Lost Rivers

fkeet samuel cott 1750
Entrance to the Fleet River, painted by Samuel Scott in 1750. (From Wikipedia).

Author Christopher Fowler left a lovely comment on my post about The Water Room, the second novel in his Bryant and May series! I was so surprised and delighted, firstly that he even saw it (and seemed to like it), and secondly that he took the time to respond. I’ve always been fascinated by London’s hidden waterways – the rivers which once ran above ground, but became so polluted they were covered over and channeled underground. I love to think of them, not lost, but still there beneath our feet in a different form. It was one of the things which made me decide to read , and since UA Fanthorpe’s Rising Damp is one of my favourite poems, and the thoughts expressed there are not too dissimilar to the the themes on Fowler’s novel,I thought I’d have a poetry day, and post it here, to read alongside the book.It strikes me that they make very good companion pieces.

It’s a poem to be chanted aloud, and I love the way her list of forgotten rivers sounds like some kind of spell, and the words have an almost hypnotic quality, like you find with football results, or the shipping forecast. And I love her use of words, and the way they echo each other, and the links with old myths about life, death and renewal, and the way these waters can reflect our own lives.

At our feet they lie low,

 The little ferment underground

Rivers of London
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
Whose names are disfigured,
Frayed, effaced.

 These are the Magogs that chewed the day
To the basin that London nestle in.
These are the currents that chiselled the city,
That washed the clothes and turned the mills,
Where children drank and salmon swam
And wells were holy.

 They have gone under
Boxed, like the magician’s assistant.
Buried alive in earth.
Forgotten, like the dead.

 They return spectrally after heavy rain,
Confounding suburban gardens. They infiltrate
Chronic bronchitis statistics. A silken
Slur haunts dwellings by shrouded
Watercourses and is taken
For the footing of the dead.

 Being of our world, they will return
(Westbourne, cages at Sloane Square,
Will jack from his box).
Will deluge cellars, detonate manholes,
Plant effluent on our faces,
Sink the city.
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
It is the other rivers that lie
Lower, that touch us only in dreams
That never surface. We feel their tug
As a dowsers rod bends to the source below.

 Phlegethon, Acheron, Lethe, Styx.

The mouth of the River Fleet today is a drainage outlet, hidden in the shadow on the embankment wall under Blackfriars Bridge. I have a better photo I took on one of my London trips, but I can’t find it, so I’ve made do with this one from Wikipedia!


And, since I seem to have a bit of a theme going on, here’s a link to Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, which I reviewed way back in July 2011, but it’s a book that’s always worth reading again because it’s packed with fascinating information about the hidden London that lies beneath our feet, and if you’ve never read it you should!

2 thoughts on “Lost Rivers

  1. This is a wonderful poem. I love the names of the rivers and her use of ‘slur.’ I had to look it up, and it is perfect. There is a haunting, even scary, aspect of these hidden waters. Thanks for posting the poem!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is definitely a haunting quality to London’s lost rivers, and it seems so strange that they were channeled underground, because some of them were quite wide, even if they weren’t all that long. I wonder if the same thing happened elsewhere?


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