The River Fleet, flowing under the Farringdon Road (c) Emma Lynch_BBC

Des Garrahan organises and leads walks along the former courses of some of London's lost rivers. Here, he shares his fascination for these long-buried Thames tributaries.

"It depends who you ask, but the general consensus is that London has 12 Hidden Rivers. A stroll round a book shop or a virtual browse of Amazon’s shelves leaves you with the impression there are nearly that many authors who have written books about the subject.

If this appeared as a question on Pointless, (has it ever been on Pointless?) the Fleet and the Tyburn would probably be the high scorers while the Neckinger and the Earl’s Sluice would be the best bets for a zero. Seven of these rivers rise in north London and five south of the River Thames. They range in distance from the 14.8 km of the Effra to the 2.8 km of the Walbrook.

A good number of these rivers begin in parks, like the Hackney Brook in Whittington Park. And most of them journey underneath London’s parks on their way to the Thames. In the main they are completely hidden from sight, buried many feet underground in culverts. You do get to see the River Peck though as it meanders through Peckham Rye Park bubbling along above ground like a proper stream.

A section of a map of Anglo-Saxon London showing some lost rivers. Map created for the Londonist using ancient scripts (c) Londonist

In June 2019, using David Fathers’ excellent book: London’s Hidden Rivers-A walker’s guide to the subterranean waterways of London, I led 94 people from Crystal Palace to Thames waterside at Vauxhall through south London’s suburbs as we traced the line of the Effra. Since then I’ve led several other walks, these days often with David as co-host, tracing the line of others.

Thames Water estimate there are a potential 68km of pipes and tunnels that may once have been natural watercourses in north London but were buried and so became lost from view. Studies are ongoing in south London.

This project is ongoing, most of the walks now have an audience of about 30. I have had to postpone three walks because of the coronavirus but be assured when we are able, I will be leading walks tracing the lines again."

For more information about London’s Hidden Rivers email ramblerdes@gmail.com with Hidden Rivers in the subject line. For more information about Des' walks, visit www.walkingclasshero.org or follow him on twitter @walkngclasshero or Instagram walking class hero.

South London's River Qwaggy is a case study in river restoration. The old river was restored as part of a flood alleviation scheme, but the benefits to local communities and wildlife have been as tremendous as its success in protecting properties from rising water levels.
Composite image of the restored Qwaggy River in Sutcliffe Park (c) www.qwag.org.uk

Five lost London rivers:

River Fleet - Became polluted as Smithfield butchers threw remains of dead animals into the river, and was eventually incorporated into the sewer system

River Tyburn - Flowing through Regents Park under Buckingham Palace, the river was once reputed to have some of London's best salmon fishing

River Walbrook - Its name is thought to derive from the fact the river ran under the Roman London Wall

River Westbourne - Remains of the river flow through a pipe running above Sloane Square Tube station

River Effra - Banks of the Oval cricket ground were built with earth excavated during the enclosing of the river

Whittington Park, Islington

  • Whittington Park is an attractive park, alongside the busy Holloway Road. Local children have helped create attractive murals celebrating the wildlife interest of the park. The park also has excellent play facilities and an all weather games pitch.

Sutcliffe Park, Greenwich

  • This is a recently-completed Environment Agency flood alleviation scheme for the River Quaggy. Prior to implementation, the river ran below ground in a concrete culvert. It has now been restored to a meandering channel, flowing within its natural flood plain with a mosaic of damp grassland and wetlands. The site also includes a lake, as well as several sm...

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