London’s Lost Rivers

Long-term Phantophiles may remember the slightly-depressing-but-hugely-important Derelict London, a labour of love by photographer Paul Talling. Arising out of a superb website it was Talling’s love letter to the deserted, unloved parts of London.

The website for Talling’s latest project is the opposite –  a site arising from a book. Although it has a sample chapter and suggestions for walks, it is very much a promotion for the book, rather than an entity with its own life.

That’s not to say this isn’t a very enjoyable book. I know relatively little about the rivers that used to flow freely into the Thames from all around London and now are forced to find their way through underground conduits, sewers and canals. I know more now than I did even a couple of years ago, as there has been quite a preponderance of volumes on the subject – from serious, heavyweight stuff by guys like Iain Sinclair through to a new wave of London-centric novelists such as Greenwich’s Own Christopher Fowler (the superb Water Room is easily the best of his Bryant & May series) and, more recently, Ben Aaronovitch, the plod’s  answer to J K Rowling, but I am no potamologist .

Where this particular book succeeds is when it works in tandem with other volumes. Paul Talling has set himself the task of finding out exactly where these rivers run, and, perhaps more interestingly, where they finally break free. The photographs, whether of graveyards boiling with mouldering headstones, completely dry streets whose geography reveals  the bed of a former tributary or what looks like a slightly dull water feature in the basement of Grays Antiques but turns out to be the Tyburn, are fabulous, and work extremely well with the largely-print works that others have come up with.

That I don’t feel the same passion coming from the pages I did with ‘Derelict London’ is, perhaps, explained in his intro where he says that after his first book he ‘began looking around for a new obsession.’ In my experience you don’t look for obsessions, they find you. But that doesn’t negate what the book does, which is record an ephemeral and (occasionally bleakly) beautiful vision of London, with great photos and pithy extras.

Of course Greenwich town doesn’t actually have its own river – the Ravensbourne just clips our Western edge (and isn’t particularly ‘lost’, anyway.) Perhaps this is because we have dozens of little springs that, pre-medieval times and the network of conduits, found their own way down to the Thames without a particular need to join up. But Talling, arguably ‘cheating,’  (they’re not rivers) but also, just as arguably, ‘justified’ (they are wet – and largely ‘lost’)  includes the old Docklands both North and South of the river, with Woolwich Dockyard just about squeaking in at the very last entry.

In my experience people who are interested in Greenwich don’t restrict themselves to the town’s history (the only reason I mainly do so here is because I need to stay on-topic; in real life I am just as interested in London in general…) And as a collector of all things London, I love this book. Being pocket-sized and paperback, it’s small enough to arm myself with on a jaunt to discover these places, yet also works as a reference work and, much like Talling’s earlier masterpiece, is a valuable record of things that will not last forever.


One Comment to “London’s Lost Rivers”

  1. Mary says:

    I have a bit of a problem with ‘lost’ rivers. Agreed there are some central London streams running through pipes to the Thames. But there are lot of others which are very much in evidence – I mean – you could hardly call the Lee – or come to that, the Wandle – ‘lost’. And perhaps we should also look at rivers like the Ingrebourne or the Colne, which both provide much needed recreational spaces. Some months ago I went to look for the Norbury Brook which you can barely find on maps – but there it is bubbling enthusiastically behind back garden fences and into parks- if you are live nearby it you will know it.