The final installment of books looking at London hidden hydrology is Walking on Water: London’s Hidden Rivers Revealed, by Stephen Myers. As part of the parade of books on the topic published in 2011, this takes a very different approach than the tour/photo guides of Talling and Bolton, reflecting Myers’ background as an engineer. If you’ve checked out the previous post on the Barton book, you’ll recognize some of this similar analysis, as the 2016 3rd Edition of ‘The Lost Rivers of London’ includes Myers as a co-author, and seems a hybrid of this book and Barton’s earlier versions.
On that note, Myers approaches the project from that engineering perspective, and its loaded with info. A blurb from Amazon: “London’s hidden – or lost – rivers are a source of fascination. This book concentrates on seven North London rivers – the Fleet, the Walbrook, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, Counter’s Creek, Stamford Brook and the Black Ditch. The author, a professional water engineer, describes their sources and traces their individual histories, setting out their influence on the development of London and their use and abuse by society, eventually leading to their disappearance. The original watercourses of each of the seven rivers are shown on London street maps to a detail never previously attempted. Research to enable this included extensive on-site analysis of their river catchment topographies and desk-top studies of numerous old maps and literary references. Walking on Water ends on an optimistic note. Drawing on his professional experience, the author proposes a practical, affordable and exciting approach to recreating riverside parks and walks in the London boroughs through which the hidden rivers passed, which uses their source waters to refresh the lakes of the Royal Parks.”
Myers breaks down the history of hidden rivers, discusses a good amount on geology and the form of the rivers, and discusses their ‘uses and abuses’, all info covered in other places, but again with a unique focus here. The second half of the book includes specific rivers, an overall map shows some of the North Bank Rivers (click to enlarge) covered, including all the usual suspects from other books.
Also of interest is a comparative profile, showing the central London Rivers. The relationship of the rivers in terms of altitude from headwaters to outfall is a complement to plan relationships, and particularly in the context of London where all the rivers flow into the same source, the Thames, it allow for some good comparison.
The development of the City of London is of great interest, named the chapter ‘A City Grows, Its Rivers Beggared’ and how this rapid urbanization impacted the rivers both in demand for fresh water and degradation due to pollution. The diagram below (which would have aided with some color and texture) shows the expansion of the city, notably the sprawling growth between 1800 and 1900 (marked by the gray inner zone and outer black line).
And while the chapter on ‘Mapping London’s Hidden Rivers’ is helpful in outlining the methodology, the results that come from this work are less than stellar. All the diagrams and maps here are black and white, using a base map derived from the Geographers A-Z Map Co (similar to Barton & Myers) which again offers legibility and usability issues that leave a lot to be desired. While the maps in the 2016 book were in color, they seemed overly detailed and took away from the routes of the rivers. In this case, black and white flattens it all out and their small size makes the cramped and difficult to use. A good hybrid would be a black and white base with the paths drawn in color, perhaps?
As Myers makes a point multiple times, “it was a considerable surprise to learn that there were no large-scale maps, readily accessible to the general public, which showed their routes through the metropolis.” (14) Perhaps Barton’s original 1962 book insert doesn’t totally qualify as ‘accessible’, but it does, and much more successfully, provide a large scale map of the routes that Myers was missing. He does mention obviously using Barton, and also references a book I had not heard about previously, London Under London by a very appropriately named duo for the task, Trench & Hillman. Another reference was to a future volume, “Walking on Water – the Hidden Water Walks” to follow this one, but I’ve not found any mention that that project came to fruition. So perhaps that was going to be the vehicle for better, user friendly maps, that never materialized.
For each river chapter, he does include the sections of the routes, again in very small size, which I think are very helpful for visualizing the routes of streams.
The final chapter does offer a strategy for a project entitled the Hamstead Water Conduit, where he speculates on a proposal that could “recreate short, clean stretches of the Central London rivers – more particularly the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Westbourne, and possibly, the Walbrook, the City of London’s own river.” (200). He goes on to mention that “the source waters for the Fleet, the Tyburn and the Westbourne rivers are the springs and surface water which drain naturally from Hampstead Health. These are the only source water of the hidden rivers that have been protected from pollution and which remain eminently accessible today.” (201)
A diagram shows a proposed route, which connects existing daylit portions with new or reconfigured surface channels in places, fed by the springs mentioned above. While not a continuous river, the result is a linear water course that works with the boundaries of the existing city fabric while taking advantage of opportunities to create surface waters. A “…‘feel-good’ project” but one with environmental benefits, flood mitigation, recreation, tourism, and infrastructure reduction. As noted by Myers, the social benefits as well, allowing us to “lift spirits in depressing times, but also contribute a small stimulus towards better economic times.” (208)
A more technical diagram shows some of the interconnections between the old and new systems, as well as the make-up water using existing groundwater stores (a metaphorical routing) and creating a water balance that kept water uses constant while using excess flows to ‘restore’ river segments.
The strength of this book, as indicated in the above analysis, is a solid, technical background in both the formation of rivers, the geological and hydrological framework in which these waterways emerged, the development implications that drove them underground, and some realistic considerations on why it would be difficult to daylight them, as they have been so fully consumed into the existing sewer systems. But also, some defensible and plausible daylighting strategies that take these multitude of factors into play.
The glossary ‘Watery Definitions’ on page 20 is a good touch, and discussion of what is a creek, stream, river, etc. is one that few tend to delve into in any detail. As he mentions, due to size and typology, “it might seem more approrpriate to make reference to London’s ‘Hidden Streams’ rather than to London’s hidden rivers, as the flows in them could not really be described as ‘copious’ and their water surface widths generally lay in the narrow band of between 2 and 6 metres. However, these watercourses have been referred to historically and collectively as ‘rivers’, and so this book will perpetuate that possibly inaccurate usage.” (22)
The Disclaimer at the beginning was interesting as well, as it seemed appropriate for anyone with a background in design and engineering to include the cover-your-ass language about accuracy, liability and not using the information for specific purposes. This shows up also in the later Barton & Myers version of Lost Rivers, but does bring up a point about representation and what it could mean. The accuracy of old maps . He also warns about sewer exploration, I guess as well a necessary caveat for disseminating this type of information.
Each book I’ve covered offers something unique to the conversation, and this provides a great resource for those interested in London, but also a wider context of the emergence of urban creeks and rivers which seem applicable to all places. A level of technical rigor also makes this a valuable companion to other resources that focus on places, history, landmarks and culture.