A LOST RIVER
The Walbrook is one of London’s ‘Lost Rivers’ – a watercourse which has been lost to time and history. Many of these rivers persist in the city’s memory – names like Tyburn, Fleet, and Walbrook – can be found throughout the city, even though their physical manifestations may be long gone. These rivers played an essential role in the life of the city, particularly the Walbrook, which despite its crucial role in the development of central London, has receded far into the mists of history to become one of the more obscure of the Lost Rivers.
THE WALBROOK IN ROMAN TIMES
Since the Roman settlement of Londinium in the first century, the Walbrook provided a source of clean water to – and a way to purge waste from – the city. Fed by natural springs north of the city in the Islington area, as well as rain water run-off, the Walbrook became a place where the community would gather to bathe, drink, or travel in and out of the city. The Walbrook became an important element in the civic life of Londinium – as evidenced by the discovery of a temple along the banks of the former river, dedicated to Mithras, a god popular with Roman soldiers of the time.
In 409, the Roman Empire had weakened to the brink of collapse. In this vacuum, Britons forced the Romans out of power, and many of the Roman military encampments, including Londinium were abandoned. The city would lie in ruin for several hundred years, until Britons would reestablish the city as a capital of trade in the 9th century. During this time, the Walbrook, which had been overwhelmed by rubble and other urban detritus, would have a chance to carve a new route, creating the Walbrook Valley which continues to exist beneath the city to this day.
Some believe that in the 6th centuries, that Saxon invaders used the Walbrook as a dividing line between the Saxons and Britons in London, the ethno-geographic consequences of which can still be seen today in the disparity between the affluent West End, and working-class East End. However, there is little evidence to support this.
DEVELOPMENT IN PRE-TUDOR LONDON
As Christianity took hold in England, new churches sprang up along the Walbrook in prominent locations once occupied by Roman temples, baths, and palaces. The names of the modern-day successors to these churches, such as St. Stephen’s-on-Walbrook, bear witness to the presence of the former river.
Additionally, as London rebounded from the plague between 1350 and 1450, the population doubled to somewhere over 50,000, and the city experienced a building boom. Space within the city walls became a valuable commodity, and a change in property law under Henry VIII allowed anyone with property on opposite banks of the Walbrook to build over the river to unify their lots. By the late 1400s, the river had been completely covered over by new building, if it hadn’t already been clogged with garbage, building materials, or excavated soil. This was the last time the Walbrook would be seen as an actual river.
THE VICTORIAN ERA
By the Victorian era, the Walbrook, now running underground, proved to be unsuitable for the city’s fresh water supply, having been tainted by the vast scale of urban development within its watershed. Indeed, waste – industrial and human – was a defining aspect of Victorian era city development. In the summer of 1858, the Thames, which at this point was effectively an open sewer, began emitting a noxious odor so terrible that Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister, temporarily moved Parliament to Oxford. In the wake of this event, which the media dubbed “The Great Stink,” the civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette was commissioned by Parliament to design a modern sewage system which could accommodate London’s growing needs.
The construction of this massive infrastructure incorporated existing culverts, storm sewers, or sluices wherever possible. This included the culvertized Walbrook, which by 1860 had been linked into a network of 82 miles worth of new sewerage lines, channeled to the Northern Low Level Sewer at a point near the Bank of England.
The Victorian-era culvert is now known as the London Bridge Sewer, which is expected to be renovated as part of the Thames Tideway tunnel project. In 1953, a construction team digging the foundations of the Bucklersbury House discovered ancient Roman remains. Upon excavation by a team of archaeologists deduced that this was Roman Temple of Mithras, and the remains were displaced and put on display nearby on Queen Victoria Street.
There are plans to demolish Bucklersbury House and build a new office complex designed by Foster + Partners. This scheme would return the ruins of the Temple of Mithras to their original site on the banks of the Walbrook, and would feature a large sloping public courtyard which would allow visitors to walk below grade to view the ruins. However, there is no indication that this project will be moving forward, given the current state of the economy.
The site of the Walbrook has also been home to a number of artistic events and protests. On June 18, 1998, protests coinciding with the G8 Summit in Köln, Germany, converged on the City of London as part of the day’s “Crusade Against Capitalism.” Events of the day included subversive action against the oppressive forces of capitalism, including the opening of fire hydrants along the route of the Walbrook, symbolically releasing the river to ‘reclaim the street’ from the capitalist forces of city growth which had subsumed it.
Artists have orchestrated performances along its route, such as Jonathan Trayner, who offered the Walbrook sacrificial offerings through manhole grates in an effort to raise it from its subterranean captivity, and Amy Sharrocks, who led walks down the course of the Walbrook to retrace a lost moment in the city’s history and narrative.
The sewer is occasionally used recreationally by urban explorers who access the sewer and explore the course of the culvert underground.
Leaks in the present-day sewer, as shown above, are the result of underground flows of water which run through the course of the former Walbrook, surrounding and leaking into the sewer. While it might be tempting to say that the river no longer exists, nature is clearly resilient, and the Walbrook persists despite the myriad interruptions and subjugations it has experienced as a result of human development in London.
This resilience of nature in the face of human intervention will play a crucial role in the future development of London. We discuss these issues in the next page, and the ramifications they may have for the way we structure our built environment in the next century.
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CONTINUE ON TO PART II: ISSUES.
THE HISTORY OF LONDON AND THE WALBROOK:
- NationMaster – encyclopedia entry on the Walbrook.
- Barry Oneoff – a description of London’s lost rivers.
- London Mithraeum – Wikipedia article on the Temple of Mithras.
- Walbrook Square – images of Foster + Partner’s proposal.
- Trains and Drains – the story of Bazalgette’s sewer systems.
- Britain Express – the different periods of development in London.
ACTIVISM & EVENTS
- London is a River City – river walks to retrace the histories of the City, by artist Amy Sharrocks, including a 2009 walk of the Walbrook, with the assistance of dousing expert Vicky Sweetlove.
- Walbrook Restoration – the website of a fictional charity raising funds to restore the Walbrook to a nature preserve.
- Raising the River Walbrook - a series of performances by artist Jonathan Trayner, to appease the Walbrook and coax it from its subterranean imprisonment.
- Crusade Against Capitalism – Wikipedia article on the 18 June 1999 protests in the City of London, at which the Walbrook was symbolically released.
- Sub-Urban – photos and story from early exploration of London Bridge Sewer. Complete with a map of the sewer walk – known as “st00p’s limit.”
- Undercity.org – breath-taking photography by Steve Duncan of his subterranean Walbrook walk.
- Silent-UK – another account of the “st00p’s limit” walk.
- Sleepy City - photos of the London Bridge Sewer from 2008.
- Nicholas Barton, The Lost Rivers of London. (1962)
- Anthony Clayton, Subterranean City. (2000)
- Michael Harrison, London Beneath the Pavement. (1961)
- Alfred Stanley Foord, Springs, Streams, and Spas of London. (1910)
- J. G. White, History of The Ward of Walbrook. (1904)
- Andrew Duncan, Secret London. (6th Edition, 2009)
- F. W. Reader, Archaeological Journal, Journal of the Archaeological Society, 1903. Pages 137-204. ”On Pile Structures in the Walbrook, Near London Wall.” (includes discussion on the course of the Walbrook.)
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