Alex Diggins speaks to author, theatre critic and urban explorer Tom Bolton about his new book London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide (vol 2). They discuss how rivers blur the boundaries between urban and rural, past and present – and the ‘inexhaustible’ appeal of London.
AD: Tell me a little bit about your background – how does one become an urban explorer?
TB: By following the courses of buried rivers through the streets of London, I suppose! I’ve written five books and my work is about the hidden history of London and, more broadly, the way that culture marks landscape.
This book is a follow up to London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide. Together, these books follow the course of London’s buried rivers. There are many rivers that used to flow beneath London and they’ve disappeared over time as the city has developed. Until London’s sewage system was developed in the 1860s there was no real system for getting rid of waste – so you carted it away if you could afford it or chucked it in the river if you couldn’t. It was a health hazard and, as the population increased, the amount of waste being dumped increased, so these rivers were quickly put underground. That process started in the City during the early part of London’s occupation – the Walbrook, for instance, has been found to have Roman rubbish in it.
These books, therefore, follow the course of these rivers through the modern streetscape looking for the clues they left behind. You can see them in the sinks and valleys they’ve left behind; you can hear them under drain covers. It’s hard to stop a river flowing, so generally you diverted it. There’s an entire network of big Victorian storm sewers – they’re all still flowing beneath the streets. My approach means you can appreciate the way the city has developed and what lies beneath our feet.
I’ve always been interested in what lies under London. The idea that there’s something hidden, just out of sight. As a child, I was fascinated by lost Tube stations. This buried universal is a parallel world – almost within touching distance but you can’t access it. It has a powerful effect on the imagination.
Rivers are a link back to the earliest, pre-London existence of places we know so well today. There’s very little from the time before there was settlement, but the rivers are about the closest we can get. A direct glimpse of the deep past. And, of course, they’re weighted with symbolism – in countless mythologies, they’re portals to another world. You step through them and you enter another place. I think they still have a grasp on the imagination of those who live around them today – people are still fascinated by them.
Rivers also shape the features of our city. For example, the Holborn Viaduct is a bridge over the valley of the River Fleet. When you start looking for them, you begin to realise the scale of the landscape beneath. London’s parks are moulded by them – the two ponds of Hampstead Heath were formed by damning the two streams of the River Fleet. The Oval cricket ground is an oval because it’s built onto a bend in the River Effra alongside. Once you start to look for rivers, they’re everywhere!
Rivers have a shadow presence in London. There’s no complete map of them as they’ve never existed in modern times – they form another map of the city.
How did you go about researching these rivers?
The first series of the Ordnance Survey maps from the 1860s are fantastic. But they’re also frustratingly incomplete, so you have to piece it together from the information that’s available. People have left accounts of rivers – where they were, how they used them and what they meant to them.
But the most important research method is simply walking the streets. The rivers may be partially mysterious, but they’re not separate from London in the 21st Century. Walking their course is a way of summoning them back.
London has a rich history of psychogeographic practice from William Blake through to modern writers like Will Self and Ian Sinclair. Do you see yourself in that continuum?
I’m a fan of those writers. I think it was Sinclair who first got me into thinking about London’s environment when I first moved there 25 years ago. I’m attracted to visions of the city that overlap the visible and the invisible. Sinclair’s also interested in the idea of rivers – how they manifest physically but also the atmosphere they create.
Blake also turns up in one of my river walks – he lived near Lambeth marsh. He was part of an influx of radical visionaries who moved to that area in the early 19th Century. It was further away from the attention they wanted to avoid north of the river.
What is about London that has attracted these writers, and you?
I think because it combines port and centre of commerce – places tend to be one or the other. Ports bring change and the influx of people from different places, constantly moving populations and shifting ideas of identity. But a centre of commerce also brings capital, buildings and architecture. London’s got an unusual combination in having both. It’s almost unique in the UK in that respect. And our country is very London weighted.
But honestly, I think it’s because London is inexhaustible. It’s a place you can never truly get to the bottom of. By the time you revisit somewhere, something’s gone and changed, and you can’t remember what it was. There’s no solidity here. You don’t have the clear sense of history you might find in other, less changeable places. Instead, you have the memories of what was. You have to use your imagination to create the continuity between previous versions of the city and the one you’re experiencing.
How do you feel about the ever-increasing popularity of nature writing?
I think people writing about place and thinking about it has to be a positive thing. There’s lots of good stuff out there. My book Low Country about the Essex coast is a bit more in that genre – about landscape and wildness more than the urban. I’m very interested in understanding places by considering the changing, often ignored nature of the landscape. I like overlooked landscapes – Richard Mabey’s ‘unofficial countryside’: the verges, roundabouts and airport perimeters. I’m interested in looking at the things you’re supposed to ignore.
You also have a strong interest in theatre. Does it overlap at all with your fascination for walking forgotten landscapes?
Perhaps. I come from Stratford Upon Avon so that’s probably where it comes from, but I also studied literature and drama. But if there’s a connection – aside from London being the greatest theatre city in the world by a long distance – it is the idea of the momentary, the temporary, the thing you cannot recreate.
Walks are all those things too; walking is a performance even if you’re not framing it as such. It has a narrative and exists within a discrete period of time. That’s where the similarity with live performance lies. It’s fascinating because you’re only going to see that performance the once. That’s what makes it special.
Can you talk about any plans for future projects?
I’m interested in writing about concepts of the heart of England, Shakespeare and Stratford. The way that Shakespeare is used to represent Englishness and England – and how that changes with every generation. Tracking the ever-shifting idea of national identity.
I might also more on lost rivers – widening my search to the rest of the UK. But I’d also like to write about the lost pubs of London. We will see what happens!
London’s Lost Rivers: A Walker’s Guide, vol 2 is available now from Strange Attractor Press (£11.99). A revised edition of volume one was published in August 2019.
Alex Diggins is a writer and journalist based in London. He has written for, among others, The Economist, The TLS, The Island Review, Wales Arts Review and New Welsh Review. He is published in Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth (Unbound). He is working on a book about holy islands in the age of climate crisis. Follow him on Twitter here: @AHABDiggins
Header photograph by Tom Bolton.