Fleet of foot: in search of a lost river
Julie Tomlin learns about some of the capital’s myths and folklore on a walking tour of the course of the River Fleet
06 June, 2019 — By Julie Tomlin
The entrance of the River Fleet as painted by Samuel Scott
RISING from springs in Hampstead, coursing through Kentish Town, Camden Town, St Pancras and King’s Cross before meeting the Thames at Farringdon, the Fleet was once one of London’s largest and most important rivers, playing a key role in the shaping of the early city.
Also known as the River of Wells, the four-mile-long river that gave name to one of the oldest roads outside of the City of London provided drinking water, powered mills and was a vital waterway to the north.
But despite being linked to sacred sites such as Clerk’s Well and Black Mary Well, St Bride’s Well and Bagnigge Wells, a popular spa during the 17th century, the Fleet eventually became more famed for its stench.
Waste – human, as well as that from the meat markets and nearby tanneries – was thrown into its waters, causing it to silt up and smell. Finally so polluted that it was enclosed as a sewer in the mid 1800s, the Fleet disappeared from sight.
Today the bathing ponds at Hampstead and Highgate and buildings like the German Gymnasium which faced its banks and the Great Northern Hotel that follows its curve, hint at the presence of the Fleet.
Stand by the grating in Camden’s Lyme Street or outside the Coach and Horses pub in Ray Street, Clerkenwell, and it’s still possible to hear the flow of London’s best-known underground river.
And it continues to fascinate Londoners, including artist and storyteller Beckie Leach McDonald, who leads guided walks along its course, telling stories of witches and shapeshifters, highwaymen and gods as she goes.
“It’s about getting to see the place you live in through fresh eyes, and people are often surprised when they notice something that they have walked past many times before,” says Beckie.
“There are so many layers of history, and there is a kind of grounding in knowing how differently the land you live on has been lived in. By focusing on folklore and mythology, I try to create experiences where people can connect to the environment around them in a different way.”
The River Story walk takes to the Regent’s Canal in Camden Town
Beckie, who began exploring the myths and folklore of the River Fleet while studying for an MA in Art and Science at Central St Martins, leads shorter walks along sections of the river and occasional day-long walks along its complete course.
This begins at a spring on Hampstead Heath near Kenwood House, which is named after the old Caen Wood meaning Green Wood and then on to Kentish Town, named after Caen Ditch, or Green Ditch.
It’s in this area that an anchor was discovered, proof that the Fleet, which turned into rapids around Regent’s Park and was about 40 yards wide in parts, was once large enough for boats to navigate. The next stop is Camden Town and the Old Mother Red Cap, now the World’s End, where Jinney Bingham’s cottage is said to have stood, on a village road that connected London to Hampstead.
Reputedly a wise woman or a witch, Bingham’s story transports us back to times of great upheaval when land was being enclosed. After St Pancras and King’s Cross, the Fleet continues to Clerkenwell, finally reaching Blackfriars Bridge, the ancient meeting point of the two rivers that once ran so deep it formed the natural harbour that London was founded on.
It is here that Beckie has revived the wishing well tradition, inviting people to wish on jars of water filled with Fleet water taken from the Goodison Fountain on Hampstead Heath.
The jars, a nod to the small glass or terracotta vessels supposedly used by mourners to collect their tears that were found at many of the wells along the river, were carried along the river and poured into the Thames.
“People have said to me that we don’t have a shared mythology in the south of England, but we do,” says Beckie. “I don’t know if they are really forgotten or it’s just because they have just got more on top of them.
“London has always been a meeting place of cultures and of rivers, people have always moved on in the south, always come and gone, and it’s a tidal place, so it’s not a place where things are rigid, things move around and change.”
• The next River Story walk takes place June 10. See www.facebook.com/pg/becleachart/events or www.eventbrite.co.uk/o/rebecca-leach-mcdonald-15183490615
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