Everyone’s heard of the Thames, but surprisingly few people seem to have heard of its many tributaries – the most famous being the Fleet River. This is perhaps understandable, given that the Fleet (and many other minor rivers in London) are hidden away – but the signs are still there, if you know where to look. I’ve wanted to walk the Fleet for a while, and decided to go for it on Saturday: the weather was slightly cooler at the beginning of the Bank Holiday weekend.
I began my journey on Hampstead Heath, where the Fleet (the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon flēot, ‘tidal inlet’) still flows overground, at the Vale of Health pond: this pond feeds the Hampstead Brook, the western arm of the River Fleet. You can follow the course of the brook through the woods of Hampstead Heath, though it was almost dried up on the hot day I visited. Further on, the stream flows into the public bathing ponds at the bottom of the Heath.
(I should mention here that another branch of the river flows down from Highgate, but I chose the Hampstead branch, purely because it was easier for me to get to. One day I might go and check out the Highgate branch too).
The Fleet was a major river in Roman times, and its status was largely maintained into the Anglo-Saxon era, with wells, supposedly with healing qualities, built at Clerkenwell and Bridewell. As London increased in size, the river became notorious for filth and sewage, surrounded by prisons and slums. From 1680 the Fleet became the New Canal, lined with wharves frequently used by the coal trade from the North East of England; hence the street names Newcastle Close and Old Seacoal Lane. From the mid-eighteenth century onwards, parts of the river were gradually covered over, enclosed in brick-lined sewers, until the 1870s when the final section, up at Hampstead, was covered.
The two branches converge in Kentish Town, before heading down towards the centre of London. I walked away from the calming greenery of the Heath into the built-up and urban Camden, stopping at the Prince Albert pub, where the Fleet flows under an iron grating. It can be heard easily (but not so easily seen, in the sunlight). Sadly, my plan to stop for a drink in the pub was thwarted as it was closed (this also happened with the next pub on my route. Clearly the universe is conspiring against me).
Heading down towards King’s Cross, I passed St Pancras Old Church (another blog post to follow). I was fascinated to see a picture showing the Fleet rushing by the Church in the days before it was covered up. 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. I hurried past the busy King’s Cross station and onto Gray’s Inn Road, before avoiding the traffic and heading into a quieter, more residential area. I passed a housing estate called Fleet Court – clearly I was going in the right direction. My route also took me past the Mount Pleasant Mail Centre and the new Postal Museum.
My next encounter with the Fleet was in Farringdon, outside the Coach pub, where another grating covers the rushing Fleet, though I wasn’t able to hear anything this time. The Fleet’s presence here seems to be more well-known: I overheard someone pointing it out as I loitered. The original Hockley tavern, which stood on the site, was in the midst of an area known for gambling and bear-baiting and apparently, in 1709, a bear killed the landlord.
I walked down Saffron Hill, a small, sloping street, but couldn’t find any signs of the Fleet here although I’d heard that they exist. Never mind – I soon arrived at Holborn Viaduct, a bridge over a valley which was carved out by the widening Fleet over several years. This stretch of the river was once full of ships, loading and unloading their produce (including the stones for Old St Paul’s Cathedral). This part of the river was also known as the ‘Holbourne’.
Towards the end of my walk, I passed Ludgate Circus, which crosses Fleet Street, named for the river. It was originally the site of the Fleet Bridge river crossing. The King Lud pub occupied the building now used by Leon between 1870 and 2005, and it is rumoured that the Fleet could be seen flowing under a glass floor panel.
Finally, my walk came to an end as I reached Blackfriars Bridge. What remains of the Fleet flows out of Victorian sewers into the Thames underneath the bridge, although sadly I couldn’t view the exit as the area is currently undergoing building works. Still, I was very pleased to have finally got the chance to follow the Fleet.
Where To See and Hear the Hidden River Fleet from Londonist and Going underground: Mile after mile of ornate brickwork and labyrinthine tunnels which reveal the beauty of London’s hidden River Fleet from Mail Online (I know, I know, but it was genuinely interesting) helped me to work out my route, spot the Fleet along the way, and learn about its history. There is also a fascinating article on Wikipedia.