Saturday, 5 September 2009

River Fleet /Fleot: Place in Bernard Cornwell's saxon Series ****

The River Fleet is the largest of London's subterranean rivers. Its two headwaters are two streams on Hampstead Heath; each is now dammed into a series of ponds made in the 18th century, the Hampstead Ponds and the Highgate Ponds. At the south edge of Hampstead Heath these two streams flow underground as sewers which join in Camden Town. From the ponds the water flows underground for 4 miles (6.4 km) to join the River Thames.

Map of River Fleet Course

River Fleet Source at Hampstead Heath


Bridge over the New Canal at Holborn, 1728.
The bathers are included as a satirical reference to the poor quality of the water

Staple's Inn at Holborn 1900

The higher reaches of this flow were known as the Holbourne (or Oldbourne), whence Holborn derived its name. The water initially flows in two paths before joining and passing under Kentish Town and King's Cross.

Kentish Town from Mercian Control

King's Cross was originally named Battle Bridge, referring to an ancient bridge over The Fleet where Boudica's army is said to have fought an important battle against the Romans.

Farringdon Road

The river then flows down Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street, and joins the Thames beneath Blackfriars Bridge.

Blackfriars Bridge

Its name comes from the Anglo-Saxon Holburna = "hollow stream", referring to its deep valley, and flēot = "tidal inlet".

Rive Fleet Mouth into the Thames. I wonder if this is the opening and bridge that Uhtred and Ralla negotiated to get down and dock in the River Fleet.

In Anglo-Saxon times, the Fleet served as a dock for shipping.

Medieval London Map

In Roman times, the Fleet was a major river, with a tide mill in its estuary. In Anglo-Saxon times, the Fleet was still a substantial body of water, joining the Thames through a marshy tidal basin over 100 yards (91 m) wide at the mouth of the Fleet Valley. A large number of wells were built along its banks, and some on springs (Bagnigge Well, Clerkenwell) and St Bride's Well, were reputed to have healing qualities.

Map of Clerkenwell

As London grew, the river became increasingly a sewer. The small lane at the south-west end of New Bridge Street is called Watergate because it was the river entrance to the Bridewell Palace.

Newgate Prison

By the 13th century, it was considered polluted, and the area characterized by poor-quality housing, and, later, prisons (Bridewell palace/prison). Newgate, Fleet and Ludgate prisons were all built in that area). The flow of the river was reduced greatly by increasing industry.


Old Fleet Prison

Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, Christopher Wren proposed widening the river; however, this was rejected. Rather, the Fleet was converted into the New Canal, completed in 1680.
Ludgate Circus

Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane (now just short alleyways off Farringdon Street) recall the wharves that used to line this canal, especially used by the coastal coal trade from the North East of England. Unpopular and unused, the upper canal was culverted over from 1737, between Holborn to Ludgate Circus, to form the 'Fleet Market'.

Map showing Fleet Market

The lower part, the section from Ludgate Circus to the Thames covered by 1769 for the opening of the new Blackfriars Bridge and was therefore named 'New Bridge Street'. The development of the Regent's Canal and urban growth covered the river in King's Cross and Camden from 1812.

Regent's Canal

Camden Lock
'Fleet Market' was closed during the 1860s with the construction of Farringdon Road and Farringdon Street as a highway to the north and the Metropolitan Railway, while the final upper section of the river was covered when Hampstead was expanded in the 1870s.

Fleet Street
The river gives its name to Fleet Street which runs from Ludgate Circus to Temple Bar at The Strand. During the 1970s, a planned London Underground tube was to lie under the line of Fleet Street and was originally named 'Fleet Line'. However this part of the route was not constructed when Sir Horace Cutler won a Conservative majority on the GLC and the line was terminated at Charing Cross and renamed as the Jubilee Line to commemorate Queen's Silver Jubilee of 1977. There were some objections to the cost of renaming the line and protest leaflets appeared with the slogan "Would Jubileeve It?".
In one place the River Fleet is now 40 feet below the street level overhead.

The mouth of the River Fleet today, underneath Blackfriars Bridge. If this is the bridge that Uhtred uses the lower part shown here cemented over are the original and you can see how narrow and how it falls away.

The Fleet can be heard through a grating in Ray Street, Farringdon (EC1) in front of the Coach and Horses pub. The position of the river can still be seen in the surrounding streetscape with Ray Street and its continuation Warner Street lying in a valley where the river once flowed. It can also be heard through a grid in the centre of Charterhouse Street where it joins Farringdon Road (on the Smithfield side of the junction).
The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has proposed opening short sections of the Fleet and other rivers for ornamental purposes, although the Environment Agency, which manages the project, is pessimistic that the Fleet can be among those uncovered.
In Fiction
Ben Johnson's poem 'On the Famous Voyage' provides a mock-epic account of a journey along the excrement-lined ditch during the early seventeenth century.
The 19th-century River Fleet is part of one of the settings a story of the BBC series Doctor Who entitled The Talons of Weng-Chiang, starring Tom Baker: in one episode the Doctor claims he once caught a large salmon in the Fleet, which he shared with the Venerable Bede. It is also mentioned in the Eighth Doctor audio adventure Dead London.
In Neal Stephenson's novel The System of the World the river is mentioned, and in The Horn of Mortal Danger by Lawrence Leonard.
The Christopher Fowler crime thriller The Water Room uses the River Fleet as a major setting, and also mentions other London rivers.
In March 1999, Jill Paton Walsh completed Dorothy L. Sayers' final Lord Peter Wimsey novel "Thrones, Dominations." Lord Peter's investigations neatly parallel the plot for his wife's new novel, and take him into the River Fleet to solve a murder while collecting data for her book.
The Fleet is mentioned in Bernard Cornwell's novel Sword Song

Edward VI grants a charter in 1553 to Bridewell Hospital

The River Fleet rose (indeed still rises) to either side of Parliament Hill, with one branch tumbling down from Highgate and the other from Hampstead. Check out a relief map of London and you'll see that several rivers once flowed down from the heights of Hampstead, including the equally-lost Westbourne and Tyburn. From Hampstead Heath the two forks of the Fleet ran through what is now Belsize Park and Kentish Town before amalgamating in Camden, then flowed on through St Pancras and Kings Cross. The river here was once up to 20 metres across, widening further through what would become Clerkenwell and Farringdon as other small tributaries linked up. Eventually, after a five mile descent, the Fleet reached a tidal basin 100 metres wide at the mouth of the Thames, right beneath where Blackfriars Bridge now stands. It was this feature that gave the river its name, from the Anglo-Saxon word 'fleot' meaning 'tidal inlet' or 'a place where vessels float'.
The waters of the Fleet were fresh, clear and sparkling, at least until Londoners arrived. The lower reaches of the river formed the western boundary of the medieval city, just outside Ludgate close to St Paul's Cathedral.

Smithfield Meat Market

During the 13th century mills, meat markets, tanneries and other industries grew up along the banks, polluting the river with blood, sewage and other unpleasant waste. As more water was drawn from the river it gradually became shallower and slower-running, frequently silting up with smelly rubbish. Well-to-do Londoners still flocked to various spas, springs and wells further upstream which were said to have healing properties but, further downstream, the Fleet gradually became an undrinkable open sewer lined by slums and prisons, and a conduit for the spread of disease. Sir Christopher Wren got his hands on the area following the Great Fire of London and by 1680 he had transformed the lower Fleet into the New Canal, more reminiscent of Venice than London. But the canal was poorly used (and still stank) and so soon fell into disrepair. The Fleet's days were numbered.
1730s: Channelled underground from Holborn to Fleet Street, beneath what is now Farringdon Road.
1760s: Filled in and arched over from Fleet Street to the Thames, covered by what is now New Bridge Street.
1810s: Submerged between Camden and Kings Cross due to urban growth surrounding the new Regent's Canal.
1860s: Incorporated throughout into the capital's new network of sewers, designed by Joseph Bazalgette.
1870s: Disappeared in its upper reaches beneath the new suburbs of Hampstead and Kentish Town.

River Fleet running underground in drains

The Fleet started as a river, declined to a brook, dwindled to a ditch and was finally demoted to a drain. Today it serves no function greater than as a storm relief sewer, buried unnoticed beneath the bustling streets of modern London. Only a few small streams and ponds are still visible, right up near the source on Hampstead Heath, but the river still leaves its trace further down across central London if you know where to look. Stand in the right place and you can still hear the waters bubbling up through an innocent-looking drain cover. Contours can be a dead giveaway too - the very obvious valley between Clerkenwell and Holborn, for example, could only have been carved by a once mighty river. And there are still plenty of clues left behind in street patterns and street names tangible evidence of the capital's forgotten rural and industrial past.

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