London’s “lost” river Walbrook, which the Victorians built over, appears to have been uncovered this week. The Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias’s Forgotten Streams (2017) now flows gently through the heart of the capital’s financial district, appearing in three places in the pavement outside financial media giant Bloomberg’s new £1 billion ($1.3 billion) headquarters. It is her first public work in London.
While obviously a metaphorical interpretation, the proximity to the actual route (not exact but close) to the Walbrook activates the historical ecology of place. And I was surprised, actually shocked as I was looking at the original images trying figure out the material used, that it is cast in bronze, developing layers of matted shoreline along with differing water flows and pools. As abstracted ecology, the integration of this type of artwork into a high-visibility project is great, and while providing minimal ecological value, the historical value is a positive.
I think they are pretty beautiful, but it was funny to read the review from the Guardian on the Norman Foster designed building, and a specific reference to this work: “In a civic-minded gesture, there are three new public spaces at the corners of the site, adorned with water features by Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias, although her green-patinated bronze layers of matted foliage resemble fetid swamps – perhaps a sly comment on the financial services industry.”
The theme is not a new one for Iglesias, who has tackled similar water-centric themes in previous work (amidst one of the most confounding web interfaces I’ve encountered in some time) and uses the cast bronze as a medium for waterways in other projects in her native Spain, as well as Belgium. More to come on her work as I dive in a bit, but a cool project to encounter. An image of Iglesias, working with a similar material in the swamp, if you will via CNN:
A diversion from the explorations of precedents of cities, we turn to Swimming To Heaven: London’s Lost Rivers by Iain Sinclair the “british writer, documentarist, film maker, poet, flaneur, metropolitan prophet and urban shaman, keeper of lost cultures and futurologist” I wasn’t sure what to expect, and was pleasantly surprised, as was one of those singular experiences that transcends disciplinary boundaries of urbanist, historical, literary, and hydrological worlds. While the topics is Lost Rivers and exploration of the urban, the meditations on water and experience inform a larger connection with place, history, and language akin to what I reference in the title as ‘Poetics’.
Sinclair starts to explain the motivation early:
“Walking over or alongside the buried rivers of London stitches a form of collective memory in our sides.” (3)
Mentioning a continuing fascination and obsession with the water, Sinclair points out early on where the book derived from. “My neurosis persists: the only ways worth negotiating with this world, while still hoping to connect with the rhythms of the cosmos, are by walking and swimming. Which brings me to the haunting complexity of London’s buried rivers. They’re not lost, not at all. Just because you can’t see a thing, as Ed Dorn points out, doesn’t mean that it’s not there. The rivers continue, hidden and culverted as they might be, to flow through our dreams, fixing the compass of our moods and movements. The Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, the Effra, the Neckinger: visible or invisible, they haunt us.” (5)
A previous book by Sinclair (which I have not read) is a meditation on his home place, captured in detail in Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, which referenced again in Lost Rivers, when he mentions,“Hackney, before the coming of the canals and railways, was quite a desirable suburb” (14) and “…all these blessings derived from the existence of a founding river, the Hackney Brook. Now bricked over, made into a sewer, lost to us.” (15)
Sinclair connects this to the lost rivers, “It is not possible to understand the growth and development of Hackney, for example, without registering the presence of that subterranean river, the Hackney Brook” (5-6)
Hackney Brook as lost river thus becomes the inspiration, per Sinclair. “I think we should first of all take on the conceit of the ‘lost’ river as being applicable to the whole of London. How do we define a lost river? Are these simply rivers that have become degraded by exploitation, the excesses of mechanical industry? They are present, certainly, their names coded into the streets, but you’d hardly know that they’re there. Or are we talking about rivers that have disappeared — been culverted — and I think that’s more like it. I the mid-nineteenth century, there was a moment when many inconvenient tributaries were culverted, because we needed to introduce, by way of the civil engineer, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, a very effective sewerage system. A circuit of London’s waste to be washed away, purified, dumped into the Thames.” (15-16)
Sinclair laments the path that led to the burial of streams like Hackney Brook, or others throughout London. “The old rivers, with their intensely local benefits and pastoral memory traces, were also deemed anachronistic. Either rivers were of use, for transport or water power, or they were hidden, as carriers of disease and conduits of filth and waste.” Seen as progress, “…a sewage system was a proud Victorian boast of progress, contrived to lift the citizens of this powerful imperial metropolis away from the fetid stinks and oozes of the earlier, louder and stickier city of collisions.” (16) His rivers lost to this modernization, are the “…rivers of memory, of inspiration” (7) and thus derive from the idea that “certain areas of the city have their individual sense of time”. (13) While Hackney Brook is the local place for Sinclair, he posits that “…the most mythologized of London’s lost rivers is the Fleet.” (16)
This is seen throughout history, beginning with Wren’s concept for London post-fire in 1666 could have transformed the city differently, utilizing the River Fleet (now buried) as a Venetian canal.
From another post from Chris Haile expands with an explanation of the plan in more detail: “From the remaining part of Fleet Street which escaped the fire about St. Dunstan’s Church a straight and wide street crosses the valley passing by the south side of Ludgate, and thence in a direct line through the whole City terminating at Tower Hill, but before it descends into the Valley where the Great Sewer [the Fleet, a tributary of the Thames] runs… Passing forward we cross the valley, once sullied with an offensive sewer now beautified with a useful canal, with wharves on each side, passable by as many bridges as streets that cross it.” (from Haile 2/1/14)
Sinclair meditates on this plan – and the brief moment before the opportunity was lost. “There was that moment when Christopher Wren felt that he could initiate, with a revamp of the Fleet, a new Venice, right at the river’s mouth, close to St Paul’s Cathedral: a shining rational city of domes and bridges and splendid public works…. Wren didn’t have CGI futurism as a tool, ersatz utopianism, but he did have drawings that suggested Fleet-as-Venice would be a wonder of the age. Except that every soon, and inevitably, the river was a ditch, a sewage creek crusted with dead dogs.” (22-23) The dichotomy of river as urban canal versus the reality of river as sewer is perhaps the dominant theme of lost rivers, culminating in the Great Stink and the Victorian modernization of municipal sewers, which has Sinclair adds, had the result that finally, “the river was enclosed, sealed over, lost.” (23)
Sinclair also evokes a number of literary figures in the book, asking “What is this affinity of London visionaries, writers and mystics, with living water?”. (7) This includes William Blake, who “…lived close to the Thames, tracking the River Fleet to Hampstead, to visit the Linnells, Blake is making a return to the source. He is swimming uphill, absorbing the potency of a partly submerged stream; one of the arteries of his city. There is a very particular sense of London and its geography. And underlying all of this are torrential lines of verse in the great epic poems and wild waters of inspiration surging, stalling, tumbling over weirs and falls.” (6-7)
Another poet inspired by the Fleet is Aiden Andrew Dun author of the long poem Vale Royal“…registers the accretions of fable associated with what he calls the ‘River of Wells’. Dun tracks the fleet from the seven springs of Kenwood, through Camden Town to Kings Cross. He speaks of a river famous ‘for healing and medicinal waters’.” tapping the deep vein of “…meaning and mythology of the Fleet. In practical terms, he leads walks that he calls ‘river pilgrimages’ through the historic traces of the submerged stream.” (17)
Dun “remind us that the Fleet ‘still runs under Kings Cross today’… ‘As late as the mid-nineteenth century’, he says, ‘it ran on the surface through a green and pleasant land. But south of the Euston Road at this period it was already bricked-over and buried’.” (33)
From Vale Royal:
Kings Cross, dense with angels and
histories / there are cities beneath your
pavements / cities behind your skies. Let
me see! (34)
Building on the work of Dun and Blake, Sinclair continues to delve into literary ruminations on the lost rivers. He mentions that “Text, under the influence of buried rivers, becomes porous.”(30) which is true of London poets Bill Griffiths and Allen Fisher both of whom “…treat our lost rivers. Both of them track South London streams, in the thick of local particulars, towards and erased history, to emerge in the contemporary world of political opportunism, civic discord.” (37)
Anecdotes abound as well, with diversions on the subterranean sewers in The Third Man, which was set in Vienna where we picture Orson Welles – “flapping overcoat running through picturesque sewers. Welles was not ever keen on going down into the tunnels, so they ended up recording sound effects under London: in the Fleet.” (23)
And a special one I’d love to look at closer, the Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead (Beneath the Surface of Victorian Sensationalism) by Thomas Boyle, which “The stream rushes on, now under the pavements, slaughterhouses, prisons, book stalls, down the valley of the Fleet, towards myths of albino hogs in the sludge of dripping subterranean spaces… Legends of animals, escaped from Smithfield, feeding on refuse, living in darkness… It has been said that… Hampstead sewers shelter a monstrous breed of black swine.” (35-36)
The literary and the sensational intersect in the sewers and buried rivers of cities, something that is unlike other books on Lost Rivers that take the approach of tour guide, ecological investigator, or historian. Sinclair: “However contradictory your approach to writing about the city, whether you’re a modernist using conceptual methods of research, combined with walking, bus trips, photography, painting, or whether you’re a traditional poet obedient to strict form, rivers infiltrate your projections as memory strips or teasing songlines.” (39-40)
The dialogue is critical without being overly environmental or sentimental. In his discussions, there are moments when the impact of buried rivers sometimes comes to the surface of the writing.
“When rivers lose their status, spiritually and materially, the land is drained of value.” (52-53)
The loss of value becomes transactional, “Hidden rivers are part of an attempt to found a celestial city above the degraded particulars of the nexus of business and banking.” (25) The cost below for another type of city seen above, the “subterranean streams brooding beneath speculative developments in the new suburbs of the west.” (62-63)
This is where we enter the poetics of Lost Rivers, the book a lovely and dichotomous metaphor of the above and below ground city – the old and the new, that looks at loss yielding “…this vision of hybrid London, rus in urbe, snaking away to source, beyond the reservoirs, parks, spring pools…” (49) while also connecting to “London’s plural nature: city within city, upside-down topography, rivers flowing under the ground, heaven inside the ball of earth.” (37)
Unless noted, all quotes from: Sinclair, Iain. Swimming to Heaven: The Lost Rivers of London. London: The Swedenborg Society, 2013.