Caught by the River

Book of the Month: January 2020

Clare Wadd | 31st January 2020

Our Book of the Month for January is Tom Bolton’s London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide, Volume 2, published by Strange Attractor Press. Clare Wadd reviews.

Nine years after the publication of London’s Lost Rivers Volume 1, Tom Bolton’s new guide emerges into a London re-enthused about its rivers, visible, hidden and lost: there’s a London Rivers Restoration Group, Feargal Sharkey has been successfully highlighting the poor state of our chalk streams and Museum of London Docklands recently staged a Secret Rivers exhibition. And enjoying and celebrating London’s great outdoors is increasingly popular thanks to things like the National Park City – though, whilst lost rivers may be among the city’s most interesting walks, they’re not always known for being the most scenic.

While Volume 1 included the more obvious Fleet, Effra and Peck, a prize should go to anyone who already knew all nine of Bolton’s new selection, which includes the Black Ditch in Stepney, south London’s Falcon Brook and the exotic sounding Moselle, which turns out to be in Tottenham. 

Walk instructions are in italics, interspersed throughout the text, but clearly separated from the history and background information with double-spacing. The maps are clean and unfussy, allowing you to orient yourself quickly around key landmarks like tube stations, and show the small sections of river where water can be glimpsed separately from the hidden lengths. And, for the 50% of the population whose clothes come with proper pockets, London’s Lost Rivers is genuinely pocket-sized. 

Bolton’s writing conjures up a shadow London alongside our solid 21st century one, its river veins emerging, its blurred valleys now highlighted and its dips, where water puddles, articulated. He captures and shares the essence of a ghostly former city, where Hackney and Battersea are islands, Holloway Road is actually a hollow way, and Hackney Brook is 100ft wide at its confluence with the Lea. The meandering rivers of this otherworldly London both link its villages and separate its boroughs and parliamentary constituencies; its marshes, fishponds and watercress beds are long gone, and only one or two bridges survive built into garden walls, though their names persist, phantoms in our modern city. The portals between past and present are the unremarkable grates and drain covers where water can be heard gushing beneath our feet, audible only to those in the know.

The lost rivers seem to trace my London life, as they will yours: the Falcon Brook meets The Thames near York Road, Battersea where we sent our records from Bristol to be manufactured at Mayking in my indie record label days in the late-eighties; in the mid-nineties my first job in London was at an indie distributor on Warple Way where Stamford Brooks East meets West; next, I worked at a US label in Chiswick near the Bollo Brook; I lived just off North End Road for a decade not knowing Counter’s Creek ran so close; and my office for five years was on Bedfordbury in Covent Garden near the course of the Cock and Pye Ditch. 

Bolton draws regularly on Booth’s famous survey reminding us that, unlike today, riverside locations meant dreadful poverty and the worst housing, damp and squalid with “thousands and tens of thousands of rats” on the streets after rain in summer; rivers and sewers were, of course, one and the same. Some of the housing above the rivers’ routes is still sub-standard and many properties continue to suffer from damp. In 2007, Counter’s Creek flooded basements along much of its course and roads over the Hackney Brook have been damaged and buildings demolished because of subsidence caused by collapsing culverts. 

As in Low Country: Brexit on the Essex Coast, which I also reviewed for Caught by the River, London’s Lost Rivers Volume Two is an engaging read encompassing a broad spectrum of rich historical, geographical and literary interest. Any reader, whether armchair exploring or planning excursions, will find much of interest as they dip in and out of it. If I had to criticise, I’d highlight the volume of quotes from men, which don’t add much to the book, but make it feel a little overbearing male – to this woman reader at least. 

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London’s Lost Rivers Vol. 2 is out now and available here, priced £11.99. You can read an extract from the book here.