Rivers of London

I went to a talk yesterday about the lost rivers of London. There are loads, and they’re mostly in sewers, but you can still see them if you know where to look. Some are in pipes at Tube stations, others can be heard rushing during the brief periods when the traffic stops, and occasionally one can be seen by the sly lift of a manhole cover. They haven’t been mapped terribly well, supposedly, and people have had to go back to 200-year-old maps to chart their routes. It turns out the Peck flows within metres of where I now live, so I’ll have to investigate at some point.

Quite enjoyed the talk. Lots of ‘huh’ moments when long-buried rivers turned out to have affected the makeup of the city. The oval, for example, is only round because it originally followed the bank of the River Thing, which is no longer there. This brings up one issue with the talk, which was that there were so many rivers it’s hard to remember which was which. But I seem to recall the Fleet being quite good. And the Tyburn, which sounds sassy.

I’m so used to attending talks by humanists and skeptics that I forget not everybody approaches these things from the same direction as me. The talk began with the relationship between landscape and place, and how all the photographs we would see were taken on out-of-date polaroid film, meaning they had a lot of optical flaws that meant the final result would be entirely unexpected – and isn’t this a good analogy for the subject matter? Me being me, I tend to see this as so much wistful sperm nuzzling at the egg of profundity, but after a degree of such things I’m perhaps a little jaded. But I’m not going to mock – if it works for some people, that’s cool. I will mock the Q&A session, however, which ended with ‘do you ever use dowsing?’, to which the answer came that apparently lots of builders use it but are too embarrassed to say so, so there’s definitely something in it.

Discussion after the talk quickly lead onto all manner of subterranean myths and stories, and I was able to tell a few due to having recently read Underground London. It’s a florid journey through abandoned Tube lines, plague pits, roman remains, how the sewer system works (I have been telling people about this ever since, much to their bemusement) and why it saved millions of lives, WW2 bomb shelters, and mega-secret government tunnels. It’s quite long, and when I started I didn’t expect to read it all, but it successfully kept my attention. Just one to look out for if the underground is your thing.

Coincidentally I also recently read Rivers of London, which is less historical and more, well, full of ghosts and magic and stabbings, but does have a lot of characters named after old London rivers – so quite good for sounding clever at quizzes.