The 13 rivers and brooks of London still flow. Once they passed through fields and valleys, and now they run along pipes and sewers. But they have survived through the human world. They are buried, but they are not forgotten. (Ackroyd, 2011, 38)
The vision of London’s rivers flowing in the open air is of a time long past. These rivers today flow in darkness. They are as hidden from our view as the past from which they came. It’s this ability that they hold to be of the past—yet also, undeniably, here and now—that positions the river as a conceptual access point to conceive of the temporal shifts within hidden layers of place.
This post is an excerpt from my PhD thesis Abney Rambles : Performing Heritage as an Audio Walking Practice in Abney Park Cemetery
As with many hidden things, there is a piqued curiosity and fascination with London’s buried rivers, which has manifested in numerous nonfiction publications, poems, and walking tours about these subterranean waterways. In the mid-19th century, many rivers and land-traversing tributaries were rerouted and covered over. This made way for more continuous land and provided an effective sewage system. This system would carry London’s waste to be dumped into the Thames, to which most of the rivers and tributaries naturally already flowed. The sewage system was a great Victorian accomplishment, marking the era as more ‘civilised’ and distinct from the previous centuries of open sewage filling the streets and, what one can only imagine, was an ever-constant putrid smell.
This sewage system was inarguably a necessary civic development for the booming density of London’s population at the time. The same civic spirit towards health and cleanliness that turned London’s waterways into sewers also created the Magnificent Seven Victorian garden cemeteries. The two initiatives are linked in that they both endeavoured to serve a similar healthful purpose; and it is in Abney Park cemetery that these two civic health projects intersect.
While throughout the 18th and 19th centuries underground natural mineral springs attracted Britons to spa towns such as Bath to ‘take the waters’, with the advent of the Victorian sewer system, there arose a new meaning for underground water. “The old rivers, with their intensely local benefits and pastoral memory traces, were also deemed anachronistic. Either rivers were of use, for transport or water power, or they were hidden, as carriers of disease and conduits of filth and waste.” (Sinclair, 2013, 16)
Relegating London’s open flowing rivers to underground befoulment is a sad thing to envision; however London was already awash with waste—whether above ground or below. As London became ever more densely populated, this waste was becoming not just revolting, but bordering on a health and safety crisis. Underground water began to be associated with disease and perceived as threatening. Just as underground water may undermine the foundations of houses along its course, it may also pose a threat to the health of those who live by or near it.
However, with the passage of time, the direct association of these rivers with the London sewage system has waned. The focus has been instead drawn to the attractive mystery of this hidden Victorian network flowing and pulsing beneath our modern city. As Peter Ackroyd notes in London Under: “Many people are fascinated by the course of subterranean rivers; they track them, sometimes with maps, sometimes with dowsing rods, seeking for the life underground. They pursue them as far as they can through unpromising surroundings of council blocks or shopping malls or derelict plots of marshy land. On stretches of their route the outer world is in mourning for its lost companion.” (Ackroyd, 2011, 47) The Hackney Brook was covered over in 1861, but it is very much still a presence in Stoke Newington.
Iain Sinclair was inspired by images of the vanished Hackney Brook:
Engravings and paintings of St Augustine’s Church at the top end of Mare Street show the atmosphere to be bucolic. The river, with a footbridge, crossed in front of the church. The Hackney Brook does not flow to the Thames like most of its subterranean brethren; instead it flows into the River Lea, right alongside the point where the romantically named ‘Northern Sewage Outfall’ is pumped through elevated pipes.
Hackney Brook is a convergence of two springs that join to sweep around Highbury, then flows through the northern boundary of Abney Park cemetery.
In 2009, Iain Sinclair gave a talk as part of the City of London Festival titled ‘London’s Lost Rivers: The Hackney Brook and other North West Passages’ that explored the theme of London’s lost rivers and underlying narratives and erasures in the city. In the talk, Sinclair describes his relationships to the rivers of London, those both subterranean and flowing freely, and their relationship to his walking practice, finding that “walking over alongside the buried rivers of London stitches a form of collective memory to our sides”. (Sinclair, 2013, 2-3) London’s buried rivers share a haunting complexity. For Sinclair’s walk tracing the underground passage of the Hackney Brook, he enlisted the services of a dowser. When he was walking with the dowser through Stoke Newington, they met locals who told the walking pair that their cellars tended to flood whenever there was a heavy storm, and they blamed it on the river:
The Brook is there and, buried or not, it defines the area. You appreciate the reason for the siting of the grander houses, the lost villas and former gardens on the ridge about Morning Lane. You register, despite everything, the hysteria of development, the mess of declining industries, the geological soul of the place. The water is a transmitter. History can be revealed, through careful observation, keeping your ear to the ground. (Sinclair, 2013, 42)
Rejecting the aesthetic oppression of the large dominating developments of Westfield Stratford and the Olympic Park, Sinclair found an instinct to oppose those gigantic structures by walking beside water. The inspiration for this walk, following the course of the buried Hackney Brook, was to find a mode of interacting with the land away from these huge and imposing modern structures that characterise that area of East London in favour of an older geology. Walking with the dowser, he felt “the power of the lost river, right alongside the road where we were walking”. (Sinclair, 2013, 54) To keep faithfully following the track of the river, they sometimes had to climb fences and traverse areas not meant for walking. In doing so, they came upon the camp of “an invisible community, a tribe leaving signs of a recent campsite behind them” living under a motorway. “It was as if they had chosen to cluster around the memory of the Hackney Brook.” (Sinclair, 2013, 55)
There is a recurring theme in Sinclair, Ackroyd, and Dun’s writings of ‘sensing’ London’s buried rivers, or otherwise reacting to them, perhaps without knowing they are there: “[London’s buried rivers are] not lost, not at all. Just because you can’t see a thing, as Ed Dorn points out, doesn’t mean it’s not there. The rivers continue, hidden and culverted as they might be, to flow through our dreams, fixing the compass of our moods and movements. […] Visible or invisible, they haunt us. It is not possible to understand the growth and development of Hackney, for example, without registering the presence of that subterranean river, the Hackney Brook.” (Sinclair, 2013, 2-3)
Sinclair lives in Hackney and describes his area as having a long history of dissent and proudly independent thought. Before it was a working-class area, before the coming of the canals and railways, Hackney was a desirable suburb, with market gardens and farms, manor houses and orchards. “And all these blessings derived from the existence of a founding river, the Hackney Brook. Now bricked over and made into a sewer, lost to us.” (Sinclair, 2013, 14-15)
Sinclair first mentions this trek to trace the lost Hackney Brook river in 2009, in Hackney, That Rose Red Empire. Through his writings, he comes back to the Hackney Brook again and again. He identified Hackney Brook as the suppressed lifeforce of the borough, that the villages of Hackney, Dalson, and Stoke Newington took shape from the way the Brook carved its way through the valley.
Now invisible, but felt and known, the Brook was a mischievous actuality as it continued to flood Stoke Newington cellars. The nature of the stream changed as it pulled west in a meander around the edge of Abney Park cemetery. […] Hacking into tangled undergrowth, as clinging, dense, and light-devouring as my book as become, bumping up against obscured gravestones and the sharp wings of ivy-choked angels, I remembered what Poe and Arthur Machen had drawn from this area: confusion, double identified, a shift in the electromagnetic field. There is a long tradition, beginning with De Quincey, of searching for the northwest passage out of London, away from restrictive conventions of time and space. The route these men hinted at seemed to have an intimate relationship with the course of the submerged Hackney Brook: Abney Park, Clissold Park, pubs named after Robinson Crusoe, the slopes of Highgate Hill. (Sinclair, 2009 551-552)
Sinclair writes about the layers of the city of London over the hidden waters as mirroring the connections and coincidences of the layers he finds within life living in the city. In his odd-job as a painter in the late 1960s, scraping paint off the walls while renovating a flat, he discovers that it was the address of Mr Malthus, a member of the Suicide Club in Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights. Sinclair was very keen on Stevenson, and “much taken with the coincidences and overlaps that are a part of any life in the big city”. (Sinclair, 2013, 26-27) Sinclair continues with this metaphoric theme, noting that “the Chepstow Place house seemed to float on a reservoir of dark waters”. Julian Maclaren-Ross, “the great flâneur and confabulator”, stayed in that same Suicide Club flat, in which Sinclair was scraping the paint from the walls, while he worked on his final book. Sinclair then references his “very useful biography, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: The Strange Lives of Julian Maclaren-Ross” (Sinclair, 2013, 29), which was written by Paul Willetts.
Here is when the coincidences and overlaps that Sinclair documents in his experience concentrically pull one layer further out into mine. The author of Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, Paul Willetts, was associated with Black Spring Press, where a close friend of mine was Managing Editor, and he wrote the introduction to their publication of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s work, Bitten by the Tarantula and Other Writing.
Back in 2011, when I was then living in New York City again briefly, my editor friend put Paul Willetts in touch with me because Willetts needed to employ an on-the-ground researcher to go to the National Archives in Washington DC to assist him with the next book he was writing at the time, Rendezvous at the Russian Tea Rooms. I worked remotely with Paul Willetts on that project for some months. Fast-forward to me then sitting in the British Library in London six years later, researching a walking practice that references the same author—and references the same author in the context of coincidences themselves—was a very surreal experience.
What is most fascinating to me about these coincidences and overlaps is that, much like the hidden rivers of London that Sinclair uses as metaphor here, many of these layers of similarity and conjunction of lives are unseen and never come to light. The flowing connections between lives and through time, criss-crossing each other, mostly are never discovered. However—just like London’s buried rivers—they are still there, flowing quietly between us all as an unseen undercurrent.
Discovering this startling coincidence reading about Sinclair’s startling coincidence is a vivid illustration of these hidden connections. And there is something almost eerie about this connection that brings me back to the metaphor of the river—the river that I was drawn to for this research: Hackney Brook, the mystery of dark water, and the otherworldly nature of things only partially seen.
While following the course of the Hackney Brook, Sinclair’s dowser shares a feeling of foreboding regarding London’s buried rivers. The dowser tells him: “There is a disease pattern in certain districts of London, malfunction, malfate. I have researched these patterns, like the ripples from a stone dropped in a pond. Houses built above lost rivers, the inhabitants have no knowledge of that history, carry a dark aura. Ill fortune is always associated with this.” (Sinclair, 2013, 32-33)
Of this ‘dark aura’, Peter Ackroyd makes a similar observation in a surprising phenomenon associated with London’s lost rivers: “In his survey entitled The Geography of London’s Ghosts (1960), G.W. Lambert concluded that approximately three-quarters of the city’s paranormal activity takes place near buried waters. Some may conclude that the spiritual properties of the rivers have been confirmed; the ritual activity at the Walbrook, for example, may thereby be justified. The more sceptical will believe that the flowing of buried waters merely creates strange sound effects.” (Ackroyd, 2011, 49)
The eerie quality of Stoke Newington cannot be attributed merely to strange sound effects, however, as the subterranean Hackney Brook creates no sound. In fact, in some areas, the Hackney Brook is not a running river at all, merely a diffuse saturation of earth raising the water table, before reforming into a flowing river once more.
If you take a walk through Clissold Park today, take special notice of the duck ponds. These duck ponds are not ‘ponds’ at all; they are not static bodies of water but instead actually all that’s left of the above-ground Hackney Brook river. The ponds are peaks into the landscape of Stoke Newington that once was.
Without previous knowledge of the history of the area (or a dowser) a walker through Stoke Newington would not know that there is a buried river there. The Hackney Brook is always changing—underfoot, but not understood.
Learning about these hidden rivers fascinated me. I began to wonder about the Hackney Brook, what it looked like underground. I began to anthropomorphise its struggle and unfair treatment—from a beautiful river flowing in the open air, at times called ‘bucolic’, inspiring Isaac Watts to write hymns upon its banks and city workers to escape the crowded city centre to build villas overlooking it—to then be buried ‘alive’ and turned into a sewer. I was filled with a rather strange level of sadness and empathy for a river so unappreciated and ruined. This emotional response towards the buried Hackney Brook, and descriptions of an otherworldly Stoke Newington by Poe, Machen, and Sinclair, coupled with my research into animistic folklore, led me to create a dark animistic folktale about the Hackney Brook river, which is the story told in my Woodland Magick audio walk.
This audio walk is my endeavour to give an imagined voice to the buried river, in the form of a River Spirit, and offer new perspectives on the space of Abney Park cemetery as a place that was partially constructed over the Hackney Brook.
The Hackney Brook is not alone in its fate. Poet Aidan Andrew Dun wrote his long poem Vale Royal about the subterranean river Fleet that still runs under Kings Cross today.
As late as the mid-19th century, parts of the Fleet ran out in the open through a green pleasant land. But south of Euston Road, at this period, it was already bricked over and buried. Sinclair comments on Dun’s poetic exploration of the area around Kings Cross and St Pancras Old Church, where the poem focuses for its following of the Fleet that by “an act of extreme self-hypnosis, [Dun] becomes convinced that the present developments, that narcissism of dark glass, the glittering arts centres, the forced gardens, newspaper offices, riverside apartments, are somehow a manifestation of Blake’s vision, or an extension of Swedenborg’s multiple city: the New Jerusalem”. (Sinclair, 2013, 33)
Dun finds the contemporary bustle of Kings Cross to be a mirrored reflection of the flowing river below. Conversely, Peter Ackroyd sees tracing the line of a lost river as a slow journey, not a bustle, a journey that recreates a sense of time that has been lost in the contemporary city—“or perhaps time is altered by the presence of the buried river. It may follow the speed of water beneath the ground. Time itself does not matter in the presence of the lost river”. (Acroyd, 2011, 47) Rivers and time are combined in metaphor: the flow of time, the timeless river. The vision of London’s rivers flowing in the open air is of a time long past. These rivers today flow in darkness. They are as hidden from our view as the past from which they came. It’s this ability that they hold to be of the past—yet also, undeniably, here and now—that positions the river as a conceptual access point to conceive of the temporal shifts within hidden layers of place.
There is a darkness inherent in conceptions of water beneath the ground. The rivers that we sense, but no longer see. In the Notes that accompany the poem of Vale Royal, Dun says: “The black stream is a ley-line whose energies have become stagnant through neglect, or negative through misuse.” Through an exploration of the aboveground in Kings Cross as a manifestation of Blake’s vision and Swedenborg’s multiple city, Dun is, according to Sinclair, reasserting the Swedenborgian logic of London’s lost rivers, of cities beneath pavements: “‘They rejoiced that now as before they were in England, and in its great city’, Swedenborg wrote in The Last Judgement. ‘And they said that there is also another London below, not dissimilar as to the streets.’ A city of sleepwalkers, soft at its core, sinking into the hellish depths. Vale Royal is both post-Swedenborgian and pre-Swedenborgian; innocent, canny, open to echoes, and closed into on itself like a coffin made of mirrors.” (Sinclair, 2013, 34)
Neil Gaiman, in his 1996 novel Neverwhere, writes of a fantastical place underneath London that mirrors the London above ground, but in warped and surreal ways, which he calls the ‘London Below’. Is this ‘London Below’ Swedenborgian? I think it’s uniquely Gaimanian. Gaiman’s London Below is the London of sewers, disused underground stations, and shifts in perception between everyday things that suddenly become otherworldly: this slippery shift between the everyday and the fantastical is metaphorically manifested by things unseen from ‘below’.
These recurring concepts shared between walkers and writers and creators of written worlds take that which at first seems to be magic—then slips into what is perhaps a glimpse into madness—to finally the resolution that these worlds are always there, unseen, coexisting with our day-to-day reality before retreating into a subterranean London Below, that is the realm of all things that slip through the cracks of perception from London Above. Gaiman, Sinclair, Ackroyd, Dun, and Machen all explore concepts of a buried London Under, with cracks in perception explored as possibilities to access other borderland worlds.
Perhaps the next time you see a walking tour inviting you to travel London’s Lost Rivers, you’ll book a ticket. What you see along the way will ultimately not be up to the tour guide or the landscape, but rather your desire to open a door of perception into the layers of sedimented reality fossilised in our own time. The possibilities within our London Below.
Sources and further reading…
Ackroyd, Peter, Blake, (London: Minerva) 1995. Book.
– London Under, (London: Chatto & Windus) 2011. Book.
Dun, Aidan Andrew, Vale Royal, (Uppington: Goldmark) 1995. Book.
Gaiman, Neil, Neverwhere, (London: BBC Books) 1996. Book.
Machen, Arthur, The Autobiography of Arthur Machen: ‘Far Off Things’ and ‘Things Near and Far’, (Leyburn: Tartarus Press) 2017. Book.
— The London Adventure, or the Art of Walking (London: Martin Secker) 1924. Book.
— N, (London: Tartarus Press) 2010. Book.
— Tales of Horror and the Supernatural, (Leyburn: Tartarus Press) 2006. Book.
Sinclair, Iain, Blake’s London: the topographic sublime (London: The Swedenborg Society) 2011. Book.
— Hackney, That Rose Red Empire, (London: Hamish Hamilton) 2009. Book.
— Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London (London: The Swedenborg Society) 2013. Book.
Talling, Paul, London’s Lost Rivers, (London: Random House) 2011. Book.