London's Lost Rivers: The Fleet
The River Fleet
This walk is an attempt at tracing the route of one of London’s ‘lost’ rivers. Much of London’s history is defined by it’s relationship to the River Thames. Running from Gloucestershire in the East and out into the North Sea via the Thames estuary, the Thames has shaped the growth and development on the massive city that now straddles it’s banks.
Centuries ago much of the London we know was still just countryside, with natural watercourses throughout the surrounding landscape. Following the ‘Great Stink’ in 1858, the desire for improved sanitation led to many of London’s rivers being re-routed underground, forming part of the sewer system and the Fleet is just one such river.
The Fleet was once a major tidal river and was used in Roman times to drive mills. Following the Norman conquest of 1066 the river became a focus for industry. As usage grew, the river became increasingly polluted and by the 12th century it was used to dump everything from rotting meat to human waste and the smell was bad. In 1666, following ‘The Great Fire’, Wren incorporated the lower sections of the Fleet into his plans for redesigning the area, turning the Fleet into a canal crossed with arched bridges. As popularity waned and pollution increased the river was eventually covered over. Firstly between Holborn and Ludgate Circus in the 1730’s and by 1769 the lower section was also enclosed in time for the opening of the new Blackfriars Bridge. From 1810 to the 1870’s the upper sections from King’s Cross to Hampstead were gradually submerged due to urban growth.
Starting at Hampstead Heath the Fleet begins life as two streams feeding the ponds, formerly 18th century reservoirs, now used for bathing and boating. It runs in a south-easterly direction through Camden Town, King's Cross and Clerkenwell before entering the Thames under Blackfriars Bridge. As it’s subterranean route largely follows surface roads the plotted route closely mirrors the actual flow of water, however, some sections require a more creative approach to navigating to try and stay close to it’s path.
After a short climb up and over the Heath and Highgate, the majority of this walk is downhill. This first section feels a world away from it’s finish in one of the London’s busiest areas. Kenwood House can be seen from it’s gardens which are open to the public all year round and you can catch a glimpse of some of the residents of Highgate’s East Cemetery, although full access to this and the more exclusive West Cemetery is by paid tour.
After a stroll through some of Camden’s less travelled streets, you pass right through the centre of the major King’s Cross and St Pancras Station developments. Finally the route passes sharply downhill from the fantastic Mount Pleasant Mail Centre (formerly home to Royal Mail’s rail operations) in Clerkenwell, descending through Farringdon and down to the Thames below. It is on this last part of the route that the history of the river is most obvious, from passing under the Holborn Viaduct, to the many streets and buildings that reference the river and it’s industry (Turnmill Street, Fleet Street, Old Fleet Lane, Fleet House etc).
Although the Fleet has an exit into the Thames, this only occurs when the sewers are overloaded, and the exit can only been seen at low-tide. A sad end to what was once a great river.
Distance: around 10.5 miles.