The Thames is one of the great rivers of the world, but not because of it’s size. It is dwarfed by the Amazon and the Nile, it is nowhere near as wide as the Chao Phraya where it flows through Bangkok or the Hudson as it slides past the New York skyline. Nor is it blue, like the Danube, though the Danube was far from blue, last time I looked. It is not even the only river in London, as we shall see.
It is my belief that the Thames is really famous for its bridges. One of the original London Bridges is now rather famously in Arizona, but Tower Bridge remains an iconic symbol of London, and there are many others. In SIXTY-ONE NAILS, this is the bridge where Niall finds a moment to pause in the early dawn and gather his thoughts. We see it here on a sunny day, but for Niall it is early morning, overcast and drizzling. Even so, he takes comfort from the fact that he has survived the night’s perils and finds the strength here to continue, though his perils are far from over.
This is one of two footways at Hungerford Bridge near Embankment. From here you can look south and see Carary Wharf in the distance to the East or on the other side view the London Eye and Big Ben. From above the river there is a view unobstructed by urban clutter. This is London’s public river, the one she allows you to see.
Even in the centre of London, the Thames is still tidal. At different times you will find the water flowing in different directions as the outflow is defeated by the incoming tide and then resumes its flow with the ebb. The water below looks dirty, but actually the Thames is the cleanest it’s been in hundreds of years. Had you stood on this spot in 1858, you would likely have been overcome as the hot summer fermented the effluent into the Great Stink. This was one of the events that prodded the Victorians into constructing the vast sewer network that still serves inner London today.
London is built in a great clay basin. That’s one of the reasons it has the largest and most complex underground railway systems in the world, since it makes it possible to construct a stable and robust tunnel system though the firm clay. While the Thames winds down from Oxford in the west, other rivers have their sources closer to home, and London and its tunnels has grown around and over them.
While the sources of these rivers can still be found up in Highgate or Hampstead, they soon disappear undergound. There are, however, still places that the secret rivers can be seen. There is an antique shop on Davies Street, W1, called Gray’s Antiques and in the basement there is an open conduit for the River Tyburn which flows through continually, allowing them to keep goldfish. At Sloane Station, there is a grey square construction crossing the rails above the trains which allows the Westbourne River to find its way unhindered down to Chelsea where it joins the Thames.
One of the larger tributaries is the Fleet River, which flows down from Hampstead Pools and emerges just beneath Blackfriars Bridge where the opening can be seen at low tide. Almost all of its journey is now underground since it was gradually paved over between 1737 and the late 1870s. It is a surprise to discover that it was once navigable and allowed ships to reach the warehouses upstream.
The Fleet and its underground watercourse feature prominently in SIXTY-ONE NAILS, but I have to confess that I’ve never been into the tunnels to see it for myself. I have neither the equipment nor the expertise and am well aware that exploring the Fleet is an extremely dangerous thing to do.
As one of the main drainage paths for floodwater, even the slightest downpour can flood the tunnels and trap the unwary with no means of escape. A few intrepid (and perhaps foolish) explorers have ventured there and have provided some fabulous pictures, but I must emphasise, this is not one to try at home.
London has ways of keeping its secrets, and some of them are lethal.