link back to a time when an untainted river flowed through green pastures?

Counter’s Creek does still get revenge for being buried, forgotten and unloved. Occasionally, at times of heavy and sudden rainfall, it makes dramatic appearances. Owing to the river's large watershed, which includes Camden and Brent, it can pose a major flood threat. Despite the creation of additional storm sewers in the area, flash storms can flood basements close to the stream. Though Thames Water have plans to prevent the Creek ever rising again.

David Fathers is currently writing and illustrating a new guidebook, London’s Hidden Rivers, due out in spring 2017. Follow him on Twitter: @thetilbury.