North London has quite a gothic pedigree. From Bram Stoker’s Lucy Westenra stalking Hampstead Heath to Stephen King’s terrifying Crouch End ‘Towen’, an otherworldly atmosphere lingers here. The region has captured the imagination of writers through the ages, casting the area as both friend and foe.
William Blake felt uneasy in North London. Shortly before his death, in a letter to painter and friend John Linnell, Blake said: “When I was young, Hampstead, Highgate, Hornsey, Muswell Hill, and even Islington, and all places North of London, always laid me up the day after and sometimes two or three days.” It is rather strange that he kept going back, if these persistent physical ailments always followed the journey. Perhaps there was something about the otherworldliness of North London that drew Blake almost as a siren call.
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.